ON THE RECORD: Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White and Bette Davis in Two's Company

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White and Bette Davis in Two's Company This week's column discusses the new Andrew Lloyd Webber-David Zippel musical The Woman in White and the CD release of the Bette Davis Vernon Duke-Jerome Robbins revue Two's Company.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE [EMI 7243 5 57938]
The Woman in White is, by my count, the thirteenth musical theatre offering from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. While I will refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of the show as a theatrical piece, not having seen it, the two-CD original cast album demonstrates that the score of The Woman in White sits near the top of Lloyd Webber's list, in proximity to Evita.

For starters, Lloyd Webber and his lyricist David Zippel have provided several spots that are so enjoyable as to make you smile while listening. The Woman in White is a moody piece, naturally enough given the nature of its source material (Wilkie Collins' 1860 "sensation novel" of the same title). But the composer here seems unafraid to have a little fun, which adds a welcome brightness to the proceedings.

Let "You Can Get Away with Anything" demonstrate. Here you have one of the major characters, an eccentric villain, planning his getaway. This plot point can be accomplished in any number of ways; somebody has to sing about it, yes, but there's no rule to say it has to be fun. Lloyd Webber and Zippel have happily recognized it as a musical comedy spot, and have given their character a knockabout tour-de-force in the tradition of "I'm Going Back," "So Long, Dearie," and — more directly — "Reviewing the Situation."

"You can get away with anything," Fosco sings with great elan; but he carefully points out "you can't get away with anything — if you don't get away." This twist makes the song; it is a little puzzle in itself, with a great payoff. By having their character admit he has no shame, Webber and Zippel can go on a little holiday of their own; Fosco even admits to stealing an encore. "We all have got a spark of farce in us, but only some of us are larcenous," he boasts. This is Michael Crawford speaking, who at this writing appears to have made his own getaway from the production.

The Woman in White marks Lloyd Webber and Zippel's first collaboration, but the combination of names seemed vaguely familiar. Digging back in the archives, I found the following in an "On the Record" column from 1991. "It's a shame about the lyrics," I said when addressing By Jeeves, "because Lloyd Webber displays a most welcome sense of humor in his score. Maybe someone should e-mail him David Zippel's phone number. (Which, on reflection, might be a very good idea indeed.)" The Lloyd Webber-Zippel collaboration has come to pass. Zippel has provided lyrics in a different league than those Lloyd Webber is accustomed to, which is all to the good. What's more, the theatrical sense that Zippel has demonstrated in the past is very much in evidence. "Say it with music" goes an old Irving Berlin song, but the sentiment has a specific application when it comes to musical theatre. How you say it with music is sometimes less important than what you choose to say (with music). What do the characters sing about?

When dealing with a through-sung musical, they of necessity sing about everything. But there is a vast difference between setting the dialogue (and plot) to music, and constructing musical scenes (and songs) that present the material theatrically. The game is in the song slots; pick them well, and you're halfway there.

Lloyd Webber and Zippel will presumably continue to work on The Woman in White before it makes its way across the sea. Let us hope so, as there are some rough spots along the way. (An important and otherwise satisfactory number is likely to remind at least some observers of Tuptim at the court of the King of Siam. Surely coincidental, but very easily adjusted.) Even at this point, The Woman in White — as presented on this two CD set, recorded live (mostly) at the Palace — demonstrates a new and welcome facet of Lloyd Webber.

TWO'S COMPANY [Sepia 1047]
"Bette Davis's foghorn tends to obscure the attractiveness of the words and music."

So said Stanley Green in his 1960 book "The World of Musical Comedy." Green wasn't the only person writing books about musical comedy back at mid century, but he was unquestionably the finest. I think it's safe to say that Stanley introduced whole generations of us to the musical theatre. (I'm glad to say that as I was writing my first book and he was writing his last, I had occasion to consult with and thank him.)

But let's get back to Bette Davis. For many years, Green's "foghorn voice" was just about all you could learn about the score of the 1952 revue Two's Company. The cast album was long out-of-print, and the show all but forgotten (except by people who remembered the adverse newspaper reports at the time). Sometime in the early 70s the LP reappeared as an import from Australia — who can explain it? who can tell you why? — and if you were lucky enough to find it, the problems were immediately apparent. This show sounds ghastly.

Ghastly in a fascinating way, that is. Two's Company is now on CD, and let me say this; you've never heard anything quite like it. This was not the first time that an out-of-demand movie queen headed east, seeking to revive her career by making a splash on the Rialto. There are even cases where it worked, and the movie star was embraced by the locals and decked with adulation and Tony Awards. (Angela Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Alexis Smith, to name a few.)

But in Bette Davis you had someone who couldn't sing or dance, and — most importantly — didn't have the musical comedy gene. Two's Company seemed clearly designed to poke fun at the cliche of the visiting movie queen; but the joke, it turned out, was on them. Them being young producers Michael Ellis and James Russo, who appear to have teamed up backstage at Finian's Rainbow. They no doubt thought they'd landed a smash — I mean, Bette Davis! on Broadway!! — but wound up with a bomb.

