ON THE RECORD: No Strings and Peter Howard's Broadway

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: No Strings and Peter Howard's Broadway This week's column discusses the reissue of Richard Rodgers's No Strings and, from a veteran Broadway music man, Peter Howard's Broadway.

No Strings [DRG 19065]
People who have been collecting original cast recordings since the early days of CDs tend to turn up their noses when record companies see fit to reissue cast albums that have already appeared on CD. No, we don't want this old thing again, they sneer, why don't you give us something we really need, like Jimmy or To Broadway with Love.

However, let us remember that new cast album collectors keep coming along, or at least they'd better if we want the recording industry to continue to give us cast albums. Just because we have a copy of the CD of No Strings, which we've listened to at least 107 times since Angel gave it to us in 1993, that doesn't mean that everybody has one. And so, to those listeners who don't have a copy of No Strings, let this serve as an announcement that DRG has put it back in circulation (to quote a Dorothy Fields song title, from a less-indispensable score which has also seen two CD releases). And if you don't have No Strings, folks, you should.

Not because this is the best score of the century, or the decade, or even the season in question. It wasn't. Richard Rodgers wrote it, all by himself, following the death of Oscar Hammerstein. The lyrics are not bad, mind you, unless you compare them to the work of folks like Hart or Hammerstein; which, for obvious reasons, everyone did.

Some of the rhymes are weak, and not surprisingly so; you can almost sense Rodgers settling on sub-par choices. If you need four rhymes for a phrase and can only come up with two good ones, a Lerner or Harnick or Sondheim will regretfully sacrifice the rhymes and start from scratch. Lesser lyricists (though certainly not Loesser the lyricist) will be happy with two good rhymes and hope nobody notices the rest. Rodgers, the composer, appears to be hamstrung at times. You almost feel as if he is restraining his creativity, to keep from putting undue pressure on his lyricist.

But No Strings has plenty to recommend it. This starts not with the two fine performances at the center of the piece, from Diahann Carroll (for whom the show was conceived) and Richard Kiley. No Strings had a central gimmick, or conceit, or whatever you might want to call it. Gone was the standard theatre orchestra, in the orchestra pit. Rodgers — working with director-choreographer Joe Layton — put a jazz ensemble onstage, intertwining them with the action; the opening number, "The Sweetest Sounds," began as a duet with Carroll and the flautist in spotlights, with Kiley and clarinet taking over for the second refrain. While the orchestra cannot be seen on the CD, the instrumental solos are prominent, giving the show a very different sound from the Broadway norm. Indispensable to the proceedings was the orchestrator; not Robert Russell Bennett, who had scored all but two new Rodgers musicals since Oklahoma! in 1943, but newcomer Ralph Burns. Burns was no amateur; he was a renowned big-band name, having come to prominence for his work with Woody Herman starting in 1944. Nor was this Burns's first Broadway musical, although the prior two were quick failures that went unrecorded.

The 21 piece orchestra, with "no strings at all" but including harp, bass and guitar, was seated upstage and revealed for the exit music. Peter Matz, who got his start as arranger on Arlen's House of Flowers (introducing Ms. Carroll), led the band from the piano and arranged the dances as well. No Strings was scored for a walloping and, I believe, unprecedented eight woodwinds, which with doubling came up to 33 instruments (including eight clarinets, eight saxes and seven flutes); the sort of instrumentation that I can't imagine any other theatre orchestrator of the time coming up with. There were also four trumpets and three trombones. No Strings took Burns almost immediately to the top of the Broadway pack, with assignments like Little Me, Funny Girl, Sweet Charity and more.

Rodgers, Carroll, Kiley and especially Burns make No Strings cry out for repeated listening. All of which is to say: Yes, some of us already have a copy of the No Strings CD. But No Strings belongs in print, so that more and more listeners can discover and relish these "Sweetest Sounds."

PETER HOWARD'S BROADWAY: A Celebration [Original Cast OC 6075]
Much has been written about, and recorded by, Broadway's songwriters of the latter half of the twentieth century. Little has been heard from the other music men: The orchestrators, arrangers and musical directors. Peter Howard, whose name is connected with a fair number of the hits of our time, has been touring for years with an act he calls Peter Howard's Broadway, and Original Cast Records has now released a live recording of said act.

Howard came to Broadway in 1949, writing a ballet for the long-forgotten musical revue All for Love. The Hartmans were the stars — you don't remember the Hartmans, do you? — and the show's main distinction was that dilettante producer Anthony Brady Farrell bought the old Hollywood movie house to house it. It is now a church, but for four decades was known as the Mark Hellinger. As for All for Love, it was hailed by The Sun as "a revue as tasteless and witless as anything the New York stage has had during the past half-century."

At any rate, Howard's ballet, "The Prodigal Daughter," was orchestrated by the great Russell Bennett. Howard then went back to Juilliard, returning to Broadway (and the Hellinger) in 1954 as assistant conductor to Franz Allers on Plain and Fancy. Allers took Howard along for his next show, also at the Hellinger; he was given the assignment of teaching the non-singing star how to get through six tricky songs. The non-singing star, Rex Harrison, did okay; so did the other singers Howard coached, Stanley Holloway and Julie Andrews.

