ON THE RECORD: Billy Elliot and Baker Street

News   ON THE RECORD: Billy Elliot and Baker Street
 
This week’s column discusses the new Olivier-winning musical Billy Elliot and Alexander Cohen’s 1964 Sherlock Holmes musical, Baker Street.
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BILLY ELLIOT [Decca Broadway B000613072]
And here, from the Victoria Palace Theatre, comes the original London cast recording of Billy Elliot. This is the new musical by the celebrated composer of The Lion King and Aida. Or, I suppose, the second-to-newest musical, as we wouldn’t want to leave out Lestat. Cognizant that such a pedigree might be as reassuring to fans of the aforementioned musicals as it is startling to the opposite, let me hasten to add that this time Mr. Elton John has given us a highly theatrical and satisfying piece of musical theatre. Based on the CD – I haven’t seen the show – it seems safe to say that Billy Elliot is something like a combination of The Full Monty and A Chorus Line, with the emphasis on the latter.

Several of the tracks are more pop than theatrical, as you might expect from the composer of The Lion King, etc. The surprise is that much of the score is perfectly suited to the theatre. Some of the numbers are funny, some are tuneful, some work into grand dance numbers, and a couple might even leave you wet at the eyes (in the best manner of Chorus Line and Carousel). I shall reserve full judgment until such time as I see Billy Elliot on stage. Advance word from the U.K. makes the show sound promising enough, destined to be an instant superhit on this side of the Atlantic. The CD makes Billy Elliot sound like it is good, too, and maybe even far better than good.

The U.S. release of the London album is labeled “original cast recording,” and I expect that is precisely what this is. The liner notes are so enigmatically laid out, though, that one wonders exactly what you are getting. No cast-by-character list is given, and the billing page credits only five performers (all with “starring” billing). The song lyrics are labeled enigmatically; “Shine,” for example, bears the legend “Mrs. Wilkinson’s Vocals: Haydn Gwynne. Debbie’s Vocals: Brooke Havana Bailey. Vocals: Ballet Girls, Female Ensemble.” We are then given the full lyric, without any indication of which character sings what. Ms. Gwynne is the first-billed star, which leads us to suspect that Mrs. Wilkinson is the leading role. But you wouldn’t know it from the CD.

Other songs might list three singers by name, but specifically label the lyrics of only one of the three. As for the title character, it is common knowledge that three child actors alternate in the role. This is not referred to in the booklet. The songs are usually labeled “Billy’s Vocals by Liam Mower,” although the opening number – which lists the character Billy in the lyrics – is simply labeled “Full Ensemble.” Are the other two Billy Elliots, James Lomas and George Maguire, heard on the album? They are given third- and fourth-star billing in the booklet, before Master Mower. Are all the Billy Elliots represented in the many photos in the booklet? Perhaps so; there is one especially cute Billy who appears on many pages, but he seems not to be the fellow in the photo on the cover.

I go on about this not because it seems to be a case of sloppy typographics. The handsomely designed booklet appears to intentionally obscure the performers. My assumption is that this is indeed the precise cast of the original London production, with one of the three Billys chosen to sing his role. (This is a good idea, mind you; in at least one similar circumstance, record producers chose to let alternating stars split the tracks, which made for a somewhat disjointed album.) Master Mower seems to sing all, or most, of his role; he is good on the album, although there is no reason to expect that the Messrs. Lomas and Maguire are not every bit as good. (Lomas and Maguire – who apparently are no longer in the show – shared a three-way Best Actor Olivier Award with Mower.) The top-billed Ms. Gwynne and Tim Healy — who sings “Dad’s Vocals” — are given short shrift. Other presumably featured players, like Ann Emery, Joe Caffrey and the aforementioned Ms. Havana Bailey, are prominently featured in several numbers but given no additional credit; they are not even included in the cast list in the back of the liner notes. However, the musicians are listed, instrument by instrument; and the stagehands at the Victoria Palace are given title page billing just below Elton John, in the same size type as Lomas, Maguire and Mower. Cynics among us might wonder if the intention is to sell this CD – simply labeled “original cast album” – at all productions of Billy Elliot across the world, leaving purchasers who don’t delve into the booklet to assume that this is their local original cast. Or that, as the corporate powers might assume, the play’s the thing and it doesn’t matter in the least who is performing the roles.

