It's that time of the year when we can look forward to a new batch of first-time-on-CD cast albums from across the sea. This has something to do with the vagaries of copyright law. As I understand it, most songs retain their copyright for 75 years or considerably longer; the record albums themselves, though, seem to lose protection in the United Kingdom after 50 years. Thus, a couple of British independent labels, Must Close Saturday and Sepia, have for the last several years seen fit to bring us a parade of obscure, 50-year-old cast albums. In some cases, unfortunately, they wind up issuing the same cast albums, albeit with different bonus tracks.
This practice has resulted in several highly enjoyable albums, including The Crooked Mile, Divorce Me, Darling, Love from Judy and — from Broadway — Hazel Flagg and Make a Wish. This year's releases do not include any such winners, alas. Even so, these CDs will no doubt be embraced by those of us who can't help but be fascinated by full-scale musicals of the era.
Cranks can easily be classed among the more unusual musicals to emerge from the professional theatre. Written and devised by John Cranko, a dancer and choreographer for the Royal Ballet, the revue opened in December 1955 and transferred to the West End on March 1, 1956 for 223 performances. The original cast next moved to Broadway, where Cranks opened Nov. 26 at the Bijou (an intimate-sized house on West 45th Street, just east of the Morosco). That was quite a week, with Bells Are Ringing and Candide opening, too! Cranks was pretty roundly trounced — hey, what was that? — and lasted a mere five weeks.
Even so, the original London cast album is striking, thanks in great part to composer John Addison. The show starts with a musical phrase begun by the harpsichord and completed by the harp; there's an ear-catching sound for you. The actors then sing their names, over and over; so do the four musicians. This number — called "Who's Who" — is followed by a Harry Belafonte-type number, with the singer (an American named Hugh Bryant) accompanied by a lone tom-tom. Then comes Tony Newley, singing an unusual up-tempo ditty called "Cold Comfort." Cranks goes on like this for 45 minutes or so; the closest I can think to compare it to, on the Broadway CD shelf, is The Nervous Set. Cranks is far more successful than that beat musical, though. I can't say that you're likely to love it, but it certainly is different. Annie Ross, who went on to quite a career as a jazz singer, is the sole girl of the group. She is quite a singer, displaying a comic bent here. Ross, the niece of Ella Logan, started as a child actor; at 11 she played Judy Garland's kid sister in "Presenting Lily Mars." She was joined in Cranks by Newley, another former child actor making his first adult appearance on the West End stage. Newley was best known just then for his performance as the Artful Dodger in David Lean's 1948 film version of "Oliver Twist" (starring Alec Guinness as Fagin). He joined Ross in the comedy numbers and the ballads. They were accompanied by a dancer/choreographer, Gilbert Vernon; and singer Bryant, who stayed stateside after the demise of Cranks to understudy Ricardo Montalban in Jamaica.
The potential purchaser is faced with two competing Cranks CDs. One, from Sepia , is accompanied by ten Annie Ross tracks. The other, from Must Close Saturday [MCSR 3037], gives us the original cast album of Wild Grows the Heather, which opened May 3, 1956 at the Hippodrome and closed — understandably so — after 28 performances. This was a musicalization of J.M. Barrie's The Little Minister, so help us. Valerie Miller played the lady Babbie, while Bill O'Connor (of Love from Judy) was the title character. The music was credited to Robert Lindon, with lyrics by William Henry; in actuality, the music came from the popular 1920s team of Jack Waller and Joseph Tunbridge. (Tunbridge died in 1954; Waller — who died in 1957 — apparently pulled the songs from the pair's trunk.) The lyrics were by Ralph Reader, who also directed. The choreographer, coincidentally enough, was Gilbert Vernon (who performed in Cranks).
