ON THE RECORD: A Wonderful Wonderful Town

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Wonderful Wonderful Town
This week's column discusses Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Wonderful Town.
Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town
Donna Murphy in Wonderful Town

A musical version of the 1940 comedy hit My Sister Eileen, starring Rosalind Russell (who played the role in the 1942 screen version), must have seemed like a relatively easy proposition. But it wasn't, by far.

The screen version was the first problem; Columbia Pictures wouldn't sell back the remake rights, without which Broadway producers and investors were loath to move ahead. Budding producer Bobby Fryer decided to go ahead where three earlier managements wouldn't, hoping that the show would prove profitable even without the prospects of a film sale. (As it happened, Wonderful Town never reached the screen. Columbia made their own movie musical "My Sister Eileen" in 1955, which is memorable mostly for the presence of a balding young dancer/choreographer named Fosse, playing the soda jerk.)

With the names Rosalind Russell and George Abbott on the prospectus, Fryer was able to raise the capitalization. The second problem came when Ms. Russell arrived in town, a month or so before the first rehearsal, to hear the Leroy Anderson-Arnold Horwitt score. She didn't like it and refused to do it. Abbott and Fryer agreed, so Mr. A. picked up the phone and called Betty Comden and Adolph Green, his lyricist-librettists for On the Town and Billion Dollar Baby. Could they quickly write lyrics for the show — the libretto was already written, by the men who wrote the original play — and who should write the music?

Lenny, they said. Leonard Bernstein had left Broadway after the success of On the Town in 1943, concentrating on his symphonic career. But when the call came in, around Thanksgiving 1952, Bernstein had a three month-old daughter dangling on his knee. Why not take two months out of his schedule — the show was slated to premiere in New Haven in mid-January — with the prospects of a big and immediate (and unforeseen) payday?

So Betty and Adolph and Lenny went to work. Which led to the third problem. Playwright-librettists Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields were highly protective of their Sister Eileen. They apparently envisioned a sweetly nostalgic look at Greenwich Village in the 1930's. "The Wrong Note Rag" — the eleven o'clock song that our heroes came up with — specifically illustrated the problem. Dissonant, satirical and not at all what the librettists had in mind. One can also see a vast difference between the first act story vignettes — written by Betty and Adolph — and the rest of the spoken text. The vignettes were presumably forced on Chodorov and Fields, and they were not happy. (Part of their sensitivity seems to stem from 1940, when some of the critics specifically praised director George S. Kaufman for writing the jokes that turned the play into a hit.) Wonderful Town was a blockbuster, as it turned out, but not a happy one. Says George Abbott: "There was more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension and more screaming connected with this play than with any other show I was ever involved with." Relations weren't helped three months into the run when Jerry Robbins — who had been summoned by Abbott to help fix the show during the tryout — went before the House Un American Activities Committee and named names, including Chodorov.

The rush job aspect of Wonderful Town has led to criticism, in some corners, of the Wonderful Town score. Latter-day criticism, mind you; audiences were delighted with the show's unabashed freshness in 1953. There is none of the artistic striving of West Side Story or Candide here, or even On the Town. There are some who listen to Wonderful Town and think — but you mean this is Leonard Bernstein? It sounds like just a musical comedy.

But that's what it is, and precisely what it was meant to be. A bouncy, entertaining, tongue-in-cheek musical comedy score. Wonderful Town works wonderfully on that basis; it was a major hit in 1953, the most successful musical to come along since The King and I. The score is filled with pleasures, like "Ohio," "One Hundred Easy Ways," "Conga!," "Swing," and the "Wrong Note Rag." No, it isn't West Side Story; but in 1953, how could anybody have expected Leonard Bernstein — or anyone — to come up with something like West Side Story? Due to the circumstances, the score for Wonderful Town was written off the cuff, with no time for reflection. If it's West Side Story or Candide you want, I can refer you to a veritable shelf-full of recordings.

