ON THE RECORD: Fosse's Pippin and Applause for Bacall

News   ON THE RECORD: Fosse's Pippin and Applause for Bacall PIPPIN (Decca Broadway 012 159 613-2)
It seemed to me, when as a teenager I attended the final preview of Pippin, that it was an entertainment better seen than heard. There was a distinct impression among many theatregoers (and critics, too) that the show was a triumph of style - Fosse style - over substance.

PIPPIN (Decca Broadway 012 159 613-2)
It seemed to me, when as a teenager I attended the final preview of Pippin, that it was an entertainment better seen than heard. There was a distinct impression among many theatregoers (and critics, too) that the show was a triumph of style - Fosse style - over substance.

It is difficult to dismiss Pippin at this late date, though. Whole generations of theatre fans grew up on it, accepting the show as a classic and performing it across the nation in high schools and summer camps. The material is not without worth, especially in comparison to most of the Broadway musicals that opened during Pippin's four-year run; so fans of the show will likely be more excited by the issue of this CD than I am. It certainly sounds good. The remastering makes everything seem far clearer than on the LP and the previous CD release; listen to the crackling Fosse ish fingersnaps that electrify "On the Right Track," for example. Ralph Burns' snappy orchestrations sound that much better, with enjoyment enhanced by sound clarity.

The score has always been fun to listen to, mind you; it is simply, for me, not especially engaging. "Magic to Do" and "Corner of the Sky" are the exceptions, along with the "Goodtime Ladies Rag." This eighty-second interlude in the "Glory" number became Pippin's most identifiable music, perhaps, when it was used as background for the show's television commercial; fittingly, it was a dance arrangement without words. (At the keyboard here - and on numerous brief solos throughout the album - is Eddie Strauss, musical director for the Jerry Zaks revivals of Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls.)

Most of the songs, though, are a little too lightweight for me. Things like "With You," "Love Song," "Kind of Woman," and "I Guess I'll Miss the Man." Hair -- Broadway's reigning hit when Pippin came along -- was similarly pop-influenced, but I find that score far richer musically: "Aquarius," "Easy to Be Hard," "Where Do I Go?," "Let the Sunshine In." Songs that stay with you, unlike those in Pippin. But show collectors and fans of the musical will want this new CD, which is - after all - rather enjoyable. But a classic? No, at least not without Mr. Fosse's staging (as was demonstrated by a de-Fosse-ized production last spring at the Paper Mill Playhouse).

Tacked onto the disc are three pop music tracks from Motown. Yes, Motown, the Detroit label that released the original album. Here's your chance to hear fourteen-year-old Michael Jackson's "Morning Glow" and "Corner of the Sky." Also included are The Supremes singing "I Guess I'll Miss the Man." That is surely Diana Ross singing the solo, although she is not named anywhere; it just says The Supremes. This, actually, is a pretty good rendition of the song, preferable to the show version. (This is not meant as encouragement to reissue “Diana Ross and The Supremes Sing and Perform "Funny Girl". Someone convinced me to listen to it recently, and it contains a version of "People" -- "People, God's children, were born to be free" -- which one imagines would send Jule Styne and Bob Merrill screaming into the night down Henry Street in search of bagels smeared with chopped liver paté.) [Since this column was posted on Sunday (Oct. 15), several readers e-mailed that Diana Ross was not one of The Supremes, at least when this track was recorded. One also identified the lead vocalist as Jean Terrell. It is a pleasure to have such knowledgable readers, and as always corrections are highly appreciated.]

Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz tells us in the liner notes that reports of the well-documented battles between him and Bob Fosse were exaggerated. "Some of the working relationship was very good," says he. Stuart Ostrow is also quoted, from his essay on the show in his illuminating book "A Producer's Broadway Journey," but they don't include the part where Ostrow says, "Schwartz has never accepted the Broadway version as his own - or ever returned any royalties." Schwartz was in his early twenties when he started writing the show as a college project. "I sort of identified with Pippin, and now I'm more apt to see things from the point of view of the Leading Player." Whatever the case may be, it is rather decent of the composer to finally make peace, although I don't know if Gwen Verdon and Nicole Fosse would agree with Schwartz's view that he is now "the guardian of his [Bob's] vision."

APPLAUSE (Decca Broadway 012 159 404-2)
Decca Broadway has admirably been reissuing original cast albums from the various labels under Universal's control. Most, like Pippin, have been previously released on CD; state-of-the-art remastering has resulted in some vast improvements (especially on early cast albums like Guys and Dolls, Carousel, and Annie Get Your Gun). Decca has now started to thumb through the archives for shows never before on CD, with tentative plans for a half-dozen or so through the end of 2001. First up is the 1970 musicalization of "All About Eve," Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' Applause.

Applause was the twenty-second musical to win a Best Musical Tony Award, and I would not be so churlish as to suggest that it had the worst score of the twenty-two. I'd place it second from the bottom, myself. (If you think this is an exaggeration, dear reader, check out the list for yourself).

Lauren Bacall made her Broadway musical theatre debut in the show, and she was quite something. Bacall had appeared in two sex comedies in the past decade, but I don't suppose anyone was prepared for her to walk onto the musical stage with all the assurance of a lion tamer in a cage full of toothless tabbies lapping up warm milk. This despite the fact that Bacall had no singing voice to speak of. She pulled it off, that's for sure, turning Applause into a must-see entertainment and winning herself a well-deserved Tony Award. This was a two-year stretch in which numerous no-longer-in-demand legends stormed the Broadway musical stage, including Katharine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Shelley Winters, Shirley Booth, Alexis Smith, and even Ruby Keeler. Not to mention Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. But Bacall outclassed them all.

Applause had several relatively strong points besides its star. Most importantly, it was perhaps the glitziest show Broadway had ever seen, with first-time director/ choreographer Ron Field pulling out all the stops. Field was a strange case. A child actor from the original production of Lady in the Dark, he choreographed a string of dire failures like Nowhere to Go but Up and Cafe Crown before hitting pay dirt with Cabaret. That hit was followed by Golden Rainbow and Sherry!, two dire disasters from both of which he was fired. (His work, certainly, was not the problem. When a musical is in severe trouble, producers tend to first fire the choreographer or lighting designer.) The success of Applause momentarily placed Field in the top rank of director/choreographers, but his subsequent shows - starting with the Bernadette Peters/Donna McKechnie revival of On the Town -- all fizzled.

Len Cariou, in the somewhat underwritten role of Bacall's boyfriend, managed to hold his own against the star (and soon graduated to leading man status with A Little Night Music). Penny Fuller made a strong Eve Harrington, although the abrasiveness of the character prevented her from coming across as sympathetic. She gives a gritty reading of "One Hallowe'en," though. (Fuller and Cariou are presently back on the boards together, opening this week in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party.) Sparking things immeasurably was Bonnie Franklin, in what was little more than a glorified chorus role. Franklin — as one of the backstage gypsies who added color to the proceedings — stepped out of the line to lead the two big production numbers, brightening the show up immensely. But that was it. The score is exceedingly weak. The love songs are especially bland; compare them with Strouse's four stunning songs from Golden Boy (1964) and you'll wonder what happened to the emotion, where did melody go. "Welcome to the Theatre" is favored by some as a show biz anthem, but it pales in comparison to "Everything's Coming up Roses" or "There's No Business Like Show Business." The score includes one charmer, a delectably jaunty throwaway called "Good Friends." That and Bonnie Franklin's two numbers — "She's No Longer a Gypsy" and "Applause" — are the only songs worth repeated listening. (The latter featured a wild dance ending with bare-bottomed chorus boys dancing on the tables; it was that kind of show.) "Bonus tracks" include the composer's rendition of the title tune, and three cut songs.

While Hair and Company and even Pippin have been performed again and again over the years, Applause is one of the only Tony Award-winning Best Musicals which has had virtually no afterlife. The show finally reappeared in 1996, in the form of a pre Broadway "Weissler" revival tour starring Stephanie Powers, staged by Gene Saks and Ann Reinking. Did anyone listen to the score and read the script before deciding to do it? Or did they just go on the fact that it was a Tony Award-winning hit? Once they got the thing on stage it became apparent that there was no show, no applause. Three weeks, and out. The Applause CD is expertly remastered, which makes it sound light years ahead of the sonically-challenged LP released by ABC Records. Perversely, though, it accentuates the negative; Bacall's rendition of "Hurry Back" is so clearly audible now, in twenty-four bits, that you can hear her voice breaking on note after note. Perhaps they should have remastered her with only six or seven bits?

Nevertheless, Broadway musical fans have been waiting for this CD for years, and it's instructive, certainly. But I can imagine listeners scratching their heads in awe. The decision to update "All About Eve" from 1950 to the Age of Aquarius seems to have forced Strouse into some pretty unattractive "pop" sounds. Orchestrator Phil Lang appears to have had the same problem, although conductor Don Pippin had things so well in hand that the show "sounds" like a hit. He is abetted by dance arranger Mel Marvin, on the two big Bonnie Franklin numbers. But compare this score to Hair or, more pertinently, to Company (which opened four weeks later). Applause, despite its success and awards, sounds pretty charmless.

However, just about any never-before-on-CD cast album release is welcome to me, and that certainly includes this one. And cast album fans can be of good cheer. Next up on Decca Broadway's schedule of "lost" albums is Comden, Green and Styne's Fade Out - Fade In. A decidedly inferior show, with a delectably entertaining cast album. Go figure.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com