ON THE RECORD: A New Do-Re-Mi and the old Rink

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A New Do-Re-Mi and the old Rink DO-RE-MI (DRG 94768)
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne and Garson Kanin's Do-Re Mi proved one of the less likely, but highly welcome, offerings in City Center's Encores! series of staged concert readings. (While there are still a good number of shows worth rediscovering, there are not all that many naturals; Encores! has already gone through eighteen musicals.)

DO-RE-MI (DRG 94768)
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jule Styne and Garson Kanin's Do-Re Mi proved one of the less likely, but highly welcome, offerings in City Center's Encores! series of staged concert readings. (While there are still a good number of shows worth rediscovering, there are not all that many naturals; Encores! has already gone through eighteen musicals.)

Do-Re-Mi is a fun show with a certain amount of appeal, and I would have loved to have seen the original production in 1960. But a great musical it ain't; in fact, it is pretty much on the rag-tag side and runs down seriously in the second act. It was a star vehicle written to order for comic extraordinaire Phil Silvers, returning to Broadway following four years in the service (as TV's Sergeant Bilko). Silvers got to clown, sing, and work his way through his impressions of Cagney, Jolson, Durante, and even Mae West.

Jule Styne provided one of his typically bouncy scores, complete with a pop-style hit ballad ("Make Someone Happy"). Comden & Green joined him for some extremely amusing pop pastiches; I've always been charmed by the ridiculous "What's New at the Zoo" (in which the kangaroo tells the bear, "Ouch, you're steppin' on my pouch.") But Garson Kanin's libretto-about some bumbling ex-mobsters entering the jukebox racket-was sketchy; and the last fifteen minutes are especially lame.

The authors seemed to be overly influenced by Styne's 1959 hit Gypsy, which ended with a multi-part montage production number ("Let Me Entertain You") capped by a searing, soul-searching probing of the star's psyche as she breaks down to reveal the hollow shell inside ("Rose's Turn"). Do-Re-Mi winds up (or, rather, winds down) with a multipart number representing a Senate investigation into the jukebox industry ("Who Is Mr. Big?"/"He's a V.I.P."), followed by Hubie's soliloquy "All of My Life." "Rose's Turn" is not the sort of thing you might reasonably expect Comden and Green to write. (They had, curiously enough, tried their hand at Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs before Sondheim came aboard as lyricist.) I don't suppose that the cartoonish character could support an equivalent ("Hubie's Turn"?); but the authors -- out of a lack of any better idea? -- nevertheless plunged ahead, and the show grinds to a deadly halt.

Anyway, this new recording of last May's Encores! presentation is all in all pretty delightful. It doesn't supplant the original cast recording, which preserves the delectable performances of Mr. Silvers and Ms. Walker. (Disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes for the CD reissue of the Phil Silvers cast album). However, the orchestra sounds far more vibrant on the new recording, and preserves about twelve extra minutes worth of the score, including the Senate investigation sequence. (Paul Gemignani conducted, as Encores' Rob Fisher was off in Stockholm or somewhere opening a company of Chicago.) There is also a charming twelve-minute roundtable interview of the songwriters, taped during the (original cast) recording session; you can hear the orchestra playing the overture in the background. Nathan Lane does pretty well with the material, seeing as how it was custom-designed for Silvers' well-honed shtick (as opposed to Lane's own bag of tricks). Certainly, without an accomplished, larger-than-life clown, there is no show; Lane was able to pull it off.

Randy Graff fares less well in the underwritten part of Hubie's ever-suffering wife. The stars of the original production, one of them once told me, sat around patiently through the tryout, waiting for the show to be fixed. When it became apparent that no salvation was forthcoming, it was every man for himself. Walker -- who could bring down the house with the mere arch of a mere eyebrow -- worked up a cyclonic performance without much material, something that the proficient Graff can't be expected to do. (Thus "Adventure," my favorite track on the original, lacks its flair.) Heather Headley, who will no doubt attain stardom when Disney's Aida barges into town, is somewhat out of place in the role of the pancake house folksinger. She sings exceptionally well, but this is a role for a comedienne. Nancy Dussault was able to hold her own opposite Silvers, in the "Ambition" duet for example; Headley, though, plays straight man for Lane. (Headley's performance on stage indicated that with a couple of weeks' playing time, she'd have relaxed into the comedy.)

The highlight of this disc, though, is Brian Stokes Mitchell as the baritone. John Reardon originated it, and sang it wonderfully; in Mitchell's hands, though, this secondary role becomes a scene-stealing tour de force. If this is any indication, Mitchell's Fred Graham -- in the upcoming Kiss Me, Kate -- might well be in a class with Alfred Drake's. (And where was he when they were trying to cast The Music Man revival?) Mitchell and Headley make an especially fine pair on "Make Someone Happy."

