ON THE RECORD: Broadway's New La Cage aux Folles, Plus What Makes Sammy Run?

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Broadway's New La Cage aux Folles, Plus What Makes Sammy Run?
 
We listen to the Broadway cast recording of the new production of Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles and the Masterworks reissue of the 1964 Steve Lawrence musical What Makes Sammy Run?

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La Cage aux Folles [PS Classics PS-1094]
The terrific new production of Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein's La Cage aux Folles, currently ensconced at the Longacre, has issued a Broadway cast recording which perfectly well reflects the strong points of this revival. This is a cut-down La Cage aux Folles, not only in terms of the orchestra but in the philosophy behind the enterprise. This St. Tropez nightclub is second-tier; less glitz, less sequins, less dollars, less Vegas (if you will). Someone must have figured that this would humanize the characters and allow us to care more about them and their story. Someone — or perhaps two someones, British director Terry Johnson and producer David Babani of the Menier Chocolate Factory — was precisely right. Menier has had a fair measure of success producing intimate versions of Broadway musicals in its Off-Broadway-sized house in London. Some of these small-scale productions have transferred back into larger houses. Broadway has thus far seen the 2008 Sunday in the Park with George and the 2009 A Little Night Music.

Let me add a disclaimer: I have previously not much enjoyed La Cage aux Folles, either the acclaimed original production in 1983 or the mirthless 2004 revival. The show was an enormous hit when it first opened at the Palace — the main competition at the time being Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George — and did exceedingly well on tour, but it didn't work for me. I simply didn't believe the characters, so I didn't believe the story, so I didn't care about any of it. Not that my opinion mattered.

And now we have this reduced-scope revival. There are some people around who loved — but I mean loved — the original and seem to really dislike this version. To them I say, that's fine; I'm sure that you are absolutely correct. (Correct that you don't like it.) Everything I might say in praise of the revival they would see as nearly sacrilegious, and all I can say is so be it. But watching this Chocolate Factory production at the Longacre — where it has been whisked by 20-odd producing entities, headed by Sonia Friedman and Barry & Fran Weissler — and listening to the new CD from PS Classics, I must say that I wholeheartedly prefer virtually everything about it. And that starts with the performers (with the exception, maybe, of some of the Cagelles). Fans of Gene Barry, if any, probably won't dispute me. Fans of George Hearn no doubt will; they see his Albin as the stuff that Broadway legends are made of, and the fellow won himself a Tony Award for his efforts. Me, I admired Hearn's gutsy performance of "I Am What I Am," in which he displayed a virtually naked vulnerability. But in the overall context of the evening, I never once saw a character up there; just George Hearn in a wig and a dress.

Douglas Hodge (as Albin) and Kelsey Grammer (as Georges) are equally fine. Hodge, needless to say, has the showier part and bigger makeup; Grammer provides the heart that reveals La Cage to be, underneath the frocks and girdles, a tender love story after all. With the show's heart on its sleeve, Jerry Herman's score and Harvey Fierstein's book seem so much stronger to me than originally, when they were obscured by all those sequins and mascara. I also vastly prefer the present young couple, A.J. Shively as Jean-Michel and Elena Shaddow as Anne on his arm, along with Fred Applegate and Veanne Cox as the comedic villain and his repressed wife. And what of the score, reduced from some 20 players to a mere eight? Well, let us say that while the original La Cage aux Folles sounded like a big, brassy, Broadway musical, it didn't sound like a distinctive one. Jim Tyler's orchestrations were loud, and they emulated the work of Herman's joined-at-the-hip orchestrator Phil Lang (who was too ill for the assignment), but they weren't especially artful. The new orchestrations, by Jason Carr, have a raffishly undernourished-but-energetic sound that works perfectly well in context of the production. Fierstein, in his liner note: "I wrote about a small drag club but what we've always given the audience was a full-blown Folies Bergere." This revival goes back to where Harvey and Jerry started, and that's precisely how this production sounds musically. Todd Ellison leads the band from the piano, and it all sounds so much more flavorful than Tyler's big band.

