ON THE RECORD: Millie and Susan Johnson Rediscovered

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Millie and Susan Johnson Rediscovered THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE RCAVictor 09026-63959
There are those who say that Thoroughly Modern Millie was the best musical of the season, and others who say Urinetown wuz robbed. There's little purpose, here and now, to continue the discussion. Urinetown was saluted for score, book and director, while Millie got the big prize. Yes, it is true that Millie entered the balloting with an advantage of 50 votes or so, due to a consortium of Tony voters who banded together to invest in the show. But Millie needed at least 200 additional votes to win Best Musical — which means that they received votes from a substantial number of people who were not producers of Thoroughly Modern Millie. If Sweet Smell of Success had 50 voters as investors, I suspect, it still wouldn't have won Best Musical. Or even 100.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE RCAVictor 09026-63959
There are those who say that Thoroughly Modern Millie was the best musical of the season, and others who say Urinetown wuz robbed. There's little purpose, here and now, to continue the discussion. Urinetown was saluted for score, book and director, while Millie got the big prize. Yes, it is true that Millie entered the balloting with an advantage of 50 votes or so, due to a consortium of Tony voters who banded together to invest in the show. But Millie needed at least 200 additional votes to win Best Musical — which means that they received votes from a substantial number of people who were not producers of Thoroughly Modern Millie. If Sweet Smell of Success had 50 voters as investors, I suspect, it still wouldn't have won Best Musical. Or even 100.

I would like to go on the record as saying that Thoroughly Modern Millie has an exciting, innovative and deliciously tuneful score. But I can't. The motion picture featured an indifferent assortment of songs. The stage producers, somewhat bafflingly, chose to replace most of the film songs with indifferent new ones. The expectation, obviously, was that the new songs would be better.

RCA has released the Millie cast album, and it is — for better or worse — a fair representation of the show. I've now heard the score twice in the theatre and four times on disc. "Forget about the Boy" and "Gimme Gimme" are beginning, finally, to grow on me; the others, songs like "How the Other Half Lives" and "Only in New York," remain stubbornly unmelodic. There is an abundance of energy in evidence, plus some enjoyable performances; but the songs, mostly, deflate said energy and enjoyment. The rhythm keeps beating, and the tone remains cheerful; but the songs are not much fun.

As I write this, I can sense incensed e-mails heading my way. I realize that Millie has a growing legion of fans, and a good number of people have left the Marquis Theatre with smiles on their faces. To them I say: Buy this CD, you are sure to enjoy it as much as you liked the show. It's all a matter of taste, after all; one person's taste might be quite different than another's, that doesn't imply that one is right and the other wrong. Many of us will admit to failures that we liked and smash hits that we didn't. So I say to Millie lovers — go right ahead, don't mind me.

The high spots on the disc are the same as in the theatre: Sir Arthur Sullivan's "My Eyes Are Fully Open" ("It Simply Doesn't Matter") from Ruddigore (1887), with a new lyric ("Speed Test") by Dick Scanlan; and a combination of Victor Herbert's "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" and "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" from Naughty Marietta (1910), using the original lyrics by Rida Johnson Young. These two numbers — plus a quartet reprise of the latter — take up more than 11 minutes, almost 20% of the CD. This is frightening, folks; we have a "thoroughly modern" 2002 musical comedy with a 1967 sensibility (still evident in the book) that takes place in 1922, and the best music comes from 1910 and 1887. Other highlights include "Muqin," a Mandarin lyric to "My Mammy" (Sam Lewis Joe Young-Walter Donaldson) from Al Jolson's 1918 musical Bombo and one of Millie's other big crowd pleasers; and the well-arranged dance specialty "Nuttycracker Suite," which sounds to me like Tchaikovsky. (If you are crediting Sullivan for something he wrote in 1887, you might as well credit Tchaikovsky for what he wrote five years later. Tchaikovsky has a lousy agent, I guess.) The rest is all by Tesori, except for the catchy title tune (by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn) and the rather weak "Jimmy" (by Jay Thompson).

The album is greatly helped by the arrangers — orchestrations by Doug Besterman and the late Ralph Burns, dance arrangements by David Chase, vocals by Tesori — and some of the performers. Harriet Harris and Marc Kudisch shine; they understand precisely what this show should be, in a way that the people in charge seem to have missed. Harris and Kudisch do everything with a kind of sincere insanity, which makes them lovably ludicrous. Gavin Creel is personable, too, as the leading lady's love interest.

Which leaves us with Sutton Foster. She gives a winning performance as Millie, professionally working her way through a large amount of undistinguished material. People who dislike the show have tended to discount her performance, which seems a bit backward. No, she isn't Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand rolled into one; not yet, not today. This is a girl who just stepped out of the chorus, literally so. She manages to carry an unwieldy show, and that's a mighty feat.

I can't help thinking back to Li'l Abner [Sony Classical SK 87700], which I reviewed in my last column. It was a strictly grade B musical, pale in comparison to other 1956 shows like My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella and Bells Are Ringing. But as I listen to Li'l Abner — I've kept it on the changer between bouts with Millie — I can't help note that more than half the songs are absolutely joyous. Either through felicitous melody, sparkling lyrics, sheer outlandishness, or all three. Traits that I find in absolutely none of the Thoroughly Modern Millie songs, other than the ones by Gilbert & Sullivan and Herbert & Young and Donaldson and Van Heusen.

