ON THE RECORD: Maggie Flynn, and Solo Albums from Ann Hampton Callaway and Jill O'Hara

News   ON THE RECORD: Maggie Flynn, and Solo Albums from Ann Hampton Callaway and Jill O'Hara Giving a listen to the first-time-on-CD release of the Shirley Jones-Jack Cassidy vehicle Maggie Flynn, Ann Hampton Callaway's "At Last," and Jill O'Hara's "Alone Together." Plus, remembering the late John McGlinn.
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MAGGIE FLYNN [DRG 19123]
"Beeeeeeee-autiful Maggie Flynn," goes the song. That is, the title tune from the 1968 musical Maggie Flynn, one of the last of the gleefully tuneful original Broadway cast albums that has yet to make it to CD. Until now, that is, with DRG remedying the situation by finally issuing the thing. Maggie Flynn is not a work of perfection, as is likely to be the case with any musical which disappeared with barely a trace after a mere ten weeks and has remained missing — without a single major production? — for 40 full years. But the score is generally bright, sunny, and as flavorful as raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and as tooth-achingly sweet as the bright red coating on a candy-apple. Sondheim it ain't, nor Rodgers and Hammerstein neither; but my guess is that once you press the play button, you'll listen to it far more than once.

Once upon a time, it seems, there was a high-spirited Irish lass who married a charming ne'er-do-well who ran off and joined the circus, leaving her in the lurch. So she started an orphanage for black orphans — this is Manhattan, by the way, in the middle of the Civil War! — and proceeded to get engaged to a sober and reliable (and humorless) baritone. Soon as she's ready to get married, what do you think happens? You've no doubt divined that Phineas — or Mr. Clown, as the chorus kids call him — returns, charming and rapscallionish as ever, to win back his bride. What you probably haven't guessed is that they all wind up smack dab in the middle of the historically authentic Draft Riots of 1863, with the orphanage on Christopher Street burning to the ground in the second act.

If this sounds like a trite, romantic triangle grafted onto history in the making for little purpose except to help give an old, old, old-fashioned musical contemporary relevance in the middle of another round of draft resistance — complete with cute child actors to help garner smiles — well you are right. That's precisely what Maggie Flynn was; professional but manufactured down to the last tear-jerking fillip. And very much devised to gain relevance by parallels to the anti-Vietnam protests just then raging in the streets. ("They're Never Gonna Make Me Fight" was the title of a big number for chorus boys.) The relevance was muddled, though. In real life, the draft resisters were seen — at least by a portion of society — as being in the right. In the world of Maggie Flynn, the protestors were led by Confederate spies attempting to bring trouble to the North.

Songwriters Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, better known in music circles as Hugo & Luigi, were top record producers; their credits included "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "Twistin' the Night Away," "I Will Follow Him" and "Shout." In 1961 they collaborated with pop songwriter George David Weiss on "Can't Help Falling in Love," which Elvis Presley introduced in "Blue Hawaii." (The tune was actually borrowed from a 1780 French tune, but we'll let that pass.) Weiss had served as co-composer/lyricist on two unsuccessful, Jule Styne-sponsored Broadway musicals, Mr. Wonderful and First Impressions, so it was perhaps not surprising that Hugo & Luigi and Weiss started tinkering with a musical of their own. Not surprisingly, the project as conceived had nothing to do with the Civil War; Maggie Flynn started as the story of a feisty mother-type, somewhat patterned on Alice Hegan Rice's 1901 novel "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch." While trying to drum up interest in their musical, a helpful producer-type suggested that the authors graft their character (already called Maggie) to the above-described historical Civil War orphanage. Instant social significance, but at a cost. John Bowab — associate producer of the 1966 hits Sweet Charity and Mame — stepped in to produce, enlisting director Morton Da Costa to take the helm. Da Costa was one of those apparent geniuses who all too quickly burn out. In a period of less than three years, he directed the moderate hit Plain and Fancy, the substantial comedy hit No Time for Sergeants, the blockbuster comedy Auntie Mame, and the blockbuster musical The Music Man. (These, plus the film versions of the latter two.) Top that, why don't you? Well, he couldn't. Saratoga was a bomb, Hot Spot was a disaster, Sherry! was even worse, and these were followed by: beeeeeeee-autiful Maggie Flynn.

A bankable (and married) pair of stars was duly enlisted, movie heroine Shirley Jones and Tony Award-winner Jack Cassidy. Cassidy was a veteran scene-stealer and overall scamp; he had a reputation for being unruly, but he had a glorious voice that made up for everything. He was at his comedic best in two Hal Prince musicals, She Loves Me and It's Superman, but he is arguably at his finest on the title track of the cast album of Wish You Were Here. (He also deserves credit as the man who introduced Bock to Harnick.) Just listen to Cassidy in Maggie; give him a lyric like "pitter patter, weather doesn't matter" and he makes is sound like one of the Sonnets. Maggie also features an especially bombastic ballad, "Why Can't I Walk Away?" which Cassidy effortlessly transforms into something far better than it is. He also turned his two big production numbers, the title song and "Mr. Clown," into veritable festivals despite the mundane material.

