ON THE RECORD: Jerry Herman's Girls & an Intriguing Galt MacDermot Score

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Jerry Herman's Girls & an Intriguing Galt MacDermot Score JERRY'S GIRLS (Jay CDJAY2 1332)
I was never able to garner much enthusiasm for the anthology revue Jerry's Girls, which seemed at the time like a pretty desperate attempt to manufacture something out of nothing. And here it is once more, newly remastered and reissued on two CDs.

JERRY'S GIRLS (Jay CDJAY2 1332)
I was never able to garner much enthusiasm for the anthology revue Jerry's Girls, which seemed at the time like a pretty desperate attempt to manufacture something out of nothing. And here it is once more, newly remastered and reissued on two CDs.

Jerry's Girls was initially produced -- by the "Bosom Buddies Company" -- off off-Broadway in August 1981; Ain't Misbehavin', which started under more or less similar circumstances, was still a reigning hit at the time. Jerry Herman, who had been without success since Mame in 1966, was the featured performer, supported by four non-star girls. (Women, actually.) Two years later Herman was suddenly hot again, with the success of La Cage Aux Folles.

A Florida producer, known in the business for cheaply-produced, summer stock-caliber productions, decided to mount a real production of Jerry's Girls. He hired Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams and Andrea McArdle, three Tony Award-winning musical comedy stars who were more or less out of work; added some songs from the standing-room-only La Cage, which had not yet toured the country; and came up with this not very-inspiring package. The second Jerry's Girls opened in February 1984 and closed after a brief tour. A third production -- with Ms. Uggams joined by the similarly under-utilized Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera -- was mounted on Broadway in December 1985, where it was just as unsuccessful as the others and closed within four months.

Your enjoyment of this CD of the Florida production -- the only one recorded -- will depend on how you feel about the work of Jerry Herman, I guess. (While Herman apparently didn't appear in this production, he sings a four-minute medley on the disc.) Forty-odd songs are represented; almost all of them are available, with better performances, on original cast CDs, which the true Jerry Herman fan is certain to have. (The cast albums all have better orchestrations, too, and a fuller sound than the thirteen-piece band of Jerry's Girls.) That being said, I note with some surprise that Ms. Uggams does an especially fine job with "It Only Takes a Moment," "If He Walked into My Life," "I Don't Want to Know," and "I Am What I Am." These tracks are well worth hearing.

Speaking of Jerry Herman, I'm pleased to report that I've heard favorable word from two different sources about his score for the upcoming Miss Spectacular. The show itself, commissioned by one of the casinos in Las Vegas, is not likely to appear until 2001; but the songs, I am told, are pretty good.

THE HUMAN COMEDY (Kilmarnock KIL 9702)
Galt MacDermot's The Human Comedy is not a new cast album, exactly; it was recorded in 1984, but the show's quick demise after only thirteen performances caused it to remain unreleased until it unexpectedly appeared on CD last year. Still, it is all but invisible as Broadway cast recordings go; it is new to me; and I'd be surprised if many of you have gotten around to listening to it. I've had a copy of it sitting here since January, but I've been scared off by the listings on the back cover -- the two-disc set runs one hundred nineteen minutes, with eighty six tracks indexed. (Eighty-six tracks!!) Nevertheless, folks, this is certainly one interesting score.

MacDermot is one of the more unusual theatre composers around. He arrived on Broadway in 1968 with the epic hit Hair, the kind of success which is enough to keep you flush for life. This was followed by four -- count 'em -- four musicals within a year. Two Gentlemen of Verona was another pop hit; it beat out Stephen Sondheim's Follies for the 1971-72 best musical Tony Award. But Isabel's a Jezebel flopped in London, followed by the twin Broadway catastrophes, Dude and Via Galactica (which opened and closed within the same eight weeks). MacDermot's only Broadway appearance since was The Human Comedy -- which, like Hair and Two Gents, originated at Joe Papp's NY Shakespeare Festival -- but which garnered virtually no notice on Broadway and quickly disappeared.

MacDermot's early Broadway shows were rock musicals, but one shouldn't consider Galt a rock composer. He is, rather, a well-schooled and highly- eclectic musician who can write in any number of styles. He had great success -- and great failure -- with his first five musicals, but they pigeonholed him. So much so, that you might well be surprised when you hear his Human Comedy (based on William Saroyan's wartime novel). For this is a rich, varied, and melodic score. Let's call it wildly melodic - MacDermot constantly flies off on wings on melody, often with ingratiating results. The work is undisciplined, yes, and sometimes arbitrary; eighty-six tracks indicates a surfeit of fragmented song. But from the moment the swinging band strikes up the jaunty instrumental opening, with its early `40s locomotion, I was very much with MacDermot and The Human Comedy. Within fifteen minutes I forgot all about rock musicals, despite several musical themes from Two Gents and Dude which drift through the piece.

This is not to say that The Human Comedy is an all-time great, hidden masterpiece. The show suffers from lyrics which range from the simplistic to the amateurish. In one short stretch, lyricist William Dumaresq (of Isabel's a Jezebel) rhymes arena with keener, army with barmy, and Marcus with park us. (Another character is called Ulysses, which is paired with sissies.) More problematic is the piece's unwieldy dramaturgy. The authors demonstrate a tendency to have the characters sing about anything and everything, and at length. Yes, this is billed as an opera, so we can't expect people to just speak their mind; but colorful dialogue in a novel can seem awfully extraneous when sung purposelessly by minor characters. The music is impressive and highly enjoyable on disc, but I imagine that the words would have quickly become annoying in the theatre.

Let me also add that Rex Smith gives a fine performance in the central role. I was impressed by his strong showing last season in the first revision of The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I am surprised by his power here. On the other hand, Leata Galloway -- whose distinctive, unworldly voice has been a feature of MacDermot musicals -- sounds way out of place as a small-town girl with a rich father. Her performance divorces us from the time and the setting, which is small-town California during World War II.

So those of you interested in thoughtful musical drama might well want to invest your time in The Human Comedy. And now that MacDermot has issued this disc on his Kilmarnock label (distributed by Original Cast Records), let us hope that he gets ahold of the rights to the rambunctious Two Gentlemen of Verona -- if only to give current-day listeners the opportunity to hear John Guare's deft and often bitingly satirical lyrics. Ah, what a career Guare might have had if only he'd stuck to musical comedy. . . -- 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