RCA/BMG has continued its periodic series of CD transfers of long out-of-print original cast albums, bringing us two titles from the winter of 1967-68. Let us say, first and foremost, that RCA is to be admired for continuing to send this series of reissues our way. Some of them, presumably, make a little money, while others probably don't. RCA has maintained a strong presence in the current-day musical theatre -- next up, I understand, is Marie Christine -- and they seem to feel an obligation to give fans these little gifts; for this, we can be grateful. Other labels owned by international media conglomerates (as RCA is) seem not to be interested in spending time and money on obscure cast albums with little earning potential, thereby keeping some important scores out of the hands of the post-vinyl generation. RCA's present releases will surely please aficionados, although their overall appeal might be somewhat limited.
HOW NOW, DOW JONES (RCA Victor/BMG 09026-63581-2)
This big, brash Broadway musical was aimed squarely at twin targets: the theatre party ladies and the expense account crowd. For the latter, they had a plot about Wall Street and promises of sex; for the former, they had a clutch of feisty old ladies marching around the stage. How Now, Dow Jones had an incredibly catchy title, contributed no doubt by that crafty lyricist Carolyn Leigh; Leigh is also credited for her original idea. Leigh's lyrics, in places, are nearly on a level with her prior musical, Little Me. (Her career girls complain about the thin-blooded men of Wall Street: "Oh, they kiss you goodnight at the door/Oozing Standard & Poor from each pore.") Everything else about Dow Jones, though, was sub-par. It's a rather fascinating example of a poorly conceived show, with nearly every choice going bad. (Producer David Merrick had a deal with RCA at the time whereby they supplied 75% of the capitalization. Thus, he was playing with someone else's bankroll.)
This was a show in which two of the leads threatened suicide, one over an illegitimate pregnancy; the other two were a kept woman and a bumbling patsy old enough to be her grandfather. The plot revolved around lies, fraud, swindles, and cheating widows out of their life savings. And this was a musical comedy! Director Arthur Penn left during the tryout, replaced by George Abbott (who had similarly replaced Penn on Fiorello! ). Also departing on the road were featured player Madeline Kahn and choreographer Gillian Lynne. Abbott and young choreographer Michael Bennett did some quick patchwork, the latter without credit. As consolation, Bennett got the job on Merrick's next "big business" musical, the infinitely superior Promises! Promises! (which shared many parallels to Dow Jones).
The score sounds wonderful, considering that the songs are generally poor; it sounds almost as bright and bubbly as Mame. (The orchestrator was Phil Lang, of Mame and Hello, Dolly!; Dolly's Peter Howard did the vocal and dance arrangements as well as conducting.) The music, however, by Hollywood's Elmer Bernstein, is bland, and the deft lyrics are wasted on mostly poor song choices. The presentation, though, makes it a fun album to listen to. Standing out: "Shakespeare Lied," an amusing "you might as well live" trio (Romeo didn't kill himself when Juliet died; "What did he do? He got over it; he caught a little flu but he got over it"); "Rich is Better," a madrigal about money; "Step to the Rear," a marching band type rouser for the hero and the feisty old broads, similar in type to Leigh's better-known "Hey, Look Me Over!"; and "Walk Away," a nice, modern ballad (circa 1967). Brenda Vaccaro helped spark the proceedings as the heroine's eager best friend, and Hiram (Cubby) Sherman received a supporting actor Tony as the patsy. Marlyn Mason and Anthony (Tony) Roberts, however, gave non-charismatic performances as the lovers. Roberts got some work out of the show, anyway, with starring roles in Merrick's productions of Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (which led to a series of movies as Woody's sidekick); Promises! Promises! in London (and as Broadway replacement); and the Tony Curtis role in Sugar, the stage musicalization of Some Like It Hot.
YOUR OWN THING (RCA Victor/BMG 09026-63581-2)
New York had the first hit of the 1967-68 season five weeks later, when Your Own Thing opened Off-Broadway on January 13, 1968. This was Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar's retelling of Twelfth Night; they wrote the score and the story, Donald Driver directed and wrote the libretto. There have been several musicalizations of Shakespeare's tale of shipwrecked twins, this being by far the best and most successful.
The show was billed as "A New Rock Musical," but today it seems pretty mild, and the "rock" attempts pretty sorry. (Hair slightly predated Your Own Thing, opening Off-Broadway in October 1967, but Your Own Thing was a hit first; Tom O'Horgan's reconceived version of Hair didn't hit Broadway and change the world until April 29. (RCA recorded Your Own Thing and both versions of Hair.) There are a few songs which I quite like: "The Flowers"; the lament "Come Away Death" (with a lyric by Shakespeare); and especially the yearning "What Do I Know?"
I hesitate to recommend this new disc highly; I fear that present-day listeners might think we were all crazy back then. (How can one explain the psychedelic "Hunca Munca"?) Nevertheless, Your Own Thing was fast, funny, and puckish. It was also highly profitable, with a 933-performance run at the Orpheum Theatre and multiple, profitable road companies. It won the N. Y. Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Broadway competition being pretty dismal. (This was the worst season for musicals since the Depression, although worse seasons were soon to come.). The CD includes original cast members Leland Palmer, Rusty (Russ) Thacker, co-author Danny Apolinar, and Michael Valenti. (Apolinar and Valenti collaborated with Don Driver on the 1981 three-performance Shakespeare-derived Broadway musical Oh, Brother!)
Also on the disc is Marcia Rodd, who replaced Marian Mercer before the album was recorded.
By the time I saw the show six months into the run, the sister and brother roles had been taken over by a young married couple. The twenty-two year old Texan playing Viola was simply splendid; for the first time in my experience, I spotted an unknown performer and thought, this girl is going to be a big star. She's still doing the same thing today, thirty-one years later, presently at the Shubert in Chicago. Oddly enough, Sandy Duncan has never created a starring role in a new musical; the romantic musical comedy took a nose-dive just as she appeared on the scene. But she was quite something in Your Own Thing, let me tell you. As for RCA, they have by now reissued a large portion of their Broadway catalogue. Titles still missing include Hazel Flagg, Jule Styne's bouncy if undistinguished adaptation of the film classic Nothing Sacred; New Faces of 1952 & 1956, which I understand are held up by rights problems; Saratoga, which isn't very good but hey, it's Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer; the Tommy Steele British import Half a Sixpence, which is surprisingly enjoyable; and some inarguably poor but flavorful albums like Maggie Flynn, Jimmy, Make a Wish, and the wonderfully clumsy Let It Ride. There are a dozen (?) or so more, too. I suppose -- and hope -- that we will see some of these in the future.
-- Steven Suskin, author of the Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (published by Oxford) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com