ON THE RECORD: Legally Blonde and The Broadway Musicals of 1945

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Legally Blonde and The Broadway Musicals of 1945 This week's column discusses the original Broadway cast album of Legally Blonde and the Carousel edition of the Town Hall series, The Broadway Musicals of 1945.

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LEGALLY BLONDE [Ghostlight 8-4423]
The Broadway season past brought forth not one but two stunning and unconventional musicals of the serious stripe, one forward-looking (Spring Awakening) and one rooted in the past (Grey Gardens). Both were tinged with tragedy, both sought to illuminate the inner souls of their protagonists. Both were artistic with a capital A, and it can be said that they succeeded nobly (if not both financially).

But hey, doesn't anybody want to have fun??? Overlooked in the clash of the musico-dramatic titans was Legally Blonde, the bubbliest, crispiest and downright funniest show of the season. This musicalization of the 2001 film of the same title is not a new-age Rent or Sweeney Todd, nor does it try to be; draw a line from Promises! Promises! through Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and you will find yourself in the proper vicinity.

Poor Legally Blonde didn't get much respect, for reasons that are a bit hard to fathom. It seems like the grumpy old men (to borrow another movie title) on the aisle weren't buying this overstuffed cream-puff. That is certainly their prerogative; but geez, guys, c'mon!

There are those who opine that Elle Woods and her sorority sisters suffered some type of backlash against Mamma Mia and Wicked, two tuners whose legions of fans built the shows into indestructible megahits despite less than overwhelming critical response. The erstwhile Irving Berlin once wrote a song, rejuvenated by the recent Encores! production of Face the Music, that went: "I say it's spinach and the hell with it!" I say Legally Blonde is swell, and to hell with the rest. What makes the show swell is a combination of elements, starting with book and score and continuing through the ministrations of the cast and director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who learned a few lessons from the aforementioned Hairspray and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). The songs are from the team of Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, who are familiar to cast album listeners — or at least should be — for their work on The Mice (part of Hal Prince's 3hree) and especially the estimable Bat Boy. Broadway has finally beckoned, and O'Keefe and Benjamin hit the precisely right notes for Legally Blonde.

"Omigod, You Guys" introduces our heroine — in the "before" guise — and sets the overall tone. (This song is somewhat overblasted in the theatre, making it far less attractive than on the recording — where we can actually hear and enjoy the words! This opening lapse, combined with an ineffective cheerleader sequence which follows not long thereafter, might well put off some "sophisticated" theatregoers in the crucial early stages of the performance; hopefully, it has by now been corrected.) "Blood in the Water" and "There! Right There!" (aka "Gay or European") demonstrate skillful musical comedy writing. "Chip on My Shoulder," too, impressively, incorporates character information, plot development and even budding romance into song. The songwriters also provide a strong and likable ballad in the title song.

O'Keefe & Benjamin seem poised to become Broadway's most successful husband and wife songwriting team. Not that there have been many; the only ones I can think of are Monte Carlo & Alma Sanders (who wrote one forgotten hit and seven flops, starting in 1921) and Bill & Patti Jacob (of Jimmy), as well as the considerably more accomplished Kay Swift & Paul James (who divorced soon after Fine and Dandy).

Laura Bell Bundy carries Legally Blonde as handily as she carries Bruiser, the canine in pink who has place of pride within the show's logo. Ms. Bundy found herself sharing the Tony Award spotlight with the likes of Christine Ebersole, Audra MacDonald and Donna Murphy. Welcome to the big time! Christian Borle, who did such a fine comic job in Spamalot (and who first came to attention in William Finn's Elegies), is immensely likable as the bystander transformed into romantic lead. He both supports Bundy and scores on his own account in "Chip on My Shoulder," "Take It Like a Man" and "Legally Blonde." The big-voiced, one-named Orfeh — who joined Bundy and Borle with Tony nominations — stands out in her two big spots. Finally, we have Michael Rupert, who after all these years as an offbeat leading man gets to play the villain. He is at his comedic best, here, and absolutely delicious as he outlines the "Blood in the Water."

No, Legally Blonde doesn't have the kinetically edgy jolt of Spring Awakening nor the eerily layered nuance of Grey Gardens. But the entertainment value onstage, and on the Ghostlight CD, is high. O'Keefe & Benjamin, Mr. Mitchell, librettist Heather Hach, and Ms. Bundy and associates (both legal and non-) combine to prove that in this case, blondes do — indeed — have more fun. Catch some, why don't you, at the Palace.

THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1945 [Bayview RNBW 039]
Bayview has brought us their 18th CD from Scott Siegel's series of concerts at Town Hall, The Broadway Musicals of 1945. 1945 was the year of Carousel; there is hardly anything better in the annals of the Broadway musical. 1945 was also the year of — well, not much. Unlike golden years like 1956 (with My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Bells Are Ringing and Candide), 1964 (with Dolly, Funny Girl and Fiddler) or even 2007 (with Spring Awakening, Legally Blonde and — who knows??), 1945 brought forth not a single musical other than Carousel that has had any afterlife to speak of. There were a couple of decidedly interesting attempts (Billion Dollar Baby, The Day Before Spring) and at least one considerable hit (Up in Central Park); but there's not a show, nor a song, here that is imperishable. You might recognize "Close As Pages in a Book," a Romberg-Fields item from the latter musical, but that's probably it.

Siegel assembled one of his typical casts of talented Broadway and cabaret artists for the concert on April 4, 2005. Karen Mason, Mark Kudisch, Christiane Noll, Eddie Korbich, Kerry Butler and Scott Ailing comprise the lineup. (Noah Racey, who appeared in the concert, is not included on the CD.) All of them score with their material. Kudisch is restricted to Billy Bigelow, and he makes a pretty good case for himself. Mr. Korbich and Ms. Butler provide much of the comedy, along with one standout serious spot each. Kerry gives us "What's the Use of Wondrin'," while Eddie sings that stunning-though-virtually-unknown lullaby "Sleep Baby, Don't Cry," from Carib Song (what, you don't remember Carib Song?). Ailing gives us some ballads from quickly forgotten operettas, while Mason sings in the manner to which we are accustomed (with an especially strong "Mister Snow").

Inevitably, the collection includes some all-but-unknown songs that might well make listeners say — wait, let's play that one again. The cream of the non-Carousel crop is headed by the aforementioned "Sleep Baby, Don't Cry," by Baldwin Bergerson and William Archibald, and a song from Are You With It?, a lackluster musical comedy about an accountant who runs away to join a raffish carnival where he meets up with Dolores Gray as Bunny La Fleur. "Here I Go Again" (Harry Revel/Arnold Horwitt) is the song, which had some airplay in 1945 and remains catchy 60 years later.

Siegel provides his customarily breezy narration, with Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band continuing to offer the singers firm support as usual.

(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)

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