ON THE RECORD: Gypsy, Brownstone and Marc Blitzstein

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Gypsy, Brownstone and Marc Blitzstein
This week's column discusses the new cast recording of Gypsy, the long-awaited recording of Brownstone and the songbooks of Marc Blitzstein.

GYPSY [Angel 7243 5 83858 2 3]
The Sam Mendes production of Gypsy had its champions and its detractors when it stormed onto Broadway last spring. It appears to have safely negotiated the shoals of Shubert Alley, and now arrives a splendidly recorded CD. It's a quality disc, with the strength, assurance and drive that a recording of Gypsy needs to distinguish itself among the pack. I am pleased to report that the performance on CD — both the show and its star — is measurably better than what I saw last April at the Shubert.

A casual observer might well have noted that the indomitable Bernadette Peters was thrust into a harsh spotlight as this Gypsy prepared for opening. Was she right for the role? Meaning, was she right, by type, for the role? Could she sing the role? Meaning, could she sing the role exactly like its creator, Ethel Merman? These were not helpful expectations, nor were they fair. The question should, more rightfully, have been: Does Gypsy work in the hands of Ms. Peters? Does she enhance the material, or weaken it? And shouldn't one perhaps wait until they see a performance before offering comment?

Peters was working under a handicap of expectations. No, she is not a current-day Ethel Merman. But, then, Ethel Merman wasn't Bernadette. Ponder, for a moment, how Ethel might fare in Sunday in the Park. But enough of this. Ms. Peters gives a dynamic, full-blown performance as Rose on this new CD, making it one of the best Gypsy recordings we have.

There's one thing more to say, before we pass on to other matters. The next time you're sick — I mean, so sick, with the flu or nausea or a back severely thrown out of whack that you can barely lift your head off the pillow. Please be so kind as to try the following: Go to work. Spend an hour getting dressed and wigged and made up. Stand on your feet, take a deep breath, and then sing and act and dance for two-and-a-half hours. Without sneezing or coughing or throwing up, please.

Good. Now, do it again. Twice tomorrow, which happens to be a matinee day. Then once the next day, after a four-hour afternoon practice session. Then — between Friday night and Sunday afternoon — do it four times in less than 48 hours. Do you feel better yet? That was a pretty bad flu you had, after all. Keep this up, eight shows a week until you collapse. Yes, you'll get better eventually. You'll be fine, and back to your old self. But a couple of days in bed — or, at least, without having to perform the role of Rose in Gypsy — is sure to hasten your recovery. And imagine, if you will, that during all this you're under a wee little bit of pressure.

Bernadette Peters was not the first Broadway star to struggle through the opening of a big, important musical under the proverbial weather. Sammy Davis, for one, opened Golden Boy in the same condition; and what was the name of that other guy who was always out sick, a couple of years back? Nathan something?

At any rate, the Bernadette Peters on this new Gypsy CD can sing the role, all right. Different than Merman, yes, with a more psychological reading than Ethel. Acting vs. instinct, if you will. One need not compare them; this is certainly a valid and powerful performance of the material. In the critical two numbers that cap the acts, Bernadette takes her turn and nails it. Again, I must report that this was not the case the night I saw the show, with an indisposed star. She hit all the notes, but the people in the seats were never quite sure whether Peters would have the stamina to get through the next musical phrase. (She didn't seem to be sure, either.) From all reports, and from what is on display on this CD, those problems are long gone.

Peters is supported by a hard-working cast. John Dossett comes off best; here is a Herbie who can not only act — you can almost feel his ulcer — but sing as well. (Jack Klugman, who originated the role, could not sing and told them so when they cast him, which is why Herbie has remarkably little to sing.) Tammy Blanchard does well in the newly routined "Let Me Entertain You" sequence, and the strippers stand out. They always seem to, mind you, in well-cast productions of Gypsy; there's something in the writing, I guess. But Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke and especially Julie Halston provide a merry trio.

