ON THE RECORD: Old Demos, Peter Pan and Company

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Old Demos, Peter Pan and Company BROADWAY FIRST TAKE Volume 2 (Slider Stage SMS-703)
Slider Stage has released the second volume in their series of demo recordings of Broadway musicals. Volume 1, which included songs from Hello, Dolly!, Gigi, and How to Succeed, was reviewed in my April 30, 2000 column. The value of such a series depends, somewhat, on how keen the listener is to hear songs from the particular scores represented. This disc includes demonstration records from three shows, Promises! Promises!, Flower Drum Song, and La Cage Aux Folles.

BROADWAY FIRST TAKE Volume 2 (Slider Stage SMS-703)
Slider Stage has released the second volume in their series of demo recordings of Broadway musicals. Volume 1, which included songs from Hello, Dolly!, Gigi, and How to Succeed, was reviewed in my April 30, 2000 column. The value of such a series depends, somewhat, on how keen the listener is to hear songs from the particular scores represented. This disc includes demonstration records from three shows, Promises! Promises!, Flower Drum Song, and La Cage Aux Folles.

Promises! might seem to be a less-than-indispensable score to be represented in this series, but it turns out to be instructive. The ten selections include three that were cut: A slow-paced ballad for the suicidal heroine (which was replaced by the more-rapid "Knowing When to Leave"), and two production numbers that disappeared during the Boston tryout (when the trio of secretaries became dancers instead of singers). A good thing, too, as the resulting first act finale - "Turkey Lurkey Time" - inspired one of Michael Bennett's most exuberant production numbers.

These demo recordings were intended to entice pop performers to record the songs from the next hit musical (hopefully). It was self-defeating to have them sound too good; if someone like Dionne Warwick recorded the Promises! demo, other singers might hesitate to compete. Thus, demos typically featured nameless singers and innocuous, pop arrangements. Promises!, though, was written in pop style; and composer Burt Bacharach - on piano - plays the songs the way he intends them to sound in the show. Most of the numbers are routined almost exactly like they were when the score reached the stage, which gives us a good opportunity to hear exactly what an orchestrator can add to a score. By comparing this demo with the original cast album [Ryko RCD10750], we can hear precisely how Jonathan Tunick — in his first major Broadway job — embellished and enhanced Bacharach's pianistics.

Eight songs are heard from Flower Drum Song, a demo that I can't imagine too many people are clamoring for. The selections include a piano solo version of "Sunday," played by composer Richard Rodgers, and the cut song "My Best Love." (Rodgers tended to recycle cut songs that he liked into later musicals, but he never bothered to reuse this one.) The surprise of this CD, perhaps, is Rose Marie Jun's fine rendition of "Love, Look Away," which is pretty good and stands out from the other vocals on this disc.

The third show represented is Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles. Fans of the score will no doubt be disappointed to realize that there are only four selections included. I, for one, would rather hear a demo of Maury Yeston's version of this show (written before Herman was brought into the project), the unproduced Queen of Basin Street. As in Volume One of this series, the liner notes tend to be overly optimistic. Promises!, we are told, is "one of the freshest milestones in the canon of American musical theater." Nevertheless, Broadway First Take is a welcome series for musical theatre enthusiasts.

PETER PAN Jay CDJ 1352
Why, one might ask, would you want a new cast album of the Mary Martin Peter Pan, without Mary Martin?
We call it the Mary Martin Peter Pan because that's what it is. This 1954 musicalization was prepared specifically to showcase the beloved star, coming off her legendary success in the Broadway and London productions of South Pacific. The Civic Light Opera's Edwin Lester made Martin and her husband Richard Halliday one of those offers you can't refuse: The right to choose the creators and full co-producership.

