ON THE RECORD: Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon and Vernon Duke's "Taking a Chance on Love"

News   ON THE RECORD: Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon and Vernon Duke's "Taking a Chance on Love" This week's column discusses the first-time-on CD release of the enchanting 1958 studio recording of Brigadoon and a new collection of piano arrangements of songs by Vernon Duke.

BRIGADOON [DRG 19071]
Following the success of the 1949 musical South Pacific — and more specifically the Columbia original cast album of same — record producer Goddard Lieberson had an idea. While cast albums had become a standard commodity since 1943, important musicals of the pre-Oklahoma era remained unrecorded. Why not get together with Mary Martin, of South Pacific, and rescue some of these legendary scores? Lieberson and musical director Lehman Engel embarked on just such a quest.

The first recordings — celebrating Anything Goes and The Band Wagon — were not especially successful when they were released in 1950, in part because Martin was (not unnaturally) assigned all the good songs. Thus, there was little semblance of plot or character. Recognizing the problem, Lieberson and Engel decided to cast the next albums with actors suitable to the roles. They found their third offering at the Starlight Operetta in Dallas, where Engel conducted a summer production of Pal Joey starring Vivienne Segal (who had originated the role in 1940). Columbia's Pal Joey, with Segal and Harold Lang, was released in 1951. The success of the recording directly resulted in a hit Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hart piece, reviving the fortunes of that previously neglected property.

There were a dozen or so additional studio cast albums in the Lieberson/Engel series. If Pal Joey was the most influential, and the complete Porgy and Bess was the most important, the 1958 Brigadoon might well be the most vibrant of the group. For reasons unknown, this album all but disappeared over the years. DRG has now, finally, brought it to CD, and it is every bit as good as remembered.

This was not just another studio recording, mind you. Brigadoon was the youngest show of the series, a mere ten years old when it went into the studio in the summer of 1957. But the original cast album — the first undertaken by RCA — had been incomplete and primitively recorded. One of Lieberson's critical moves at Columbia had been to convince his bosses to fund the entire capitalization of the 1956 bonanza My Fair Lady, a gamble that turned into an instant bonanza. What better way to show Columbia's appreciation of Fritz Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, and cement the relationship (which would result in a second Gold Record for Columbia, Camelot), than to give the boys what was labeled "a full-length recording of the Broadway hit in hi-fi." The 1958 Brigadoon is not full length, at least not the way they make 'em today; Agnes de Mille's several ballets, integral parts of the proceedings, were not included. Still, Lieberson found room for three songs left off the RCA album.

I seem to recall hearing, but have no way of verifying, that Loewe was in constant attendance during this recording. Unlike other composers, Loewe knew what he wanted, and what his music should sound like. Maybe that's why the Columbia Brigadoon is precisely performed and so enchanting. Brigadoon, as the authors intended. It seems odd to sit down with this recording and realize that there are only four principals and a chorus doing all the singing, but this is the way the show was written. (Brigadoon has nine or so featured players, but only four of them sing.) Newlyweds Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy head the cast. Jones was the main attraction, coming off the recent film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. She is wonderful, as the lass "waitin' for her dearie." Every note is perfectly sung and enunciated. "For ye see," she sings, "I believe" — and that's it; Shirley Jones does believe, every word she sings.

Cassidy, of the golden voice, is at his best here. He sings these songs, all right; but I can't help but get the impression of a singer with a glorious voice who knows that he has a glorious voice. This worked to Cassidy's advantage in Wish You Were Here, She Loves Me and Superman; it is less helpful in Brigadoon. Even so, Cassidy does extremely well. For his final number, "From this Day On," he drops the throb and demonstrates how good he might have been in this role if he acted it. Which is one of the differences between having a cast that has rehearsed and played the show, as opposed to actors assembled in a recording studio.

Frank Poretta, who never found a Broadway career, does well enough with Charlie Dalrymple's two songs. The jewel of the proceedings, though, is Susan Johnson. Johnson was a Brigadoon baby, if you will; she came to town at 19, joined the chorus, moved up to understudy the featured comedienne, and took the role in the road company.

Having played Meg Brockie hundreds of times, Johnson knows precisely what to do and when to do it. Her entrance in the opening number — with a gag lyric about a cow — sets up a flashing light in what otherwise must have seemed like it was going to be a pastoral evening. Pay attention, folks, Johnson seems to be saying. Her two solos, "The Love of My Life" and "My Mother's Wedding Day," are prime examples of How To Do It. Listen to how she takes Lerner's first-rate comedy material and enhances it; what a difference you can make by merely emphasizing the right syllables. For those of you who keep hearing praise heaped on the late Susan Johnson and wondering what the fuss was about, this is the place to find out.