Still, where this recording truly soars is in the music department. Marvin Laird provided the music direction, J. David Saks produced the recording, and the players themselves are excellent. Gypsy is an energetic score under any circumstances, but this pit sizzles in a way that continually jabs us — even those of us who know the material so well. For any number of reasons, I for one expect to continue to keep the Merman Gypsy closest to my CD player. Still, Bernadette will go in for repeated hearings, which hasn't been the case with other recordings of this score.

We all know that Gypsy has one of the best sets of orchestrations ever. What is not generally realized was that it was a first. (Those readers who aren't interested in such stuff are invited to scroll down to the next review.) When you have a spare hour at your disposal, pull out the CDs of your favorite pre-1959 musical comedies and listen to the overtures, one after another. Bells Are Ringing, the Jule Styne Jerome Robbins collaboration just before Gypsy, is a perfect example. Russell Bennett's overture is professional, polished and reasonably creative (as in the use of bells).

But now put on Gypsy; the Merman, please. Listen to the first 16 measures. The trumpet fanfare over the timpani roll; the four measures of triplets from the strings and winds, with the shifting time signatures (from cut time to 6/8 to 5/8); the additional four measures of eighth note triplets, with the trombones and then the trumpets playing a conflicting set of quarter-note triplets; and then that two measure cascade of a descending scale from the brass, capped by a wind whistle.

Before we even get to the first tune — a whirlwind rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," with xylophones gone mad — we are aware that this is a different world of musical comedy. Bells Are Ringing and Finian's Rainbow and Guys and Dolls and The Pajama Game all sound almost classical in comparison.

Gypsy, in 1959, changed the sound of Broadway. The only earlier musical comedy that I can think of that has this same type of musically spirited orchestration — in spots, at least — is the 1953 Wonderful Town. About a third of which was ghosted by Sid Ramin, Robert (Red) Ginzler and Irv Kostal. This trio of refugees from recordings and live TV, working together or apart, monopolized the field from 1959-1962, turning out a string of musicals that included Fiorello; Bye, Bye Birdie; Tenderloin; Wildcat; Sail Away; The Conquering Hero; How to Succeed; Kwamina; A Family Affair; All American; I Can Get It for You Wholesale; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Ginzler died in 1962; Kostal went to Hollywood, for West Side Story and Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music; and Ramin moved from the West Side film back to TV and the advertising world, where he wrote theme songs for "Candid Camera," "The Patty Duke Show" and the "Girl Watchers" cigarette jingle that became a pop hit. A fourth big band arranger, Ralph Burns, took up the slack on Broadway, continuing the excitement until Ginzler-protégé Jonathan Tunick came along with a second revolution in orchestration.

Bennett continued working until 1967, Don Walker retired (more or less) in 1975, and Phil Lang in 1981. All of them did justly celebrated work along the way, but their charts sound relatively academic, borne of the conservatory. Ramin, Kostal, Ginzler and Burns had swing in their blood. Together and apart, they played a large part in changing the sound of Broadway music. For the record, let us point out that Gypsy is mostly the work of Ramin. (His first official Broadway credit came with Kostal in 1957 on West Side Story, at the behest of Ramin's high school buddy Leonard Bernstein). Ginzler is given equal credit in the program and CD of the Gypsy revival; the original credit, though, read "orchestrations by Sid Ramin with Robert Ginzler," the latter in type almost half the size of Ramin's billing. (Ginzler's name on the 1959 original cast album is the smallest by far, roughly the size of the "and" between producers David Merrick and Leland Hayward.) The original souvenir program gives us only one orchestrator bio, for Ramin — publicly stating that "his first Broadway venture was in behalf of Wonderful Town".

This is not to diminish the contribution of Ginzler to Gypsy, mind you. Both orchestrators were incredibly well-rounded, with their own distinctive specialties; Ramin might not have given Birdie the sparkle that Ginzler did, but Ginzler would have probably been out of place on West Side. On Gypsy, I would guess that Ginzler's main contributions were "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "If Momma Was Married" and "Together." The overture sounds mostly like Ramin, with Ginzler perhaps adding some color here and there.