Let me also point out that the twelve-page booklet -- with its 19 photographs -- contains one, and only one biography. Oddly enough, it's that of the orchestrator. Okay by me, though, as it happens to be one of Broadway's finest and least known. The accomplished Luther Henderson has been doing wonderful work on and around Broadway for more than forty years, with little acclaim. Best known for Ain't Misbehavin' (on which he served as musical supervisor, orchestrator, and on-stage pianist), Henderson -- as far as I can tell -- was the first African-American to serve as principal orchestrator on a "white" Broadway musical. (I haven't researched this fully, but I can't think of anyone else other than Harold Wheeler on Side Show in 1997.) His orchestrations here are just right; they perfectly capture the tone of Styne's music, which combines flavorfully corny musical comedy with swags of fifties' pop. Like in the aforementioned "What's New at the Zoo," with the brass section whinnying and growling and yeeping, and in the explosively exploding love duet "Fireworks," where Luther's trumpets sound like elephants rampaging through the orchestra pit.

Do-Re-Mi. For better or worse, they don't write them like that anymore, and that's for sure.

THE RINK (JAY CDJAY 1328)
John Kander and Fred Ebb have been more or less dedicated to Broadway since they first arrived with Flora, the Red Menace in 1965. They returned the following year with their one near-classic, Cabaret. Their 1975 offering, Chicago, proved moderately successful. Kander & Ebb's nine other Broadway musicals have all been failures. None of those quick, open-Thursday-close-Sunday kind of flops; all lasted at least a month, one passed the two year mark, and almost all had at least something to recommend them. But all nine closed with significant losses; one was the first musical to lose a million dollars -- back when a million dollars was an unheard of sum along Broadway -- while another is surely the only show in history to help bankrupt two different producing organizations (although I feel compelled to add that Kiss of the Spider Woman had many admiring fans).

Through all of this, Kander & Ebb have toiled diligently onward, for thirty-five years now. Ironically, they are presently Broadway's most successful (American) composers; the smashing revival of Chicago has given them their biggest hit ever, and based on today's dollars they might be the top money earners of their generation. (The many companies of Chicago, I would guess, bring them in excess of two million a year. Each.) It is presumably disheartening to them that they haven't written a hit show in twenty-five years, and not for lack of trying. (Steel Pier had a brief run in 1997, and the reaction to last winter's regional tryout of The Skin of Our Teeth makes it seem an unlikely prospect.) Disheartening, yes; but, still, it's surely nice to have Chicago back on Broadway. Not to mention a brilliant, if far less remunerative, Cabaret.

Kander & Ebb's early scores were uniformly interesting; they slumped in mid-career (in my opinion), and recently picked up again. The Rink - which has just been digitally remastered for re-release on CD -- came at their low spot, I'm afraid; I rank it as their second least listenable work (after The Act). The show was intended as a vehicle for Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, portraying -- and not too convincingly -- a blue collar mother from New Jersey and her wandering wallflower of a daughter. I still retain memories of Ms. Rivera gamely working herself to exhaustion, while Ms. Minnelli seemed to be wandering through the evening in a hazy cloud.

The show was built upon one of those clever conceptual gimmicks which tend to backfire, in this case using six singer/actors to play all the other roles. You can work yourself into a hole with this sort of thing. You want Rivera's husband to come on and sing a love song? Fine, except the audience recognizes him as one of the chorus boys, and knows that the character can't possibly stick around because the actor has to rush into costume for the next production number. Do you want a couple of old ladies-from-the neighborhood to come on carrying net shopping bags? Big laugh -- it's two of the men, of course. But it's hard to build up audience interest when they are always on the alert for the next gimmick, like the title song with the boys on roller skates.

Jason Alexander did well by himself in one of his roles as an Italian nebbish, tenderly singing his solo "Marry Me." The other five made little impression. One of them, though, so impressed Kander & Ebb that they let him re-examine Flora, the Red Menace in an off off-Broadway production; thus began the directing career of Scott Ellis (of Steel Pier). Also in The Rink -- understudying Alexander and Ellis, and credited on the CD as an additional singer -- was future choreographer Rob Marshall (of the current Cabaret).

The score is pretty barren. The opening number, "Colored Lights," gets things off to a promising start; it's almost rousing. But there's nothing else worthy of mention, I'm afraid, except "The Apple Doesn't Fall," an insult duet which pales in comparison to Kander & Ebb's similar "The Grass Is Always Greener," from their previous show, Woman of the Year. Nevertheless, The Rink is a professionally written Broadway musical -- there's something to be said for that -- and this disc should appeal to fans of Kander & Ebb and Chita & Liza. Musical theatre enthusiasts should be grateful to Jay/That's Entertainment Records for their continuing series of re-releases (like the recent Baby) and new recordings (like last spring's remarkable 110 in the Shade). I do hope they're selling enough product to keep their accountants happy.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com