Martin hit the jackpot in the director department, with Jerome Robbins. Robbins had staged the famous Martin/Merman duet for the Ford 50th Anniversary Show in 1953. The Hallidays gambled on him, despite the fact that the only musical he had directed by himself, Harold Rome's That's the Ticket, had closed out of town in 1948. The songwriter selection proved more problematic. Mary heard a pop song on the radio— "Young at Heart" ("Fairy tales can come true, it should happen to you. . .") — and said, that's who I want. Lyricist Carolyn Leigh arrived, with her new collaborator, Mark "Moose" Charlap, in tow. Peter Pan had a bumpy time on the West Coast (although Ms. Martin sold tickets). A deal was struck to telecast it on NBC in March 1955, following a four-month engagement at the Winter Garden (beginning in October 1954). With the show's California flaws evident, the decision was made to discard half of the Charlap-Leigh score and bring in "real" songwriters for the fix. Robbins selected Jule Styne (his composer on High Button Shoes) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (his lyricists on On the Town and Billion Dollar Baby). Ms. Leigh — a highly talented lyricist who never had much luck on Broadway — was not too happy about this, but hey, that's show business.

The results, under awkward circumstances, were not well integrated but pretty workable. Styne, Comden and Green - who only became steady collaborators on their next show, Robbins's Bells Are Ringing - came up with six songs, including "Never Never Land," "Wendy," and the blimey-slimey "Captain Hook's Waltz." But the leftovers from Charlap and Leigh were just as strong, highlighted by "I Gotta Crow," "Tender Shepherd," "I Won't Grow Up," and "I'm Flyin'."

Martin's two telecasts of Peter Pan made her and the show iconic. Sandy Duncan presided over a high-octane revival in 1979, one which unfortunately went unrecorded. Former gymnast Cathy Rigby took up the role in 1991 and has been touring in it ever since. (Like Martin, Rigby and her husband serve as their own producers.) Rigby is not the singer (nor actress) that Martin was or Duncan is; but then, neither Martin nor Duncan is a gold medalist. These songs, especially the added numbers, were written to suit Martin's strong voice; Styne worked with her back in Hollywood, and he knew what she could do. (Rigby's production wisely dropped "Oh, My Mysterious Lady," an operetta spoof designed to take advantage of the capabilities of Martin and original co-star Cyril Ritchard.) Rigby manages to get through the songs, at least, and I don't suppose many five-year-olds in the audience care about anything other than the flying.

So is there room for another Peter Pan cast album? Decidedly yes, as it turns out. The score sounds sassy and playful, qualities that were only hinted at in the sonically obsolete 1954 recording. And this company sounds decidedly better on CD than it did in its 1998 Broadway visit. (The disc features "the revival Broadway cast as seen on A&E TV.") Martin's voice is missed, naturally. So is Robbins dancer Sondra Lee, a rambunctious Tiger Lily who managed to hold her own against Mary in "Ugg-a-Wugg." But Rigby is good enough, and the rest of them — along with the orchestra, under the direction of Craig Barna — make this Peter Pan lots of fun.

AND ON DVD. . . .
Fans of Stephen Sondheim's Company know the original Broadway cast album by heart, but they might well want to supplement it with D A Pennebaker's Original Cast Album Company, now released on DVD [DocuRama NVG-9457]. Elaine Stritch's grueling recording of "The Ladies Who Lunch" is the centerpiece of the event. (Added for the DVD: Commentary by director/producer Hal Prince and Ms. Stritch.) But this documentary is especially important for Company fans who never saw the original production. While the performers are working in a recording studio, their very physical appearance and demeanor will give viewers an idea of what the show was really like. Company dealt with "edgy" topics — like the breakdown of marriage and the sexual revolution — as well as modernistic music, scenery, projections, and staging. A good chunk of the aging Broadway audience was somewhat uncomfortable with this, and so were some of the performers — which provided dramatic tension often missing in revivals of the show. This gave Company more jagged edges than it might seem to have today, and this documentary will help younger Sondheim fans appreciate just how remarkable Company was when it burst onto Broadway in 1970. — Steven Suskin, author of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com