ON THE RECORD: A Two-Piano Finian's Rainbow and the Encores! New Moon

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Two-Piano Finian's Rainbow and the Encores! New Moon This week's column discusses Finian's Rainbow and The New Moon. These welcome new CDs come from Ghostlight Records, a more sedately named division of Sh-K-Boom Records (which has already given us a worthy pair of cast albums, The Last Five Years and Amour).
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FINIAN'S RAINBOW [Ghostlight 4402]
What reason, one might naturally wonder, would there be to recommend a new recording of a classic and beloved musical comedy from the Golden Age with an impressive-sounding cast but a mere two-piano accompaniment? How good can it sound, one wonders? Why not just put on one of the two existing full cast albums, tricked out with arrangements in the best Russell Bennett-Don Walker tradition?

The show in question is Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg's 1947 charmer Finian's Rainbow, which I confess happens to be one of my favorites. (How's that refrain go? "When I'm not near the show I love, I love the show I'm near. . . ?") Listening to the opening tracks of the new CD, I am hit by three distinct reasons to do just that; i.e., recommend this disc despite the mere two-piano accompaniment.

First, there is the nature of the music itself. Lane, a protégé of Gershwin, was himself a prime melodist; his songs, for lack of a better descriptive, sing. And how, they do. One need look no further than the score in question. His paean to the Glocca Morra bird floats on a cloud of enchantment, you might well say; "Something Sort of Grandish" and "Look to the Rainbow" lilt along very nicely; "If This Isn't Love" is a rouser; and I defy you to show me a ballad that charms, enchants and surprises so well as that "Old Devil Moon." Orchestration enhances, of course, and the Bennett-Walker originals are a joy to the ear; but Lane's songs soar, effortlessly, on their own.

Second, you have the lyrics of Mr. Harburg. While Harburg had a long and eventful career, Finian shows him at his slyly playful best; this is a man who could, and did, make up words at will, for the love of a rhyme. Unlike the efforts of the brotherhood of lesser lyricists, Harburg's made-up words always sounded inevitable. Finian features a combination of charm and comedy, word-wise, that you simply want to bask in. And word basking works better, in some ways, without the strings and brass and rhythm section accentuating the tune.

Mix in Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets — the pair from the ill-fated but intriguing Amour — and Max von Essen (from that Michael Crawford vampire show); and add an ensemble who know how to sing and pronounce the words, and you've got something more than just a two-piano reduction. This CD preserves last summer's pint-sized production at Charlotte Moore's Irish Repertory Theatre, and the results are as enchanting as the show. Musical director Mark Hartman leads his singers through the score exceedingly well, as well as playing one of the two pianos (with Mark Janas on the other). Hartman's credit for orchestrations and vocal arrangements seems a bit excessive; maybe I'm wrong, but they seem to be mostly following the piano vocal score. I'm glad to overlook this though, given the results. The booklet includes lyrics, a commonplace enough occurrence nowadays. I mention it only because Harburg's work is worthier of such treatment than most of what we see in liner note booklets, thus adding extra value. Tony Walton provided the whimsical cover art, which if I'm not mistaken is recycled from an unused design he prepared for the Broadway production of Singin' in the Rain.

I note a note in excessively small print that "this album was produced through the extraordinary generosity of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick." Just thought I ought to point that out.

THE NEW MOON [Ghostlight 4403]
"Are you convinced?" Alfred Drake sang in his role as a gesticulating beggar in the 1953 costume operetta, Kismet. "We are convinced," fired back the ensemble, and that's just about the way I feel upon listening to the cast recording of the 2003 Encores! production of The New Moon.

Sigmund Romberg has never ranked high on my list of Broadway composers that matter. Musical theatre fans nod in approval over the contributions of "Rommy" as well as his predecessors Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml. For more than 30 years, beginning in the so-called Gay Nineties, the trio of transplanted Europeans forged a new-type American operetta that overtook the English and Viennese models that were all the rage.