There is even a handful of Wonderful Town recordings, due in part to Bernstein's celebrity; this new recording makes the sixth Wonderful Town CD on my shelf. The only ones I bother with have been the two Rosalind Russell recordings. The songs were written to order for Russell, who wasn't much of a singer. But she sold these songs, and how, in a way that no one else has been able to do. (On the other recordings, at least. Carol Channing, Elaine Stritch and Kaye Ballard each had success with the role on stage, and now Donna Murphy joins their ranks.) The 1953 original cast [Decca Broadway 440 014 602] is primitively recorded, and somewhat abridged. The 1958 TV version [Sony Broadway SK 48021] was recorded in early stereo, which makes it considerably clearer; and original conductor Lehman Engel helped preserve the Broadway sound. Russell's performance was somewhat more reassured in 1958, which was not preferable, while the supporting cast gained some and lost some.

Now we have yet another Wonderful Town, and it quickly jumps near the head of the class. Donna Murphy — she of Fosca and the 1996 King and I — is as much a singer as Ms. Russell was not. But Donna clearly takes her cue from Roz; this Ruth Sherwood is a well-rounded, and funny, creation. Some may like Murphy as much, or more, than Ms. Russell. Others can argue the relative merits of the three Bob Bakers: the musically stodgy George Gaynes, the charming-but-approximate Sydney Chaplin, and the present-day Gregg Edelman. Edelman, who has developed a nice sense of humor over the last decade or so, gets my nod uncontested, as does Edith (Edie) Adams, the Eileen of 1953.

But the reason to do Wonderful Town is the score. This production began life as the 2000 season-ender at City Center Encores!, where music is king. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, music director Rob Fisher, and the producers of the transfer have wisely and happily kept their ears clean, as it were. This might seem an obvious decision, but I can think of only one recent musical revival that sounded as fresh as the show did when the composer was standing at the back of the theatre taking notes.

A good thing, too, since Don Walker provided Wonderful Town with a vibrantly colorful and refreshingly breezy set of orchestrations that are distinctive among Broadway musicals of the era. Which calls for some explanation. For a variety of reasons that we needn't go into here, Walker — who had been orchestrating on Broadway since 1934 — responded to changing times by forming his own little orchestration factory in the early fifties. With Seymour "Red" Ginzler as his main assistant, Walker appears to have accepted everything that came along. (Buttrio Square, anyone?)

Walker's venture was an immediate success, but at a price. In February 1953, Walker orchestrated three musicals that opened on Broadway within fourteen days. All three shows tried out, in different cities at the same time, and each show underwent drastic revisions. To get Wonderful Town up and ready, Walker needed to call on nine different orchestrators. Because it was the last of the three shows, Walker had time to write only a handful of charts, with Ginzler scoring more than a third of the show. (Conversely, Walker did about a third of the first show of that month, Jule Styne's Hazel Flagg.)

Wonderful Town wound up with an exceptional set of orchestrations despite this, or perhaps because of this; the right numbers were carefully assigned to the right people. Walker's main contributions were "A Little Bit in Love," "My Darlin' Eileen" and the lengthy first-act ballet "Conquering the City" (which is given a dazzling playing on this new CD). Ginzler's work included "One Hundred Easy Ways," "Conga!," "It's Love" and the "Ballet at the Village Vortex." (On a personal note, I would love to find the deleted lyric to this, "Let It Come Down.")

Walker called on Joe Glover — who made significant contributions to Walker's Call Me Madam — for "Ohio" and "The Wrong Note Rag." Ginzler, meanwhile, enlisted two TV-arranger friends, Sid Ramin ("Swing") and Irv Kostal ("Pass the Football"). With Walker tending to his other shows when Wonderful Town headed towards New Haven, Ginzler and Ramin did most of the many changes and fixes demanded by the battling authors, Abbott, Robbins, et al. Mind you, none of this should be taken as a question of Walker's abilities. Don orchestrated much of Carousel and almost all of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Most Happy Fella and She Loves Me — four exceptionally orchestrated shows that offer a staggering array of styles. By 1960, Walker had decided to concentrate on one show at a time, with impressive results.

The DRG recording of the current revival, happily ensconced at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, brings full value to Bernstein's score and to the arrangements, making this a very wonderful Wonderful Town indeed.

Steven Suskin, author of 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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