ON THE RECORD: Me & Juliet, Happy Hunting and Milk and Honey Back on CD

News   ON THE RECORD: Me & Juliet, Happy Hunting and Milk and Honey Back on CD New reissues of three mid-century musicals: Rodgers & Hammerstein's Me and Juliet, Ethel Merman's not-so Happy Hunting, and Jerry Herman's Milk and Honey.
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More reissues of out-of-print CD versions of out-of-print LPs have come our way, which brings up a philosophical question. Imagine something like the original cast recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific. The one with Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, if you can remember back that far. There are at least a few readers of this column who bought this on those cumbersome 78 RPM platters in 1949, back before many of us were born even. A few years later, they upgraded to the heavy LP platter with the dark blue label and the "anchor" cover. In 1962 they switched to the modern Masterworks LP with the gatefold packaging, featuring a nice color photo of Mary and Ezio (with "Honey Bun") on the back; sometime later, you switched to the enhanced-for-stereo version without the gatefold. The fifth South Pacific purchase — not including the motion picture soundtrack or the Florence Henderson-Giorgio Tozzi Lincoln Center revival — was the 1988 CD release (which for reasons unknown included a sonic burp within "Carefully Taught"). Imagine, all that music which initially took up those six two-sided 78s — and all that shelf-space — now in a little tiny jewel-box. Time to reconfigure your shelving. And then came a technologically superior CD in 1993, which took care of poor Bill Tabbert's blip; and finally, in 1998, a newly-restored, state-of-the-art CD with bonus tracks and everything [Sony/Columbia SK 60722].

That's seven servings of Mary & Ezio's South Pacific. The 1998 edition, of course, is the last word in technology and shall never be surpassed. Or will it? Consumers marveled when they brought out that stereo-enhanced recording, and eagerly paraded to Sam Goody's to add it to their shelf. What makes us think that something new and "better" won't come along?

With each new issue one was faced with the same question: worth getting? Do I need it? Do I really need it? The best answer, generally, was a simple question: how frequently do you listen to the album in question? If South Pacific or Gypsy or Sweeney is repeatedly on your CD player (or record player, if you ever had a record player), then you're bound to want the next iteration. With respect to South Pacific, the most ardent lover of the score might in retrospect have done well enough without the enhanced stereo LP or the 1993 CD release.

The discussion changes when we're talking about lesser musicals, titles that have not remained consistently available over the years. DRG has just brought us three original cast albums which are a half-century old or nearly so; cast albums from RCA which long ago went out-of-print. As best I remember, the earliest of them was at one time reissued on LP, using an artificial stereo process, and soon went back out-of-print. I eagerly snapped it up when it was issued on CD in Japan in the mid-80s. (Why Japan? To skirt copyright laws, no doubt.) It then appeared on a mainstream BMG release in the early 90s, along with the other two titles; and all eventually found their way back to the out-of-print list. These are a far cry from the South Pacifics of the world, where the record companies were looking for a reason to get their customers to buy yet another copy of something that was still in the stores. The shows in question, in the present case, are something else. Three unsuccessful musicals that were — in truth — not very good; but three cast albums with obvious reasons for a discerning musical theatre fan to want to hear them.

Readers of this column fall into two overlapping categories. Musical theatre enthusiasts who have been buying everything that comes out as it comes out, and who thus already have these cast albums in their prior carnations (and, in some cases, five or six versions of the 1949 South Pacific). Their immediate question is, as stated, do I need to plunk down the money for these new CDs? In what ways do they differ from the last, and is the difference enough?

However, there is another category of readers here; the Broadway musical fanbase has always attracted "new" people, chronologically or otherwise, without whom the whole field would have shriveled up and collapsed years ago. People who — yes — have never heard A or B or C, and who have nevertheless managed to survive. Maybe they were only 12 when the first of these was CD'd in 1993; or maybe, regardless of age, they just plain weren't interested back then. For these readers, the release of these three CDs is of decidedly different importance than it is to those of us who bought them as soon as they came out last time around.

The shows combine to make an odd assortment of mid-century musicals.

Me and Juliet [DRG 19115] came along at the very height of Rodgers & Hammerstein's success. South Pacific, in its fifth season, had just moved to the Broadway to make way at the Majestic for Me and Juliet; The King and I was still reigning directly across 44th Street at the St. James. And Oklahoma!, the long-run record king which had vacated the St. James in 1948, was making a return visit to town at City Center (with an apple-cheeked Barbara Cook as Ado Annie). As it turned out, R&H had already started their descent from the musical theatre pedestal. As Brooks Atkinson opined in the Times, this musical about the making of a musical "needs work."

