ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa, Hammerstein and Sondheim

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: LaChiusa, Hammerstein and Sondheim A discussion of Michael John LaChiusa’s First Lady Suite, the Carmen Jones reissue and Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle
Michael John LaChiusa
Michael John LaChiusa (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

FIRST LADY SUITE [ps classics PS-206]
Since November 1993 — in less than ten years, that is — New York has seen six musicals by Michael John La Chiusa. As far as I can tell, this makes him the most prolific American theatre composer of the last decade. At a time when people like John Kander and Cy Coleman and Charles Strouse are sitting with multiple unproduced musicals in their piano benches, this is somewhat surprising. If only one of LaChiusa's musicals so far can be deemed a success — Hello Again, the second of the six — the others are filled with interesting ideas and arresting material.

Hello Again was recorded by RCA, as was Marie Christine and The Wild Party. First Lady Suite, the first of the musicals wholly written by LaChiusa, was revived in March 2002 by the Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Tommy Krasker's independent label, ps classics, most fortunately decided to record it, giving many of us a first chance to hear this score.

First Lady Suite is unusual, certainly; as with LaChiusa's other work, he formulates his own form as he goes along. What is clear is that from the beginning of his career, LaChiusa has displayed a remarkable talent for expressing ideas in music and words. The ideas haven't always been expressed clearly on stage, mind you; but that's another conversation.

The work at hand focuses on three mid-century first ladies, in thematically linked one-acts. Over Texas comes first; Jackie Kennedy flies to Dallas on Air Force One on that November day in 1963. She sings of riding in an open car: "My hat will be immortalized, I know." The dream of the events that will transpire that afternoon turns nightmarish: "All that I can do is/ Turn and scream and/ Turn and reach and/ Reach and reach and / Reach and reach and / Reach and reach and reach/ And reach and feel . . . I feel the smallest thing/ In the heat/ Of the blood/ Of my husband/ As a million million flashbulbs/ Turn the blood to black and white."

Powerful stuff; and this is a lyric, mind you, set to music. The second section, Where's Mamie, turns Mrs. Ike into a Lucy-like madcap. Imagine; LaChiusa makes Mamie Eisenhower sympathetic! While Ike goes off and does whatever he does, Mamie — on a pink flying carpet, in the company of Marian Anderson — addresses civil rights and the crisis in Little Rock. (She also takes Anderson to Algiers in 1944, ambushing the philandering Ike with his mistress Kay Summersby.) In "My Husband Was an Army Man," Mamie tells us how Ike was stationed in Panama, "with bugs as big as airplanes"; in Normandy, "with bombs as big as buildings"; in Germany, "with rats the size of men" — and, finally, in Washington, "with men the size of rats." This is deftly incisive musical theatre writing, shades of Sondheim's "Bowler Hat."

Eleanor Sleeps Here is even more gripping. This is a piece for three characters: Eleanor Roosevelt, "first lady of the United States"; Amelia Earhart, "first lady of flight"; and Lorena Hickok, first lady of nothing. Hick is the star of this section, which takes place in Earhart's plane flying above Washington. In the prologue, the ladies remember Election Night: "Do you know what I wished for? I wished for flight." And flight is central to all three acts. So are rules, by which they are all bound. "First Lady, but I'd never been first/ My husband was first in all things," leaving the President's wife "a minor joke in late night monologues/ The hostess of a beautiful house I do not own."

Who is this Hick? What does she do? "I live in the White House/ I sleep on a cot/ In a dusty little hallway/ Next to Eleanor's Room." LaChiusa has an uncanny ability to come up with precisely the right phrase. "My life is wearing a napkin on my head/ And following Eleanor." How's this for a lyric? In LaChiusa's hands, set to his music, it is almost unbearably poignant.

