ON THE RECORD: Donna Murphy in The People in the Picture and the 1960 West End Cast of Johnny the Priest

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Donna Murphy in The People in the Picture and the 1960 West End Cast of Johnny the Priest
 
This week's column discusses the original Broadway cast album of People in the Picture, starring Donna Murphy, and the long-forgotten 1960 West End musical Johnny the Priest.

Cover art for The People in the Picture
Cover art for The People in the Picture

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The People in the Picture [Kritzerland KR 20020]
The 2010-11 Broadway musical season ended with a flourish. Or rather a reverse flourish, if that's the phrase you'd use to describe the trio Wonderland, Baby It's You! and The People in the Picture. The latter was surely the most forlorn Broadway musical of 2011.

Now we have in hand a CD of People in the Picture. I am always glad for CDs of Broadway musicals, even unsuccessful ones; where would we be without our original cast recordings of Mack & Mabel, Donnybrook and most especially Anyone Can Whistle? (You have no idea how difficult it was to come up with three random titles for this sentence; so many good/bad choices!)

Of course, it is far easier to enjoy a cast album of a poor show if you didn't have the experience of actually sitting through the thing. It's something I have dubbed the Grass Harp Effect. The cast album of that show has many things to recommend it, and people who didn't make it to the Martin Beck over those two weeks in the fall of 1971 can be excused for wondering how the thing could fail when you had Barbara Cook and Carol Brice singing those soaring ballads, plus Karen Morrow and all. But I can't put on my The Grass Harp CD without remembering how the show opened with the ladies coming out and saying with a straight face, "Oh, it's dropsy cure weather!!!!" Then came some teenager in his later twenties singin' about floosies hootchy-cootchin' in their undies. A distinct segment of the audience at the fourth of five previews — myself included — broke out into giggles and/or guffaws. After which it didn't matter what they did up there on stage; The Grass Harp was dead, closing six days later. (Not that it matters, but David Merrick decided at the last minute that he wasn't going to like The Grass Harp so I got to use his tickets.)

Donna Murphy and Christopher Innvar in The People in the Picture.
photo by Joan Marcus

Which brings us in a roundabout way to the cast album of The People in the Picture. Try as I might to approach the score with an open mind, the songs keep reminding me of the show that opened last Tony Deadline Day at Studio 54: a wispy, Holocaust-themed song-and-dancer starring Donna Murphy as a doddering Jewish grandmother on the Upper West Side who was once a Yiddish theatre star in Warsaw. The show was filled with ghosts who sang, and danced, like they were in some Mel Brooks musical. I'm sure the creators were very much in earnest, and this CD might well appeal to listeners who have never seen the show. As I play it, though, I keep remembering how those numbers came across in the theatre. Unfair, perhaps, but lethal. Ms. Murphy's performance was interesting, certainly; when she sings "Selective Memory," we can tell what they all must have hoped the show would be. And the team of Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien is tasty despite being given Brooksian material and lousy songs.

For the record, co-composer Mike Stoller is the same Stoller who gave us "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog." His music for The People in the Picture sounds nothing like what he wrote with longtime partner Jerry Leiber for Elvis. But the main problem with the show — from my side of the aisle, at least — stemmed from the work of lyricist/librettist Iris Rainer Dart. Memorable, though, was the scene in which Ms. Murphy played the legendary Dybbuk in the style of Fanny Brice, surrounded by four dancing rabbis.

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Cover art for Johnny the Priest

Johnny the Priest [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3051]
An example of the Grass Harp Effect in reverse, perhaps, can be found in the 1960 West End musical Johnny the Priest. This show — something of a U.K. answer to West Side Story — opened in April 1960, when West Side was midway through its 1,039-performance London run. Johnny the Priest told of a young Soho vicar who sets up a youth club to try to help civilize the local delinquents. The show met a stony reaction and closed after 14 performances.

Yet here we have the original cast album surfacing on CD, courtesy of Must Close Saturday Records. How it sounded in the theatre, I can't tell you. On CD, in 2012, it sounds mighty interesting. Dated, yes, from some neverland of a place. But parts of it are jazzy and bluesy, and pert. This is not West Side by a long shot; they didn't have Leonard Bernstein, for starters. But there are numbers that I want to replay, like "I'm Your Girl," a gentle waltz which transforms itself into a big band rouser. Or "The Foggy Foggy Blues."

This was the only musical from composer Antony Hopkins, who was better known for his work in the film and classical fields. Peter Powell wrote the lyrics and book, an adaptation of a 1957 play that closed on the road called The Telescope, by R. C. Sherriff (who 29 years earlier wrote "Journey's End," based on his World War I experiences). Among the several exciting elements to be found on the CD are the orchestrations by Hopkins and Gordon Langford, which give things an enormous lift.

The vicar was played by Jeremy Brett, who had been the romantic lead in the 1959 musical Marigold (which was reviewed in our last column). He is less colorful here, due no doubt to the strictures of the role. Brett went on to U.K. fame as Sherlock Holmes on the telly, from 1984-94. Brett's wife is played by Stephanie Voss, who can be heard to greater effect as the heroine on the original cast album of the 1959 Laurie Johnson-Lionel Bart musical, Lock Up Your Daughters. Standing out on Johnny the Priest, in the lively department, is Hope Jackman playing Johnny's mother. (Johnny was not the priest but one of the delinquents; I suppose we'd have to read the script to discover why the show is called Johnny the Priest.) Anyway, Ms. Jackman has two distinctive numbers here; a month later she opened as the Widow Corney in the original cast of Oliver!, a role she recreated on Broadway.

Johnny the Priest is no lost diamond of a musical, alas; I suppose it was as poor as its reputation warrants. Listening to the CD, though, it sounds interesting enough to listen to again. Like The Grass Harp, actually. But not like People in the Picture. Must Close Saturday supplements the 16 Johnny tracks with seven 1960 revue tracks. The selections from New Cranks, the sequel to the decidedly more successful 1955 revue Cranks, are not of much interest. Unless, that is, you want to hear Gillian Lynne and Carole Shelley singing together. Best of the revue material is "Folk Song" from something called And Another Thing. This is performed by Bernard Cribbins, and rather droll.

Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.

(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 also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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