Subpar Rodgers & Hammerstein is Rodgers & Hammerstein nonetheless. Me and Juliet rolled along for almost a year, with an understandably monumental advance sale enough to enable this unadventurous musical to show a profit. And the score, while not in the same category as King and I, had at least something to recommend it; if this had come from a team of newcomers, the show might have created a certain amount of excitement. "No Other Love" was the song-hit of the show. It was a hit going in; Rodgers wrote the sultry tango a year earlier as a theme for the TV documentary series "Victory at Sea." Equally pleasing, as far as I'm concerned, is the incessantly charming "Marriage Type Love." There is also a nice, small-scale piano-bar tune in "That's the Way It Happens"; a paean to love affairs of the light-hearted type, called "Keep It Gay'; and "Intermission Talk," a smart, insider's look at what goes on in the lower lobby built around a dirgelike refrain lamenting that "the theatre is dying," and including capsule versions of then-current attractions. ("My love for my husband grew thinner / the first time I looked at Yul Brynner / and back in my bed on Long Island / I kept dreaming of Brynner in Thailand.")

But the whole thing is somewhat slight; the LP seems truncated, but there are in fact a mere eleven songs in the show. We get only a hint of a feeling for any of the performers. The twin leading ladies were Isabel Bigley, formerly Miss Sarah of Guys and Dolls; and Joan McCracken, the Girl Who Fell Down in the big ballet in Oklahoma! and parlayed it into a career, with leading roles in Bloomer Girl and Billion Dollar Baby. She played a crucial part in Broadway musical history when she asked Me and Juliet director George Abbott to hire her husband to choreograph his next show, despite the fact that he had never before choreographed a show. McCracken's career went downhill from there, while Bob Fosse's work on The Pajama Game launched him into the spotlight (and toward a new wife, Gwen Verdon). Bill Hayes sang the romantic lead, Mark Dawson was the heavy; comedy came from Ray Walston (from the London company of South Pacific) and George S. Irving (a cowman from Oklahoma!).

If Me and Juliet was quickly forgotten, there are some songs here that you really might want to become acquainted with. I defy you to turn a cold ear toward "Marriage Type Love," for one. As for the question of whether there's anything new here for collectors who already have the prior release, the answer is yes. We get Perry Como's recording of "No Other Love," which was a chart-topping hit at the time, paired with Perry's "Keep It Gay." More to the point is a 16-minute interview between Rodgers and record producer Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records. (Me and Juliet was released by the competition, but the ravages of time and shifting catalogues has now wed RCA to Columbia.) While this track is not explained in the liner notes, it appears to have been prepared in conjunction with the 1954 LP "Richard Rodgers conducting the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York" [Columbia CL-810]. The interview seems to have been devised for radio broadcast, with built-in cues to insert tracks from the album (although on this CD we get the interview without the music). Sixteen minutes of Rodgers talking about his music; that's a bonus that you don't get with the prior releases of Me and Juliet.

In their bright-and-breezy libretto for Bells Are Ringing, the musical hit of the fall of 1956, Betty Comden & Adolph Green take comic aim at the notion of a song-writing dentist. This was not a figment of their fertile imaginations; the big show of the season — and the chief competition to Bells Are Ringing — was, indeed, the work of a dentist-composer. (If Betty & Adolph knew that this dentist was doomed to musical comedy failure, they perhaps wouldn't have poked fun.) The drill-man's name was Harold Karr; his magnum-opus was called Happy Hunting [DRG 19108], and if we wanted to make dentist jokes we might call the score numbingly bad. That same Mr. Atkinson called the show a "mechanical mishmash."

What Happy Hunting did have was Ethel Merman front and center, and that's more than enough to command our attention (and the attention of prospective CD buyers). This is Merman just prior to Gypsy, when she was still out there playing the comic-romantic leading lady. (Her on-stage romance with co-star Fernando Lamas was legendarily problematic; let it be said that the stars' love songs on Happy Hunting are pretty unconvincing.) What we do get is one top-notch number, a mother-daughter ditty called "Mutual Admiration Society" for Ethel and Virginia Gibson (who had danced in three Jerry Robbins musicals under the name Virginia Gorski). This one takes off like a rocket, as does Merman's opening number "Gee, But It's Good to Be Here." Some of the other songs are bad — laffably bad. Dr. Karr and his lyricist Matt Dubey seem to have been listening closely to their collection of still-in-print LPs. "Mr. Livingston" bears witness to twin showstoppers Mr. Berlin wrote for Ms. Merman, "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and "The Hostess with the Mostes' on the Ball." "A New-Fangled Tango" seems to come direct from "Hernando's Hideaway." Other items are jawdroppers, such as "If'n" and "Everyone Who's 'Who's Who'" — two songs that conductor Jay Blackton seems to be rushing through in hopes of getting the show over that much faster. Those ballads ("It's Like a Beautiful Woman," "This Is What I Call Love," "The Game of Love," "This Much I Know") are pretty mirthless. Merman dropped two of them after the opening, having them replaced with new songs by Kay Thompson (which are not, naturally, included on the original cast album).