As Eleanor flirts with Amelia, LaChiusa gives Hick an amazing breakdown in-song, "Eleanor's Hand/When Eleanor Smiles." Absolutely lacerating, shades of Sondheim's "Franklin Shepard, Inc." This is not to say that LaChiusa writes in the style of Sondheim; rather, that he has the ability to create the style he needs, in this case with a boogie woogie beat. LaChiusa is able to pinpoint the weak spots of his characters, expose them like raw wounds, translate them into words, and set them to music. There is writing of this same high caliber in the recent Little Fish; it would take more than a single hearing to discuss this score, but there is some very interesting stuff (like the song that begins "I lived in Buffalo with Robert").

The First Lady Suite CD is well recorded, with the five-piece band led by Stephen Bates. I am unfamiliar with the Blank Theatre Company, whose artistic director Daniel Henning staged this production. Nor am I familiar with most of the cast of nine, other than Greg Jbara (who plays the one male role). But the performance is good, led by Heather Lee (as Jackie's secretary Mary Gallagher), Eydie Alyson (as Mamie) and especially Mary-Pat Green (as Hick).

So chalk up First Lady Suite as a surprise, an adventurous (and funny!) flight in the uncompromising hands of Michael John LaChiusa.

CARMEN JONES [Decca Broadway 440 066 780]
An apparently washed-up songwriter, with a stream of income-generating songs to his credit but six consecutive flop shows in the last decade, whiles away his time writing an English-language translation of an old opera house chestnut. But who in their right mind is going to produce an English-language translation of an old opera house chestnut from a guy with six consecutive flops?

The writer in question was Oscar Hammerstein 2d, who — flops or no — knew a thing or two about music drama and Broadway entertainment. When his latest show opened and turned out to be the biggest hit of the century — Oklahoma!, it was called — Hammerstein's adaptation of Carmen was suddenly producible. Billy Rose grabbed Carmen Jones and proceeded to build it into the biggest thing Broadway had seen since — well, since Jumbo, the Rodgers & Hart, Hecht & MacArthur circus extravaganza that Rose produced at the Hippodrome in 1935.

Rose scaled Carmen Jones at "popular prices," and popular it was. The show opened at the Broadway on December 2, 1943, and pleased wartime audiences for 502 performances. Hammerstein transported Carmen's tobacco factory in Seville to a parachute factory in the Deep South, the soldiers became G.I.s, toreador Escamillo became heavyweight Husky Miller. A natural it all must have seemed, mixing Bizet's knockout of a score with Oscar's accessible book and lyrics. Nobody would have touched it without the success of Oklahoma!, though. (Oscar had also tried to adapt Gilbert and Sullivan for Broadway; Knights of Song, which he staged at the 51st Street Theatre [Hellinger] in 1938, shuttered after 16 performances.)

Carmen Jones has had a difficult afterlife, though. Otto Preminger made a film version in 1954, and the show was revived at City Center two years later for 22 performances. But times change, attitudes change; by the 1960’s, there were those who found this sort of thing — an established classic rewritten for an 'all-Negro cast' — uncomfortable. To Hammerstein, mind you, it must have seemed like a swell way to provide jobs for the more than 100 singers, dancers and children with whom Rose stocked the original Broadway cast, at a time when Broadway jobs for minority members were even scarcer than they are today.

Carmen Jones was revived, seemingly out of the blue, by London's Old Vic in 1991. Under the direction of Simon Callow, it was a grand show and a surprise hit. EMI issued a CD of highlights [CDC 7 54351], with the two sets of stage leads alternating in their roles (as on the recent recording of Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme). This production restored a degree of dignity to Carmen Jones's reputation, although it seemed too chancy to bring to America. A concert version, starring Vanessa Williams, was presented last November at the Kennedy Center.

