ON THE RECORD: Chris Plummer's Cyrano and Sally Mayes' "Valentine"

News   ON THE RECORD: Chris Plummer's Cyrano and Sally Mayes' "Valentine" This week's column discusses the first-time-on-CD release of the 1973 Broadway musicalization of Cyrano and a collection of standard songhits from Sally Mayes.

CYRANO [Decca Broadway B0004083]
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand's 1897 play about the poetic Frenchman with panache and a long nose, has oft been described as a musical without music. A natural for musicalization, people keep thinking. They put their money where their nose is, and quicker than you can say "white plume" they are in the red.

Cyrano first made it to our shores in 1898, and Victor Herbert immediately got into the act with a comic opera version in 1899. Opera composer Walter Damrosch took Cyrano to the Metropolitan in 1913. The Shuberts gave it the Student Prince treatment in 1932, folding in a fortnight. (Cyrano de Bergerac it was called when it opened, Roxane when it closed.) The Shuberts pulled the sets and costumes out of the warehouse in 1939 — literally so — and, with a partial new score from Vernon Duke, remounted it. Another two-week flop, with another title change (opening as The White Plume, closing as A Vagabond Hero). Duke wrote a stunning song however, "I Cling to You" ("Roxane's Song"), which appears to be the only memorable music to come out of any of the versions.

More recently, in 1993, came the exceedingly curious Cyrano — The Musical, starring Bill Van Dijk with music by Ad Van Dijk and lyrics by Koen Van Dijk. Well, you get the idea. This one lasted a full four months, thanks to the unlimited bankroll of Dutch showman Joop Van Den Ende (in his Broadway bow).

There have been more singing Cyranos along the way, and yet another is threatening to rear its nose in the near future. Even so, Rostand's tale seems stubbornly uncooperative. The poetry is musical, yes, and the martial tale naturally calls for trumpets, I suppose. But it's not enough to simply add an orchestra and some snappy songs; a drastic overhaul is needed, it seems to me, to turn Cyrano (the play) into a song-and-dancer.

Broadway saw the Chris Plummer Cyrano in 1973. This was the only one of the many to be recorded, in English at least. The long-out-of-print and unlamented album, a two-LP affair, came from A&M Records, who were not otherwise noted for Broadway cast albums. (This was the label trumpeter Herb Alpert started to launch his Tijuana Brass. Think The Dating Game.) A&M falls under the umbrella of the Universal Music group, so here we have the 1973 Cyrano on CD. We are always glad to have the opportunity to clear one of our dusty old LPs for something more portable, although I must confess that I don't think I ever listened to this LP. Once, on a dusty summer Saturday afternoon at the Palace, was more than enough. This Cyrano seemed out of place at the house of Sweet Charity and Applause, way out of place. This is understandable given the circumstances, which were more or less as follows.

Michael Langham, artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, commissioned a new translation of Rostand from Anthony Burgess (of "A Clockwork Orange"). Said translation was rousingly received in 1971. When Langham decided to remount the production, he approached the renowned Christopher Plummer (who in 1955 had played the non-poetic Christian in pursuit of Claire Bloom on the small screen, opposite Jose Ferrer).

Looking for some way to further distinguish the new production and the star, it was determined to turn the thing into — yes, a musical. Burgess adapted his adaptation, adding lyrics to music by one Michael J. Lewis, a film composer from Wales who had scored the 1969 motion picture adaptation of "The Madwoman of Chaillot." The new Cyrano opened in triumph at the Guthrie, but saw an embattled tryout en route to Broadway.

(Parenthetically, let us add that Burgess's original non-musical adaptation of Cyrano enjoyed a triumphant, sellout run in 1984, courtesy of Derek Jacobi and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was fortunate enough to be the company manager of that production, and I'll never forget the ticket cancellation line — stretching for miles, out to the sidewalk — when we played the 2,200-seat Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington. For a 19th-century French drama!)