All of which is not a criticism of the CD or the score. I mention this only because I have already noticed a certain confusion as to precisely who is performing on this CD – the original cast? studio performers? – and upon close examination of the liner notes, I couldn’t quite figure it out myself. What is clear is that Mr. John, himself, is performing. The American release of the cast album contains a second “Elton John Bonus CD,” with the composer singing three songs.

Given my concern about proper credit, let me add that the excellence of the CD indicates that director Stephen Daldry and lyricist/librettist Lee Hall have joined Mr. John in creating what appears to be a dazzling piece of theatre. One can at the same time assume that Martin Koch, who is billed as musical supervisor and orchestrator, has been a major contributor to this Billy Elliot.

BAKER STREET [Decca Broadway B0005971]
Producer Alexander H. Cohen waged a 30-year battle to outdo David Merrick, his competitor across the street. And literally so; Cohen operated from atop the Shubert Theatre, while Merrick looked down upon him from the (higher) St. James.

Cohen came to Broadway in 1941, with an investment and associate producer billing on the blockbuster melodrama Angel Street. Thirteen – count 'em – flops followed, until he hit upon the idea of producing small-scale evenings of sophisticated comedy. At the Drop of a Hat, with the British duo Flanders and Swann, was a moderate hit in the fall of 1960; An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May was an even bigger success when it arrived in the fall of 1961; and Cohen hit the jackpot (on a small scale) the following October with Beyond the Fringe. The combined casts of Nichols and May and Fringe – the latter written and performed by Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – were to have an outsized influence on the English-speaking world of comedy through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and on.

Alex had produced a few musical flops along the way, but he now felt poised to beat Merrick at his own game. Why not a big musical spectacle centered on Sherlock Holmes? Cohen, who considered himself part Barnum, went into overdrive with a massive marketing campaign. The centerpiece was a spectacular animated sign fronting the Broadway Theatre, the sort of display a tourist might stand agape before. (Before leaving the Broadway, without buying a ticket.) Alex lavished money on advertisements – including an unprecedented two-page, full-color Playbill centerfold – and plastered the ad on billboards around town. A wayward Baker Street sign, on the side of a building on 20th Street facing Seventh Avenue, remained visible late into the 1970s.

Given all his bigger-than-a-barn ideas, it is curious that Cohen settled on a librettist with no Broadway experience and a pair of songwriters with no Broadway experience. Two pairs of songwriters, actually. Cohen first discovered young newcomers Dennis Marks and Alan Friedman. After they were cashiered, Cohen signed another pair of newcomers, the Canadians Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel. They set to work with director Joshua Logan, although he, too, was soon to depart; it was no easy feat to musicalize Sherlock Holmes, that crotchety, set-in-his-ways confirmed old bachelor-and-likely-to-remain-so who was not the sort you’d expect to kick up his heels in a grand fandango. What did Cohen and his songwriters and librettist Jerome Coopersmith think they were doing? My Fair Lady?

Well, yes. Definitely so. My Fair Lady it was supposed to be. Baker Street shared the place and the time, more or less, as well as the concept of hiring actors who can’t sing to play the major male roles. Rex Harrison and Robert Coote, of My Fair Lady, were more than able to pull it off; non-musical but highly engaging. Fritz Weaver and Martin Gable, who essayed Holmes and Moriarty, give musically-grating performances on the CD. Inga Swenson, late of 110 in the Shade, co-stars as American actress Irene Adler. Swenson is pretty much a joy, but musical comedies of the period did not live on leading ladies alone unless their name was Verdon.

