ON THE RECORD: Cast Albums of Jimmy and Let It Ride

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Cast Albums of Jimmy and Let It Ride We listen to two ill-conceived 1960s musicals making their belated CD debuts, Jimmy (as in Mayor James J. Walker) and the Three Men on a Horse musical, Let It Ride.
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JIMMY [Arkiv RCA-05093]
Fiorello!, a musical comedy about the beloved, incorruptible mayor of New York who took office in 1932, came to town in 1959 and took both the Tony and the Pulitzer. Jimmy, a musical comedy about the beloved, corruptible mayor of New York who vacated office in 1932, came to town in 1969 and took neither. Clive Barnes of the New York Times called Jimmy "a musical with only three flaws — the book, the music and the lyrics." He was not alone in his assessment.

Jimmy raised eyebrows at the time, at least until it opened, because of its Hollywood connection. Movie money had long been present on Broadway, back at least since the movies began to talk, and for good reason; hit plays and musicals often make hit movies, and studio backing guaranteed the first crack at the newest hits. But Jimmy, the biomusical of Mayor James J. Walker, was something else; the name on the title page was Jack L. Warner, the same Warner who ushered in the sound era with "The Jazz Singer" — which starred Al Jolson, whose home base was the very same Winter Garden where Jimmy was ignominiously ensconced. Warner sold his interest in Warner Bros., collecting a reported $24 million after taxes, and retired in 1969. Jimmy, which opened in October of that year, was clearly planned to launch this last of the movie moguls in a new career.

But Warner, who can be said to have had a magic touch during his 45 years in movieland, seems to have simply bankrolled Jimmy, placing the creative reins in decidedly non-creative hands. Don Saxon, a former performer — best-known as the "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway" man in Kurt Weill's Street Scene — was labeled associate producer and seems to have been the culprit. (Saxon followed Jimmy with the bland 1970 revival of The Boy Friend and the dismal Gertrude Berg musical, Molly.) Jimmy featured a score by the all-but-unknown Bill and Patti Jacob. Mrs. Jacob, a former band singer (who was later known as Shannon Shor), had written lyrics for the 1968 Motorola television special "Fenwick," starring Walter Slezak; music was credited to one Jack A. Boring, presumably a pseudonym and quite possibly Bill Jacob. In any event, this was not much upon which to hang a big budget Broadway musical. The book came from Hollywood screenwriter Melville Shavelson, based on his 1957 screenplay for "Beau James," which featured Bob Hope as Jimmy Walker. Joseph Anthony, the actor-turned-director of such Broadway fare as The Most Happy Fella, 110 in the Shade and Breakfast at Tiffany's, was a thoroughly professional but not very exciting director. Jimmy is one of the only musicals I'm aware of where the choreographer got better billing than the director; Peter Gennaro it was, the same fellow who did much of the work on West Side Story and who burst into public prominence with his "Gentleman Jimmy" number in Fiorello!

All of this doesn't take away from the entertainment quotient of the original cast album, which has finally made it to CD courtesy of Sony/MasterworksBroadway/Arkiv. What is it that makes some bad musicals of the 1960s more listenable than more successful, later shows? The Jimmy score is artless, for sure, with songs that couldn't have sounded good even to Mr. Warner. But the music has bounce to it, and flavorful orchestrations credited to Jack Andrews (although the best charts are from Jonathan Tunick, biding his time between Promises, Promises and Company). Conductor Milton Rosenstock was on hand, doing the best professional job possible under the circumstances — the circumstances being that the composer wasn't Jule Styne but Bill Jacob — and John Berkman provided Mr. Gennaro's dance arrangements. The secret weapons of the cast album are two: Anita Gillette and Julie Wilson. (Mr. Barnes noted that they were so good that while they couldn't stop the show, they often threatened to start it.) Gillette does well throughout, despite the material that the Jacobs have given her. Wilson comes off even better; in the theatre, she was the only person up there worth watching. Playing the cast-off wife of the mayor, she had a fine, spirited jig of a song in "That Charmin' Son of a Bitch" as well as an even better torch song, "I Only Want to Laugh," which in her hands came off almost as well as Fanny Brice's "My Man." The smoky-voiced Ms. Wilson never had much luck on Broadway, other than well-received replacement stints as Lalume in Kismet and Babe in The Pajama Game. In Jimmy, though, she certainly shone through the haze.

Frank Gorshin, who was better known as an uncannily good impressionist, managed to keep the curtain up as the dapper Jimmy J. It was a thankless task, however. His appearance in Jimmy occasionally comes up in discussions of nudity on Broadway. (Hair, then in its second year, had brought what threatened to be an invasion of unclothed actors.) That being the case, I suppose I should clarify that Gorshin did not appear unclothed in Jimmy. There was a scene in which Gillette, as Walker's mistress Betty Compton, is visited by her mother. As they sit there chatting, Walker comes bounding down the stairs, apparently from the bedroom, clad in seeming nothingness. Five steps down he sees the mother, she sees him, and the audience gasps. He immediately retreats, dashing back from whence he came.

Now, on the day before Thanksgiving, 1969, I took advantage of the school holiday and took the L.I.R.R. in to see some shows. My first stop was the Booth — The Booth Theatre, that is, as in those days there was no such thing as a TKTS booth — and snagged a seat for that night's performance of Butterflies Are Free (which opened two days before Jimmy and ran 1,000-odd performances longer). I then headed up to the George Abbott on West 54th Street, for the Wednesday matinee of the previewing Buck White starring "muhammad ali (a/k/a CASSIUS CLAY)," as he was billed on the posters. The Buck White matinee was cancelled, alas, so I headed over to the nearby Winter Garden and got a ticket to Jimmy which — given the reviews — I wasn't exactly desperate to see. It was $3, I seem to recall, for the second row from the back of the balcony. The house was so empty, though, that they closed the upstairs (to save on usher costs) and placed me in the second row from the orchestra pit. So I had a proverbial bird's-eye view of the proceedings. Gorshin came storming down those stairs, yes, pink and pale and probably freezing. He was not in the so-called altogether, though; he had on what seemed to be wrestling trunks or a dance belt, dyed flesh color.

