ON THE RECORD: "Originals — Musical Comedy, 1909-1935," With Highlights From Antique Shows, Plus an Overture Collection

News   ON THE RECORD: "Originals — Musical Comedy, 1909-1935," With Highlights From Antique Shows, Plus an Overture Collection We listen to "Originals — Musical Comedy, 1909-1935," a collection of old recordings by old stars; and "Another Openin' Another Show," Lehman Engel's 1958 album of 12 Broadway overtures.

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Originals — Musical Comedy, 1909-1935 [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
Broadway entered the original cast album era, as all good fans know, when Dave Kapp took Oklahoma! into the recording studio in 1943. Not true, in fact; there were earlier original cast albums, notably including Marc Blitzstein's 1938 The Cradle Will Rock and selections featuring original Porgy and Bess cast members recorded in 1940 and 1942.

Whatever. Prior to this, it was not uncommon for a popular performer to take some of their stage songs into the recording studio. In most cases these were studio arrangements and studio orchestras; in a very few cases, the original orchestrations and sometimes the pit orchestra were used.

In 1968, RCA decided to go through their archives to assemble an LP consisting of 16 vintage performances. "Originals — Musical Comedy, 1909-1935" they called it, with the subtitle "Broadway's Great Performers of Yesterday and the Day Before." This was a rather curious collection, as we shall see. Yes, it sounds good; not in the aural sense, but in the description. But the greatness of the performers and the importance of the selections are questionable. In any event, Masterworks Broadway has seen fit to dust it off and release it on demand (with hard copies available from Arkivmusic).

There is no question that Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson belong in any group of greatest. Ms. Brice is present with "Second Hand Rose," and this is indeed an historic and still viable recording. Mr. Cantor sings a song from his biggest hit, the 1929 musical Whoopee. We don't get "Makin' Whoopee," though, a song that I am happy to listen to repeatedly; instead we get something called "Hungry Women." Amusing, at least the couple of times I've played it, but hardly historic, imperishable or any shade of great. And Jolson, who sang so many hits that he could cut himself in on the author's royalties at will, is here with "That Haunting Melody" from Vera Violetta. Don't remember that one, show or song, do you? This 1914 revue helped establish Jolson as a star, but the song isn't much of anything. What's more, the voice is early Jolson to such an extent that you might not even recognize him. "Originals" gives us Blanche Ring, Nora Bayes, and Elsie Janis; stars for a while, yes, but not legendary icons. Edith Day, J. Harold Murray, Louise Groody, Charles King — greats? Hardly so. The great Bea Lillie is onboard, which is helpful, and she is accompanied at the keys by the equally great Vincent Youmans. But the song she sings, "Like He Loves Me" from the instantly forgotten 1926 musical Oh, Please!, doesn't recommend Lillie or Youmans. Two other composers — Eubie Blake and Cole Porter — are present singing, which doesn't quite fit in under the "great performers of yesterday" label.

There are a few selections which are worth their salt, and our attention. These include Ms. Brice's aforementioned ditty; Helen Morgan singing the glorious "Why Was I Born?" from Kern and Hammerstein's Sweet Adeline; and Libby Holman almost equaling Ms. Morgan with "You and the Night and the Music" from Schwartz and Dietz's Revenge With Music. An unexpected treat is the latest of the selections, Eleanor Powell singing and tapping away to "Oh, What a Wonderful World" from the 1935 Schwartz-Dietz revue At Home Abroad. But those are four of the 16 selections.

Included are the 1968 liner notes written by some NYU professor, who tells us that "the one staggering truth about musicals is that most of them are incapable of surviving for as much as a decade, and when revived prove to be so rheumatic, so banal, so ludicrous that we groan at the shattering of our illusions and depart sadly and silently." Thanks, mister! Who invited him to the celebration?

Another Openin' Another Show [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
I have long contended that the sound of the Broadway musical was irrevocably altered on that night in May of 1959 when the overture to Gypsy came blasting out of the orchestra pit of the Broadway Theatre; I even went so far as to write a book about it. A fine and important survey of the Broadway overture prior to Gypsy can be heard on "Another Openin' Another Show," which has been reissued by Masterworks Broadway.

 

Following 15 years working mostly as a composer of incidental music for Broadway plays, Lehman Engel moved to the orchestra pit in 1950 and quickly earned a Tony Award as the conductor of Gian-Carlo Menotti's Broadway opera The Consul. He quickly established himself as a top man on the podium with such musicals as Wonderful Town (with a second Tony), Fanny, Li'l Abner and Jamaica. At the same time, he joined with Columbia Records producer Goddard Lieberson for a series of studio cast albums of musicals from the pre-original cast album period.

The stereo process arrived at Columbia in 1956; someone, presumably Engel, came up with the idea of making an album consisting of Broadway overtures recorded in glorious, living stereo. Engel went into the studio in November 1958 with an orchestra of pit players and recorded 12 overtures (originally released on LP under a different title, "Curtain Going Up"). One of them was a bit of a cheat; Engel's current musical, Goldilocks, had recorded their cast album a few weeks earlier, so Columbia reused that track. Which is perfectly fine by me, as it is a nifty recording of a first-rate overture. If you are unfamiliar with that show, listening to this overture might convince to buy Goldilocks — and you presumably will be happy with that purchase.

Overtures in the pre-Gypsy era were often stitched together from what they used to call "utilities." These were one-size-fits-all arrangements which could serve any purpose: vocals, dance sequences, scene changes, or more. The head orchestrator on the show would come up with a list of songs to plug in the overture; devise a hopefully exciting introduction, and a similar closing; and then piece together the choruses with bridges that would alternate tempos and accommodate key changes. Thus, the pre-Gypsy Broadway overture — Candide excepted, of course. (It might come as a surprise to many readers, but most composers had little to do with the creation of their overtures. This is discussed at length in my book about orchestrations, "The Sound of Broadway Music" — which, by the way, is scheduled to be released in paperback in March.)   When Engel went into the studio in 1958, four of the overtures on "Another Openin'" were as yet unrecorded. The two earliest — from 1944 — are, alas, the least musically interesting. Harold Arlen's Bloomer Girl and Leonard Bernstein's On the Town are both musically interesting scores, needless to say; but the overtures are on the generic side. Kiss Me, Kate, on the other hand, sounds pretty good; the original Broadway cast album saw fit to use the Entr'acte in place of the Overture, so this was a first hearing. Wonderful Town is also an initial recording, as it wasn't included on the 1953 Decca cast album. A second Wonderful Town album, using the original conductor — Engel — and the television cast, was recorded the week after "Curtain Going Up"; it sounds like the television album used the overture from the earlier session. In any event, the Wonderful Town overture is one of the liveliest of these pre-Gypsy overtures.

Also especially strong is Engel's reading of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which includes some slight sections cut for the original 1949 cast recording version. Li'l Abner, another one of Engel's original shows, sounds good as well. Finian's Rainbow is also of note, as the 1947 cast album version is primitively recorded. Engel sees fit to play a few lesser items, namely Cole Porter's Silk Stockings and Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. Finally, there is Jule Styne's Bells Are Ringing. This overture, from Russell Bennett, is perfectly professional and sounds as Broadway as can be.

But getting back to my opening contention, you might want to compare the Bells Are Ringing overture with the one Sid Ramin and Red Ginzler devised for Styne's next musical: Gypsy. And you'll see what I mean when I say that the sound of the Broadway musical was irrevocably altered on that night in May of 1959.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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