ON THE RECORD: Irving Berlin's Face the Music and Boublil and Schönberg's The Pirate Queen

News   ON THE RECORD: Irving Berlin's Face the Music and Boublil and Schönberg's The Pirate Queen This week's column discusses the first-ever cast recording of Irving Berlin's Face the Music, as restored by City Center Encores!, and the original Broadway cast of Boublil and Schönberg's The Pirate Queen.
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FACE THE MUSIC [DRG 94781]
The spring season was brightened by the City Center Encores! production of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's Face the Music. This piece of flimsy cotton candy was originally produced in 1932, after which it disappeared with barely a trace. What was Face the Music, anyway? Nobody quite remembered; all that remained was talk of a book musical that labeled itself a revue and images of movie star Mary Boland atop a prop elephant. The Encores! folk, after a smashing success with the legendary but treacherous-to-produce Follies, turned their hands to a trifle that nobody was likely to walk into with high expectations. The result was a lark, as well as one of those "lost" musicals that — more than most — illustrate the Encores! mission.

As with the earlier (though not recent) Encores! affairs, Face the Music has been set down on shellac — or, rather, CD — by DRG. The album is sheer joy, a good-old-fashioned '30s musical that sounds like a hundred bucks. Which, in the days when the Astors dined at the Automat (as in the opening number), was worth a million. Rob Fisher, who helped start the whole City Center thing back in 1994, returned to his former podium to bring us one of the most fun cast albums in recent years.

This despite, I'm afraid, a score that is several pegs below wonderful. Old man Berlin wrote some superb songs during the Depression that still more than hold their own: "Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," "Heat Wave," "Supper Time" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" among them. None, alas, were written for Face the Music. The best we have here are two above-average items that never made it to Irving's top shelf. "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" is a delightful ditty, though hardly up to similar titles in that class like Rodgers & Hart's "I've Got Five Dollars" (already on the hit parade when Face the Music opened) or the Arlen-Gershwin-Harburg "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block"). "Soft Lights and Sweet Music" is atmospheric as well, but can't hold a candle to "Dancing in the Dark" (already on the hit parade when Face the Music opened) or Berlin's own "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

The lack of songpower presumably relegated the show to Irving's lower filing cabinet; he was an energetic plugger of his moneymaking hits, but no sentimentalist. For our purposes, though, that is no matter. The Face the Music we get on this new CD is musical comedy fun, pure and simple. Standing out are two musical comedy couples. The romantic pair, singing four duets — including the two titles mentioned above as well as the charmingly endearing "I Say It's Spinach (and the Hell with It)" — are Jeffrey Denman and Meredith Patterson, who performed similar chores in the original production of the recent White Christmas. The comedy antics of Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull are similarly tasty. One of the joys of these restorations is that they turn up long-forgotten, unpublished treats like "I Don't Wanna Be Married (I Just Wanna be Friends)" that otherwise would have remained unheard through eternity.

The top-billed stars at Encores! were Judy Kaye and Lee Wilkof, who had more comic acting than singing to do. Walter Bobbie, director of White Christmas and that other Encores! show (the one about the two merry murderesses in Chicago) puts on his acting shoes once more. He was featured in the original cast of Grease as Roger, the "Mooning" boy, but I don't suppose we can expect him to recreate that triumph. In any event, he has much more fun as Reisman, the producer within Face the Music, and is rewarded with the felicitous "How Can I Change My Luck?" This is another unexpectedly salvaged item, written in 1931 as a non-theatre song and filed away with all those tunes Berlin never bothered to use anywhere or publish. The music has been carefully restored by Bruce Pomahac, and it sounds absolutely splendid. The production materials were, as usual, in disarray; no definitive script, no orchestral scores, no conductor's score. The pit parts were preserved, fortunately, which allowed a painstaking restoration — literally piece-by-piece. Meanwhile, David Ives, Encores! resident book-carpenter, compiled a workable facsimile of the libretto. Ives also provides a lunatical liner note that reads like it was written by Groucho Marx's gagwriter after ten nickel's-worth of Horn & Hardart coffee.

The surprise of the affair, perhaps, are the sparkling orchestrations attributed to Russell Bennett, Frank Tours and Maurice De Packh. Without the actual scores, it is impossible to know who did what (or for that matter who else might have been involved). It is possible, though, to make some educated guesses. Tours was a veteran conductor who arrived on Broadway in 1903 and was best known for a series of Jolson shows; he went back to 1916 with Berlin. As an orchestrator, though, he seems to have had limited experience, occasionally contributing a few charts to shows he was conducting. With Bennett — Broadway's number one orchestrator at the time — aboard Face the Music, it is unlikely that Tours would have orchestrated any major numbers. Rather, he would more likely have contributed incidentals or scene changes.

De Packh had also been around before Bennett came to Broadway. By 1932, he was often assisting Bennett or Hans Spialek by writing utilities, incidentals, and "finishing" longer numbers that were started by the head man. Take "(Castles in Spain) On a Roof in Manhattan" as a theoretical example. Based on other Bennett orchestrations of the time, I surmise that Russell did the verse and first refrain, after which he moved on to the next song that came from the rehearsal hall. At this point in the orchestration, there is a pause and modulation; it is likely that De Packh picked up here for the second refrain and the dance chorus. The vocal tag, in such a case, would come from either Bennett (if he had the time) or De Packh.

In sum, I would suppose that the shorter songs, and the beginning sections of the longer ones, are by Bennett; the rest of these split songs are by De Packh (or other assistants); and minor pieces (not necessarily on the recording) are by Tours. In this period there were inevitably contributions by uncredited, additional orchestrators; Spialek frequently did a song or two on Bennett's musicals, and it is not unlikely that he did so here.

As with most of these restorations of vintage musicals, there are numbers for which orchestrations did not exist; either the songs were cut before reaching the orchestrators (in this case "Two Cheers Instead of Three," "The Police of New York" and "If You Believe") or they were interpolated specifically for the restoration ("How Can I Change My Luck?"). These were orchestrated for Encores! by the invaluable Russell Warner, who has played a key role in so many of these restorations of musicals by Gershwin, Kern, Porter and more. As is typical with Warner, these sprightly 21st century orchestrations fit in seamlessly with those of Bennett and his peers.

THE PIRATE QUEEN [Masterworks Broadway 88697-11810]
Every so often a Broadway score sounds surprisingly more interesting on its cast album than it did in the theatre. That is not the case with The Pirate Queen, the big, big-budget musical by the authors of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon which opened in April and closed in June. We shall refrain from making any jokes about capsized ships or vessels foundering in the riverdance. The producers had a vision, believed in what they were doing, and admirably stood by their cast and creatives. If only every musical had such support.

The best I can say for The Pirate Queen is that it featured a highly admirable performance from Stephanie J. Block as the title character. Ms. Block had an enormous amount to do; if she could not make the material seem distinguished, she at least kept her head well above water (which was not easy). The Pirate Queen was also buoyed by Linda Balgord, who as Elizabeth I was provided with a dazzling wardrobe and more scenery than she could possibly chew on. Ms. Block, who formerly played Liza Minnelli to Hugh Jackman's Boy from Oz, left us with the impression that she deserves another chance in something better; Ms. Balgord left us highly amused, and hoping to see her in something funny with a decent song or two.

Fans of The Pirate Queen will savor this album, naturally enough. Those who found the stage production tough going, though, are unlikely to be converted. As for the many theatregoers who did not get to visit The Pirate Queen whilst she was docked at the Hilton, my guess is that this is not a CD you will find yourself listening to repeatedly.

(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)