Good news for fans of traditional musical comedy. Sony Classical has just brought out five more cast album reissues, and four of them are discs you might well want to have.
This is the fourth set of titles in the Columbia Broadway Masterworks Series. Some of the previous offerings have been less than indispensable, as they were reissues of reissues of reissues. These new releases have long been in the CD catalog, but their previous incarnations were direct transfers from the original tapes. Now they have been digitally remastered, and that makes a world of difference. (Without getting technical, a direct transfer is somewhat like playing an LP on your turntable and recording it directly onto a cassette. When the original session tapes are remastered, the engineer actually alters the balance; thus, you might hear instrumental colors previously buried by louder instruments.)
FINIAN'S RAINBOW (Sony Classical SK 89208)
This 1947 satirical fantasy remains one of Broadway's finest shows of its kind. Lyricist E. Y. Harburg was at the top of his form here, just before he ran into blacklist troubles. (The blacklist didn't diminish his talent, but it greatly cut down his opportunities.) The lyrics are playfully caustic and delectably dexterous. Harburg learned well from his college chum, Ira Gershwin: When you can't find the perfect word, just make it up. ("Why should I vanquish, relinquish, resish?/When I simply relish this hellish condish.") The music, by the underappreciated and underutilized Burton Lane, more than matches Harburg in spirit -- from the luscious, moonshine-filled ballad "Old Devil Moon," to the pixified gavotte "Something Sort of Grandish," to the gallopingly lovestruck waltz "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love (I Love the Girl I'm Near)."
Finian's Rainbow marked Columbia Record's entry into the original Broadway cast album market (following a recording of the 1946 revival of Show Boat). The original sound was rather primitive as these things go, so much so that the 1988 CD transfer was pretty muddy. Goddard Lieberson (1911-1977), the record producer responsible for many of Broadway's greatest recordings, didn't take over Columbia's cast album department until 1949, with Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific. By 1956, Columbia had vanquished all competitors and became the label of choice until Lieberson's retirement in 1966. He returned for a couple of important final albums, namely A Little Night Music and A Chorus Line.
The effects of the remastering are apparent from the very beginning of the Overture; we can now clearly hear the strings of the harp! We also get a better idea of Ms. Logan's singing style, which was so crisp that she seemed to chew her vowels and swallow them without pausing for breath. Reissue producer Thomas Z. Shepard provides two pages of informative technical notes, explaining that back in 1947 it was impossible to edit takes. Thus, the "best" version of "The Begat" was marred by an unidentified noise at the very end of the song, and thus totally unusable. By digitally transferring the tapes for this reissue, they were able to fix such glitches. Also included is a longer (and more enjoyable) take of "That Great Come-and Get-It Day" sung not by Ella Logan as on the previous releases but by co-star Donald Richards. Bonus tracks include "Don't Pass Me By," which is described as a cut song with "origin unknown." (I believe it was written in the early 1970s, when Harburg was trying to arrange a revival of the show. It does, in truth, sound like a tired old man's song.) There is also an interesting demonstration of "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" in which Harburg explains that what sounds like a sentimentally nostalgic Irish tune is actually -- in the context of the show -- a satire on sentimentally nostalgic Irish tunes. Sharon sings the song, hoping to make her father so homesick that she can trick him into moving back to Ireland. He breaks out in tears, but not because he's homesick -- "It's that cheap Irish music," he wails. Fans of the composer might want to know: the excessively charming "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Claus?", from Harburg's post-Finian musical, Flahooley, was recently published after almost half a century -- revealing that it was ghost-written by Lane!
KISMET (Sony Classical SK 89252)
The 1953 version of Otis Skinner's old Arabian Nights fantasy is not a great musical, surely, filled with holes as it is. It was, however, grand entertainment, and the cast album captures the excitement.
Alfred Drake - formerly of Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate - was thirty-nine when Kismet came along, and at the height of his talent. The meaty-but-overdone Kismet was the perfect vehicle to build around this ham of a Broadway leading man. Drake's delivery is impeccable, with a forcefully strong voice matched by precise control of every syllable of every phrase, as evidenced in "Fate" and "The Olive Tree." Co-star Doretta Morrow was the Rebecca Luker of her day. At twenty, she created a stir as the ingenue in Frank Loesser's Where's Charley?, introducing "My Darling, My Darling"; at twenty-three she created the slave-girl Tuptim in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, introducing "We Kiss in a Shadow." And then came Kismet, at twenty-five. Listen to her on "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "And This Is My Beloved" - what a glorious voice! (The latter song is initially performed in a fine quartet version, and has long been a favorite of mine.) Morrow moved to England and retired from the stage in 1960.
Drake and Morrow are matched, oddly enough, by a non-singer who had replaced Tony Quinn as Stanley Kowalski in the road company of A Streetcar Named Desire. Richard Kiley -- a tryout replacement -- turned out to be a pretty good singer himself. It's an unusual voice, with a somewhat odd resonance; but Kiley had such on-stage authority that he became as important a musical theatre name as Drake had been. Here he gets to introduce "Stranger in Paradise," and it is quite a debut. So with all this, does it matter if Kismet is -- shall we say -- lowbrow? I think not.