Jones, who played Rodgers & Hammerstein heroines in the film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel — and who later went on to worldwide celebrity as the mother of TV's "The Partridge Family" (featuring Cassidy's son David) — does well enough with her numerous singing chores; but the show is what it is. The world outside was changing; this was 1968, when New York's most popular new tuners were Hair and the Off-Broadway musical Your Own Thing, with Promises, Promises en route. Although Hugo & Luigi and Weiss's songs would have seemed old-fashioned in an earlier era, too. It is worth noting that two of the first night critics came up with the same line, calling Maggie Flynn the best Broadway musical since Her First Roman — thereby honoring a desperately lousy mishmash that opened three days earlier. Robert Kaye, as the third side of the triangle, gets half of one song; with Jones and Cassidy going full throttle, who needs another singer?

All those bright and smiling orphans, who might have scuttled a far stronger musical, turned out to be one of Maggie Flynn's highlights. ("The Thank You Song," the aforementioned "Mr. Clown," and especially "Bright Cold Morning" are among the score's sunniest moments.) The actors are not, alas, credited on the album; they are a strong group, though, and all have identifiable solo sections. Three of the eight went on to major careers: Irene Cara, Stephanie Mills, and Giancarlo Esposito. The others phased out of the business, although I wonder whatever happened to Douglas Grant (who gave a memorable performance the following year as the first grader dreaming of lunchroom mashed potatoes and a million dollars in The Me Nobody Knows, playing opposite Ms. Cara in pigtails.)

The liner notes include Mort Goode's original synopsis from the LP; Mr. Creatore's piece on the show's evolution, from the souvenir booklet; and 12 production shots. This is not musical comedy at its finest, by a long shot. But the cheerily good-natured songs (orchestrated by Phil Lang), the bouncy melodies, and the voices of Ms. Jones and Mr. Cassidy make Maggie Flynn a winning addition to your CD shelf.

Two solo albums stand out among the many that have recently crossed the transom. Does anyone still have a transom? At any rate, Ann Hampton Callaway has favored us with At Last [Telarc 83665], a highly personal and highly pleasing collection of 11 songs in extended arrangements by Callaway (some with Bill Mays, some with Ted Rosenthal). Callaway is backed by a very fine group of nine musicians, featuring Mr. Rosenthal at piano and Jay Leonhart on bass, with numerous solos from the others. But it is Callaway's personal approach to the songs that makes this CD so special. My favorites on first hearings are "Comes Love" (from Yokel Boy, if you remember Yokel Boy), an arresting visit to "Spain," and that old favorite "Over the Rainbow."

Bill Mays is also present at the keyboard on Alone Together, an album from Jill O'Hara — the same Jill O'Hara who played Sheila in the original 1967 off-Broadway production of Hair (where she introduced "Good Morning Starshine"), bypassed the Broadway version for a featured role in George M!, and went on to play Fran Kubelik in the 1968 Promises, Promises (where she introduced "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"). After which she more or less disappeared from view, 40 years ago. Here she is, on a self-produced album, and she sounds quite good. Almost half the songs are by Randy Newman. The title track, though, is a show tune: Schwartz and Dietz's "Alone Together," a beauty that is given an effective rendering by Ms. O'Hara. A nice visit with a voice from the past, as they say; only this voice doesn't seem 60-odd years old. *

How did Broadway musicals sound prior to the advent of the original cast album era? How were they meant to sound? What did audiences hear when Kern, Gershwin, Youmans or Porter were standing in the back of the house? Conductor John McGlinn, who died last month at the age of 55, was dedicated to figuring it out and recreating that sound for modern audiences. A series of mid-80s concerts led to a contract with EMI and a series of recordings, beginning with Gershwin and leading to a ground-breaking 1988 three-disc reconstruction of Jerome Kern's Show Boat. This was among six such albums he made, the others being Porter's Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun, Loewe's Brigadoon, and Kern's Sitting Pretty. (McGlinn did not record a complete version of Youmans' No, No, Nanette, which was cited in his obituary in the New York Times, although he did conduct a well-recorded concert version of the show.) Most important among McGlinn's other recordings, perhaps, is "Broadway Showstoppers," which gave us major show tunes featuring their original orchestrations. Kern's "Some Girl Is on My Mind" from Sweet Adeline and "All the Things You Are" from Very Warm for May, by themselves, make convincing arguments for McGlinn's hypothesis. The conductor's quest was interrupted by the termination of his deal with EMI in 1992; while he continued to toil on his quixotic path, various roadblocks — including his sometimes less-than-diplomatic manner — prevented the completion of his several projects. But when I spoke with him last year, he nevertheless retained his love of and enthusiasm for the works of Broadway's great composers.

(Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)