ON THE RECORD: More Merman and More Pimpernel

News   ON THE RECORD: More Merman and More Pimpernel MERMANIA! (Harbinger HCD 1711)
"Just what we need, another Merman impersonator," I thought after a cursory glance at the cover of "Mermania!". Taking a closer look, I discovered that this was no impersonator at all, nor was it a retread of old, overly familiar tracks; this is Merman herself, on recordings which for the most part have never been released commercially.

MERMANIA! (Harbinger HCD 1711)
"Just what we need, another Merman impersonator," I thought after a cursory glance at the cover of "Mermania!". Taking a closer look, I discovered that this was no impersonator at all, nor was it a retread of old, overly familiar tracks; this is Merman herself, on recordings which for the most part have never been released commercially.

It turns out that the singer kept a carton of privately-pressed recordings in her closet. After Merman's death in 1984, Merman's son Robert Levitt entrusted them to a fellow named Stephen Cole, who has now -- with the permission of Levitt -- brought us the first of a projected three volumes of "Her Private Recordings." Volume One contains voice-and-piano recordings from about 1957 onward. (Future volumes, I suspect, will include earlier radio and television transcriptions.)

Of key importance is a demo Merman made of eight Styne & Sondheim songs from Gypsy, with working versions of the lyrics. Two of these tracks were included on the 1999 Sony Broadway remastering of the Gypsy original cast album. Here, we have all of Merman's songs from the show, which makes for fascinating listening. Those of you interested in what an orchestrator brings to a song might want to listen to "Mama's Turn" (as it is called here). A good deal of what we're used to already exists in Jule Styne's piano part; but key embellishments (like all that stripper music in the brass parts) and the dramatic underscoring for the main transitional passages are yet to come.

Merman's other two final Broadway shows are also represented. The 1956 vehicle Happy Hunting was pretty bad. After the opening, Merman axed two of her solos and replaced them with "Old Enough to Know Better" and "Just a Moment Ago." (These were credited at the time to Kay Thompson, although the liner notes tell us that they are in fact by Roger Edens.) The songs, alas, are no better than those they replaced, "This Is What I Call Love" and "The Game of Love." Hello, Dolly! is present with "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window," two tunes Jerry Herman wrote when he hoped to have Merman create the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi. When the star finally agreed to go into the show in 1969, the (not especially good) songs were reinstated for her engagement.

The balance of the recording consists of three pop medleys, sixteen songs ranging from "Manhattan" to "Just One of Those Things," from "Autumn Leaves" to "Stardust." These were recorded sometime in the 1960s, by which point the star's voice had a tendency to punch its way through the songs. Particularly effective are Merman's tender takes on Kurt Weill's "September Song" and Charles Chaplin's "Smile." Fans of Merman who are highly familiar with her existing body of recordings will certainly be struck by "Mermania!;" it's the same voice, of course, but you hear her experimenting with songs you never heard her sing (including "But Not For Me," one of the hits from the Gershwins's Girl Crazy which Ginger Rogers introduced). Who can tell what surprises Stephen Cole and Ken Bloom (of Harbinger Records) have in store for us on Mermania! Volumes 2 and 3. . . ?

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: Encore (Atlantic Theatre 83079-2)
An uneasy truce seems to exist at present between Frank Wildhorn and the Broadway establishment. Wildhorn makes much of the fact that he is the only American composer in years to have three shows running simultaneously on Broadway and that he has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of the various albums of these shows. ("The Scarlet Pimpernel: Encore" is the third American recording of this score.) Broadway types counter that The Civil War lost well over ten million dollars, and Pimpernel, which will close Jan. 2, appears to be heading towards the twenty million dollar mark. (The Broadway production of Jekyll & Hyde, which seems unlikely to last past Labor Day, will probably lose only a few million.) Wildhorn's investors are clearly bearing the brunt of his success; it is nevertheless impressive that he has been able to attract this sort of backing.

Pimpernel: Encore adds four new tracks sung by Rex Smith and Rachel York, from the November 1998 revision of the show. Three of these replace versions sung by their predecessors, Terrence Mann and Christine Andreas. The other tracks come intact from the earlier album, including some with Mann and Andreas; other songs have been cut altogether, which is to the good. This makes Encore the preferred Pimpernel, as Ms. York and especially Mr. Smith added a great deal of energy to the proceedings. The score remains a showcase for Douglas Sills, whose tracks are also included. There are also a couple of pop bonus tracks recorded by Linda Eder.

Wildhorn clearly knows how to write songs that sell, recording-wise. But there's a difference between emotional music and dramatic music, and a further chasm between the dramatic and the theatrical. The Pimpernel score has a few tuneful moments, in fact, and one sweeping waltz in "Storybook"; but the emotional songs are generally overwrought, leaving large swaths of the audience overanguished but underentranced.

Wildhorn has all the tools to write effective musical theatre. He has worked mostly, though, with musical theatre novices -- whom he himself seems to have selected. (Jerry Zaks was brought in to revamp The Civil War, but by that point the authors had already settled on a concept which proved unworkable.) This is not to say that a talented composer cannot dictate all the choices; but the results for Mr. Wildhorn so far have been three musicals which have attracted sizable bands of extra-loyal fans -- but nowhere near sizable enough to equal success on Broadway. (All three shows have been critically drubbed, but then so were Cats and Les Misérables and Miss Saigon.) Wildhorn has a handful of additional musicals on tap, which will almost certainly result in massive CD sales. Let us hope, though, that these scores have more vitality in the theatre than the composer's first three. Because a hit Wildhorn musical -- a true hit that everyone can like -- would be good for both Mr. Wildhorn and for Broadway.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section. You can e-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com