ON THE RECORD: Grey Gardens and the West End Pajama Game

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Grey Gardens and the West End Pajama Game This week's column discusses the new musical Grey Gardens and the 1955 London cast album of The Pajama Game.
Grey Gardens is available on PS Classics.
Grey Gardens is available on PS Classics.

GREY GARDENS [PS Classics PS-642]
Grey Gardens is, simply enough, the most intriguing musical theatre score since The Light in the Piazza. Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, along with their estimable librettist Doug Wright, have taken the line of most resistance: pick the most intriguing yet impossible-sounding source material you can find, fall in love with it and figure out a solution. That is what they have done, pretty much.

Grey Gardens was the dilapidated, 28-room mansion in East Hampton where Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie were interviewed by documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles for his 1973 documentary. Theirs was a macabre existence, enhanced by the fact that they were aunt and first cousin to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. A fascinating and unsettling film, yes; but precisely how do you musicalize it?

The three authors have done so in this strange but arresting musical. Produced at Playwrights Horizons in March 2006, it is presently preparing for a Broadway transfer to the Kerr. PS Classics, in the meantime, has recorded the Playwrights version. While Broadway musicals need rise or fall on their power within the four walls of the playhouse, certain shows are ever so much more effective if you listen to the score first. This is one of them; for a relatively small expenditure (the CD), you are sure to enhance enjoyment of the big-ticket purchase.

Wildly inventive is a fair enough way to describe the show, and that label can be specifically applied to Mr. Frankel's music. The first section of the musical takes place in 1941, with Frankel taking us on a veritable tour of diverse pop-music styles of the time. This can easily degenerate into a scoreful of pointless WW II pastiche (as in the Sherman Brothers' 1974 musical, Over Here). It is to the great credit of Frankel – all three authors, actually – that this is decidedly not the case 'round about the gardens of Grey Gardens. Song after song is not only tuneful and lyrically-listenable; they are well-sculpted, with plot points matching musical points.

The second act of Grey Gardens switches from '41 to '73, with the tone and the mood changing as severely as the musical styles of the time; and this is where the authors run into perhaps a bit of trouble. Not at the beginning of the 1973 section, actually. Here they are inspired to write "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" and "Entering Grey Gardens," which well may be the strongest numbers of the score (along with the brilliantly executed 1941 opener, "The Five-Fifteen"). Midway into the second half — beginning with a "patriotic" march and the song about corn — the seemingly facile invention appears to be replaced by hard work. This is the infamous Chromolume Effect, which has been known to occur in the latter stages of serious-minded musicals. Is the music inferior or is this merely the medicine that the authors are determined to deliver to our overstimulated ears? With respect to Grey Gardens, let us say that the jury is still out on this question. Discussion of the many merits of Grey Gardens aside, one towers above the rest. Christine Ebersole gives an absolutely staggering performance, the likes of which one rarely sees in the theatre. One number in particular – the aforementioned "Revolutionary Costume" – is perhaps as remarkable as any I've seen since Michael Jeter's astonishing outburst in Grand Hotel. "Revolutionary Costume" retains its power on the CD, although I would highly recommend that people interested in such things make it a priority to see Ms. Ebersole onstage in full regalia, an experience not to be missed.

There are plenty of other worthy performances in Grey Gardens, led by the fascinating Mary Louise Wilson and the always-valuable John McMartin. Music director Lawrence Yurman has things well in hand, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin does an especially fine job in the earlier, 1941 period. (The CD uses the ten-musician charts from Playwrights; the three additional players credited in the notes are not extras, but subs who filled in on some of the tracks.)

How Grey Gardens will do on Broadway remains to be seen; but the CD is certainly a winner.

THE PAJAMA GAME [Sepia 1072]
I confess to being a fan of The Pajama Game. The original Adler-Ross-Bissell-Abbott version of The Pajama Game, that is. This was not the greatest musical of its time, which was 1954, but the package — songs, story and staging — packed a wallop of entertainment. I was unable to see the original, as I was one at the time, but it was my privilege to work on the 1973 Broadway revival. A pale re-creation of the original, granted; but there was nothing like standing upstage every night listening to that score blasting across the footlights of the Lunt. (With almost no artificial amplification, mind you.)

And consider the opportunity of watching Bob Fosse's "Steam Heat" and "Hernando's Hideaway" eight times a week; not some fourth-generation carbon staged by people who had never seen the original stage show, but the authentic version supervised by Fosse himself. The shoestring revival was rather dismal, all told, but it only served to increase my fondness for the show.

Sepia has now brought us the 1955 London production of The Pajama Game, a close re-creation of the original. Bobby Griffith, the long-time Abbott stage manager who joined with young Harold S. Prince to produce the New York show, reproduced Abbott's staging; Zoya Leporska, Fosse's dance captain, restaged the dances (as she did in 1973). The London company ran 588 performances at the Coliseum; not nearly as long as the 1,063-performance Broadway run, but a sturdy hit nonetheless.

Listening to the London cast album for the first time is — after the recent Broadway adaptation of the show, starring Harry Connick, Jr. — like going back home. The original Don Walker orchestrations are sturdy, although without the distinction of shows like Walker's 1956 The Most Happy Fella. This was due, in part, to the music-factory system Walker had in place at the time of The Pajama Game; there are six orchestrators represented, making for a certain lack of consistency. Uneven, yes, but flavorful, as Walker's team included two of the best orchestrators of the day. Red Ginzler (on "Steam Heat," "New Town" and "Jealous") and Irv Kostal (on "Hernando" and "Hey There") would within a few years change the sound emanating from Broadway pits, with such shows as West Side Story, Gypsy and Bye, Bye Birdie. And Walker (on "I'm Not at All in Love" and "Think of the Time I Save") was a grand master himself.

The West End set gives us another reading of the original charts, sticking very closely to the cuts used on the Broadway album (although adding Babe's reprise of "Hey There"). With different emphasis here and there, and clearer sound in spots, this CD is always interesting. Edmund Hockridge, as Sid, is no John Raitt. (This was more than apparent when an earlier Sepia disc included selections from the West End Carousel). Here, though, Hockridge seems to be rather okay. Joy Nichols does very nicely as Babe, singing with charm and authority.

Max Wall — top-billed in this production — is the comedian, while Elizabeth Seal plays Gladys. (In the real version, Gladys clowns, sings and dances "Steam Heat" and "Hernando.") Seal, who came to The Pajama Game from the chorus, had a trajectory similar to that of Gwen Verdon across the Atlantic. Gladys, in 1955, was followed by Verdon's role of Lola in the 1956 London production of Damn Yankees. This brought Seal Irma La Douce, in which she dazzled London (in 1958) and New York (in 1960), nabbing a Best Actress Tony Award for her efforts. After which, Seal faded from view. So the British cast album of The Pajama Game is a fun diversion, at least for this fan of The Pajama Game. As is the usual practice of Sepia, the 16 Pajama Game tracks are supplemented by a couple of handfuls of contemporary recordings by the leading lady, Joy Nichols.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

<i>The Pajama Game</i> is available on Sepia Recordings.
The Pajama Game is available on Sepia Recordings.
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