ON THE RECORD: Revivals of Sweet Charity and The Boy Friend

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Revivals of Sweet Charity and The Boy Friend This week's column discusses the new Broadway revival of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's Sweet Charity and the 1970 revival of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend.

SWEET CHARITY [DRG 94777]
The original cast album of the second Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, from DRG, is faithfully reproduced, professionally recorded and to these ears pretty much what you get at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (with some extra strings thrown into the mix). It comes in an especially handsome packaging, with a nifty, fold-out set of liner notes. The quality of the CD is beyond reproach, perfectly well representing the show.

Little more need be said about the CD; if you love this production, or Christina Applegate, or both, this is a Charity for you. Poor Charity has proved problematic in revival (and on the screen as well), due to a central flaw. This dance-hall hostess is a tough-as-nails hooker with a tattoo — back when tattoos weren't fashion statements — and that proverbial heart of gold. Charity has to be believably vulgar; but, and it's an important but, she needs to be innocently lovable. Her name is Charity Hope Valentine, and that moniker was not selected accidentally.

One of the advantages of being just on the other side of 50 is that — geography permitting — you had a chance to see Gwen Verdon in the role. Most readers of this column are presumably familiar with Verdon's recording of the score [Sony Classical SK 60960], which gives you some idea. But Verdon on stage had an added quality that you might describe as tough-as nails, and lovable beyond belief. Yes, you saw her up there in her simple black dress, and you intellectually understood that this Charity wasn't simply selling tangos at a quarter a throw. One look at Verdon, though, told you that she didn't really mean it. Gwen's Charity was the heroine in a fairy tale, to whom nothing mean or cruel or unseemly could possibly happen, so sit back and enjoy the show. Charity Hope Valentine says it all. (It should be added that the clip of Gwen doing "I'm a Brass Band" on the Ed Sullivan Best of Broadway DVD does not capture the magic she brought to the stage.)

Sweet Charity has faced a troubled afterlife for a simple reason: No other performer seems to be able to convincingly play both sides of the role. Play is a misnomer, anyway, as Verdon didn't appear to play Charity; she was just up there, and that was it. Of course, the role was devised for and around Gwen's set of talents, which combined all those Jack Cole/Bob Fosse dance moves with a charmingly distinctive singing voice and a grand (but somewhat forgotten) comic sensibility.

The present revival has chosen to proceed without the Fosse influence, and I can certainly understand the motivation. However, Fosse wasn't merely the director/choreographer of the show. This wasn't a case where a team of writers brought the director a script and said, "will you do it?" Fosse created the show, with Verdon at the center of his vision. He picked the property, an old Fellini movie; enlisted respected songwriters with whom he had enjoyed working on prior musicals; and selected a producer he reasoned would let him call the shots. As librettist, Fosse fashioned the plot and — more specifically — dictated the song choices to fit both his vision of the show and the multi-talents of his wife. Canny showman that he was, during rehearsals he saw the wisdom of bringing in a new book writer. The already-famous Neil Simon — from the prior Fosse-Coleman collaboration, Little Me — took over. Fosse readily agreed to withdraw his pseudonymous billing (Bert Lewis, as in Robert Louis Fosse), even though sections of his original script presumably remain in the show. This is a decision, I think, that Fosse grew to regret; by the end of his career, he was doing without librettists altogether. Which, as it happens, spelled doom for his final musical, Big Deal.

The point is, Fosse is written all over Sweet Charity — to say nothing of Verdon — and not just in the dance numbers. You can remove his contributions, you can remove his name. (Fosse's official credit, as conceiver of the show, is nowhere to be found.) It seems to me that Charity, as a show, cries out BOB FOSSE. I suppose somebody someday will come up with a new and relevant Sweet Charity, in the same way that someone came up with a new and relevant Cabaret. But this ain't it.

