BROADWAY FIRST TAKE Volume 1: Hello, Dolly!, Gigi and How to Succeed
(Slider Stage SMS 702)
"Broadway First Take" is a proposed six-CD series that preserves demo recordings from hit musicals. The material comes from the collection of Rose Marie Jun, a singer who specialized in making these uniquely special recordings. (She is also heard on the studio cast recording of Harold Rome's Pins and Needles, in which the comedy songs were entrusted to young Barbra Streisand.) Demo is short for demonstration recording, and that was exactly the purpose of these recordings: to demonstrate the songs to prospective singers and recording executives. In the old days, this was done by song pluggers in little cubicles at the offices of music publishers. Hence, the term Tin Pan Alley; standing on West 28th Street -- where the music business was then situated -- you were bombarded by cacophonies of tinny piano pounding. (George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans both began their careers as teenage song pluggers.) By the late 1950s, it was practical for the publishers to press private recordings for this purpose, and Rose Marie Jun was the female singer of choice. She is joined on this CD by Jack Carroll on Gigi, Jack Haskell on How to Succeed, and Bernie Knee on Hello, Dolly! Knee is perhaps the most familiar to cast album listeners, as he was the featured male singer - with five songs - in Michael Bennett's production of Ballroom.
Broadway First Take represents the initial recordings -- first takes -- of twenty-one songs from these three shows, and will surely appeal to people who want to hear what these scores sound like unembellished by the trappings of a Broadway musical. These are not treasurable, never-to be-equaled performances. The purpose of the demo, it must be remembered, was to attract someone like Perry Como or Tony Bennett into making his own rendition of the song; too strong a demo performance would be more likely to inhibit such a performer. So these are sturdy, professional recordings with simplistic, friendly arrangements. (I recall listening to the demo for Chicago many months before the show finally reached Broadway in 1975 -- and let me tell you, the cheerfully bouncy arrangements bore little relation to the show.) The liner notes of this album, incidentally, are somewhat hyperbolic. They attempt to justify the importance of these recordings by claiming that an unsuccessful demo would cause the show to close in a week. Unrealistic, but we'll let that pass.
Demo recordings occasionally include songs that were discarded along the road to Broadway, and thus carry a fascination of their own. (Recent CD reissues of Gypsy and Mame included cut demo selections as very special bonus tracks.) There is only one such song in this collection, Dolly's "A Penny in My Pocket," which has been recorded elsewhere; too bad they didn't have -- or choose to use -- "Come and Be My Butterfly." Volume Two of Broadway First Take is scheduled for the fall, although the contents have not yet been announced. The inclusion of more "lost" Broadway songs will only make this series more interesting.
FLORA, THE RED MENACE (Jay CDJAY 1336)
The 1965 musical Flora, the Red Menace pretty much disappeared after its disappointing 87-performance run. The troubled show is remembered chiefly for making Liza Minnelli a star, with the 19-year-old daughter of you-know-who taking a best actress Tony Award in her Broadway debut. Flora was also the first collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb; Flora's producer Hal Prince gave them a second shot on his next musical, Cabaret. But Flora's original cast album quickly went out of print, and the unsatisfying libretto by George Abbott and Robert Russell prevented an afterlife.
In 1987, three young theatre people looking for "One Good Break" got permission to revise Flora for an off off-Broadway production at the Vineyard Theatre. Kander and Ebb, in the midst of what would be a nine year absence from Broadway, agreed to work with the novices -- one of whom, fledgling director Scott Ellis, was in the chorus of their 1984 musical The Rink. David Thompson wrote the new book, with a dancer named Susan Stroman providing the choreography. The Vineyard's small-scale Flora was charming in a modest sort of way, and certainly far more workable than the original; the revised version has also had an afterlife in stock and amateur productions. The Vineyard experience led directly to Ellis, Thompson, and Stroman joining with Kander and Ebb on the 1991 Off-Broadway hit And the World Goes Round and the 1997 Broadway non-hit Steel Pier.
The Vineyard's cast album has been remastered and reissued by Jay Records. Veanne Cox, a fine if under-utilized comic actress, plays the Minnelli role and does it well. Only she does not, needless to say, sing the songs like Liza Minnelli did. Peter Frechette plays the role originated by Bob Dishy; Frechette seems much less eccentric than Dishy, but far more likable. The score underwent some changes, with a pair of annoying songs -- "Palomino Pal" and "Knock Knock" -- happily cut, along with the extraneous characters that sang them. Standing out among the "new" songs is a peppy character-intro for Flora called "The Kid Herself" (which was actually cut before the show first reached Broadway in 1965). The other additions, though, are not especially interesting.
So this Flora is fairly enjoyable, although one wonders why anyone would choose this disc over the 1965 version (which was issued on CD by RCA Victor in 1992). The original has Liza Minnelli, who sings the definitive versions of the show's three best songs, "A Quiet Thing," "Dear Love," and "Sing Happy." It also has a grand set of orchestrations -- full of reedy saxophones -- by Don Walker; the 1987 album is accompanied by a lone piano, which unfortunately makes you think you're in a high school auditorium somewhere. (On the plus side, that's John Kander himself at the keyboard.) So the Minnelli disc is unquestionably the Flora of choice. Staunch Kander & Ebb fans, though, will want this disc, as will anyone interested in mounting the show.
-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section: http://www.playbill.com/cgi-bin/plb/spec_feature?cmd=list&cat=SUSKI. You can e-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com