ON THE RECORD: Jule Styne's Sugar and the London Cast Album of Promises, Promises

News   ON THE RECORD: Jule Styne's Sugar and the London Cast Album of Promises, Promises We listen to the original Broadway cast album of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill "Some Like It Hot" musical Sugar, plus the first-time-on-CD release of the 1969 London cast album of Promises, Promises.

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Sugar [Kritzerland 20016-7]
Kritzerland Records, which over the last few years has brought us limited-edition releases of some especially obscure Broadway cast albums, has continued the parade with the 1972 musical comedy Sugar. This was no ordinary musical comedy; it had blockbuster written all over it, albeit in magician's mysterious vanishing ink.

Billy Wilder, Hollywood's reigning genius of sophisticated comedy, made two classic films just as the '50s crossfaded into the '60s: the men-in-a-dress farce "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and the morally cynical tale of office sex "The Apartment" (1960). David Merrick, Broadway's reigning genius of musical comedy, quickly determined to bring them both to the musical stage. Given the tangled rights of the earlier film — which was itself an adaptation of a 1951 German film, "Fanfaren der Liebe" — Merrick managed to get his version of "The Apartment" on stage earlier. Promises, Promises turned out to be one of the bright hits of the late-60s Broadway musical; while I don't suppose anyone would begin to suggest it compares to "The Apartment," Neil Simon's adaptation and the score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David worked perfectly well. As did the exciting choreography by the heretofore merely promising choreographer Michael Bennett.

Merrick's "Some Like It Hot" show, on the other hand, ran into problem after problem along the road to the Rialto. The all-powerful showman put Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion — his Hello, Dolly! team — to work on this surefire property. Working with the rights to the German film but not Wilder's screenplay, Herman and Stewart fashioned "One of the Girls." When Merrick finally managed to get the "Some Like It Hot" rights, he expected the authors to scrap what they'd written and revert to Wilder's Chicago/Miami version. Uninterested, Jerry and Mike departed. Gower at the time was working with Jule Styne and Bob Merrill on the Angela Lansbury vehicle Prettybelle, which turned out to be a major bloodbath on all sides. But it made perfect sense for the producer to hire Styne (from Merrick's hit Gypsy) and Merrill (from Merrick's hit Carnival) to take on "Some Like It Hot." Merrick's ties to both men were intricate; he had paired them, in fact, for Funny Girl, although he sold out his share to Ray Stark prior to the start of rehearsals. George Axelrod, author of the laugh hits "The Seven Year Itch" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" — the latter of which was produced by Styne — was brought in as librettist.

By the time Sugar was ready to go into production in the winter of 1972, Prettybelle had come and gone, leaving Champion and his songwriters on poisonous terms. (Gower demanded that red and green lights be posted outside the rehearsal rooms; a red light meant that the director was working inside, and nobody other than the cast was allowed to enter. And that meant, specifically, the authors.) As for Axelrod, had been fired six months earlier; he was replaced by Peter Stone, who had the hit 1776 on his resume but whose two musical comedy scripts — Skyscraper and Two by Two — were substandard. Sugar opened poorly, as they say. Fixes and changes were made — some severely drastic — along the extended tryout, without much success. The main problem being that the unimpeded hilarity of the film was generated in part by the combined genius of Wilder, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe — elements that simply could not be replicated. "Some Like It Hot," being arguably a finer (and certainly a funnier) film than "The Apartment," was thus more difficult to recreate.

If Wilder and Monroe were irreplaceable, there was no fall off in the Lemmon department. Robert Morse played Daphne, the bass player in heels; if Lemmon was brilliant on screen, Morse was equally so on stage. This was a thoroughly delicious creation, and that's not a statement I make lightly. I had unlimited access to the Majestic at the time, and was in the neighborhood nightly, so I was able to go in and watch as much Sugar as I wanted. And I did, stopping in just in time for "Beauty That Drives the Men Mad" — in which Bobby and Tony Roberts, as sax-player Josephine, made their distaff entrance on a railway porter's luggage rack. This was followed soon after by an upper-berth scene between Morse and Elaine Joyce, the Sugar of the occasion. "We Could Be Close," they sang, a song which slayed 'em night after night. I soon restricted my Sugar visits to those two numbers only, sometimes accompanied by "Penniless Bums" (which featured the trademarked clumped-together mass of dancers that Gower liked to use). But the rest of the show? No thank you; twice was enough.