One other subject remains to be discussed. The Overture of the present CD starts off with that exciting six-note "Big Spender" blast from the brass, followed by a lone and unexpected finger cymbal. (What a wonderful choice, especially for this show!) This is followed by another eight bars in which the "Big Spender" vamp is offset by a counter from the winds; the two themes are interwoven; and the sound builds into a cacophonous string of triplets. Ralph Burns at his best. As the overture slips into "If They Could See Me Now," those familiar with the original will note a drop in intensity. The Burns orchestration has been replaced with something ever so much blander. It's the same song and the same arrangement, although in a different key than before. (Transpositions are unavoidable when you have to adjust to the range of a new singer; but in an overture?) Thereafter, the orchestration switches between new material (by Don Sebeskey) and remnants of the old (by Burns), with Ralph the clear winner. After a mighty awkward transition, we get back to the "Big Spender" vamp offset by the melody of "Where Am I Going?" — which is to say, Ralph's exciting finale to the overture. Elsewhere in the show, the orchestrations seem mostly new, with patches of the old peering through like a double-bright sun on an overcast day.

This is not the place to go into a long discussion of orchestration, but it raises a set of fairly simple questions. If you want to go with an entirely new sound for a revival, fine. Sometimes the concept calls for just that, the Sam Mendes-Rob Marshall Cabaret being a good example. But if you wish to maintain the same style and the same sound, the smart choice — when dealing with a show that was well orchestrated in the first place — is to stick to the original. Yes, adjustments are necessary for different keys, different dance routines and the different number of pit personnel. This is what they did for the recent Gypsy; they made changes as necessary, but for the most part stayed with the brilliant originals.

The revival of Sweet Charity needed some alteration. To begin with, Ralph used four trumpets, three trombones and five winds; economy dictated that this be reduced to two trumpets, two trombones and four winds. They could have simply done a reduction, but the choice was made to depart from the originals. This Charity seems to be mostly Sebeskey, with sections of Burns occasionally coming to the rescue. The new charts are pretty much suitable, with a somewhat sixtyish feel; but why not just stick to the originals? Compare the two versions of "Baby, Dream Your Dream." The original accentuated both the rueful humor of the songwriters and the amused-but-ever-hopeful viewpoint of the characters; the new one is workable, but adds nothing. Why change?

Yes, you can decide to go with an altogether new sound. But the opening of the overture of Charity — the "Big Spender" vamp, as orchestrated by Burns — is the musical fingerprint of the show, and by extension the musical fingerprint of Bob Fosse as well. If you're intent on using a brand new, non-Fosse approach, why bring in Ralph whenever you need excitement (as in the dance for "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This")?

The powers that be decided to replace most of Ralph's charts, which is certainly their right. (They also have the right to omit Ralph's credit, although his work is clearly evident and might reasonably have been acknowledged.) I don't fault Don Sebeskey; an able orchestrator, he was clearly doing what he was asked to do. Hey, Broadway jobs are hard to come by. But I think he might have been happier working from scratch, without Ralph's figures playing in the pit — and, when missing, playing in the ears of a significant portion of the audience. Listening to the new orchestrations, one can be excused for thinking yes, there's gotta be something better than this. Which is not, I presume, the effect desired.

DRG has added some worthy bonus material. Coleman sings four of the songs, including the cut "Gimme a Raincheck." This song was replaced in 1966 by "The Rhythm of Life," and understandably so. (Understandable until you hear the perplexing 2005 rendition of the song.) Also included is lyricist Dorothy Fields, a couple of years before her death. Her performance of "Big Spender" is a master class in how to perform a song. Listen to the way she spits out the words "pop my cork," perfectly illustrating the disdain and disgust the lyricist has given to these ladies of the Fandango.

Following a matinee of Sweet Charity at the Hirschfeld, go over to the Ambassador and listen to Chicago (from the same producers and director). That's what a Ralph Burns score sounds like in the theatre. That's what Sweet Charity did sound like, in 1966, and would still sound like if they'd retained the Burns orchestrations, but doesn't sound like at the Hirschfeld.

THE BOY FRIEND [Decca Broadway B0004736]
Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend was a sweet little hit when it opened at the Royale in 1954, charming audiences and launching 18-year-old Julie Andrews to stardom. (Ms. Andrews is presently directing a new production of The Boy Friend, now at the Goodspeed Opera House and scheduled to tour in the fall.) The show enjoyed a run of 485 performances, more than enough to turn a tidy profit, outrunning such larger-scale offerings as Mary Martin's Peter Pan, Plain and Fancy, Silk Stockings and two Gwen Verdon hits, New Girl in Town and Redhead.