A word in passing. I never had anything to do with La Cage, but I worked for a while in the same office with the production staff. Hearing "The Best of Times" on this CD, I can't help but think of Fritz Holt (one of the many producers, but the one who seemed to actually produce the show) and John Rainwater (who answered the phones). Both of them are long gone, but not forgotten.

What Makes Sammy Run? [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
What Makes Sammy Run? had potential, due to the one-two punch of source material popular with Broadway ticket buyers — it was based on Budd Schulberg's 1941 novel about a go-getting heel of a hero — and the presence of singing star Steve Lawrence in the title role. But this was one of those shows done in by the presence of amateurs. Not amateurs in the entertainment world at large, but Broadway musical novices in the book, music, lyrics, director and producer chairs. Kind of a full house, as it were.

Schulberg wrote his own libretto, in collaboration with his brother Stuart; Ervin Drake was a pop songwriter, with credentials that included the songs "I Believe" and "It Was a Very Good Year," but not much of a musical dramatist; Arthur Storch was an actor with some Off-Broadway directing credits; and Joseph Cates was a successful TV producer. This lack of group experience need not be fatal, as had been demonstrated four years earlier with Bye Bye Birdie. But Sammy was clumsily written and assembled, with the expected results. (Lehman Engel, who conducted: "It was almost totally a case of the blind leading the blind.") Abe Burrows stepped in during the Philadelphia tryout to whip the show into shape as director of record (and book doctor). Abe cleaned things to an adequately professional level, and Lawrence was able to sell enough tickets to keep the thing running for 15 months despite competition from the likes of Carol, Barbra, Zero, and that other Vegas singer named Sammy. But once Lawrence started missing performances in bunches, burned fans stopped buying and Steve's Sammy ran no longer.

Burrows seems to have done a workmanlike salvage job. And the score, for its several lapses, sounds mighty melodic to today's ears. Masterworks Broadway has now brought the original cast album into the digital age, with physical copies available from Arkivmusic. This is not the album's first time on CD, exactly; Lawrence — who owned the recording — released a version on his own label several years ago. For reasons unknown, though, he used the monaural version; what's more, the CD was virtually unpublicized and had limited circulation. Sony has now given us the thing in full stereo splendor, and it does sound like a big Broadway musical circa 1964. Lawrence sings the role very well, needless to say; he is supported by Robert Alda — the original Sky Masterson of Burrows's Guys and Dolls — and Sally Ann Howes. With Bernice Massi too, for good measure. I have always liked several of the songs, led by Lawrence and Howes' big duet "A Room Without Windows," which has a nifty orchestration by Don Walker. (Note that solo flute part!) I'm also fond of "Maybe Some Other Time," a rueful duet for Alda and Howes. There is also an extended musical scene called "Lights! Camera! Platitude!" which is along the lines of "I Was a Shoo-In" and "Where Is the Tribe for Me?" (No need for me to identify these two, you either know 'em or you don't. After all, there are some things man was not meant to tamper with…)

A note for readers of my book about orchestrations, "The Sound of Broadway Music." Sammy was among the full scores I listed as missing, but they have recently turned up (along with a half-dozen other musicals I was searching for). As we learned earlier from the invoices, which I had located, Walker was helped by Willis Schaefer, Arnold Goland and Marion Evans. Most of the major musical numbers — i.e., the material on the recording — are indeed orchestrated by Walker himself. There are two exceptions. The overture — which is excellently scored, and perhaps more exciting than the rest of the show — is totally by Schaefer. This replaced the out-of-town overture by Walker; my guess is that by the time they decided to go ahead with a revised overture for the much-delayed Broadway opening, Walker was already up to his fingernails in Anyone Can Whistle. The other non-Walker orchestration, as reported, was "My Hometown" by Evans, who had done recording work with Lawrence. (This chart remains missing.) Donald Oliver and Paul Holderbaum of Chelsea Music have graciously donated the Sammy scores — along with those of a handful of other newly-found shows, including Flora, the Red Menace and Anya — to the Music Division of the Library of Congress, where they now safely reside.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.) *

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