ON THE RECORD: Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! and Jessica Molaskey's "Make Believe"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! and Jessica Molaskey's "Make Believe" This week's column discusses the CD transfer of Hugh Martin's Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! and "Make Believe," a collection of songs from Jessica Molaskey.

LOOK MA, I'M DANCIN'! [Decca Broadway B0003571]
Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! is, to quote from the liner notes, about a "brash dancer and choreographer [who hopes] to establish a name for himself [and wants] the company to add comic and modern works to its classical repertory." It was conceived, to coin what was then a new phrase, by one Jerome Robbins, who in 1944 — as a brash dancer and choreographer — established a name for himself by getting Ballet Theatre to allow him to choreograph the modern ballet Fancy Free. Fancy Free, to music by Leonard Bernstein, spawned the musical comedy hit On the Town. This launching pad immediately placed Robbins right up there with Agnes de Mille in Broadway prominence. Both soon moved into the director's chair, with Robbins succeeding gloriously where de Mille did not.

Sixty-year-old George Abbott shepherded the twenty-something, first-time On the Town crew, and Robbins was wise enough to sign on with the master for six consecutive Broadway musicals. Robbins received co-director credit on the fourth, Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!; he also directed a show on his own, later in 1948, Harold Rome's political satire That's the Ticket! (which closed in Philly).

The brash central character of Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! acquired a comedic leading lady along the way. Nancy Walker, who had regaled audiences in three successive Abbott musicals (including On the Town), got the star's spotlight, but the show in some ways remained Eddie's story. Robbins wasn't about to sing and dance on Broadway, although he began his career doing just that (in a failed Fritz Loewe musical). He apparently fashioned this semi-biographical role around the talents of Harold Lang, who danced with him as one of the three sailors on the town in Fancy Free.

Things get a little incestuous, here; conceiver Robbins handed his concept to playwright Arthur Laurents, who was at the time an intimate of Lang. At any rate, by the time Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! reached the stage, Lang was featured, with Walker heading the show as "a stage-struck brewery heiress from Milwaukee" who underwrites the ballet in order to get on her toes.

Composer-lyricist Hugh Martin was assigned the score. In a breezy and candid liner note, Martin confesses that he auditioned "with three great numbers, 'Gotta Dance,' 'Tiny Room' and 'I'm the First Girl (in the Second Row).' They were received rapturously by everyone, even Robbins, and I reacted very stupidly. I got a false sense of security and instead of working hard, I relaxed a little. As a result, there are songs that are, well, OK, but not up to the standard of a George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Nancy Walker musical. I wish I had tried harder." I can think of any number of Broadway musicals, past and present, which that statement more than accurately describes — although I can't think of many songwriters who would admit it. I wholeheartedly agree with Martin's assessment of the numbers he mentions, although he has maliciously slandered two songs that receive much higher marks in my book. Certainly, "Gotta Dance" is a knockout of an introductory number. "I'm a guy who's gotta dance," he sings, and does, essaying everything from the carioca to the can-can to the Castle walk. The number also features a typical Hugh Martin vocal arrangement, which is to say that after soloist Lang finishes, the song really takes off. "Tiny Room" is a ballad in Martin's "Ev'ry Time"/"The Boy Next Door" vein, with chromatic colorings this side of Gershwin. "I'm the First Girl (in the Second Row)" is a comedy number for the heroine, in which she tells us — and I quote — that she's "the first girl in the second row of the third scene in the fourth number in fifth position at ten o'clock on the nose." The lyric rolls off Walker's tongue like butter. "And as for Alexandra Danilova," the beer heiress admits, "I'll never ever make a schlemiel of 'er." If this sort of wordplay is to your liking, then it's time to start your own personal collection of the complete cast albums of Hugh Martin. It should be noted that every syllable of every word is clearly understandable, a frequently overlooked function of the craft of lyric writing.

Martin neglected to mention "The Little Boy Blues," a mellowly slinky little duet marked by lush chromatics that might well become a favorite of yours. And let's have a word for "Shauny O'Shea." Martin: "To me this is a totally boring song, but George Abbott loved it, so in it went. I sometimes pretend I didn't write it." Now, really! Admittedly, this song appears to come from left field; just who is Shauny O'Shea, and why are the girls singing about him? But it is catchy as all get out. Listen to Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! five times or so, and you too are likely to find yourself humming "Shauny" as you walk along.

In the face of an anticipated musicians strike, Decca recorded ten numbers prior to the first performance of the tryout. This was all to the good — we got those five smart numbers, at least — but two of the recorded songs were cut prior to the opening. The previously unreleased "Let's Do a Ballet" and "Horrible, Horrible Love" are both included on the CD, with alternate takes of "Gotta Dance" and "Shauny O'Shea" bringing the track total up to 12. (The two cuts were retooled for Martin's next musical, Make a Wish.) Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! underwent several cast changes after the recording session, giving us a Broadway cast album with only two principals who actually made it to Broadway. No complaints here, since Nancy Walker and Harold Lang are both very much present. An added plus is the presence of composer Martin himself, partnering with Sandra Deel on "The Little Boy Blues."