Engel, whose night job at the time was over at the less pastoral Dogpatch, gets full value from chorus and orchestra. Ted Royal's orchestrations are his finest, in my opinion, by a large margin. Loewe deserves a good deal of credit, I suppose; his manuscripts include many of the countermelodies, often specifying the instruments (which is highly uncommon along Broadway). Royal seems to have done most of the songs himself. Bob Noeltner did two of the important ballets, "Come to Me, Bend to Me" and the "Sword Dance." (Neither of these are included on the 1958 recording, although the latter is used as the show's instrumental Introduction.) Phil Lang contributed a handful of utilities and scene changes.

A considerably more complete Brigadoon can be heard on John McGlinn's excellent 1992 album [Angel 754481], which is also highly recommended. That disc includes all the ballets, along with especially fine performances from Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker. The new-to-CD 1958 version, conversely, has Jones and Cassidy, Loewe standing in the recording studio, and the authentic Susan Johnson; call it a draw, and get both.

I feel it necessary to report that there is yet another Brigadoon that has just been released [Jay CDJAY 1387], which is s-l-o-w and can't begin to measure up to the others. I regret saying so, as I appreciate Jay's continuing dedication to the field. The Jay disc does give us a good performance from George Dvorsky, and what appears to be the initial recording of the Entr'acte — which is interesting in that the style of orchestration is jarringly different than the rest of the show.

TAKING A CHANCE ON LOVE [Shellwood SWCD29]
The above-mentioned Vernon Duke (1903-1969) is one of those once-popular Broadway composers whose name is relatively forgotten but whose music — the best of it — remains unforgettable.

Having fled the Russian Revolution, he made his way to America (via Constantinople) in 1921. A conservatory-trained composer, he supported himself by accompanying gypsy violinists while writing modernist stuff. In 1923, an up-and-coming 24-year-old named Gershwin — still a year before writing his instantly immortal "Rhapsody" — heard Vladimir Dukelsky play. George was impressed (if, perhaps, puzzled) by the music of Dukie, and took him under his wing.

"There's no money in that kind of stuff," said Gershwin, "try to write some real popular tunes." After a sojourn in Paris, during which he composed a ballet for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, young Vladimir did. Try to write some real popular tunes, that is. Using the Gershwin-manufactured moniker Vernon Duke, he came to Broadway in 1930, with an early song hit in "April in Paris" (with a lyric by E.Y. Harburg).

Duke had an up-and-down Broadway career, with his so-called "biggest hits" comprising the Paris song, its pendant "Autumn in New York," "I Can't Get Started" and "Taking a Chance on Love." Duke's Broadway output was highlighted by a fair number of richly textured art songs (like "Paris" and "Autumn") and an assortment of irrepressibly catchy rhythm numbers (like "Taking a Chance"). The music is not easy, if you will; relatively few of Duke's songs caught on with crooners or dance bands, although the big four remain understandably attractive in jazz and cabaret land.

While Duke was biding his time in the late thirties and early forties, his publisher Jack Robbins — looking for material to peddle to the piano lesson crowd — commissioned a series of stand-alone piano solos, nominally descriptive of various American cities. "Fruity piano pieces, filled with dyspeptic chords" is how Duke described them; but a commission was a commission. Alex Hassan, a Virginia-based pianist who specializes in the styles of twenties and thirties pop music, has had the idea to record the seven Duke solos, giving us the chance to hear what they sound like. (I've spent some time struggling through "New York Nocturne," but it sounds MUCH better in, and on, Hassan's hands.) So here we have them: "Rittenhouse Square," "Lake Shore Drive," "Nob Hill," "Back Bay" and the rest.

Nice enough, and interesting enough, certainly; but the value of "Taking a Chance on Love" (as the collection is called) comes from the 18 show tunes with which Hassan fills out the space. Hassan gives us his own arrangements of the songs, which are certainly miles beyond the simplified versions that made it into the sheet music. He has clearly studied whatever tapes he could find of Duke playing Duke. What we get is not only the songs, but the musicality of Duke (although without the eccentricity of Duke's own playing; the composer tended to depart from the composition at will, as was his prerogative). So here are the big four, plus stunning ballads like "Now," "Suddenly" and "Words without Music"; beamingly irrepressible dance tunes like "Not a Care in the World," "We're Having a Baby" and "My Red Letter Day"; and even the satiric syncopation of "The Gazooka." Let me add that the show tune assortment stops in 1942; there are at least another 18 worthy Duke titles that are not included.

If "Taking a Chance on Love" is well worth taking a chance on, it is not at this point easy to come by; while it will presumably soon arrive at the American dealers who carry this sort of thing, at present it seems only to be available via import from the label, www.shellwood.co.uk.

We have been waiting quite some time for a Vernon Duke songbook; the majority of these songs are long out of print, sad to say. In the meanwhile, "Taking a Chance on Love" will give you a pretty good idea of why so many of us remain mad for Duke.

—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.