MY FAIR LADY First Night CAST CD83
The cast recording of Trevor Nunn's 2001 Royal National Theatre revival of My Fair Lady begins with some atmospheric London-at-night arrangements which make you fear you've wandered into the opening credits of "Mary Poppins." One minute in, though, you hear those eight clarion quarter notes that signify the beginning of My Fair Lady as we know it. From then on, you're in good hands.
Especially the hands of Jonathan Pryce. This is a far different performance than that of Rex Harrison, who "talked" the songs and made the role his own. Pryce sings the notes, precisely but effortlessly; he also acts the lyrics. This brings considerably more value to songs like "An Ordinary Man" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." More interesting, perhaps, are Higgins' secondary numbers "You Did It" and "A Hymn to Him (Why can't a woman be more like a man)." Pryce transforms these typically overlooked numbers into star turns. Alan Jay Lerner seems to have chosen every word of his lyrics with great care; Pryce gives every syllable full value, while managing to sound perfectly natural. All in all, Pryce electrifies this cast album in the same way that Julie Andrews did on the 1956 and 1958 recordings.
His Lady Eliza, Martine McCutcheon, was rhapsodically received by the press. I imagine that she was very good on stage, but her magic is not evident on the CD. She blurs most of her pickup notes in "I Could Have Danced All Night," a song which is constructed on those three recurring pickup notes. (Thus, we hear something like "i cud uv DANCED ALL NIGHT, i cud uv SPREAD MY WINGS, in dun a THOUSAND THINGS.") "Show Me" is built on notes meant to be held for three or four beats, 23 of them in 58 measures. McCutcheon seems to take these dotted half-notes as mere suggestions. She underwent severe vocal problems during the National Theatre run, missing dozens of performances. Let's assume this affected her in the studio, too.
As is the mode of the day, this Fair Lady has been outfitted with new orchestrations. William David Brohn does a fine job of it, retaining much of the style of Russel Bennet and Phil Lang's 1956 charts; oboe, bassoon, English horn, and all that high-woodwind twittering are happily in evidence. (Brohn appears to have used the same instrumentation originally selected by Bennett and composer Frederick Loewe, which might be why these new orchestrations sound different yet comfortable.) I think they were misguided to tamper with "On the Street Where You Live," though; the melody seems to need the rhythmic underpinning used in both the original charts and the sheet music version. Brohn and director Nunn have tried to transform the show's big ballad into something more romantic, losing sight of the fact that Lerner and Loewe drew Freddy Eynsford-Hill as an insipid, "sniggering" fool. Every other moment, musically, is "loverly"; and there's an absolutely grand rendition of Loewe's "Embassy Waltz."
The Messrs. Brohn and Nunn did a similarly fine job on their 1998 production of Oklahoma! With both revivals, they have renovated the sound while respecting the original musical values, presumably at the express command of producer Cameron Mackintosh. (I won't even begin to compare their Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady to some of the revivals we've seen on Broadway.) This quality control is especially noble on the part of Sir Trevor and Sir Cameron, and they deserve to be handsomely repaid for their efforts. Not only in pounds and dollars, but in our thanks as well. This production of My Fair Lady played a three-and-a-half month engagement at the National's Lyttelton Theatre in the spring, and reopened July 21 at the Drury Lane with Pryce and McCutcheon. (The latter appears at only six performances a week.) This new My Fair Lady will no doubt arrive in New York at some point, hopefully with Mr. Pryce in attendance.
LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS Bayview RNBW010
Pop songwriter Lionel Bart burst upon the London stage in 1959 with two highly unconventional musicals, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Lock Up Your Daughters. He followed these in 1960 with Oliver!, which as far as I can tell was the first worldwide musical blockbuster from Britain since The Pirates of Penzance in 1879. (I suppose I'll get e-mails disputing this statement. Oh, well.) Andrew Lloyd Webber changed things around — and how! — a decade later, but first came Bart.
Lock Up Your Daughters was a ribald Restoration musical, based on Henry Fielding's 1730 comedy, Rape upon Rape (or The Justice Caught in His Own Trap) . Bart, who hereafter served as his own composer, wrote the lyrics only; the music was by Laurie Johnson. The show was directed by Peter Coe and designed by Sean Kenny, the team that went on to Oliver! and other influential musicals.
Bayview Recording Company has released what appears to be the first CD transfer of the original cast album of Lock Up Your Daughters. Why this should come from a small label in Miami Beach, I don't know; but it is extremely welcome. Unlike many old musicals that turn up on CD, this score is relatively unknown. Those of you who like rip-roaring musical comedy — with lots of comedy — are in for a treat. There are no fewer than four standout numbers. Heading the list is "When Does the Ravishing Begin," a lament for lusty Mrs. Squeezum. This is sung — or rather hurled at us — by Hy Hazell (whose name is misspelled five times in the liner notes and song listings). She is very funny, at one point engaging in a challenge duet with a flute; the flute wins. The orchestrations — apparently by Johnson himself — are a joy, including what I can only describe as forlorn mating calls from the French horn. "Lock Up Your Daughters," a rake warns us in the title song, because "whether your daughter is pretty or plain, once she has done it she'll do it a-gain." This trio is set to a grand, rapacious waltz. The authors seemed to have modeled it after the title song from Guys and Dolls, which is certainly not a bad model. This is followed by a spectacular concerted number called "There's a Plot Afoot," for all eight principals plus chorus. This is a wild cha-cha — yes, I know the year is 1730 — but this is a wild cha-cha, with great instrumental solos and the rhythm beaten out on a cow-bell. On a gentler note there is a lovely ballad duet, "Lovely Lover" (sung by Stephanie Voss and Terence Cooper). These songs come together midway through the CD, making a rather remarkable stretch.
Late in the second act are two more charmers. "If I'd Known You" (Keith Marsh) is a tender ballad in the same vein as "More I Cannot Wish You." (Perhaps the new-to-musical-theatre authors did, consciously, study Guys and Dolls.) This is followed by a tuneful song-&-dance, "'Tis Plain to See" (Voss and Frederick Jaeger). I find some of the other songs too steeped in period for repeated listening, but I'm content to replay those comedy songs over and over.
Two bonus tracks have been added: Bart singing the title song and "When Does the Ravishing Begin," with Johnson at the podium. Johnson is best known for film scores like "Doctor Strangelove" and the TV series "The Avengers" (for which he also served as Executive Producer). Johnson's other West End musical was the 1967 Harry Secombe vehicle The Four Musketeers, a critically ravaged failure which nonetheless contains some catchy tunes that I'd love to get on my CD player.
Lock Up Your Daughters was a hit in London, but the 1960 pre Broadway tryout folded after a mere ten days. Alfred Drake directed (although he was apparently fired between New Haven and Boston). Hazell and Jaeger were imported to recreate their roles; American cast members included Nancy Dussault as the heroine, with John Michael King and George S. Irving playing the roles created by Cooper and Marsh. How Bayview got the rights to Lock Up Your Daughters, I don't know; they plan to bring us Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, too, in August. Maybe if they sell a lot of copies of these two albums, they'll bring us some more unexpected little treasures. Like Maggie May, Bart's 1964 musical that starred Rachel Roberts and Kenneth Haigh (and featured Dame Edna, in trousers).
-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.