Yes, I know it is somewhat beside the point to compare Thoroughly Modern Millie to Li'l Abner or The Boy Friend or No, No, Nanette, let alone Urinetown. But the Millie people invite comparisons, don't they, by wowing us with songs from Ruddigore and Naughty Marietta? Even Bombo sounds good, and who would think you'd feel relieved at a twenty-first century musical comedy when they started singing "My Mammy" in Chinese instead of "As Long As I'm Here with You" in English?

Legendary Performers: SUSAN JOHNSON Harbinger HCD-2002
One day in 1948, a 20-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, stepped in as a chorus replacement in Brigadoon. Susan Johnson eventually moved up to the role of Meg — the heroine's friend who sings "My Mother's Wedding Day" and "The Love of My Life" — and Broadway had found what might have been the best musical comedy soubrette ever.

Johnson took the role on the road, returning as Meg when Brigadoon played City Center in 1950. She got her first important break in 1952 with a featured role in Buttrio Square, but alas it turned out to be one of the very worst musicals of the fifties and died after seven performances. She got her next important break in 1953 as understudy to Dolores Gray in Carnival of Flanders, but alas it turned out to be one of the very worst musicals of the fifties and died after six performances.

She got her first real break in 1956 with a featured role in The Most Happy Fella, one of the better musicals of the fifties. Frank Loesser gave Johnson "Big D" and a handful of other important spots, and she was finally and firmly established. But she left Most Happy Fella in 1957 to star in The Carefree Heart, a Wright and Forrest flop (from Moliere, so help us) that closed during its pre-Broadway tryout. She rebounded with a featured role in Oh Captain!, but alas it turned out to be one of the more mediocre musicals of 1958 and died after 192 performances. She finally got top billing in Whoop-Up, but alas it turned out to be an even more mediocre 1958 musical and died after 56 performances.

Johnson got another break in 1961 in Donnybrook!, but alas it turned out to be another dud and died after 68 performances. She then got the worst break of all; while touring in stock in the summer of 1963, she fractured her skull in a serious traffic accident. Johnson never returned to Broadway. She resurfaced 25 years later in the Long Beach Civic Opera production of Follies, where she reportedly did a stunning job belting out "Who's That Woman?" She also had a small but noticeable role as a singing nun in the 1992 film "Sister Act." (Yes, they all sang; but Johnson sang, even after 30 years of retirement.)

Forty years after Donnybrook!, Johnson is all but forgotten on Broadway — except to cast album collectors. LP collectors, more specifically; only one of Johnson's five shows, The Most Happy Fella, is available on CD. Whoop-Up was unaccountably released in 1988, but is long out-of-print. Oh Captain! has been promised by DRG; Decca Broadway is apparently considering Donnybrook!, a fun score sparked by Johnson at her best. There is also a hidden gem in the Sony vaults, the 1957 Columbia studio cast album of Brigadoon. Johnson re-created her breakthrough role, with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones singing the leads. I haven't heard this in more than 30 years, but I remember it as being extremely good.

And now, suddenly and unexpectedly, Susan Johnson is back in circulation. Harbinger Records has started a "Legendary Performers" series, and here she is. This is an unusual collection of live performances, presumably recorded in the early sixties. Some are from nightclubs, others — with full orchestra — are apparently from network TV. It is unclear why and how this collection came about; Ms. Johnson was apparently amazed (but pleased) when she learned that these recordings existed. The CD includes 26 songs, and let me warn you — many are abbreviated versions, one time through with no repeats. The songs have been arranged into supposed medleys of songs by five composers: Berlin, Loesser, Porter, Rodgers and Johnny Burke (of Donnybrook!). The medleys are separated by tinny applause, as if we were sitting in a supper club (although the accompaniment varies from song to song).

Despite the severe abridgement, Johnson's remarkable instrument shines through. Loud and clear, with every note given full value and every word perfectly expressed. No wonder Frank Loesser liked her. Clarion-like and crystal clear, Johnson can be tender or raucous; like Merman, she has a built in siren's wail available on command. It's a friendly voice with character, warm and knowing.

Listen to her "If I Were a Bell," her cool, clear rendition of "I Believe in You," and her stunning "Somebody, Somewhere." She sings "I Got the Sun in the Morning" like it ought to be sung, and does the same on "Always True to You in My Fashion." "Pennies from Heaven" and "Swinging on a Star" — film songs, but good ones — also stand out. The biggest surprise, for me, are two Rodgers and Hart numbers: a swinging "I Wish I Were in Love Again" and an incredibly touching "Glad to Be Unhappy." Johnson also teases us with a minute's worth of "I Cain't Say No." Would she have been the best Ado Annie ever? It's hard to tell from this fragment, one refrain without the verse or patter; but let me tell you, she really sings it.

There is no information available on musicians or arrangers, alas; the original tapes were pieced together by collectors, but they remain of mysterious origin. One Red Ginzler arrangement is identifiable, and there's some especially nice piano accompaniment on "Somebody, Somewhere" and "I Wish I Were in Love Again." The liner notes include four production photos of Johnson, plus a very good recent interview. Peter Filichia knows just what to ask, and Johnson's outsized personality comes through.

Yes, the recordings preserved on this CD have their drawbacks; but who ever thought that we'd ever hear any "new" performances from Johnson in her prime? Harbinger has released a similarly assembled collection of rare "Legendary Performances" by Mabel Mercer [Harbinger HCD-2001]. This is outside the focus of this column, but Mercer fans might well wish to take note.

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.