With the proceedings straddling uncomfortably between musical drama and musical comedy, the controlling producer decided on the latter. Out went director Langham, in favor of musical comedy's Michael Kidd. (Choreographer Kidd turned director in 1956 with the hit L'il Abner, followed by ten consecutive flops.) The ingenious and subtle orchestrator Eddie Sauter (of The Apple Tree and 1776) was bounced as well, in favor of the bold and brassy Phil Lang (of Dolly! and Mame).

Listening to the score for the first time since the show opened and closed, I find it both better than remembered (in that there are some tunes, hidden among all that talk) and worse (in that the music for this tale of seventeenth century Paris sounds somewhere between Man of La Mancha and — so help me — The Goodbye Girl). Plummer won his first Tony Award in the role, albeit against weak competition (headed by Alfred Drake in Gigi). Yes, he was impressive and refreshing; but I found the panache of his performance, so perfect when he was speaking, worked against the singing sections. Leigh Beery, as Roxana (as Rostand's Roxane was renamed), gave a lovely performance, while Mark Lamos made an interesting, young Christian. Beery and Lamos were very much in a musical drama, while the character people and — to some extent Plummer — were musical comedy. Very odd.

That same summer there was yet another musical Cyrano trying out in stock. A Song for Cyrano came from the pens of Robert Wright and George Forrest, with Jose Ferrer re-creating his Tony-and-Oscar-winning role. Ferrer also wrote the book, under an assumed name. A Song for Cyrano wasn't very good, and Ferrer didn't pull the singing off so well as Plummer; but this operetta was at least lively. And Wright and Forrest, at least, provided songs. Think of Alfred Drake delivering "Fate" and "Gesticulate" in Kismet, and you'll get an idea of where Wright and Forrest were heading with Cyrano.

The Plummer Cyrano has somehow or other assembled a coterie of fans over the years, making the LP something of a collector's item; so I imagine that at least some listeners to this new CD will find Cyrano illuminating, which is fine by me. Others can either take it or leave it.

Only please, let's not hear any grumbling. Musical theatre enthusiasts have been known to complain about which cast albums are reissued, and I can just hear an approaching cloud of discontent. ("Why don't they give us Baker Street already?" or "they should have transferred something really important, like the imperishable Donnybrook.") Let it be said that Decca Broadway has done us all a service by continuing to release these long lost titles; that they appear to be dedicated to the catalogues under their control; and it is my understanding that the Titles We Want will come along as quickly as clearances can be arranged. And yes, it can and often does take years.

SALLY MAYES — VALENTINE [Bayview RNBW029]
The distinctive songstress Sally Mayes might best be described as an A-One Ado Annie type in a day when nobody knows how to write characters like Ado Annie. Ms. Mayes has appeared in but two original Broadway musicals, Welcome to the Club and Urban Cowboy. Some combination! In both cases, Mayes rose above the material, and how; she seemed equipped with her own personal director and her own personal follow spot. In her other Broadway appearance she was favored with exceptional material, which is to say She Loves Me, and she made just as good an Ilona as one might expect.

That such a talented performer — prime Broadway material — should have a Broadway career consisting of three shows in seventeen years, with a combined run of eleven months, seems a supreme waste of talent. But there you have it. Mayes has had a slightly more active time of it Off-Broadway, with Closer Than Ever among her credits. In the meantime, she has developed a cabaret career, and along the way brought us a handful of solo albums. These include three that might (or should) be known to readers of this column, "The Dorothy Fields Songbook," "Our Private World" and "Boys and Girls Like You and Me."

"Valentine," her sixth solo album, is Mayes's "own personal valentine to the American standards I have known and loved since I learned them at my father's knee." This being Sally Mayes, though, this is a pretty sophisticated selection. Two of the twelve songs come from the piano rack of Rodgers and Hart, "My Funny Valentine" (with a fine assist from Billy Stritch) and "My Romance." I especially like Ms. Mayes' way with "Here's That Rainy Day"; her take on two Harry Warren tunes from Hollywood; and her medley combining "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "You Fascinate Me So," which makes a fine tribute to the late Cy Coleman. Jeffrey Klitz provided the arrangements and heads a three-man combo.

Ms. Mayes gives us another enjoyable and listenable album. Now, if only someone would write her a decent role for Broadway.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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