ON THE RECORD: Lady in the Dark and "Warm Spring Night"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Lady in the Dark and "Warm Spring Night" This week's column discusses the 1954 television cast album of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark and Philip Chaffin's album of vintage songs entitled "Warm Spring Night."
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LADY IN THE DARK plus DOWN IN THE VALLEY [Sepia 1052]
The opening strains of Lady in the Dark might well be enough to make you wonder whether you really want to hear this 1954 "NBC color spectacular" version of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's 1941 musical. Here we have a mid-fifties TV musical with all the trimmings (and all the strings). "Oh, Fabulous One" is very much of its time, and I expect Mr. Weill, who died in 1950, would have run for his hatchet upon hearing this. However, these are just the opening strains.

It was presumably thought that Weill's modernistic original orchestrations were too harsh for TV; he was only five years out of Europe when he wrote Lady in the Dark, and the score certainly has a somewhat metallic sound (which I love, myself). The big numbers were rethought for TV, and not for the better. But that's what Max Leibman, producer of Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," wanted, and he set his music staff — orchestrator Irv Kostal and musical director Charles Sanford — to transform Lady in the Dark. And they did, certainly. (Some of the scenes-with-music and more intricate passages were left pretty much alone, happily.)

Even so, there are some spots of interest. My favorite recording of this score is Lehman Engel's 1963 studio cast, starring Rise Stevens and featuring Adolph Green [Sony Classical MHK 62869]. Fans of that excellent recording will be surprised to find material on the 1954 LP that was cut in 1963. Thus, we get more complete versions of "Girl of the Moment" and "The Greatest Show on Earth" (with "new" sections basically following Weill's original arrangements); on the other hand, much of the "Wedding Dream" has been cut. Once you get past the somewhat stunning (in an adverse way) sweetening that has been laced onto this poor Lady, the recording offers some interest to Weill fans. One must keep in mind that Weill's score had been severely disrespected, in the 1944 film version (starring Ginger Rogers). When the TV version came after Weill's death, it at least gave the viewer an idea of what the show had been. It wasn't until Engel's recording that Lady in the Dark was preserved in its full splendor; I daresay that anyone interested in the musical theatre, "advanced ideas" division, should know the 1963 recording.

The TV Lady in the Dark is headed by ex-movie star Ann Sothern (at the time starring in the sitcom, "Private Secretary"). She is, shall we say, different than the other Liza Elliotts we know. Sothern is supported by Carleton Carpenter in the Danny Kaye role, and he does pretty much fine. The Gershwin fan will find two changes, one curious and one amusing. The character Randy Curtis, the movie star ("A precious amalgam of Frank Merriwell, Anthony Eden and Lancelot!") has been renamed "Randy Culver" — presumably to avoid confusion with the newly minted star Tony Curtis. And the word "mistress" has been censored out of Gershwin's delicious "The Best Years of His Life," which makes for an interesting mess of a mishmash.

Lady in the Dark is joined by Weill and Arnold Sundgaard's Down in the Valley. Commissioned as a 20-minute ballad opera for radio in 1945, the piece went unproduced. After a couple of years on the shelf, the authors expanded it to 35 minutes and released it for choral groups. (As Weill put it, "wherever a chorus, a few singers, and a few actors are available.") The mini musical premiered in 1948 at Indiana University in Bloomington, with the cast headed by the leading lady of the 1947 musical Brigadoon, Marion Bell. Bell is best remembered as the second Mrs. Alan Jay Lerner; her presence in Bloomington presumably had to do with the fact that Weill and Lerner were collaborating at the time on Love Life. (She earlier made a brief appearance in the legendary stateroom scene in the Marx Bros. classic "A Night at the Opera," looking for her Aunt Minnie.) Bell left Brigadoon in 1948, left Lerner in 1949, and appears to have left the business altogether after repeating her Down in the Valley performance for NBC Opera Theatre in 1950. This television cast recording, from RCA, was not the first Down in the Valley recording, and I'm afraid it isn't the best. Decca recorded it earlier with Alfred Drake, and Drake — circa Kiss Me, Kate — makes a far more authoritative Brack Weaver than William McGraw. The Decca recording, though, is not in print, while this one — finally, after many years — is.

If neither the Lady in the Dark nor Down in the Valley is obligatory listening, they combine for a worthWeill twofer album, especially for fans unfamiliar with the composer's non-Broadway "American Folk Opera."

WARM SPRING NIGHT [PS Classics PS-527]
"The Land Where Good Songs Go" is a 1917 song by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse about — well, about the land where good songs go. There is such a place, somewhere over the rainbow and under the silver-lined clouds.

There is a whole passel of good songs — show tunes from the first half of the twentieth century, in this specific case — that more or less reside in the lost song folder, despite names like Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers, Youmans, Duke and Schwartz at the top of the page. There are also dozens of other worthy titles by people you might never have heard of, from shows long forgotten. To hear these songs is to love them; but before you can hear them, you've got to find them and listen to them. If you don't have access to olden sheet music, and if you can't sit at the piano and plunk them out yourself, you're out of luck unless some helpful singer performs them in cabaret or on disc.

Musicologist Tommy Krasker is one of those people who specializes in show tunes. Over the years, he has brought us numerous good old songs, both at Nonesuch (in albums recorded by the likes of Audra McDonald and Dawn Upshaw) and at PS Classics, the independent label he started with Philip Chaffin.

PS began in 2000 with "Where Do I Go from You," a solo album featuring Chaffin backed by a big-band-style band. (The small label had such limited horizons that the disc was initially issued without a call number.) Having given us two-dozen albums in the interim, ranging from Frogs to Frog and Toad, Chaffin has returned with a second album of songs selected from stage, screen and pop. This is what you might call an eclectic collection, ranging from Sweet Adeline (of Kern and Hammerstein) to King David (of Menken and Rice). There are two songs from the latter, which played a limited six-performance engagement at the New Amsterdam in 1997 (with Chaffin in the ensemble). There's an even more-recent selection, "If It Is True" from My Life with Albertine. Most of the other songs come direct from the land where the good songs go.

Listen to "Sailing at Midnight" from Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz's catastrophic Sadie Thompson. (You know you're in trouble when the star walks out during rehearsals, especially if the star is Ethel Merman.) You need but listen to the first 8 bars — lusciously orchestrated by the great Sid Ramin — before you think, now here's a song. The stunning "Haunted Heart" (from the Schwartz and Dietz's Inside U.S.A.), the lilting "Here in My Arms" (from Kern and Hammerstein's Very Warm for May), the ever-tender "My Romance" (from Rodgers and Hart's Jumbo) are joined by less obvious choices like "There's a Room in My House" (from Kander's A Family Affair), "Silly People" (from Sondheim's A Little Night Music) and "You've Come Home" (in medley with the song it replaced in Coleman and Leigh's Wildcat). Speaking of lost songs, Chaffin and Krasker include a true rarity: "Evening Star," cut from the 1924 Gershwin musical Lady Be Good.

Chaffin has a fine voice for these songs: warm, comfortable, inviting and always respectful and supportive of the material. The liner notes tell us that he was a student of Karen Morrow — one of our favorites — which helps explain a lot. Orchestrations come from several hands, mixing originals (such as Red Ginzler's Family Affair chart and Jonathan Tunick's from Night Music) with new ones (including Larry Hochman's "Haunted Heart"). Kevin Stites conducts, with Rebecca Luker joining Chaffin for "Sailing at Midnight." —Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.