Half of the tracks feature typical Hugh Martin vocal arrangements, which is to repeat that after the principals get finished, the songs take off. Don Walker, who had written the hot orchestrations for Abbott and Nancy Walker in Martin's Best Foot Forward and Robbins' On the Town, provided the Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! charts. (The big ballet, "Mlle. Scandale," which is not included on the cast album, was scored by Russell Bennett). For Robbins, it was apparently a match made in musical comedy heaven. "All I can say," he said, "is from now on when Robbins appears as choreographer, Walker appears as orchestrator."

This turned out to be an overstatement, but not by much. Walker was the principal orchestrator of That's the Ticket!, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, Two's Company, The Pajama Game and Fiddler on the Roof; he also ghosted charts for Peter Pan and Bells Are Ringing. Which is to say, Walker worked on every show Robbins originated from Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! on, with the exception of Bernstein's West Side Story and Styne's Gypsy. (These were orchestrated by Sid Ramin, Irv Kostal and Red Ginzler — all of whom ghosted for Walker on Bernstein's Wonderful Town and Styne's Hazel Flagg.) If Robbins felt comfortable with Walker, Walker seemed to have a cynical view of Robbins's orchestral demands. But that's another story.

Decca Broadway is well along in its aim to clear out the archives; most of the Decca recordings are now on CD, although quite a few items on related labels are still in the works. (We often hear complaints that the likes of Donnybrook and Baker Street are still not available. The problem, in most cases, is that while Decca Broadway has possession of the original tapes, the contracts have gone astray. And you know how the legal dept. is.)

Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, as musical comedies go, is all-but-forgotten, and this original cast album is brief by the minute hand. But as musical comedies go, it is a winner.

jessica molaskey MAKE BELIEVE [ps classics PS-422]
Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli have got some show tunes for us. "Make Believe," the third collection from the singer and the guitarist follows in the mold of "Pentimento" and "A Good Day." Very nice indeed.

Molaskey sings all the old songs, yes. But she always finds a way to bring something new, without ever distorting the material. This ability marked her first two, similarly enjoyable albums on ps classics, so you may approach "Make Believe" without trepidation. With Molaskey and Pizzarelli, the songs are in especially good hands.

You notice "The Stepsisters Lament" on the song listing, and you wonder whether anybody ever sang that outside of Cinderella (when they had to). Even so, why must we listen to it? But Molaskey takes it on, at double-time and singing both stepsisters, and you think: well, yes. There are other songs we never seem to hear — Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields's "Growing Pains," from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is one — and all we can do is be grateful to Molaskey and her team for bringing it to us. (And listen for that modulation leading into the final section; abrupt, but perfectly fitting the song.) This one is accompanied solely by Pizzarelli's guitar. Presented in a very different manner than it was when heard on stage, it becomes a very special lullaby. There is also a delicate and precious rendition of Sondheim's "So Many People" (from Saturday Night), with lovely backup from pianist Larry Goldings.

Crowning them all, perhaps, is "Right as the Rain" (from Bloomer Girl). Another song you might well feel that you needn't hear again, even if it is Harold Arlen. But that doesn't take into account Molaskey. I always thought of this as a simple ballad; Jessica reveals the anthem-like purity of the melody, putting it in a class with Arlen's "My Shining Hour" and that "Rainbow" song. On the other hand, you would expect Molaskey to do a wonderful job on Harold's "You're a Builder Upper." And she does. What a wonderfully jaunty song with a gilt-edged lyric by Yip and Ira! (Brother George was off at the time, writing Porgy and Bess.)

Yes, this is a collection of old show tunes. (It's quite jarring to find an album of old show tunes include "All That Jazz" — but it is, after all, 30 years old!) Molaskey tells us, in her liner note, that she felt that she "could not make this album without the quiet presence of the current generation of profoundly talented young composers and lyricists." This means Ricky Ian Gordon, who collaborates with Molaskey on "Cradle and All," a moving song about neglectful parents; and Jason Robert Brown, who provides an arrangement that I prefer not to discuss. (If you want to do a Sondheim song, go ahead. But why use it as a secondary countermelody to someone else's tune?) Adam Guettel is present too, not as a writer but duetting with Molaskey on his grandfather's evergreen — and everfresh — "Glad to Be Unhappy."

Molaskey and Pizzarelli know music; as always, they have surrounded themselves with an exceptional band. Don Sebesky does most of the orchestrations; Larry Goldings provides arrangements, playing piano solos as well. I've combed the credits, but can't seem to find the name of a conductor. So let's just give credit to Pizzarelli, who produced the album. Along with his wife, the singer. —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.