While we're on the subject of billing, we might as well touch on dance arrangements, which are credited to the show's rehearsal pianist, John Kander. Gypsy offers two especially masterful sections, the dance in "All I Need Is the Girl" and Caroline-the-Cow's 20-measure jaunt in the "Farm Sequence." What Kander actually contributed is unclear. Styne, both in print and in person to this writer, claimed authorship of the "All I Need Is the Girl" dance. As rehearsals progressed, Betty Walberg — who did West Side and Fiddler for Robbins — was called in; her 1959 billing has long since disappeared, but I expect that her work remains in the show. Kander, at any rate, was subsequently hired by Gypsy producer Merrick to do the (very good) dance arrangements on Irma La Douce, which were expertly scored by Ginzler. Kander has done all right since.

Which brings us to a few puzzling moments on this new CD. The overture, which is played so very well — better than in any recordings I've heard other than Milton Rosenstock's original — has an odd touch at the beginning. Specifically, the trumpets are joined in the second and fourth measures of the opening fanfare by everybody else, playing background chords in support. It almost sounds as if they want us to think we're in a movie theatre, watching the M-G-M lion roar before the credits start to roll. A little research tells me that this is not some modernistic tampering; these notes come from Ramin's original orchestral score. Back at the first orchestra reading, somebody — presumably Styne or Robbins — said "don't play that," so they didn't. Here they play it. Which sounds better?, you decide.

More drastic is the thinning of "You'll Never Get Away from Me." This is a song that, as originally orchestrated, has the melody embroidered by overactive flutes. On the revival album, they are missing in action. (The number is also speeded up.) This does not help the song, although I suppose it helps the singer. "Small World," too, sounds just a little empty. Checking carefully, you'll note that the step-wise violin sweetening that used to work against the melody is gone. All those colors at the top are missing, and missed.

As an illustration of what I mean by colors at the top, listen to "If Momma Was Married" or — better yet — "Together." Here, the original orchestration is retained, and all that embroidery brings a lift missing in the other songs. These colors are present, actually, in "You'll Never Get Away from Me" — for 20 measures, that is. The original woodwinds peek through in Herbie's interlude ("Rose I love you, but don't count your chickens"). As soon as Bernadette picks up the refrain, though, the flutes might as well go back to their crossword puzzles.

"Little Lamb" is most severely weakened, in this case by altering the work of the composer. The pickup notes — written as two eight-note triplets — have been altered to eighth notes. The repeated hesitation that the composer built into this song for the self-conscious Louise is thus missing. Styne did this 14 times in 32 bars, so I'd have to guess that he must have intended to suggest, psychologically, the character's inability to stand up and express herself — even to her stuffed animals. As presented here, "Little Lamb" is a gentle lullaby rather than a (literally) breathtaking song of longing.

Mind you, minor changes like this aren't necessarily apparent in the theatre. Sitting listening to the CD, though, you might keep hearing things that don't sound quite right. In this case, I missed those hesitant violin echoes each time she sang "little lamb," "little bear," "little fish," "little cat." The notes are still there, still being played; it's just that the rhythm has been altered, to match the change in the melody line.

Orchestrations — good orchestrations, that is — add psychology; one of many layers that the creators of a show use to prepare for what is to follow, even when they don't expect audiences to notice it at the time. Mendes and the producers of the new Gypsy have been admirably true to the original orchestration, especially compared to what happens to most musicals in revival. But I can't help noting that the few places where this Gypsy lets us down, musically, are the places were tampering is evident.

Let's not take this as criticism of the revival recording, or of the production itself. Changes are made for all sorts of reasons; what is important is the overall effect. In this case, some of the orchestration changes seem to allow Peters to sing out without the orchestral competition that Merman — doin' what came naturally — could bulldoze her way through. But a compact disc invites you to listen, and four original cast recordings of Gypsy on the shelf invite comparison. End of discourse.

