ON THE RECORD: Mel's Producers Merman's Act, and JR & Moss

News   ON THE RECORD: Mel's Producers Merman's Act, and JR & Moss THE PRODUCERS SONY BROADWAY SK 48220
An unheralded new musical silently crept into town a fortnight ago. The principal author had never before written a Broadway score; he was last seen skulking around 44th Street with a brown paper bag over his head on February 6, 1965, the night that the infamous Kelly opened and closed at the Broadhurst. Still, Mel Brooks appears to have picked up some experience in Hollywood. Hard-to-please Broadwayites seem to have liked his new musical, The Producers, and it has gotten off to a pretty good start.

THE PRODUCERS SONY BROADWAY SK 48220
An unheralded new musical silently crept into town a fortnight ago. The principal author had never before written a Broadway score; he was last seen skulking around 44th Street with a brown paper bag over his head on February 6, 1965, the night that the infamous Kelly opened and closed at the Broadhurst. Still, Mel Brooks appears to have picked up some experience in Hollywood. Hard-to-please Broadwayites seem to have liked his new musical, The Producers, and it has gotten off to a pretty good start.

The producers of The Producers arranged for a recording session prior to the opening — these guys must have thought the show was going to be a hit — and the disc sounds like a million dollars. Two million dollars, actually. The songs are funny, and they're laced with funny lines; some of them are quite wild. Listeners who have not yet seen the show and never seen the film version might find some of the material a bit offsetting. There's one song called "Springtime for Hitler" — talk about bad taste — which is peppered with lines like "Don't be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party" and "I was born in Dusseldorf and that is why they call me Rolf." This doesn't even rhyme; in context, though, it seems to work.

Other songs include an effective opening number, "The King of Broadway" (which for some reason seems derived from the wedding dance in Fiddler on the Roof, with a little bit of Oliver!'s "Reviewing the Situation"); a concerted number for little old ladies with walkers called "Along Came Bialy"; a snappy song and dance called "That Face"; and a philosophical turn called "If You Got It, Flaunt It," which is delivered by an actress named Cady Hoffman who certainly does. (Got it and flaunt it.) Nathan Lane, who plays a not-very-gentlemanly Broadway producer, has an impressive ten o'clock song that breathlessly incorporates everything we've heard since eight o'clock (including intermission). Lane is good in a role you might say he was born to play. Matthew Broderick, a less accomplished musical comedy performer, manages to more than hold his own as the accountant Leo Bloom (no relation, I hope, to Leopold Bloom). Broderick's performance is pretty sneaky, actually. As the plot allows Bloom to bloom, Broderick sings and dances with the grace of a back office Fred Astaire.

Doug Besterman's orchestrations pay homage to all those musicals of the 50s and 60s, although he continually overdoes it by two or three smidgens. (This is precisely what the choreographer and designers have done as well, making The Producers so uproarious that there are vast stretches where you simply can't stop laughing long enough to pay attention.) Musical director Patrick Brady keeps everything going at a fast clip, and his vocal arrangements provide laughs as well. (Fans of the great Hugh Martin will notice a section of the "Springtime" number — "The Führer is creating a furor," it goes — that seems shamelessly/deliciously stolen from the master and his mentor, Kay Thompson.) Mr. Brooks has gone out of his way to credit someone named Glen Kelly, who is billed for "musical arrangements and supervision," so I suppose that Kelly has played a great part in the festivities. At any rate, the score sounds delicious.

The 2000-2001 season has not been kind to new musicals; two or three or four of them might well be gone by the Fourth of July. The Producers, though, seems likely to last at least till Labor Day. Labor Day of 2009, that is.

MERMANIA! Volume 2 Harbinger HCD 1806
Ethel Merman kept a carton of tapes and privately-pressed recordings stashed away in the back of her closet, highlights of which are now appearing on CD. The first volume of Mermania! [Harbinger HCD 1711], reviewed in my column of December 26, 1999, contained voice-and-piano recordings (including Merman rehearsing the score of Gypsy). Mermania! Volume 2 is a live recording of a performance of Merman's nightclub act, circa 1964.