As has become the practice, this reissue includes vintage promotional interviews with the people involved. While these things are typically bland interchanges, the Kismet interviews -- with moderator Mike Wallace, of the radio show Stage Struck -- are quite interesting. Alfred bristles ever so slightly when asked about the critical reception of the show: "I don't think it is a critic's show, and I do think it is an audience's show." And when Wallace refers to criticisms that the songs made vulgar use of the music of nineteenth century Russian composer Alexander Borodin, songwriter Chet Forrest just chuckles. "We feel reverent as long as we can, and then when we have to, why, we get the better of our consciences a little bit."
THE PAJAMA GAME (Sony Classical SK 89253)
The Pajama Game is a sturdy, carefully-constructed, 1954 musical based on Richard Bissell's wry novel about a strike in a small-town pajama factory. It was the first of two back-to-back Tony Award winning hits by Frank Loesser protégés Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The Pajama Game opened in May 1954, Damn Yankees opened fifty-one weeks later, and Ross died six months later at the age of twenty-nine. Debuting along with Adler & Ross on the two shows was producer Harold S. Prince.
The score has one sturdy song after another, some extra-special like "Hey There" and "Hernando's Hideaway"; some merely delightful, like "I'm Not at All in Love" and the deliciously corny "I'll Never Get Jealous Again"; and some merely average but highly workable. While the score is not an all time classic like Guys and Dolls or The Music Man, I place it at the top of the "B" list of well-made, professional musical comedies.
All of which is to say, if you don't already have Pajama Game and if you like melodically old-fashioned Broadway, this is a disc to get; if you have the 1987 CD issue but never listen to it, then you probably don't need this one. If you enjoy the score, though, the increased vibrancy makes the 2000 reissue worth the purchase price. The "Steam Heat" sibilance now positively jumps out at you, for example, and John Raitt's voice seems warmer and more immediate than before.
Raitt was second only to Alfred Drake as a musical comedy leading man. He created the role of Billy Bigelow in Carousel in 1945, but this was followed by three successive failures -- and I mean truly dreadful shows. The Pajama Game was his only other hit, although he remained active with national tours of shows like Destry Rides Again and Shenandoah, as well as some minor Broadway appearances into the mid-seventies. But what a voice he had!
Those of you who know "Steam Heat" only from other recordings might well want to hear how it is supposed to go. Fosse was specific about the way he wanted his music to sound, and this original arrangement -- with his trio of finger-snapping, hand-clapping, tongue-clucking dancers -- is the way it sounded when the choreographer was in the theatre. The 1997 "complete recording" of the show gives a lifeless rendition, with the percussive dancer "noises" missing; these were such an integral part of the number that Fosse and dance arranger Roger Adams included a ten measure dance section with all noises coming from the dancers. The version on the cast album of Fosse is also inferior. While I'm a great fan of orchestrator Ralph Burns, it's hard to understand why they didn't simply use the charts Don Walker created with Fosse in the rehearsal hall. And why did Fosse cut Fosse's ten-measure clap cluck-hiss section? Bonus tracks include a previously unknown song called "The World Around Us." This was written in New Haven, inserted for the Boston opening, and quickly cut. I suppose it was intended for the lovers' first scene in the second act; that was always a difficult spot, as the audience was so keyed up from "Steam Heat" that they weren't about to listen to anything. (Adler wrote yet another number for this slot in the 1973 revival, a rather pretty ballad called "Watch Your Heart, Old Girl" which was derived from a melody in his 1961 musical Kwamina.) "The World Around Us" is not too good; but how often do we get to hear a new John Raitt recording from 1954? This is one of three tracks with piano accompaniment, recorded in a Boston radio studio three weeks before the cast album was recorded. The bonus tracks are filled out with interview snippets with the songwriters. The credits tell us that Jerry Ross is doing the talking, but it sure sounds like Dick Adler to me.
The liner notes introduce Bob Fosse as Jerry Robbins' assistant, which of course is incorrect. You couldn't pick two Broadway choreographers with more different styles; imagine J.R. sending Fosse over to do a brush-up rehearsal on "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I. (They also describe featured dancer Carol Haney as Fosse's assistant, which is less far-fetched but equally inaccurate.) Yes, I know that these folks are all gone and nobody much cares about these things; but this type of misstatement makes Gwen Verdon furious, and I can't say that I blame her. Typographical errors happen, sure, and are sometimes impossible to catch; but these don't seem to be typographical errors. Liner notes are used as reference material by future writers, and things like this tend to be taken as fact and repeated.
The other Columbia Masterworks discs - Bye Bye Birdie and the 1962 studio cast recording of Show Boat -- will be reviewed in the June 25th column, along with RCA's first-time-on-CD issues of Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer's Saratoga and the Tommy Steele vehicle Half a Sixpence.
-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer Trade Books). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section. He can be E-mailed at Ssuskin@aol.com