ON THE RECORD: Bravo Giovanni and Wall to Wall Rodgers

News   ON THE RECORD: Bravo Giovanni and Wall to Wall Rodgers BRAVO GIOVANNI DRG 19031
Three record companies, of late, have been digging into the stacks of long out-of-print cast albums to bring us titles never before available on CD. Many of these shows were pretty poor — hence, their exile — and some of the albums are as uninteresting as the shows. But others make for highly enjoyable listening. Bravo Giovanni, for example.

BRAVO GIOVANNI DRG 19031
Three record companies, of late, have been digging into the stacks of long out-of-print cast albums to bring us titles never before available on CD. Many of these shows were pretty poor — hence, their exile — and some of the albums are as uninteresting as the shows. But others make for highly enjoyable listening. Bravo Giovanni, for example.

This 1962 musical was in many ways flawed, with a haphazard book heading the list. From all reports, it was pretty discouraging to sit through in the theatre; but some of the songs are highly tuneful, some of the lyrics are deftly amusing, and some of the performances rambunctiously likable.

This was yet another one of those young-girl-falls-in-love-with-fascinating middle-aged-man musicals. Nothing wrong with this genre, mind you, when in the hands of middle-aged men like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Loesser. But the age difference was not as novel a situation in Giovanni as it was a dozen years earlier in South Pacific. Here, it was merely a plot device and a flimsy one.

The book was by one A. J. Russell, which sounds like a blacklist-era pseudonym to me. (A more famous A. J. Russell was a Civil War photographer.) Milton Schaefer wrote the music, to lyrics by Ronny Graham. Graham was a talented performer-writer, best known along Broadway for his performance in and sketches for New Faces of 1952. He was also a mainstay at nightclubs like Le Ruban Bleu and Upstairs at the Downstairs. (Ronny Graham should not be confused with Ronald Graham, who introduced "The Shortest Day of the Year," "Do I Love You?" and "Careless Rhapsody" in The Boys from Syracuse, DuBarry Was a Lady, and By Jupiter.)

Graham was apparently unreliable, and indisposed (as they say) when they were trying to fix Giovanni. Still, some of his comedy lyrics are startlingly accomplished for someone who never, otherwise, wrote a Broadway musical. "Uriti," for example, is a list song about a turisti restaurant that features a bust of Dante that — with a tug of the earlobe — produces caffè espresso. Uriti also serves homogenized tortoni in 29 flavors, and features "lavatories that must be seen: Each booth is a replica of the Arch of Constantine." This is the work of a wild comic imagination. Composer Shafer came to Broadway on the strength of his children's album for Danny Kaye, the well-remembered Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water. (Why doesn't somebody put this on CD?) Giovanni has some lovely melodies, as did Shafer's other musical Drat the Cat. Both shows were quick failures, and Shafer never returned to Broadway. Giovanni is the only show I can think of that was directed and choreographed by a comic and a dancer who had been sharing featured billing in a Broadway musical only eight years earlier. The Pajama Game was the show; Stanley Prager played the union organizer Prez, while Carol Haney — as Gladys — caused a stir with her "Steam Heat." Prager has the distinction of having directed the first Broadway plays of both Neil Simon (Come Blow Your Horn) and Woody Allen (Don't Drink the Water). Those were his only hits, though; his musical record included Let It Ride, Bravo Giovanni, Minnie's Boys and 70, Girls, 70. Haney did considerably better, with Flower Drum Song, She Loves Me and Funny Girl to her credit. Buzz Miller, who danced "Steam Heat" with Haney (and Peter Gennaro), was Giovanni's featured dancer and assistant choreographer.

A key factor in Giovanni's enjoyability is the work of orchestrator Robert Ginzler. (He, too, came from The Pajama Game, for which he scored several numbers — including "Steam Heat," according to reliable sources.) The score takes off from the very beginning of the overture, with trumpets and woodwinds continually perking up the score. Ginzler had a busy season, scoring Loesser's How to Succeed, Kander's A Family Affair and Strouse's All American before turning to Giovanni. This activity proved to be too much; his heart gave out during the tryout of his next show, Nowhere to Go But Up, and Ginzler died shortly after the opening.

Luther Henderson was credited for dance music arrangements and orchestrations, so he is presumably responsible for the bravura "Signora Pandolfi" section. This includes a tango, a black bottom and a tarantella twist called "The Kangaroo." (Luther did a similar set of variations for the "You Can Dance with Any Girl" number in the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette.) A highly acclaimed big band arranger, Henderson was perennially underemployed on Broadway until Ain't Misbehavin'. Choreographer Haney brought him along on three of her four musicals.

Cesare Siepi, the world-famous Metropolitan Opera basso, was unable to set Broadway on fire the way that Ezio Pinza did in South Pacific, dooming Giovanni to quick failure. Of course, Siepi didn't have the material to work with that Pinza had. He does a fair enough job with his opening number, the charming "Rome"; but neither of his big ballads ("If I Were the Man" and "Miranda") quite makes it. The loveliest song in the show is "Ah! Camminare," which in my non-existent Italian seems to translate to "Oh, isn't it lovely to take a walk in the evening." This is given not to Siepi but to high tenor Gene Varrone, who does a wonderful job with it. Varrone's strong voice is familiar from specialty spots in such musicals as Subways Are for Sleeping, Tovarich, Dear World, The Grand Tour and, especially, A Little Night Music.