Merman at fifty-five was clearly no spring chicken, but she was still near the top of her skills. (Jerry Herman once had one of his leading ladies sing "I'm too old for Hialeah and too young to shoot," and as I listened to this CD that phrase kept going through my mind.). Merman sings up a storm, with great authority; in her commentary, though, there is an almost forced personality — as if she's at a loss when she isn't playing a character. She sticks mostly to her hits, and after a while you have to marvel that all these songs — by Gershwin and Porter and Berlin and Styne and Sondheim — were introduced by her. Something in Merman's style suggests that this is the way the songs are supposed to go, no question about it.

Merman does make a departure by singing a "new" Broadway hit, a rendition of "A Lot of Livin' to Do" from Bye, Bye Birdie. She swings into the refrain — "There are guys just right for some kissin' and I mean to kiss me a few" — and you want to duck and run out of her way. In her 'special material' patter, she tells us that "I am all set to advance on/anything I chance on/with pants on," and elucidates: "I'd like to snare Dr. Kildare some rainy afternoon/If Colonel Glenn would let me in we'd blast off to the moon/I wouldn't want my aunt around if I had Cary Grant around," and on and on. Did Mel Brooks write these lyrics, or what? (Alas, the special material is credited to Roger Edens.) This performance is — shall we say? — highly unusual. I don't think I've ever heard anything quite like it.

Merman fans will no doubt love this recording; others will listen to it in rapt fascination. As a bonus, Mermania includes a six-minute rehearsal session. It's a treat to hear Merman sort of phumphering around, trying out a new arrangement of "I Get a Kick Out of You." At places you can sense her reading the music; at certain phrases, though, she naturally kicks back and lets go, as if she can't resist pulling out all the stops. Sometimes she even runs out of breath. She misses a few notes as she tries to follow the new ending — "What did I do wrong there?" you can hear her murmur if you pump the volume way up high — and then she explains, in words, what she wants. "That's the whole gag," she says to the pianist, "and it's sort of cute."

*

AND OFF THE RECORD: Playwright/director Moss Hart and choreographer/director Jerome Robbins had little in common, other than the 1949 musical flop Miss Liberty. Hart was an important theatrical figure for thirty years, while Robbins was unquestionably a twentieth century legend. They are the subjects of two new biographies, Steven Bach's "Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart" (Knopf) and Greg Lawrence's "Dance with Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins" (Putnam). While Hart was principally a playwright and Robbins was principally a ballet choreographer, both books include much that will interest musical theatre fans. Hart was the junior member of the legendary Kaufman and Hart partnership, which cheered the Depression with comedies like You Can't Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Without Kaufman, he wrote some less successful plays; librettos for As Thousands Cheer with Irving Berlin, Jubilee with Cole Porter, and Lady in the Dark with Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin; and directed several musicals, including My Fair Lady. Hart's final show was Camelot, which he directed and also co-produced with Lerner and Loewe. The torturous tryout put all three of them in the hospital; Hart never fully recovered from his Camelot heart attack, dying a year later in 1961.

Robbins is often cited as one of the musical theatre's most influential geniuses; this despite the fact that he was principal director of only five musicals. (The last three were West Side Story, Gypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof.) Robbins spent most of his career in the ballet world, but remained Broadway royalty until his death in 1998. He was also one of Broadway's most unpleasant geniuses. He seems to have had a deep-seated need to make everyone around him miserable, and he succeeded admirably. From the evidence presented in "Dance with Demons," Robbins makes David Merrick look like Santa Claus.

Seeing as how we're in the twenty-first century, it is inevitable that both books dwell on their heroes' sexuality. For Robbins, this was a key component of his life, his work, and his career, and Lawrence has found plenty of people willing (and eager) to talk. For Hart, this helps explain his conflicted behavior and his reliance on twice-daily psychoanalysis (in a day when "normal" people simply didn't go to psychiatrists). Bach has had a harder time of it, as most of Hart's contemporaries are long gone. He did manage to find a fellow who claims to have lived with Hart in the 30s (and who accompanied Hart to the hospital the night George Gershwin died). Kitty Carlisle, Hart's wife of fifteen years, could no doubt have added much first-hand information to the book. She understandably chose not to cooperate with the biographer, presumably due to the sexual sleuthing — and who can blame her?

Even so, Bach's "Dazzler" gives us a fine look at the life of Moss Hart, while Lawrence paints a comprehensive portrait of the Machiavellian Jerry Robbins. Both books are most welcome and will keep readers happily engrossed while waiting to get tickets to The Producers.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com