Barely two years after the closing, The Boy Friend reappeared Off Broadway — this in a day when musicals were rarely revived. Off-Broadway musicals were just then coming into vogue, and the revival lasted an impressive 763 performances. The two Boy Friends made a strong combined showing, although it should be said that the London Boy Friend — with 2,084 performances — was the longest-running West End musical since World War I.

New York saw its third production in 1970, when The Boy Friend danced into the Ambassador. This edition was more or less related to the Off-Broadway version, coming from the same director, Gus Schirmer, and choreographer, Buddy Schwab (one of the "Safety in Numbers" suitors from the original Broadway production). The revival featured stunt casting, in the person of Judy Carne.

Carne came to national fame as the "Sock-It-to-Me Girl" on TV's "Laugh-In." (If you're too young to remember "Laugh-In" and "Sock-It-to-Me," congratulations.) Two of the "Laugh-In" comediennes — the exceptionally talented Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn — used the show as a springboard to lasting stardom. Carne's fame, though, came from dancing with her body covered with humorous (?) tattoos, while she was continually doused with buckets of water and the like. She also earned a certain amount of notoriety as the ex-wife of Burt Reynolds. Leaving "Laugh-In" after two seasons, Carne tried the stage with a 1969 stock production of Cabaret at Westbury. This seemingly led to the idea of the Boy Friend revival.

Carne was, presumably, the element that allowed the producers to raise the money; and it should be admitted that she gave a satisfactory performance in the Julie Andrews role. But her lack of star quality was spotlighted every time Maisie, the heroine's best friend, stepped on stage. Here was Sandy Duncan, as bright and bubbly and attractive and endearing as — well, the young Gwen Verdon. Duncan monopolized the show, giving the proceedings an ovation-worthy lift in her two big solos ("Won't You Charleston with Me?" and "Safety in Numbers"). The general feeling around town was that Duncan was the clear star of the show, and The Boy Friend would have been a winner if only Sandy had been playing the lead. (This is a somewhat faulty hypothesis; if Duncan had been playing Polly, she would have lost her exuberant dance numbers). In any event, we were left with a pleasant Boy Friend, buoyed by a knockout featured performance.

Those who wish to write a treatise on Tony Award categories might well examine the 1969-1970 race. Duncan, with her name well below the title, managed a Best Actress nod. So did two of the actresses from Stephen Sondheim's Company, who were billed in a non-starring, non alphabetical list. The Tony committee deemed Susan Browning and Elaine Stritch eligible for the Best Actress category, while Barbara Barrie and Pamela Myers (from the same title-page list) were given Supporting Actress nods. As it happened, all of them lost to No, No, Nanette's Helen Gallagher (Actress) and Patsy Kelly (Supporting). Even though Ms. Kelly had over-the-title star billing. Go figure. As for Ms. Duncan, it was her great misfortune to come along with the right talent at precisely the wrong time. Musical comedy struggled mightily through the 1970s and 1980s. Here we are in 2005, and Sandy Duncan has still never had the opportunity to create a role in a new Broadway musical. At any rate, Decca Broadway has now brought Duncan and the 1970 Boy Friend to CD. The high spots, not surprisingly, are Sandy's two numbers. Her song-and-dance partner in the standout Charleston number is the engaging and reliable Harvey Evans (from the chorus of Verdon's New Girl in Town and Redhead, as it happens).

The original Broadway Boy Friend was somewhat more satirical than the nostalgic British edition, and not to the taste of composer-lyricist librettist Wilson. (During the production period, the author and director were literally barred from the theatre by the New York producers.) Wilson's dissatisfaction apparently extended to the roaring orchestrations, which didn't reflect his intentions. Even so, they are snappy and happy; Cy Feuer, who produced the original Broadway version (and replaced the director), told me that the overture itself stopped the show every night. The orchestrations, by Ted Royal, Charlie Cooke, Marion Evans and others, sound especially fresh and lively (and stereophonic) on the 1970 cast album. So the new CD has Sandy Duncan and superior sound; the 1954 version has Julie Andrews. Either way, The Boy Friend is a delightful trifle stocked with a half-dozen irresistible numbers.

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

Today’s Most Popular News: