Free As Air
I set aside the original cast album of Julian Slade's Free As Air after two hearings. It was pleasant enough, I thought, but so mild that you had to wonder how people managed to stay awake in the theatre for its 417-performance run. This was apparently the tempo of the West End, circa June 1957, while Broadway had new musicals like Li'l Abner, Bells Are Ringing and Candide (with West Side Story going into rehearsal).
A week later, I put Free As Air back on and felt like I was meeting a dear old friend. Charming songs with a distinct (if mild) flavor, and enjoyable enough for me to want to play through repeatedly. "Free As Air," for example, with its singers making boom-boom sounds (for drums, yet). Quaint, but now the song took off quite nicely. "Let the Grass Grow" is leisurely, which I suppose is the whole point; but it does grow on you. "I Want a Man from the Mainland," which had sounded naively simplistic, transformed itself into lively waltz with tongue firmly in cheek. And on and on. So it's hard to know precisely how to position this review. I suppose you need to be in the right mood to appreciate this CD; fans of advanced musical theatre, perhaps, need not apply. If you like scores in the Plain and Fancy vein, as I do, you might well enjoy this one.
Free As Air came from Slade and his co-lyricist/librettist Dorothy Reynolds (who also played the role of the "maiden lady"). This was the duo from Salad Days, that seemingly inconsequential 1954 musical about a magic piano that somehow or other managed to run five years and set a new mark as the longest-running musical in West End history. At the time, anyway. (Salad Days limped through a mere two months Off-Broadway, demonstrating that some things don't transfer well.) After recovering from what must have been something of a shock — the immense success of the London production, not the New York fizzle — Slade and Reynolds went off to Sark, one of the Channel Islands, and set to work on a new musical.
What they came up with was one of those city-girl-goes-to-the-country-and-finds love formulas. In this case, the city girl was an heiress, pursued by the mid-50s version of paparazzi. In this case, it is not the country, but a small and little known Channel Island like Sark. Geraldine does not fall in love with Lord Paul; she takes up with his nephew Arthur. Lord Paul, though, gets gossip columnist Ivy Crush; there are also not one but two additional romances in the mix. Free As Air ran for a year, a moderate success but a mere footnote compared to Salad Days. The cast is comprised of people with whom I'm unfamiliar, although they are presumably known to British readers. Gillian Lewis and John Trevor play the lovers, with Michael Aldridge and Josephine Tewson as the lovers and Gerald Harper and Patricia Bredin as the lovers. Those of you who are interested can sort this all out; Lewis, Trevor and Bredin get the best songs.
As has become the habit with 50-year-old West End cast recordings, Free As Air has been released in competing editions by the two British labels that specialize in the same. Both include — in lieu of an overture — the "piano selection" recorded by Slade with a small combo. The Must Close Saturday version [MCSR 3040] includes an 11-minute dance band medley from the show, performed by Tommy Kinsman and His Band. Sepia , on the other hand, gives us 17-minutes-worth of the studio album "The Music of Julian Slade." This was a 1955 recording celebrating earlier work by the composer of Salad Days.
Must Close Saturday has simultaneously released two other albums of the same ilk. "Lady May/The Music of Julian Slade/The Duenna" [MCSR 3041] includes — well, more of the same. Here we have the entire studio album referred to above (which clocks in at about 34 minutes), with John Neville and Slade himself among the singers. Lady May was a college musical written by Slade at Cambridge. The Duenna was Slade's musicalization of the play by Sheridan, which reached London one week before the transfer of Salad Days. Five songs were recorded after the fact, without — alas — the participation of original cast member Patricia Routledge. The Duenna tracks were included on Sepia's release of Salad Days .
"British Musicals of 1957: Highlights" [MCSR 3042] includes a bouquet of songs from Free As Air performed by a studio cast. Other selections include the cast album of Harmony Close (Cass-Ross), which never made it to the West End; five tracks from the film version of "The Good Companions," which has nothing to do with the enjoyable Johnny Mercer-André Previn musical from the same source material; and four numbers from Grab Me a Gondola, which is available in its entirety from Sepia and was reviewed in this column last month. (Past On the Record columns, as you know, are archived and accessible in Playbill.com's Features section.)
Judy Kuhn: Serious Playground [Ghostlight 8-3307]
Fans of Judy Kuhn and the songs of Laura Nyro will be glad to welcome "Serious Playground." When Kuhn appeared in Eli's Comin', the revue of Nyro's work produced at the Vineyard Theatre in 2001, she became fascinated with the singer-songwriter's work. This resulted in a concert of Nyro songs by Kuhn in Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series last January, and now this solo album. Nyro (1947-1997) never fell within my range of listening, I must admit. The songs are richly textured and certainly interesting, and Kuhn — who has just recently returned to Broadway, as a replacement Fantine in the current Les Misérables — does a fine job.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)