ON THE RECORD: Audra's History-Making Lady Day, Rodgers' Rarely-Seen Androcles and Songs by Kern

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Audra's History-Making Lady Day, Rodgers' Rarely-Seen Androcles and Songs by Kern In this week's column, we listen to Audra McDonald in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, the 1967 Richard Rodgers television musical Androcles and the Lion and an album of forgotten songs by Jerome Kern.
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This past June, Audra McDonald won her 27th Tony Award — or maybe it just seems like 27 — for her appearance in Lanie Roberson's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill [PS Classics]. Having taken medallions as Best Actress in a Musical, Best Supporting Actress in a Musical and Best Supporting Actress in a Play, she must have thought: Why not go for a full house? These awards have all been duly earned and duly deserved by McDonald. Even so, some of her admiring peers might be getting a little frustrated by now. Next time, she'll probably go up against Nathan Lane and sparks will really fly.

Lady Day is a fictionalized version of a Billie Holiday nightclub act at a low-class dive in South Philadelphia in 1959, with the run-down legend on her last legs — figuratively — as she tries to get through the set. Audra McDonald is not the sort of person who, if you met her on the street, would be mistaken for Billie Holiday, no; and you wouldn't think she could bend her glorious voice to sound like the immortal Lady Day, either. But McDonald does seem to be able to accomplish whatever it is she undertakes, and she is striking in the role. She, and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, can be found at the Circle in the Square through Oct. 5.

Playgoers who loved the show, and the many out-of-towners unable to make it to 50th Street before Audra vacates to make way for Hugh Jackman, can find the complete play on a new two-disc CD from PS Classics. Recorded live and ably backed by Shelton Becton at the piano (with George Farmer on bass and Clayton Craddock on drums), it gives a good sense of the dynamite performance which won her that sixth Tony. But who's counting?

* The formerly almighty, 65-year-old Richard Rodgers was at low ebb in 1967 — an ebb from which he was never to rebound, although he turned out three additional, weak Broadway musicals before his death on the penultimate day of the 1970s. Following the death of Oscar Hammerstein in 1960, he wrote his own lyrics for No Strings and tried matches with three successful, younger lyricists. Only the 1965 Do I Hear a Waltz?, with Stephen Sondheim, got very far; a much-lauded collaboration with Alan Jay (My Fair Lady) Lerner teetered and collapsed, and he even briefly tried working with Lionel (Oliver!) Bart.

With no shows on the horizon and a need to keep himself occupied, Rodgers accepted the assignment of a second television musical; his first, the one-night-only Cinderella (1957), had been so successful that it was revived for TV — with a different cast — in 1965. This time, the source material came from the fellow who originated My Fair Lady: George Bernard Shaw. The play in question was Androcles and the Lion [Masterworks Broadway], the one about the early Christians being marched to the Roman Colosseum for slaughter. Maybe this wasn't such a great choice for a Richard Rodgers musical? The book came from Peter Stone, who had not yet written the 1969 hit 1776; direction and choreography was provided by Joe Layton, who had sparked No Strings.

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There were any number of problems with the show, which was telecast Nov. 15, 1967 and quickly forgotten. The score, though, did not provide the lift that the producers presumably assumed they would get from the presence of Richard Rodgers. I have never compiled a list of my 100 favorite Richard Rodgers songs, or my 250 Rodgers favorites. Nothing of Androcles would come close to inclusion on either; most of the score rests comfortably on the second-to-lowest shelf of Rodgers songs.

"Strangers," a love duet, is the best of the bunch. It has something of that old Rodgers (and Hart) lilt, although the composer gave us many, more effective songs of this type. It also has lovely handling from orchestrator Russell Bennett, in one of his final jobs. "Velvet Paws" is a not unfelicitous Rodgers waltz, although it doesn't begin to approach all those perfect Rodgers waltzes ("Lover," "Falling in Love with Love," "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "A Wonderful Guy," "Hello, Young Lovers," etc.) It is also saddled with a cutesy lyric, seeing as how it is sung by a fellow afraid that his dance-partner — a lion — is about to eat him. From there, the score veers towards the ordinary and below.

NBC did manage to line up an interesting cast. Wearing the crown, as it were, was Noël Coward as Caesar. Having more or less finished his staggeringly successful playwriting career, Coward was in 1967 still a name to be reckoned with. In the late '50s he became an unlikely Vegas headliner, followed by stardom in a string of big-budget movies. He seems to be on autopilot here, though. The producers doubled-down with Ed Ames, an NBC-TV star (as a Cherokee in "Daniel Boone") as well as a pop recording artist whose hit recordings included two Schmidt and Jones show tunes, "Try to Remember" (from The Fantasticks) and "My Cup Runneth Over" (from I Do! I Do!). Ames, as it happens, had real stage experience: a student of Uta Hagen, he replaced Jerry Orbach in Carnival! and appeared as Chief Bromden opposite Kirk Douglas in David Merrick's 1963 production of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. They kept casting Ames as an Indian, even though he was Jewish from outside Boston.

Otherwise, the unnamed casting director pulled his actors from Broadway. So much so that the cast album is most notable, I suppose, for giving us a chance to hear the actors. Androcles was undertaken by Norman Wisdom, the British comedian who had the past season starred on Broadway in Walking Happy. The young lovers — yes, one was a Christian on the block and the other was a Roman captain — were Inga Swenson (of 110 in the Shade, but here in Baker Street mode) and John Cullum (of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). In non-singing roles — but very much present on the cast album — are Brian Bedford (just out of Peter Ustinov's The Unknown Soldier and His Wife) as a sadistic Roman, and Patricia Routledge (who had attracted attention in the short-lived How's the World Treating You? and soon to win a Tony for Darling of the Day) as Androcles' domineering — and very funny — wife. Other Broadway names not heard on the recording include William Redfield, Clifford David, William Hickey and Geoffrey Holder as the other title character (i.e., the Lion).

If Rodgers, Stone and Layton were left unsatisfied by the experience, they nevertheless reassembled three years later for the equally unimpressive — but more visible — Danny Kaye Broadway vehicle, Two by Two.

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Earlier this year I was less than enthusiastic about "Lost Broadway and More Volume 5," this being part of Michael Lavine's series of CDs containing obscure and usually old show tunes. Now we have "Lost Broadway and More Volume 6: Jerome Kern" [Original Cast] and I am pleased to report that this one accomplishes precisely what it ought. That is, it takes 20-odd Kern songs and gives us vocalist-and-piano renditions. Thus, a sampler of the songs unadorned and un-"interpreted" so we can hear how they are supposed to go. Being that this is mostly — but not entirely — early Kern, don't expect any of those glorious late-Kern melodies. Still, this makes a dandy collection of literate, early American show tunes.

The words come from myriad lyricists, including Herbert Reynolds, Harry B. Smith, Anne Caldwell, and P.G. Wodehouse (the latter with but a single contribution). Also included are Kern's principal later — and considerably younger — collaborators, Oscar Hammerstein and Dorothy Fields. We also get a couple of Howard Dietz songs and the non-Kern-like "And Russia Is Her Name," which seems to be Yip Harburg's Russian equivalent to "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

Lavine is presumably at the piano, although I can't seem to find confirmation in the liner notes. The singers are many, all unknown to me. They do a good job, as does Lavine, making "Lost Broadway and More Volume 6" a smart place to get acquainted with lesser-known Kern.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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