BROWNSTONE [Original Cast OC-6052]
It has taken 20-odd years for me to catch up with Brownstone, a five-character musical intertwining the residents of a New York City abode. Brownstone was developed in 1979 under the guidance of André Bishop at Playwrights Horizons, as Don't Tell Me Everything. Composer Peter Larson and composer/lyricist Josh Rubins redrafted the show, with director Andrew Cadiff collaborating on the book, for two different productions at off-Broadway non-profits.

The Hudson Guild did Brownstone in 1984, with Maureen McGovern and Loni Ackerman among the cast. Two years later, producer Roger Berlind arranged for a production at the Roundabout — then housed in what is now the Union Square Theatre — with Liz Callaway, Rex Smith, Ben Harney and Ernestine Jackson. A bad review from the Times made the already planned Broadway transfer futile, and that was it for Brownstone.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival revived the almost-forgotten show at its Unicorn Theatre in the summer of 2002, with Larson and Rubins coming in with rewrites and three new songs. That production has resulted — finally — in a recording of the show. And it turns out that Brownstone has a very nice score. Tuneful, engaging, with lyrics that bring us into the lives of its characters. Add to this a quintet of good performances from top-rate performers, namely Ms. Callaway, Brian D'Arcy James, Debbie Gravitte, Rebecca Luker and Kevin Reed. Harold Wheeler's orchestrations from the Roundabout production have been reused, supplemented by new ones by composer/conductor/pianist Larson. Let me also mention that this musical contains some very fine five-part vocal writing.

Given the place and the era, it is not surprising that Brownstone sounds like something of a cross between Company and March of the Falsettos (which was developed at Playwrights shortly after Brownstone). Without the vibrancy, character-sense or edginess of those scores, mind you; but not bad company to be in. A promising score, certainly, although the failure of Brownstone apparently drove Larson and Rubins away from musical theatre. From the evidence of their work on the 2002 production and this recording, it is to be hoped that they are back in business in the business. Hopefully, this friendly CD will give Brownstone — finally — a life in the regional and stock & amateur fields.

Marc Blitzstein is an all-but-forgotten name on the list of important Broadway composers. His work is esoteric, yes, and what they used to call caviar to the general. As recently as 1998, his work was all but out of print, and few bothered to notice. Leonard Lehrman noticed.

Lehrman has long been a champion of Blitzstein, since conducting a Harvard production of The Cradle Will Rock in 1969. Leonard Bernstein — Blitzstein's protégé, who got his start conducting a Harvard production of Cradle in 1939 — authorized Lehrman to complete one of Blitzstein's unfinished projects, an adaptation of Bernard Malamud's story Idiot's First. Lehrman has been editing and reconstructing Blitzstein ever since. Among Lehrman's efforts have been not one but two volumes of "The Marc Blitzstein Songbook" [Boosey & Hawkes], which have only just come to my attention. The first includes 28 of the more popular songs, although popular is not perhaps the best word to describe the work of Blitzstein. His one and only song hit is the durable "Mack the Knife," for which he contributed the English-language lyric. Blitzstein's marvelous title image transformed the 25 year old "Moritat" of Weill and Brecht into an international standard. Blitzstein's adaptation of The Threepenny Opera is not included in the Blitzstein songbooks, although they are happily available elsewhere.

The second volume contains 31 songs, most of which have never before been published. (Many were recorded by Lehrman on "A Blitzstein Cabaret" [Premier PRCD 1005] and "A Marc Blitzstein Songbook" [Original Cast OC 4441].) Between the two volumes of the published "Songbook", we have much of Cradle Will Rock and No for An Answer; nine songs from the ill-fated but fascinating Reuben, Reuben; and eight from the ill-fated but fascinating Juno. Plus five songs from Sacco and Vanzetti, the opera Blitzstein was working on at the time of his murder in 1964.

Those familiar with the old sheet music from Chappell will be surprised and pleased by the layers of complexity in these arrangements, devised by Lehrman from the composer's original manuscripts and ancient tape recordings. Be advised: These are not easy-play arrangements, and might well be beyond the pianistic abilities of some (myself included). Even so, the two "Marc Blitzstein Songbook"s are of inestimable value and most welcome.

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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