In 1958, Howard was one of two onstage pianists for the Styne-Comden Green musical Say, Darling. This got him the accompanist slot for A Party with Comden and Green later that year, and the conducting spot for the 1959 Off-Broadway revival of On the Town. Howard also served as assistant conductor/coach on two Rodgers musicals, The Sound of Music and No Strings. In 1961, Howard's friend Mike Stewart got him an audition for the dance arranger slot on his next musical. Gower Champion hired Howard for Carnival, and his career course was set.

Subways Are for Sleeping, I Can Get it For You Wholesale, and Here's Love were followed by Hello, Dolly! Dolly! had a conductor problem, which resulted in the firing of the musical director shortly after the opening. (Said fellow nevertheless won that year's Tony Award after his departure, indicating that the Tony voters simply voted for the biggest hit musical — which is why the category was retired in 1964 and has still not been reinstated.) Howard took over the Dolly! baton in April 1964, and thenceforth juggled the duties of musical director and dance arranger, with his crowded resume including notable titles such as 1776 and Annie.

What does a dance arranger do, you might ask? Arrange the dances, I suppose is the short answer. Howard tells us, on Peter Howard's Broadway, how the choreographer of one of his musicals asked for a ragtime-sort-of-dance for his two star ladies. Howard discusses — or rather, demonstrates — how he took the kernel of the melody of one of the songs in the show, "Funny Honey," and wove it into the "Hot Honey Rag," a highpoint for Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera in Bob Fosse's Chicago. Howard did not compose "Hot Honey Rag," mind you; rather, he "ragged" John Kander's clearly identifiable melody. The two pieces are similar enough so that anyone familiar with the song will recognize the origin of the rag — but anyone who first heard the rag might well be enchanted and totally satisfied without ever hearing the Kander and Ebb original. (Kander, who early on served as a dance arranger himself, could have surely come up with his own creation for this spot. But composers rarely have the time or inclination to sit for hours providing variations-to-order for choreographers. And, in the case of Chicago, I believe that by this point relations between Fosse and his songwriters were past the crisis stage.)

Howard also tells us of a slot in Steven Spielberg's film "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Spielberg wanted something for 25 Chinese tap-dancing girls, and Howard gave him a witty showpiece clearly but fiendishly built on Cole Porter's "Anything Goes." Elsewhere he plays us a Chopinesque "So in Love," and we can hear clearly what the dance arranger can do; select the required style, outline the routine, and plug in snatches of the melody and harmonies in question. This oversimplifies the process; the good dance arranger, like Howard, carefully concocts the "new"-sounding material out of counter-melodies. The results are choreographer-designed step-by-step, from the fabric of the original songs. This is further illustrated by a large chunk of Gershwin, as adapted by Howard for Crazy for You.

Listeners interested in such things might wish to pull down their Here's Love cast album from the shelf, assuming they have a Here's Love cast album [Sony SK 48204]. (This is not included on Peter Howard's Broadway, but serves to illustrate the point.) The album starts with a nine-and-a-half-minute opening that accompanied a staged version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Said nine-and-a-half minutes includes a Meredith Willson song called "The Big Clown Balloons," which clocks in at precisely two minutes. (Listening to this as a child, I always assumed that "calown" was a certain type of balloon; it was only many years later, when I saw the printed sheet music, that I realized the composer had seen fit to stretch "clown" over two syllables.)

The song section is preceded by two-and-a-half minutes of overture. The last five minutes are pure Howard; not original material that he thought up, mind you, but countermelodies to Willson crammed with bits and pieces ranging from "Nola" to "Adeste Fideles." Howard sat in the rehearsal hall while choreographer Michael Kidd said lets bring on some dancers with trombones, here; or how about if we have some kids come in and dance on a gigantic xylophone? The resulting production number, with, as I say, only two minutes of an actual Willson song, plus a mini-medley overture — was the high point of Here's Love. Unfortunately, in this case, as the show stopped cold after the high-stepping parade-of-an-opening number, and remained pedestrian for the rest of the evening. But that, my friends, is what a dance arranger does. Or, rather, can do.

Peter Howard's Broadway is, in a way, all arrangement with no orchestration; just Howard at the piano, perfectly capturing every important strain and rhythm and countermelody in each of the songs he plays. The results are a genial stroll down memory lane, or at least Howard's memory lane. Paula Lawrence, somewhat extraneously, does a guest spot with "My Husband's First Wife" from Kern and Hammerstein's 1929 follow-up to Show Boat, Sweet Adeline. This comedy number — kind of a prequel to Dolly!'s "It Takes a Woman" — is not by Hammerstein, mind you; Irene Franklin, the featured comedienne, wrote the words herself. Let us stop to ponder on what would happen if a pushy comic in one of our current-day shows tried that!

-- Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.