But the American-born Jerome Kern started to take hold with a livelier and fresher kind of theatre music during the World War, joined as the twenties arrived by two twentiesh youngsters with a startling sense of melody named Geo. Gershwin and Vincent Youmans. (As it happened, Gershwin's first showtune — "The Making of a Girl" — was interpolated into Romberg's Passing Show of 1916. Romberg took co-composer credit, and the pair remained cordial colleagues for the rest of Gershwin's life.) By the mid 1920s, when DeSylva, Brown & Henderson and Rodgers & Hart had started to set the jazz-happy flappers a-dancin', operetta started to sound awfully old fashioned.

Friml turned out operettas that nobody wanted to hear until 1934, after which he sat on the sidelines — presumably avoiding the musicals of Loesser, Styne, Sondheim and their ilk — until his death in 1972 (at the age of 92). Romberg, meanwhile, kept writing and writing until he died in 1951; his record, post-1928, was eight big flops and one moderate hit. Part of the blame can be placed with the new type of "serious" musical that came along with Show Boat in 1927, making those operetta plots seem all the more melodramatic. The Kern & Hammerstein and Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals sent Friml-Romberg operetta into its obsolescence, and ironically so; Oscar learned his trade from Rudolf and Rommy, with whom he turned out two of the most durable operettas ever, Rose-Marie and The Desert Song.

The New Moon was the last of the hit old-style operettas, and very nearly disappeared when it folded in Philadelphia in December 1927; both Romberg and Hammerstein were simultaneously in production with Ziegfeld extravaganzas, which took precedence. (Oscar and Kern's Show Boat hit Broadway Christmas week, while Romberg — collaborating once more with Gershwin — came to town two weeks later with the moderately successfully Rosalie.)

Unlike most shows in similar circumstances, The New Moon was indeed rewritten; the following September it came back a swashbuckling success, with (not incidentally) a passel full of newly-written songs. The New Moon and its brethren — from The Red Mill and Naughty Marietta through Blossom Time and The Student Prince — remained staples of the stock and light opera circuits through the 1940s and into the early 1950s, after which they faded from view. City Center Encores!, a series which exists to present Broadway musicals of yesteryear that are unlikely to get a full mounting, had for ten seasons avoided anything smacking of operetta; the closest they had come was Kern and Hammerstein's 1929 Sweet Adeline. Artistic director Jack Viertel determined to at least try an operetta, and The New Moon was settled upon. The choice was understandable, but many Encores-goers were skeptical. I, for one, saw it as something one had to sit through, like medicine without that spoonful of sugar.

As it turned out, The New Moon — under the direction of Gary Griffin — was just the thing; an enchanting two hours with lush music, strong singing and enough good-natured humor and sly asides to keep us from drifting into the haze. The CD demonstrates that the score — independent of the charms of the Encores! evening — is strong in its own right. "Lover, Come Back to Me," which for many years has ranked as my only favorite Romberg song, leads the pack. "Stouthearted Men" is a real rafter ringer, as anyone who was at City Center for The New Moon can attest. One Kiss," "Wanting You," and "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" are all sturdy enough if not exactly toe-tapping. The other strengths of the Encores! evening are evident as well, led by the performances of Rodney Gilfry, as the pirate king (or whatever he's supposed to be), and Christiane Noll as the fair maiden. But then, in operetta land, is there any other kind?

All told, this new New Moon CD — apparently the first recording ever featuring the original Emil Gerstenberger-Al Goodman-Hans Spialek orchestrations — is eminently enjoyable. There are also illuminating twin essays by Jack Viertel and Ted Chapin, examining (among other things) the present-day prejudice against early twentieth-century operetta.

Listeners are not likely to confuse The New Moon with the work of the Gershwins, mind you, or the work of the Schwartzes, for that matter. (Arthur and Stephen, that is). But I can't help but compare this new CD to some of the reconstructions of 1920s musicals already on the record shelf. Give me Gershwin any time, yes; but some of those scores — and I won't mention any names — can sound awfully brittle to modern ears. While The New Moon is vibrant, full-bodied and — yes — stouthearted.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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