ON THE RECORD: A Vibrant La Mancha plus Mercer and Mielziner

News   ON THE RECORD: A Vibrant La Mancha plus Mercer and Mielziner MAN OF LA MANCHA Decca Broadway 012 159 387
Man of La Mancha originally opened in New York at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre. This 1100-seat house in Greenwich Village was built to temporarily house the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center during construction of their grander uptown base (and the rest of the Lincoln Center complex). When the Rep finally moved to Sixty-fifth Street, La Mancha took over the Fourth Street theatre — a simplified version of what we know as the Vivian Beaumont — until the land was reclaimed by N.Y.U. Space constraints forced La Mancha's orchestra to be split in two, giving the show what one might describe as a true stereo surround. Sitting down front, this was at once startling and exhilarating.

MAN OF LA MANCHA Decca Broadway 012 159 387
Man of La Mancha originally opened in New York at the ANTA Washington Square Theatre. This 1100-seat house in Greenwich Village was built to temporarily house the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center during construction of their grander uptown base (and the rest of the Lincoln Center complex). When the Rep finally moved to Sixty-fifth Street, La Mancha took over the Fourth Street theatre — a simplified version of what we know as the Vivian Beaumont — until the land was reclaimed by N.Y.U. Space constraints forced La Mancha's orchestra to be split in two, giving the show what one might describe as a true stereo surround. Sitting down front, this was at once startling and exhilarating.

You get the same effect from this new, 24-bit remastering; you can almost feel the flamenco guitarists strumming madly away just beyond your ears. The original La Mancha was an unforgettable experience, with Mitch Leigh's music, Albert Marre's inventive staging, and the star performances combining to create something truly remarkable. If the magic has been lacking from recent productions, La Mancha will surely be back one of these days, and hopefully in better shape. Because this is one of those shows that — done right — is gripping and unforgettable.

"Gripping and unforgettable" applies, too, to the work of Richard Kiley and Joan Diener. Kiley, at the time, had settled into a career as a leading man in musicals written around leading ladies. He provided sturdy support for people like Gwen Verdon in Redhead and Diahann Carroll in No Strings. La Mancha was all his, and Kiley's strong voice, acting ability, and innate intelligence combined to make a legendary performance. Diener had a more problematic career, working almost solely in shows directed by her husband (Marre) and often what you might call "over the top." Aldonza, though, made perfect use of her "wild" voice and extreme physical presence. Diener was simultaneously tender and dangerously violent, making quite a match for Kiley's gentle madman.

La Mancha was previously issued on CD as one of those haphazard "compact disc, compact price" releases that didn't even bother to list the performers. This new reissue sounds great, restoring the excitement of the La Mancha experience.

MOSTLY MERCER Harbinger HCD-1807
It would take about four or five CDs, I'd guess, to record The Best of Johnny Mercer; there's so much of it. For listeners seeking an introduction to the work of this sensational lyricist, Mostly Mercer gives a fine overview. Careful song selection, suitable matching of performers to material, and fine arrangements and playing do the trick. Most importantly, the songs are performed pretty much the way the writers intended — which is not as common as you might think — and you can hear and understand every word. Included are some of Mercer's biggest hits as well as novelty songs you might well have never heard.

Most of Mercer's top collaborators are represented: Harold Arlen, Richard Whiting, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Victor Schertzinger, Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael. Singers include Rosemary Clooney (doing an especially lovely "I'm Old Fashioned"), Eydie Gorme, Jennifer Holliday, Kaye Ballard, Mimi Hines, Jim Bailey, Nancy LaMott, Marilyn Cooper, and Anita O'Day.

This album includes first recordings of several songs, including a long lost Gershwin gem called "Ask Me Again." Michael Feinstein found it back when he was working for Ira Gershwin, taught it to Ira's next-door-neighbor Clooney, and presented it to Gershwin as a surprise. (This little treasure is one of a couple of non-Mercer songs; hence the title Mostly Mercer.) Broadway attorney Mark Sendroff produced this album in 1986, using many of his clients; he also sings "How Little We Know," backed by Peter Matz.

Mostly Mercer has always been one of my favorite Mercer anthologies — not because I originally provided some song suggestions, but because it's good — and I'm glad to see it back in circulation.

...AND ON THE PRINTED PAGE... Jo Mielziner (1901-1976) arrived on Broadway in 1924 and designed his last show, the ill-fated musical The Baker's Wife, in 1976. He was the designer of choice for people like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, Richard Rodgers, Joshua Logan, and many others. Which is to say, he designed many of the most important Broadway plays and musicals for half a century (including six Pulitzer Prize winners in a ten-year stretch).

Mary Henderson's Mielziner (Back Stage Books/Watson-Guptill) is cram-packed with over 250 illustrations, more than half in color. Henderson concentrates on the man, the man-as-artist, and his creative relationships. Thus, we see Mielziner not merely designing, but contributing creative ideas to his authors. On The Glass Menagerie, for example; the script called for an interior only, but Mielziner framed his living room set with an exterior alley and fire escape. Upon seeing the design, Williams moved key speeches outside the apartment. Henderson also follows Mielziner the businessman, who was so in demand that he was able to force producers to pay him — a mere designer — a royalty in addition to his fee. Mielziner was quite a production himself, if you will; he lived and breathed theatre.

Of course, you can also simply look at the pictures — including stunning designs for shows like Pal Joey, Carib Song, The Glass Menagerie, Finian's Rainbow, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, South Pacific (the low-flying cloud in Jo's "Bali H'ai" drop inspired Hammerstein to add the line "my head sticking out from a low-flying cloud") Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Lark, The Most Happy Fella, Gypsy and even Christine. (Yes, there's some wonderful work from this Maureen O'Hara/Pearl S. Buck flop.) So this weighty coffee table book makes quite a browser's delight.

-- Steven Suskin is the author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" (from Oxford University Press), "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com