I can't pass by Morse without noting that he was robbed in that year's Tony race. Ben Vereen was very good in Pippin, sure; but Morse was over-the-top. As far as I was concerned, Vereen himself was robbed the year before; his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar was a performance unlike any Broadway had ever seen. But the tradition-bound voters of those days weren't about to award anything to Jesus Christ Superstar, which was too modern and too loud, so they gave that year's best supporting nod to Larry Blyden for the revival of A Funny Thing (who in my opinion couldn't begin to compare to Vereen). Did this help garner enough votes to allow Vereen to take the award the following year? Perhaps. No matter, Morse was impeccable.

As for the new CD, the score sounds swell; great fun, and I expect Kritzerland will sell out their allotted 1,000 copies within weeks. As with their recent release of the original Broadway cast album of Promises, Promises, record producer Bruce Kimmel has seen fit to give us not only a remastered equivalent of the original LP but also — on a second CD — a newly mastered version that uses modern technology to correct the various shortcomings of the original recordings. Why he gives us both versions, I can't quite comprehend; the "new" CD, in both cases, is far superior to the old. Who is going to want to bother to listen to the non-enhanced discs? Beats me, because the new versions sound so very much better.

But if the Sugar score sounds marvelous on this new release, a good half of the songs are poor specimens of the art. This is not all the fault of the songwriters; you never know what's going to work until the show gets before an audience, at which point you can fix and change. But this is problematic when the director — who in this case had full artistic control — will hardly speak to you, and won't work with you. At least ten numbers were cut along the way; the show wound up with a measly dozen or so songs. Watching Sugar in the theatre, there was a distinct fall off. From the time Cyril Ritchard came in with a chorus of doddering old millionaires singing "November Song" — no doubt intended to be an uproarious dirty-old-man counterpart to Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song" — things grew musically dire. As a result of which, I found the second act to be all but unwatchable. As demonstrated by the songs "What Do You Give to a Man Who Has Everything" and "It's Always Love," which came along back to back. How strange! A score that starts out with that exciting Jule Styne sound simply seems to run out of gas. But I expect this was more Gower's doing than Jule's. Merrick managed to keep the show running a year and turn a small profit, but sweet this Sugar wasn't.

Promises, Promises [Kritzerland 20016-3]
Having recently given us a superbly remastered edition of the Broadway cast album of the aforementionedPromises, Promises, Kritzerland has gone across the sea to unearth the long out-of-print and much-sought-after original London cast album of the "Apartment" musical. Unlike the Broadway Promises, Promises and Sugar — which both have had earlier CD releases, albeit in indifferent transfers — this one has never been commercially available since the LP went out-of-print. (Read the July 2010 On the Record column that discusses the original Broadway and revival Broadway cast albums of Promises, Promises.) 

A good deal of said demand arises from the Fran Kubelik of the occasion, 22-year-old Betty Buckley. She had shown up on Broadway in March 1969, three months after Promises opened, making an especially winning impression singing "He Plays the Violin" as Martha Jefferson in 1776 (the show which grabbed that season's writing awards). Buckley quickly left for the West End company of Promises, which opened in October. The London Chuck Baxter was Tony Roberts, who was in the midst of an unprecedentedly long stretch of consecutive employment under the mantel of David Merrick. Roberts starred in six Merrick productions over seven years, from Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water through Sugar; someone up at the Merrick office must have liked him, probably Helen Nickerson.

So how, after years of searching for the thing, is the original London cast recording of Promises, Promises? First off, the CD does indeed sound very good, sparked by colors of Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations that are not audible on the Broadway recording. In my opinion, though, neither Roberts nor Buckley compare with their predecessors. Jerry Orbach wasn't in good voice when they recorded the Broadway album, but the charm and likability of his Tony Award-winning performance comes through. He talks his way through some of the lyrics, and that's the way my ear says it should be; it just sounds wrong when Roberts sings these sections. As for Buckley, there are some mighty odd accents coming out; her Martha Jefferson didn't have a Texas twang, but every once in a while her Fran Kubelik does (and Fran Kubelik, character-wise, shouldn't).

None of this matters, really, for two reasons. First, fans of Promises will most definitely want to hear this rendition; second, Kritzerland's 1,000-copy limited edition immediately sold out, so the whole thing is moot. The label at the same time has issued Billy Barnes L.A. [Kritzerland 20016-4], a 1962 revue that was the third in a series of Los Angeles cabaret revues by songwriter Billy Barnes. Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland is a longtime fan of Barnes, who was sort of a Californian counterpart of New York's Julius Monk. We salute Kimmel for his loyalty, but can't say that we share his fascination with this particular recording.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released 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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