The main problem, though, is the score. It sounds lively enough, and makes for enjoyable listening; this is one of those cast albums that you’ll likely find yourself playing repeatedly. But just about all of the songs are slightly off. There is one striking number, “What a Night This Is Going to Be,” a quartet for Holmes, Watson and Irene’s maid. (The latter doesn’t merit billing but turns out to be Virginia Vestoff, who five years later offered key support to 1776 with her Abigail Adams.) This is one of those episodic musical scenes that sets up a grand adventure; follows the main characters as they excitedly make preparations; and builds to launch the escapade. If this sounds like “A Weekend in the Country,” there is good reason; Hal Prince directed Baker Street, and presumably helped conceive what was to become the first act finale of A Little Night Music. Sondheim’s number is far more brilliant, needless to say; but “What a Night This Is Going to Be” is markedly more satisfying than any of the other Baker Street songs. The rest of the score, while enjoyable in spots, doesn’t quite register. “Finding Words for Spring” and “I’d Do It Again,” two waltz ballads for the leading lady, are pleasant enough but without the requisite Lerner & Loewe lilt; “Leave It to Us, Gov” and “Roof Spice,” two thrown in production numbers for a ruff-and-tumble street gang, are chipper but ersatz. These are led by the invaluable Teddy Green, better known as the sparkplug in the West End production of Pickwick and Broadway’s Darling of the Day. (Note: “Roof Spice,” if you look at the track listings, is actually called “Roof Space.” Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee is about to pass, and the cute little street gang is selling spice on the roof so you can see the parade — space on the roof, that is — and. . . well, forget it.)

“A Married Man” is supposed to be “How to Handle a Woman,” but it doesn’t quite add up; too much repetition, perhaps. (Do I count 29 uses of the title-phrase melodic figure during the refrain? Or is it more?) Fans of Wallace and Gromit will be amused to find that “A Married Man” is sung by Wallace himself, under the name Peter Sallis. An added bonus track is sung by that infamous married man and all-time expert on how to handle a woman, Richard Burton.

The best of the songs, other than the aforementioned “What a Night This Is Going to Be,” are contributions rushed in by Bock & Harnick, direct from Anatevka. Prince, whose sole Broadway directing credit at the time was She Loves Me (with an assist on A Family Affair), had expressed reservations about the score from the time he took over the project; the first thing he did was to reject seven of fourteen songs and send Grudeff and Jessel off to write replacements. But the songs never soared, and Bock & Harnick – who had written four of Prince’s prior musicals – arrived in Boston a week after the premiere.

The boys contributed one song for each of the three leads. Irene’s “I’m in London Again” is standard Broadway fare, brightly introducing the character with melody, grace and a touch of humor. (This song was replaced after the opening by another Bock & Harnick song, “Buffalo Belle.”) It should be added that “I’m in London Again” drives a perhaps fatal nail into the libretto. The plot is set in motion by Holmes’ attempts to recover incriminating letters from the hands of a grasping female, who it is feared will blackmail Sherlock’s client. But as soon as Inga starts singing her song, the audience is ready for Holmes to marry the delectable girl, and if he doesn’t propose before curtain’s fall we might. We can believe no ill of our heroine — she certainly doesn’t seem the type to hold former beaux hostage — so why is the librettist saying such terrible things about her?

The Bock-Harnick songs for the two male leads are effective and quite amusing, although the performances by Weaver and Gable wring every amount of musicality out of 'em. But here is Harnick at his level best. Sherlock sings of the “Cool Clear World” of the intellect, with the only Broadway lyric I can think of which makes a rhyme of Omar Khayyam’s “Paradise enow.” Moriarty’s song, meanwhile, seems constructed solely to enable Sheldon to wryly cap it with a line about “the stately Holmes of England.”

If Baker Street had its problems, the CD nevertheless makes for enjoyable listening. This can be credited to Ms. Swenson, Teddy Green, two lively dance arrangements from John Morris, and especially orchestrator Don Walker (also just back from Anatevka). Walker’s charts are highly professional, with some delicious touches (as in “I’m in London Again”), but without the authentic flavor of his work on She Loves Me, Fiddler, Most Happy Fella or Cabaret. Walker, early on, complained about the authors’ weakness in organizing musical numbers and warned that “their projection of the English period of the show may turn out to be stylistically sterile for orchestration.” Elementary, my dear Walker.

Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the outsized costs of out-of-town fixings; not the invoiced amounts, for extra rehearsal time, new orchestrations and such, but the lasting legacy of firings and hirings. In the case of Baker Street, the investors were stuck with weekly payments of 1% each to Marks, Friedman, Bock and Harnick, taking the combined royalties to the authors and the Conan Doyle Estate to a whopping 11%. And this doesn’t include the director, choreographer, producer and so on. A super-hit sellout can afford to pay all those extra slices, but Baker Street weren’t no super-hit sellout: 313 performances, and off to the dump. But 40 years later I still enjoy listening to the cast album, now finally available on CD.

—Steven Suskin, author of the newly released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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