For what it's worth, the most memorable thing on the stage was neither Gorshin, Ms. Wilson, nor the production number ("The Walker Walk") in which they had 18 dancers and 18 singers playing kazoos. Yes, kazoos. Rather, there was a throwaway number in the second act called "A Nice Place to Visit" in which five minor politicos — sensing the heat of the oncoming investigation — take it on the lam. They performed the number running, or rather jogging and huffing and puffing, in place. Standing at the end of the line — lugging an overstuffed valise full of greenbacks and wearing a fur coat over a skimpy flapper dress — was a chorus girl trying to keep up with these beefy character men. She had nothing to do with the scene and nothing to do with the song; I suppose she was simply an idea of Gennaro's to give him some way to stage the number. Carol Conte was her name, a character without a line and without a name (listed in the program as "Girl in Fur Coat"). Never saw her before or since, but she entertained me for three minutes that November afternoon 40 years ago, and the image remains.

LET IT RIDE [Arkiv RCA-05086]
Let It Ride was yet another forlorn musical from the time, a manufactured-by-the-numbers affair hoping to recreate the magic of a similar-seeming hit that was light years beyond its aspirations. Casting Sam Levene, Broadway's very own Nathan Detroit of Guys and Dolls, in the role of a two-bit gambler was not enough to do it; placing a Miss Adelaide-type by his side was not enough to do it; filling the stage with gamblers, touts and whatnot didn't do it. Couldn't do it, not without placing some such geniuses as Loesser, Burrows and Kaufman in the trainer's stall. Instead we had Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, gilt-edged Hollywood hitmakers — with titles such as "Mona Lisa," "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" and "Silver Bells" on their ASCAP racing form — but with little affinity for Broadway. Their one earlier musical, Oh! Captain!, was a 1958 mishap but infinitely superior to the present affair. Let It Ride had an inexperienced producer, an inexperienced director, and an inexperienced librettist; Sam's co-stars were new to Broadway, too, although one was a major TV star. As with the musical discussed above, the one veteran on hand was the choreographer: Onna White, who before finding fame with The Music Man and other big-time musicals had been the assistant choreographer of — you guessed it — Guys and Dolls.

Let It Ride was a new title but an old story. Three Men on a Horse had been a major Abbott farce-hit in 1935, starring Sam Levene (among others). The property traveled to Hollywood in 1936, starring Sam Levene. A group of B'way alsorans turned it into a musical comedy in 1941, under the title Banjo Eyes. An uneven affair, it was bolstered by Eddie Cantor (not in the Sam Levene role, which was played by Lionel Stander) but quickly shuttered when the star ran out of steam and stamina. Arriving back on Broadway under a new name, it was still Three Men on a Horse — a property which by this point seemed creaky, in part because of the genuine and heartwarming reality of, yes, Guys and Dolls.

The show started out with a pretty lively number, "Run, Run, Run," which Ms. White reportedly gave all the verve and sparkle of Michael Kidd's "Runyonland" opening in you-know-what. After that, though, the show did not run; it loped along, sometimes sideways and sometimes backwards. The milquetoast hero — a fellow whose innocent hobby is picking horses until Sam and his bookie buddies grab hold of him — was played by George Gobel, a homespun monologist whose immensely popular TV series held its own against the likes of Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. (In 1959, 1960 and 1961, all three of them came to town starring in unsuccessful musicals.) Gobel was not comfortable on Broadway, though, and quickly departed after the brief run of Let It Ride. The other star of the occasion was one Barbara Nichols, who rose to the occasion with a mock-striptease affair called "I Wouldn't Have Had To." She never returned to Broadway, but can be found on DVD giving an impressive featured performance as Rita — "what am I, a tangerine that peels in a minute?" — in the 1957 film "Sweet Smell of Success."

Ms. Nichols' solo is one of the highlights of the cast album, now suddenly appearing on CD after the LP was unceremoniously remaindered in 1962. So is that opening number, "Run, Run, Run," which seems to be orchestrated by Luther Henderson. (The show is credited to someone named Raymond Jaimes, about whom I can find barely a trace; said trace being Oh! Captain!, where eight names are credited including Ray James. The back of the Let It Ride program lists five additional orchestrators, including Jack Andrews, of Jimmy, and Luther.) Gobel has two very nice spots, which apparently sound better in the recording studio than onstage (where he was mostly inaudible). "Hey Jimmy Joe John Jim Jack" is a lovely song which is somewhat in the same tradition — thematically, not musically — as Sondheim's "Children Will Listen." And "His Own Little Island," is a tender and very nice ballad. The other high spot on a CD of lowspots is "Just an Honest Mistake," a comedy paean for sad-sack cops. Way too corny but somehow delicious. That featured singer with the high voice and the joke lines, by the way, is a fellow named Stanley Simmonds. He can also be heard on the Jimmy cast album singing the high notes in "A Nice Place to Visit." For those few of you who like to track chorus singers over the decades, Simmonds peaked as the backstage doorman who leads "When Mabel Comes in the Room" in Mack & Mabel. He is best remembered, though, for his tenor laugh-lines as Ed Peterson, the card-playing hack, in Fiorello!

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

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