Shafer gave two strong numbers to Giovanni's 19-year-old heroine, Michèle Lee. She magnetizes things, somewhat eagerly, with "I'm All I've Got" and "Steady, Steady." (The CD includes as a bonus a second track, from 1966, of Lee singing "Steady, Steady.") After the show's quick failure, Michèle removed the accent and moved over to the female lead in How to Succeed. George S. Irving does the corny comedy numbers with aplomb, while Mrs. Irving — also known as Maria Karnilova — does a knockout job as Signora Pandolfi. Karnilova started in the chorus with Jerome Robbins in the 1939 Merman-Durante musical Stars in Your Eyes. After many years of dancing for Robbins, he gave her a small comedy role in 1959 in Gypsy (as stripper Tessie Tura). This was followed by a considerably larger role in Giovanni, and leading roles in Fiddler on the Roof (1964) and Zorbà (1968).

Giovanni was the type of mediocre musical of the fifties and early sixties that George Abbott or Jerry Robbins or Josh Logan used to doctor into the hit column. But Abbott (of The Pajama Game) was unavailable, struggling in Washington with his own musical in trouble. Robbins, also of The Pajama Game, was also unavailable; he was in Washington, doctoring Abbott's troubled musical. Logan couldn't make it either, having just returned from the doomed tryout of All American, which he himself was unable to salvage. So nobody fixed Giovanni, and it went into the books as another one of those hopeless musicals that simply don't work.

As for that troubled Abbott-Robbins musical, it was successfully doctored into a hit: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came to the Alvin 11 days before Giovanni hit the Broadhurst. Let us report that when Tony time came around, Shafer and Graham received a Best Score Tony nomination while Stephen Sondheim didn't. (Lionel Bart won for Oliver!.) Giovanni received two other nominations in categories where Forum was overlooked, for choreographer Haney (who lost to Bob Fosse for Little Me) and conductor Anton Coppola (who lost to Don Pippin for Oliver!).

The singers, songs and orchestrations combine to make the cast album of Giovanni far more satisfying than the show. Not great, not indispensable —but hey, it's fun!

WALL TO WALL RICHARD RODGERS Fynsworth Alley 302 062 129
Here comes yet another anthology CD, recorded live at yet another gala concert. These discs tend to blur into one another, the same old songs given the same old treatment.

New York's Symphony Space and artistic director Isaiah Sheffer have been throwing Wall to Wall events for 20-odd years now. Twelve straight hours of song, featuring a wide variety of performers singing the work of a selected composer. Richard Rodgers was a natural choice for their 2002 event, which also celebrated a grand renovation of their facility.

Twelve hours — and who knows how many songs and performers — have been whittled down to one 55-minute, 15-track CD. And it's filled with high points. Wall to Wall Richard Rodgers — the CD, that is — features a group of wonderful performers who not only know how to sing; they know how to deliver the words. And these songs appear not to have been assigned two days before and hurriedly memorized; the performers seem to have selected songs that they love. The results make this collection far more enjoyable than the typical live concert anthology CD.

The performers in question, in order of appearance: Mary Cleere Haran (accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett), Judy Kaye, KT Sullivan, Steve Ross, Billy Stritch, Maureen McGovern, Melissa Errico, Ivy Austin and Debbie Gravitte. I need not list who sings what; all of them do extremely well. (They are ably abetted by pianists Lanny Meyers, Larry Woodard and Jeffrey Harris.)

There are a couple of tracks that one might deem unfortunate, but that's inevitable. Give me good renditions of "Little Girl Blue" and "Ten Cents a Dance" and "It Never Entered My Mind," and I'm very happy. (One of the other singers does an extremely poor job. He will go nameless, as this was a one shot live performance and he is usually much better; let us assume that he rushed in from his sickbed.)

The packaging includes an unfamiliar photo of Rodgers. The composer — in white dinner jacket, with bow tie — is sitting sullenly before a New York City policeman; it looks like he has just been arrested for drunken driving, or maybe drunken conducting. Checking with the folks at Rodgers & Hammerstein, I'm told that this was taken backstage at Lewisohn Stadium, during a 1961 concert. Rodgers looks groggy, and not too happy. AND OFF THE RECORD:
The trouble with new books about old shows is that it grows harder and harder to turn up fresh information. A recent biography of Richard Rodgers demonstrated the problem. Virtually all of the co-authors, stagers and producers of his musicals are long gone (with the exception of his last three shows, who are represented). With nobody to talk to, writers and biographers end up incorporating the same old stories and anecdotes that every other writer has used. What makes The Richard Rodgers Reader [Oxford University Press] so refreshing is that rather than restating and paraphrasing, editor Geoffrey Block presents us with the actual source materials. So we get first-hand reports, in context, from people who were there. This includes Rodgers himself. He is not always forthcoming, and had a not unnatural tendency to protect himself. Still, the fascinating Richard Rodgers Reader gives us a much better sense of the man than we get elsewhere.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," 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.