BILLION DOLLAR BABY (Original Cast Records OC-4304)
The well-made American musical comedy, as we know it, was developed over thirty years by a relatively small number of craftsmen. Standing out amongst them was George Abbott, whose thirty-odd musicals — as director and sometimes co-librettist — began in 1936 with On Your Toes; his final hit was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in 1962. Many of the shows are justly celebrated, including The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey, On the Town, High Button Shoes, Where's Charley?, Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Once Upon a Mattress, and Fiorello!. Lost along the way, though, was something called Billion Dollar Baby. This was a 1945 follow-up to the previous year's On the Town. Composer Leonard Bernstein wasn't available, so director Abbott, choreographer Robbins, and lyricists/librettist Betty Comden and Adolph Green turned instead to another "highbrow" composer: Morton Gould, who had written the music for Robbins' second ballet, Interplay (which premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre six months after On the Town opened and six months before Billion Dollar Baby).
Billion Dollar Baby was a tale of prohibition, featuring a gold-digging heroine who blithely stepped over bodies — numerous bodies — on her path to the bed of a billionaire. While this story, and this anti-heroine, might have been at home in the Broadway musical of the sixties or seventies or nineties, it was rough-sledding with World War II audiences. (The show is not unlike a combination of Abbott's hit 1926 hit plays, Broadway and Chicago, with a little Pal Joey thrown in.) Billion Dollar Baby ran for only six months, barely managing to repay its investors, and was quickly forgotten.
The York Theatre Company unearthed it for its 1998 Musicals in Mufti series of staged readings, and what do you know? Billion Dollar Baby is intelligent, daring, and clearly ahead of its time. The score has now received its first recording, and it is an important link in the musical comedy chain. It is full of interesting — and often vibrant — material, although it isn't especially listener friendly. The three big numbers — "I've Got a One-Track Mind," "Bad Timing," and "I'm Sure of Your Love" — each spring from a snappy rhythmic base, but despite pleasing melodic lines, they seem to lose their way. Mind you, the songwriters weren't looking to give us beautiful songs; the one pretty tune, "A Lovely Girl," is a tongue in-cheek nightclub number that ends act one with an onstage murder. You only have to listen to On the Town or Pal Joey — fast-paced, cynical musicals of the period — to see how it's possible for a composer to mix in beautiful melody.
Even so, the score — as presented on this new CD — is fascinating to listen to. This was Comden and Green's second show, and they are in fine form. Green is heard on the disc as a somewhat addled announcer. ("Lucky Lindy flew to Paris in twenty-two hours! Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel in twenty-two hours! Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband, fried in the electric chair for twenty-two seconds!") Everything is lively and well presented, although for economic reasons, Gould's original orchestrations are reduced to four pieces. Conductor/arranger James Bassi and musical director Michael Lavine do remarkably well, under these cut-down circumstances. A fully scored version of the show's main showpiece, the "Charleston" sequence, can be heard on the 1989 cast recording of Jerome Robbins' Broadway. I also recall seeing "Dreams Come True" — featuring a dream ballet with Rudolph Valentino, Richard Barthelmess, and Ramon Navarro — at an early preview of the Robbins anthology. It was cut before the opening, though, and went unrecorded.
Kristin Chenoweth plays the role fashioned for Joan McCracken, the sprightly dancing comedienne who never quite achieved full stardom. (She married Bob Fosse in 1952 and got him the Pajama Game assignment, his springboard to Broadway fame. He soon left her for Gwen Verdon, who supplanted McCracken as Broadway's top dancing star. That's show biz.) Debbie Gravitte plays the Texas Guinan-like dance hall hostess, Marc Kudisch is the main love interest, and the late Richard B. Shull plays the billionaire patsy bridegroom. All of them do well, as does the supporting cast, investing the performance with high-octane energy. The York production was directed and spearheaded by BT McNicholl, who deserves credit for uncovering and discovering this lost, semi-precious gem. All in all, this recording of Billion Dollar Baby is quite a treat.
MAYOR Harbinger HCD 1805
Charles Strouse's 1985 off-Broadway revue Mayor, in my opinion, was a mirthless one-joke affair. The effectiveness of the joke depended on how funny you found the idea of a middle-aged character actor running around in a bald-pated head-cap saying "hootspa." For the uninitiated, that's pronounced "chhhootspa," although the uninitiated would surely have steered clear of a show like this.
Mayor opened at the Village Gate, a grungy nightclub on Bleecker Street — up the block from The Fantasticks — best known as the home of the long-running Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. After 198 performances, Mayor transferred to the old Latin Quarter on West 48th Street — during its brief incarnation as a "mid-Broadway" house — for an additional 70 showings. Both theatres are long gone, as is Mayor. The show, I suppose I should mention, was a salute to then-mayor Edward I. Koch, whose autobiography served as source material. Strouse wrote music and lyrics, with Warren Leight — who turned up in 1998 with the Tony Award-winning Side Man — providing what passed as a book.
What is one to say about this CD? It accurately reflects the show. One or two of Strouse's melodies are in his bouncy, vaudeville-like style, and those with eagle ears will catch a fragment that was developed into "Brand New World" in Rags (which is a fine song, by the way). The lyrics are in the "yuppies in hush-puppies" vein, with a whole song filled with dirty words (about rude New Yorkers) and some highly optimistic rhyming ("Do you know how bored you get/At the board of Estimate?"). Conscientious collectors will want Mayor, as will fans of the composer (who sings the score's three "big" songs on added tracks). If you like songs about Harrison Goldin or Meade Esposito, or you want to hear a stand-in for Abe Beame singing to a disco beat, Mayor is for you.
The good news is that I and Albert is expected next month, from Jay Records. This 1972 West End musical, written by Strouse and Lee Adams, is virtually unknown in America. The show — which came between Strouse's Applause and Annie — had a checkered history, but I recall the album as being sprightly and charming and I look forward to hearing it on CD.
AND ON ITS WAY. . . . William Finn's Infinite Joy was recorded live, on January 14 and 15 at Joe's Pub. This was not so much a cabaret evening as a "Best of William Finn," and it should make a wonderful album. In addition to some now-familiar material, selections included two songs from Romance and Hard Times (finally!) and three from the upcoming Royal Family. One of them, "Stupid Things I Won't Do," is destined to be a showstopper. (The "stupid things" include reading the newspaper when there's no theatre review.) The composer sang this one, as well as an hysterical exploration of "Republicans" — in which the singer makes contact, as it were, with a fellow of that persuasion — which had the (non-Republican) audience rolling on the floor. The first-rate cast included Liz Callaway, Lewis Cleale, Carolee Carmello (looking very pregnant), Wanda Houston (a newcomer with a powerful voice), and Mary Testa (who sparred constantly with her longtime pal Finn). Stephen De Rosa — who was so good in the recent Mystery of Irma Vep — did a knockout, one-man version of the seven-part "Baseball Game" from Falsettoland, which had me falling off my barstool. Finn also introduced three exceptional new songs, including a decidedly strange but haunting "Ballad of Jack Eric Williams" — the kind of song that nobody but Finn could write. Expect Infinite Joy in late April or May, from RCAVictor.
- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) 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