The original 1943 cast album has always provided fun listening, despite the primitive sound quality of the time. (Another notable recording of the score, a 1967 Heliodor LP starring Grace Bumbry, has yet to be transferred to CD.) Decca Broadway, which has been combing through its archives for items to reissue, has seen fit to spruce Carmen Jones up, with happy results. It doesn't sound as clean as the now out-of-print EMI disc; but that's the point. The original cast was not made up of professional singers, simply because there were no professional opportunities for an “all-Negro cast” at the time. Leading lady Muriel Smith was working in a photo-processing store; Luther (Joe) Sexton was an elevator operator; Glenn Bryant, the toreador-turned-boxer, was a New York Cop. Carmen Jones, the original lacquered glass discs dusted off and digitized, now has fresh vitality. Smith comes out with her "Habanera" and simply seduces you. "Dat's Love," Hammerstein called it: "You go for me an' I'm taboo/ But if yore hard to get I go for you/ An' if I do, den you are through boy/ My baby, dat's de end of you!" I've always been partial to the 1943 rendition of "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum" — the Gypsy Song — as sung by June Hawkins with drummer Cozy Cole beating out the rhythm. (Hawkins is the singer who does such a mesmerizing job with "I Had Myself a True Love" and Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-Be" on the original cast album of St. Louis Woman.) For comparison's sake, Decca has added a track of Kitty Carlisle singing "Beat Out Dat Rhythm," which — with Kitty's crystal-clear enunciation — you might call a real novelty. "My Joe," Cindy Lou's song of unrequited love, retains the power and beauty of "Je dis qui rien ne m'épouvante" ("Micaela's Air"). Hammerstein did not write the music for Carousel, of course, but I have to believe that he used this song and this song spot as inspiration for that musical's stunning "What's the Use of Wondrin'."

Russell Bennett undertook the task of reducing Bizet's orchestration to a Broadway-sized 33 pieces. Bennett was a self-confessed musical snob; Carmen Jones seems to be one of the few shows he did with music that he himself liked. He even decided to conduct it, although he quickly withdrew during the Philadelphia tryout. ("I can't say I was especially good," said Bennett. "I was not prepared for things like groups of singers upstage whose voices I couldn't even hear and who had no experience at following a conductor no matter how far or near they were.") Bennett was replaced by Joseph Littau, who did such a masterful job that he was rewarded with the baton for Carousel.

How nice to hear Carmen Jones once more, clearer and cleaner than before by far. What a fine job Hammerstein did on the piece, which from all reports was quite a stupendous entertainment. Vibrant music, yes; but vibrant spirit as well.

AND YET TO COME:
I don't usually review the preliminary copies of CDs that they send out, preferring to evaluate the final product that will be sold in stores. I couldn't resist listening to Anyone Can Whistle [Sony Classical SK 86860], one of five upcoming releases in the Columbia Broadway Masterworks series. The sound, as is to be expected, is an improvement over the 1989 CD version.

What piqued my interest, though, was the presence of Sondheim at the piano for five bonus tracks. These include "I'm Like the Bluebird," the introductory song for the asylum inmates that was omitted from the original cast album (but is included on the 1995 Carnegie Hall concert recording); three long-familiar titles, the title song, "Come Play Wiz Me," and "With So Little to Be Sure Of"; and the previously unheard "The Lame, The Halt and the Blind." This last, which invites the cash-paying faithful — "only one blessing per pilgrim per ticket" — to partake of the phony miracle, is quite wonderful. "The deaf shall hear and the dumb shall speak/ The sick shall find all the succor they seek." One can understand why it was replaced by the more specific "Miracle Song"; it demonstrates how Sondheim threw out something deliciously good in favor of an extended number that enhanced the plot points.

The surprise of this CD, though, is "With So Little to Be Sure Of." No, not the one that we are familiar with; a totally different song, other than the first 12 words of the lyric and the coda. The final version is perhaps more satisfying, but this first version points us forward to the rhapsodically impassioned music Sondheim would write for the Benjamin Stone character in Follies. "The more the minutes tick away. . ." fits right into "Too Many Mornings," not melodically but emotionally; the composer seems to be breaking away from those age-old standard-form ballads of the time. The promotional material promises new liner notes from Arthur Laurents and Angela Lansbury plus "many unseen photos," which we will have to wait to see; but these added songs make this Whistle reissue even more welcome than it would otherwise be.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.