The only catchy song among the eight selections is "I See Everything I Love in You," which the composers seemed to have caught from Tchaikowsky's Sixth. (Not the main "pathetique" love theme, but the one which comes directly before it.) As for the title song, the writers seem to have listened one time too often to "They Call the Wind Maria." The whole shebang, set in the Scottish highlands, winds up with a grand choral arrangement of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." I suppose you had to be there. On second thought, better not. Even so, this represents yet another bonafide West End musical you can notch up on your checklist of flops.
The same can be said for Summer Song. This one tells of a composer with writer's block who —searching for inspiration, or his roots, or some such thing — goes off to, get this, a Czech lumber camp in rural Illinois, circa 1890. There, good old Tony meets all sorts of hard-working, lovable immigrants and is thus moved to write, get this, the New World Symphony. Dvorak's Ninth, to you. The show is subtitled, lest they give it away, "a story of the new world."
Thus we get that immortal melody, "Cotton Tail." ("Cotton tail, cotton tail/Snoozin' in the shade/Cotton tail, cotton tail/That's de way ya made.") This sung by Trinidadian bass Edric Connor, playing a former slave, I suppose; at least, he sings "Collud folk work and slave/Guess that's why they're born/Work and slave till the day/Gabriel blows that horn." This guy sounds like he's supposed to be Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River." Hopefully, I'll be able to block this pop version of Dvorak's immortal theme from memory — and soon, please!
Okay. What Summer Song does give us, besides a lot of boiled-down Dvorak, is six tracks of Sally Ann Howes, who happily rises above it. The show opened Feb. 16, 1956 at the Prince's Theatre, closing after four months. Howes went on to play the Shelley Winters role in the London production of A Hatful of Rain, then gleefully crossed the Atlantic to replace Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. David Hughes played the boy; Laurence Naismith, known in America for his musical appearances in A Time for Singing and as Kris Kringle in Here's Love, plays good old Antonin D.
Dvorak gets composer billing, for better or worse, with arrangements credited to Bernard Grun. Eric Maschwitz wrote the lyrics and collaborated on the book with Hy Kraft (the blacklisted librettist of Top Banana, of all things). Maschwitz was connected with numerous West End musicals, although he achieved his greatest fame as lyricist of the pop songs "A Nightingale in Berkley Square" and "These Foolish Things." Both songs were written under the pseudonym Holt Marvell, which I suppose didn't sound quite so ethnic as Maschwitz. (His wife of 20 years didn't use the moniker either, avoiding an unquestionably unwieldy stage name: Hermione Gingold Maschwitz?)
Summer Song, too, hits the market in competing editions. Sepia  adds a seven-minute selection of themes from the show, including material not on the cast album, played by the Melanchrino Orchestra. There are also two selections by Connor (like "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny") and three by Hughes. Must Close Saturday [MCSR 3036], on the other hand, gives us the London cast recording of Plain and Fancy, which made a brief West End visit in 1956. Shirl Conway and Richard Derr repeated their Broadway roles, although neither appear on the recording. (There used to be a standard clause added to the recording rider of Broadway contracts forbidding the actors from recording their songs elsewhere for a given period.) Derr's songs are omitted, while Conway's "A Helluva Way to Run a Love Affair" is performed by Virginia Somers, who also plays and sings the Nancy Andrews role.
Plain and Fancy was a moderate Broadway hit of its time, which was displaced from the Hellinger to make way for the flop Ankles Aweigh, then booted from the Winter Garden to make room for the flop The Vamp (starring Carol Channing), and then permanently shuttered when it was forced out of its second Hellinger booking in favor of My Fair Lady. I confess that I always enjoy listening to Albert Hague's tuneful and friendly score, and I expect that fans of the show will want to hear this London version. Plain and Fancy without Barbara Cook is not quite the same thing, of course. However, this recording demonstrates sparkle and Broadway bounce in the Phil Lang orchestrations that is absent on the New York recording. (This is especially apparent in "Plenty of Pennsylvania" and "Helluva Way.") This might seem strange, coming from a British conductor (Cyril Ornadel). The conundrum is easily explained, though; the Broadway show was conducted by Franz Allers, who didn't exactly swing.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)