Let it be said that Blackton — from Merman's Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam — provides some flavorful vocal arrangements. While the orchestrations on the LP are credited to Ted Royal, his work appears to have been to some extent replaced during the tryout. By the Broadway opening night, Don Walker, Red Ginzler and Joe Glover (all of whom worked on Call Me Madam) received prominent billing. So here, despite its flaws, comes Happy Hunting back in circulation (with no changes or remastering from the prior release). All told, Merman and the rambunctiousness of the songs make Happy Hunting one of those fun '50s cast albums that you're bound to enjoy.

Far afield from Me and Juliet and Happy Hunting is Milk and Honey [DRG 19114]. Some first-time producer wandered into a Greenwich Village nightclub after hours and told the piano player he wanted him to write a musical about Israel. Theatre people being what they are, Jerry Herman said, "sure." Jerry and equally green-behind-the-ears librettist Don Appell got on El Al and took off for the land of Milk and Honey, which had become established as Israel only a dozen years earlier. Sitting down the aisle were some Jewish-American widows searching for — well, I suppose what you could call exciting new adventure. And the boys had the first germ of their plot, while still on the tarmac at Idlewild.

"Shalom" is the theme song of the piece, and a pretty strong one at that. But Herman, who since Milk and Honey seems to have written nothing but scores filled with sprightly, pert melodies and energetically uplifting rhythms, felt his way along somewhat tentatively. The central characters that he and Don Appell came up with were "middle-aged," which meant something quite different in those days than it does today. The hero was 58, the heroine 37. Their dilemma: he was long-separated from his wife and felt scruples about living in sin (or whatever), in the Negev, with this comely widow. They were also both Metropolitan Opera singers, which meant some heavy singing that bordered on the sedate. Milk and Honey was a romantic operetta of sorts, picking up life whenever something interesting happened — a big village dance, a bevy of musical comedy widows singing and dancing, a featured comic named Juki Arkin who served as a sparkplug (especially in the title number), a real-live goat spritzing Weede with real-live milk (unhomogenized) — but they always seemed to go back to one of those old-people songs. Or at least so it seemed to me when I caught the show just after it opened, learning a valuable lesson at the age of eight: a spanking brand-new Broadway musical, with the original cast in the fresh flush of opening night, could be boring.

The songs are not "old-people songs," of course. We've heard some of them since, out of the context of the show and away from the sedate musical trappings, and they can be incredibly moving. (Go listen to "Let's Not Waste a Moment" on "Michael Feinstein Sings the Jerry Herman Songbook.") "I Will Follow You," for that matter, wasn't an old-people song even then; it was sung (and danced) by Tommy Rall, and is very effective. Molly Picon, the Yiddish theatre veteran who was 63 at the time, was ageless in 1961 and pepped up the proceedings with every yelp and grimace. Her two numbers — "Chin Up Ladies," a march-time rouser for character ladies, and her "Hymn to Hymie," a soliloquial séance set to tango tempo — are as good on the album as they were on stage.

Weede seemed to be the opposite of romantic; they clearly wanted an Ezio Pinza-like presence, and he was more like Robert Tucker (if you know what I mean). Mimi Benzell was cold, to these eight-year-old eyes; and her performance, after years of listening to the cast album, has never won me over. Milk and Honey has gone down in history as the first Broadway musical to run more than a year and still lose money, which at the time seemed astonishing. As a footnote, I remember noting in the ads late in the run that Ms. Picon had moved up to second billing, with Terry Saunders — a long-time Lady Thiang — replacing Ms. Benzell. When I saw Picon listed second, though, I naturally assumed that she had taken over the role of the love interest. A bit of a stretch, I reasoned at eight; but I figured that Molly Picon singing those songs as the lovelorn widow could only make the show better.

One bonus track has been added, Robert Goulet singing "Shalom" (and why not?). Let me add that while the first two CDs repeat liner note material from earlier releases, Milk and Honey brings us an enlightening new interview between the composer and Kenneth Jones (who, as it happens, edits this column.) Herman relives the writing and production period of the show like "that was yesterday," and it makes interesting reading.

Me and Juliet, Happy Hunting and Milk and Honey: three far from indispensable Broadway musicals of the old school. But let me hasten to add that these are cast albums that I have listened to frequently over the years, on LP and CD. (When I first found the long out-of-print Happy Hunting, in fact, it was on extended-play 45s, in the "EP" format that RCA experimented with in the 1950s.) For the more recent generation of collectors who do not know these shows, I daresay you will find them well worth your listening time.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)