Russo and Ellis lined up composer Vernon Duke (who assembled several hit Shubert revues in the 1930s, including the Ziegfeld Follies of '34 and '36) and his then-collaborator Sammy Cahn (who had High Button Shoes and a string of pop-and-Hollywood song hits to his credit). Before they got very far, Cahn was offered a producing job in Hollywood. Duke turned to light versifier Ogden Nash, who had been on Broadway in 1943 with the lyrics for the "Speak Low" musical, One Touch of Venus. Ms. Davis was placed in the hands of director Charles Sherman, who had recently devised the revue Along Fifth Avenue for Nancy Walker. Bolstering the package was wonderboy choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose recent hits included Call Me Madam and The King and I. As Two's Company began its descent to ignominy en route to Broadway, Robbins thought better of his production supervisor credit and had it wiped off the billing page. And no wonder.

Listening to the Two's Company cast album, which comes our way courtesy of Sepia, we discover that Davis was, indeed, quite something. She starts off with one of those cliched numbers for a star backed up by four "boys," and one's jaw simply drops in amazement. "Turn Me Loose on Broadway," it's called, "as a musical comedy, no melo-dramedy, musical comedy girl," she sings. (This is a place, Nash explains, where the only coveted Oscar is Hammerstein.)

Davis butchers a comedy song called "Just Like a Man," which had been written for an earlier Dolores Gray musical that shuttered in Philadelphia, and must have sounded a whole lot better coming from Dolores.

The nadir is something called "Roll Along Sadie," a take on Somerset Maugham's Rain. (This was an inside joke; Duke's Sadie Thompson was one of the prime flops of the 1940s, doomed from the moment Ethel Merman walked out on rehearsals.) The other nadir — if you can have two nadirs — is a pseudo-Hillbilly saga in the "Frankie & Johnnie" vein called "Purple Rose." Davis came out in kickapoo rags, with blacked-out teeth, no less; it was all intended in fun, no doubt, but there she is, the washed-up-movie-queen, baying like a hound. The other nadir — lots of low points, and how — is something poor Davey Burns was given to sing about a femme fatale named "Esther." Playing Esther? Maria Karnilova.

The score did have a couple of nice spots, although only when the star was safely off in her dressing room. "It Just Occurred to Me" is a pleasant ballad, "Out of the Clear Blue Sky is a sweeping waltz, and "Roundabout" — also from that Dolores Gray show — is quite nice (even though it is given a somewhat turgid setting). It was used here as prelude to one of those droopy ballets where the dancers make believe they are kids. A Robbins ballet, yes; but even so. The dances were, presumably, something to see, with Nora Kaye, Buzz Miller and Karnilova on their toes. (Jokesters included Burns, Hiram Sherman, George S. Irving and Stanley Prager.) Ellen Hanley, who went on to play Mrs. Fiorello in the musical of that name, sang "Roundabout." Leading comedian Hiram Sherman got to sing an interpolated number from budding composer lyricist Sheldon Harnick. "A Man's House" took gentle aim at architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I suppose it must have gone over well in the theatre, as Sherman managed to take a Tony Award for his efforts.

If Two's Company is musical theatre of low caliber, the cast album — available at long last — is sure to live up to the expectations you bring to it. The overture, at least, sounds like it is going to lead to something exciting. As with many shows of the period, the orchestrations came from several hands. What was unusual was that the participants were properly credited. Don Walker was the main (and "supervising") orchestrator, with Clare Grundman and Phil Lang both making substantial contributions. (It turns out that Grundman — also of Drat! The Cat! — was not Broadway's first, and only, female orchestrator. Clare was short for Clarence.) Milton Rosenstock wields his typically professional baton.

Sepia has supplemented the 45-minute set with 20-minutes worth of Vernon Duke playing Vernon Duke. (As my recent review of another CD of Duke piano music was posted, these 1953 recordings — of which I was unaware — came in with Two's Company.) Duke is absolutely fascinating at the keyboard. He actually seems to stop mid-thought — mid-musical thought, that is — and go off in another direction altogether, returning to the melody when he's good and ready. I wouldn't recommend anyone else doing this, not if you don't want the ghost of the composer coming after you; but in Duke's hands it all seems natural. He is accompanied by Dorothy Richards on three of these mini-medley tracks, and by Huguette Ferly on the fourth (which features "April in Paris"). If you can put your hands on a copy of Duke's invaluable autobiography "Passport to Paris," you will discover that this was recorded on "Johnny Latouche's Bechstein-Moore, a piano with an extra keyboard (never before used for recording purposes)." The piano had an extra keyboard, yes; but these startling recordings sound like the pianist had an extra hand, or two.

—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

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