ON THE RECORD: Harold Rome's Zulu and the Zayda and Scott Alan's "What I Wanna Be"

ON THE RECORD: Harold Rome's Zulu and the Zayda and Scott Alan's "What I Wanna Be"
 
This week's column discusses the first-time-on-CD release of Harold Rome's surprisingly delightful The Zulu and the Zayda and a new album from songwriter Scott Alan, "What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up."

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The Zulu and the Zayda [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
Let us acknowledge that few titles in the annals of Broadway cast albums sound less promising than The Zulu and the Zayda. One of the theatre critics for a major New York newspaper recently, in fact, cited the just-released CD of this musical as a dubious contestant for his year-end gift-list. Without, obviously, bothering to listen to it. Because Harold Rome's The Zulu and the Zayda is a dark horse—or, perhaps, a dark zebra. Unlikely, yes, but tuneful, charmful and surprisingly endearing.

The Zulu and the Zayda was billed as a play with music, although I suspect that this was a matter of pragmatism. A drama-comedy with incidental music and miscellaneous songs it wasn't; the 11 songs (plus entr'acte and finale) are very much the heart of the piece, and the production—which opened Nov. 10, 1965, at the Cort, for a five-month run—would have held little interest without them. My guess is that the classification was seen as tactical; the producers (Ted Mann and Dore Shary) could well have worried that calling it a new musical would have put Zulu in direct competition with the reigning new hit on 45th Street, Fiddler on the Roof.

Zulu had little in the way of physical production choreography, or high-powered musical-comedy zest. What it did have, as its main asset, was the presence of Menasha Skulnik. The diminutive and lovable Polish-born star of the Yiddish theatre, sometimes called "the Yiddish Chaplin," had moved uptown from Second Avenue to star in the hit 1950 garment industry farce "The Fifth Season."

Zulu had a book, or a play script, by Howard Da Silva and Felix Leon. Da Silva, of course, was the powerful actor who created the roles of Larry Foreman in The Cradle Will Rock and Jud Fry in Oklahoma! Several notable film roles, too, including Nat the Bartender in Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend." His career was halted by the blacklist; Da Silva was one of the first Hollywood witnesses to invoke the Fifth Amendment. He eventually worked his way back to Broadway with the "also starring" roles of the poker-playing politico Ben Marino in Fiorello! and the non-poker playing politico Ben Franklin in 1776.

The plot told of a Jewish grandfather (the Zayda) unwillingly transported to South Africa from London to live with his son's family. Said son hires a young native (the Zulu) as a babysitter, or grandpa sitter. The two join together in friendship of a sort not acceptable in segregated society. Skulnick made much of his role, as did Louis Gossett as the Zulu and Ossie Davis as a trusted family servant and brother to Gossett. (Davis had written and starred in the 1961 satire "Purlie Victorious," which was directed by Da Silva; Gossett had appeared with Davis in Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun.") What makes The Zulu and the Zayda out of the ordinary is the presence of composer/lyricist Harold Rome. He was just then at the end of his Broadway career; after eight full-scale revues and musicals, this would be Rome's final visit. (One further musical, Gone with the Wind—a.k.a. Scarlett—was produced in Tokyo and London, but the Broadway production closed during its tryout.) Rome had two distinct styles during his career, gaining attention with topically social significant revue material (the long-running Pins and Needles, the dynamically rousing "Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones" in Wing out the News) and changing course after World War II with the floridly romantic "Wish You Were Here" (from the show of the same title) and the score for Fanny.

Zulu was neither of the above. Rome, it turns out, was a major collector of African art and music. Just how authentic the music of The Zulu and the Zayda is I can't tell you; but it sure sounds African in a way that Broadway musicals such as The King and I or Brigadoon didn't sound Siamese or Scottish. What's more, the Zayda music sounded a whole lot more Yiddish than, say, Fiddler on the Roof.

Not being an adherent of authentic African or authentic Yiddish music, I can't readily explain why Rome's songs for The Zulu and the Zayda sound so very pleasing. But they do, surprisingly enough; this is a warm, tuneful, exotic and friendly score. "It's Good to Be Alive," "Rivers of Tears," "Oisgetzaychent" ("Out of This World") and "May Your Heart Stay Young" are on the Yiddish side, all sung by Skulnik; "Crocodile Wife," "The Water Wears Down the Stone," "How Cold, Cold, Cold" are on the African, all sung by Davis. Gossett has less singing to do, with his main solo being "Zulu Love Song"; the CD—available for download from Masterworks Broadway, or on-demand from Arkivmusic—also includes Gossett's "Eagle Soliloquy." There is also a highly pleasing song for the ensemble called "Like the Breeze Blows," which Rome later recycled into the rousing hymn "Bonnie Gone," for the funeral of the daughter of Rhett and Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.

The Zulu and the Zayda is not a knee-slapping Broadway musical, nor is it The King and I or Fiddler on the Roof. Just a rare bird of a play with music, stocked with tuneful charm. Strange, and decidedly so; but if you are not finding any new musicals to your liking and are not allergic to the offbeat, you might want to give it a try.

What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up: The Songs of Scott Alan [Billy-Boo Records BBR-1005]
Songwriter Scott Alan's two CDs, "Dreaming Wide Awake" and "Keys," have been favorably reviewed in this column. Now he brings us "What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up." As before, Mr. Alan presents a wide variety of songs, some of which touch a strong emotional chord. "Nothing More," for example, in which Christopher Sieber sings that "all I want is a family, a husband and a child." A not uncommon point, with the protagonist realizing that he doesn't need what he thought he needed, a mansion or universal acclaim; just someone special to grow old with and "to see my mother hold her grandchild." Mr. Alan takes a different route, with lovely results.

"I Wish" (Diana DeGarmo) tells of a 17-year-old princess in a tower breaking away from her over-protective mother. "Take Me Away" (Darius de Haas) yearns for sailing away to a place "where there's nothing I can't be." "I Remember" (Christiane Noll) is a song of love fading away. Alan is represented by an array of singing talent, including Bobby Steggert, Laura Osnes, Cassie McIvor and more.

Not all of the songs in "What I Wanna Be When I Grow Up" are effective, for me; I suppose different songs will touch said chords in different listeners. (In at least some cases, the virtues of the composition might be lost to over-orchestration.) But as before, Scott Alan gives us songs that make us stop and listen.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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