ON THE RECORD: Errico's "Sadie Thompson" and Brent Barrett's "Lerner"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Errico's "Sadie Thompson" and Brent Barrett's "Lerner" A discussion of Melissa Errico's "Sadie Thompson" and Brent Barrett's "Alan Jay Lerner Album."

SADIE THOMPSON [Original Cast OC6042]
An innovative new musical drama starring Broadway's biggest star, shepherded by the director of Broadway's newest fresh-minted hit ever. Sadie Thompson sounded like a show to reckon with, at least until rehearsals started.

Ethel Merman and Rouben Mamoulian — the latter just off Oklahoma!, with Porgy and Bess on his resume as well — were joined by a pair of distinguished if not gilt-edged songwriters. Composer Vernon Duke, who came up with the idea in the first place, had "April in Paris" and "I Can't Get Started" and "Taking a Chance on Love" on his piano rack; lyricist Howard Dietz had run "Dancing in the Dark" and "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" and "Alone Together" through his typewriter. Sadie Thompson was derived from "Rain," the Somerset Maugham short story that was a major Broadway hit in 1922 (starring Jeanne Eagels) and on screen in 1932 (starring Joan Crawford) and in revival in 1935 (starring Tallulah Bankhead).

But Merman walked out after a week of rehearsals; she didn't see eye-to-eye with Dietz, and she might well have been skittish about the role's acting demands. (She returned to Broadway a season later in her first strong book show, Annie Get Your Gun.) The producer pulled June Havoc out of Mexican Hayride, where she was playing a comedy role with one good song, a Cole Porter hillbilly novelty number. Havoc, a vaudeville child performer, couldn't quite handle the singing. ("I have four notes to my voice," she said, "all of them bad.")

Ethel Merman and "Baby June" Havoc. There's a combination for you.

After Merman's departure, things went from bad to worse. The overproduced Sadie Thompson opened at the Alvin on November 16, 1944, for 60 performances, dropping $180,000 along the way. (Oklahoma!, the year before, was budgeted at $83,000.) Sadie Thompson was quickly relegated to the forgotten flop folder. Composer Duke made fun of it in his 1952 revue Two's Company, with a song called "Roll Along, Sadie," in which Bette Davis — the real Bette Davis, mind you — played the luckless lady with wet feet. In August 2000, Havoc presided over an abbreviated concert version of the show at the White Barn Theatre. This led arranger/conductor Joshua Pearl to dig out the manuscripts and reconstruct the show, adding back songs lost when Merman departed the project. Pearl had the good sense and good luck to get Melissa Errico to record the show, leading a cast of six. (The original billing sheet for the show boasts "with a chorus of 70.")

Any recording of Sadie Thompson would be understandably interesting. Duke is wearing his serious hat here; while the score is unusual, it does have a few very good numbers. "The Love I Long For" was an unlikely Hit Parade hit for Harry James, and I've always been partial to "When You Live on an Island" and especially the lushly evocative tango "Sailing at Midnight." This is one of those discs where they've decided to counteract their small budget by using a big synthesizer. Not a helpful choice, in my opinion; listen to the recent Sondheim albums from Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin, and then tell me what's wrong with using a piano or two.

Ron Raines sings the role of the zealous Reverend Davidson — who tries to "save" Sadie but ends up succumbing to her — in a style somewhat too melodramatic for my tastes. Mamoulian forced Duke to write the role in "opera style a la Chaliapin," according to the composer's invaluable autobiography "Passport to Paris." "As a result, Davidson's arias were synthetic as music and theatrically incongruous." I must say I agree with Duke. Davis Gaines does somewhat better as the compassionate marine O'Hara, who provides the third side of the triangle.

But Errico is absolutely marvelous as Sadie. While I'm glad for any chance to hear this score, Errico makes the CD well worth getting. She has given two especially fine performances recently, in the Kennedy Center's Sunday in the Park and the short-lived Amour. Yes, she had a bad break in her one Broadway starring vehicle, High Society; but she is ready to carry a musical of her own. In the meantime, we can look forward to Errico's recording of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus, which Jay Records hopes to release this summer.

BRENT BARRETT: The Alan Jay Lerner Album [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 161]
Brent Barrett is one of the finest-singing musical comedy actors around, as was evident in his appearance in last May's Encores! presentation of The Pajama Game. When Barrett sang "There Once Was a Man" with Karen Ziemba, and "Hey There" with himself, you left the theatre thinking they don't make 'em like that anymore. And ruing that unpleasant truth.

Barrett turned to the Alan Jay Lerner catalogue following his performance in an earlier Encores! offering, the 2000 presentation of On a Clear Day. Barrett was playing the wrong role here — Melinda's eighteenth-century lover Edward Moncrief, rather than Daisy Gamble's psychiatrist Mark Bruckner — but he stole the show with his two big solos. Barrett has several links with Lerner; his first featured Broadway role was in Lerner's swan song Dance a Little Closer, and he sang the male lead in the fine John McGlinn recording of Brigadoon. The Barrett-Lerner combination turns out to be a fine matchup.

Barrett and his associates are to be commended, to begin with, for their song selection. What the world doesn't need now, at least in my opinion, is more recordings of the hits from My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and Camelot. Barrett gives us but one song from those three musicals. Instead, they give us two each from Love Life, Lolita, My Love, Dance a Little Closer and Clear Day (including a reprise of his Encores! "She Wasn't You"). There is also a pair from the Lerner/Burton Lane film collaboration Royal Wedding, and solo representations from the Fritz Loewe musicals What's Up?, The Day Before Spring and Paint Your Wagon.

The result is an album of interesting songs, sung exceptionally well by Mr. Barrett — for example, the selections from Dance a Little Closer (which closed on opening night). Barrett doesn't reprise the song he sang back in 1983, which can be heard on that show's original cast album. Instead, he does two of Charlie Strouse's especially fine ballads from that misbegotten musical, "There's Always One You Can't Forget" and "Anyone Who Loves." Even more obscure are the songs from Lolita, which shuttered out-of-town. "In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen" is a real beauty, while "Tell Me, Tell Me" is a gentle song of insidious seduction. Barrett sings them too well, perhaps; they were written for the character Humbert Humbert, who is somewhat beside himself (to say the least). Barrett even makes "Let's Go Home" from Coco sound good!

The liner note essay by Barry Kleinbort, by the way, provides an extremely good overview of Lerner's career. There is a drawback to this album, unfortunately, in the arrangements and orchestrations for some of the livelier numbers. They seem to have wanted to prevent the songs from sounding old-fashioned, so they modernized them. Kind of, that is; it seems to me that it only hurts to give a 40-year-old song a 20-year-old sound. Speaking of which, Lauren Bacall makes a cameo appearance singing "I Remember It Well." This sounds just like you might expect.

All told, Brent Barrett's singing and the cannily assembled songs make for a worthy "Alan Jay Lerner Album." —Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.