ON THE RECORD: Babes in the 'Cradle': Two 1937 Musicals

News   ON THE RECORD: Babes in the 'Cradle': Two 1937 Musicals BABES IN ARMS (DRG 94769)
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart returned from a discouraging half-decade sojourn in Depression-era Hollywood to embark on their golden period, with eight musicals opening in five years. Four of these scores remain among the best in their respective fields: the musical comedy/ballet hybrid On Your Toes; the farcical musical The Boys from Syracuse; the sophisticated-but-dark Pal Joey; and -- topping the list for all around rambunctiousness -- Babes in Arms. (And all this was before the amazing Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein for Oklahoma! , Carousel, and more!)
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BABES IN ARMS (DRG 94769)
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart returned from a discouraging half-decade sojourn in Depression-era Hollywood to embark on their golden period, with eight musicals opening in five years. Four of these scores remain among the best in their respective fields: the musical comedy/ballet hybrid On Your Toes; the farcical musical The Boys from Syracuse; the sophisticated-but-dark Pal Joey; and -- topping the list for all around rambunctiousness -- Babes in Arms. (And all this was before the amazing Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein for Oklahoma! , Carousel, and more!)

These shows were all revived during Rodgers's lifetime, although the composer in each case saw fit to allow musical alterations and all-new orchestrations. Since the death of Rodgers in 1979, all have been restored (as accurately as possible) to their original musical form and recorded, with generally pleasing results. The most indispensable, perhaps, are City Center Encores 1997 production of Boys from Syracuse (DRG 94767) and, now, their 1999 Babes in Arms.

Broadway has seen any number of hit-filled musicals in its time, but Babes has one of the most glorious scores: "Where or When," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "Johnny One-Note" are understandably well-known; "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "All at Once," "Imagine," and "You Are So Fair" are almost equally deserving. (The show is saddled with a problematic libretto, about a bunch of kids who put on a show in a barn. Encores and the Estates wisely entrusted the rewrites to John Guare, who did a fine, unobtrusive job. This Babes was staged with just the right touch and impressively choreographed by Encores artistic director Kathleen Marshall.)

This disc is sparked by the insouciant charm of Erin Dilly (in the role originated by child movie star Mitzi Green). Dilly conveys a warm personality and a sense of humor, and surely has a career ahead of her if she so wishes -- she's due on Broadway in April in Boublil-Schonberg's Martin Guerre. The disc is also buoyed by the exceptional playing of Rob Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra. The lively original orchestrations by Hans Spialek are full of wonderful little solos from the woodwinds and flutes, as well as some colorful work from the two pianos. All of this comes across beautifully, making this disc a joy to listen to. The rest of the cast -- including the up-and-coming Australian discovery David Campbell as Val (of "Funny Valentine" fame), Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone as the comedy couple, and Melissa Rain Anderson as the belter -- all do well; some appear to be considerably stronger on disc than they were in the theatre.

An earlier restoration of Babes in Arms -- a 1989 concert version conducted by Evans Haile and recorded at Alice Tully Hall -- is presently still available on CD (New World NW 386-2). That disc, which features fine performances by Judy Blazer and Jason Graae, is certainly commendable; but this new one -- with singers young enough to actually play these roles on stage -- takes precedence. And what a score!

CRADLE WILL ROCK (RCA Victor 09026-63577-2)
Babes in Arms was going strong in its second month at the Shubert when a very different type of musical opened at the Maxine Elliott. Or, rather, didn't open at the Maxine Elliott. Marc Blitzstein's highly politicized musical The Cradle Will Rock was locked out of its theatre when the Federal Theatre Project discovered, at the last minute, that it was sponsoring a musical encouraging labor unionism and demonizing big business. The drama behind the drama is the subject of Tim Robbins's new film "Cradle Will Rock" (without the "The"), and the soundtrack incorporates a fair swath of the original work as the play within the film.

You get a third of Blitzstein's score, about twenty-five minutes worth; but most of the important sections are present. (The rest of the album features original music by David Robbins.) The Blitzstein sections -- conducted by Steven Tyler -- are accompanied by a small musical combo, as opposed to what in reality was the composer himself sitting at a battered old upright on an empty stage. The parts have been carefully reduced and reconstructed from Blitzstein's unused orchestrations, we are told, so fans of the piece will hear things they have never heard before.

Happily, the cast for the on stage segments is full of musical theatre talent. The powerful "Joe Worker" is performed by Audra McDonald, who certainly gets around nowadays. But who could sing it better? McDonald makes everything sound easy, to the point where we're no longer surprised that she always seems perfect. Tyler, at the piano, replicates Blitzstein's playing exactly -- with the left fist pounding the keys -- and they sneak in the orchestra at the end of the piece for a highly effective climax. This one track of under three minutes is more than enough to send McDonald's fans to purchase a copy, and they won't be disappointed. (The film itself, though, includes only a fragment of this number.)

The rest of the group includes Erin Hill, Daniel Jenkins, Tim Jerome (who makes a good Editor Daily) and especially Vicki Clark. Ms. Clark -- usually billed as Victoria Clark -- is one of our brighter musical theatre talents (best known, so far, for her performance as Alice Beane, the celebrity struck Second Class passenger who sneaks up for a glimpse at the First Class in Titanic). Clark pretty much overtakes the others in her songs as Mrs. Mister, breathing life into what appears to be a much more prominent role than you might have supposed.

Several key portions of the stage score were omitted from the film, including the Larry Foreman material; the Drugstore Scene; most of the Yasha/Dauber Hotel Lobby Scene; and "Nickel Under the Foot." This latter number is included on the recording, in a manner of speaking. Or I should say in a manner of singing. While the rest of Blitzstein's material is performed virtually as written, "Nickel under the Foot" has been given a remarkably inauthentic performance. This is all right, I suppose, as the song was used outside the context of the piece, for the end titles; but I'm sorry to say that Blitzstein's harmonies are mostly gone, as is the driving rhythm of the song. This is the lament of a streetwalker, hence the original accompaniment suggestive of pounding the pavement; the version here is more of a folk like guitar song. As if that's not enough, they've either changed some of the melody or pop singer Polly Jean Harvey is simply singing the wrong notes. Contemporary, yes, and in some ways haunting; but it's a different "Nickel." Blitzstein, who spent long stretches of his career unable to get any public hearing whatsoever, would surely have been thrilled to have his work form the basis for a major Hollywood motion picture. Hearing this rendition of "Nickel," though, might have sent him cabling his lawyers, after first cashing the check.

Coming as the opening track on the disc, this "Nickel" might scare you away altogether; but don't hit that stop button. The next two Blitzstein tracks are also indifferently performed (by Emily Watson, Susan Sarandon and Eddie Vedder) but the theatre pros soon take over. Thanks especially to the ministrations of Ms. McDonald and Ms. Clark, fans of The Cradle should be quite pleased. -- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com