ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter and a Marxian Mikado

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter and a Marxian Mikado
 
This week's column discusses the 1967 Off-Broadway cast album of Fred Ebb's adaptation of By Jupiter, and the 1960 telecast of The Mikado with an unlikely Lord High Executioner.
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By Jupiter [DRG 19105]
What was the longest running musical of the 20 by Rodgers & Hart? Pal Joey? No. On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, A Connecticut Yankee, The Boys from Syracuse? Nope, none of the above. By Jupiter, the final complete effort of the boys, gets the nod. This comes as a surprise, as Jupiter is relatively forgotten; but the Ray Bolger-starrer outlasted all the others, only closing — after 427 performances — when the star withdrew. (It is said that he abruptly left the show to entertain the troops overseas, but methinks there was perhaps more to the story.)

While the record book never lies, statistics in this case are deceptive. Neither Babes nor The Boys made it past nine months, it is true; but hey, there was a depression going on. Jupiter came along during the World War II boom, a time when even lowbrow musicals — like the Mike Todd/Gypsy Rose Lee dressed-up burlesque revue, Star and Garter — could easily top the 600 mark.

If you separate the late R&H musicals into the ever-popular (On Your Toes, The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey) and those that have fallen by the wayside (I Married an Angel, Higher and Higher, By Jupiter), you'll instantly find the key: Column A had George Abbott at the helm, while Column B had Josh Logan. Abbott, be he co-author, director and/or producer, knew how to craft a show into something more than a combination of words and music. This is not to say that Logan wasn't a good director; he was artful and clever, and had a long and successful career. But the only two Logan musicals with a satisfactory afterlife — Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific — both had the name of an expert dramatist-showman on the title page, namely Oscar Hammerstein.

All this is beside the point. Let us skip to 1963. An enterprising young producer took The Boys from Syracuse, reduced it to Off-Broadway scale, and came up with a smashingly successful pocket-sized hit which ran 501 performances (more than doubling the original run). Four years later, another producer tried the same with By Jupiter, going so far as to book the show into the very same playhouse; but to little avail. Central to the project was Fred Ebb, just then basking in the glow of his two-month-old hit, Cabaret. (Jupiter, obviously, was well in the works prior to the opening of Ebb's first success.) What's more, the starring role — originally tailored to the talents of song-and-dance-man Ray Bolger — was reconceived for comedian Bob Dishy, who had been the leading man in Ebb's earlier Flora, the Red Menace. The Jupiter juvenile role, too, went to a featured actor from Flora , Robert Kaye (who later went on to be the thankless third side of the Shirley Jones-Jack Cassidy triangle in Maggie Flynn). Christopher Hewett, director of the Syracuse revival, repeated his assignment, but Jupiter — which opened Jan. 19, 1967 at Theatre Four — amounted to little and closed after 118 performances. On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey have all had active afterlives (with a grand total of 12 full-scale cast albums among them); By Jupiter, though, is all but forgotten.

Now, finally, the long out-of-print cast album of the 1967 revival has been transferred to CD — the final Rodgers musical to make the jump. (I seem to recall that it was on the schedule at BMG, paired with Rodgers's TV musical "Androcles and the Lion," back in the good old Bill Rosenfield days.) For Rodgers & Hart fans, this CD — as the only recording of the boys' longest-running, and final, musical — is a must; if you've never heard these songs, you certainly are going to want to. That said, the recording itself is not exactly brilliant. The musical arrangements make the show sound rather brittle; if it is impossible to make those three stunningly beautiful ballads sound anything less than stunningly beautiful, the other numbers are not helped by the treatment. The ten-piece orchestration is by Abba Bogin, a fine musical director/arranger who worked extensively with Frank Loesser but was not known as an orchestrator. Ghosting on the show was one of those talented guys who spent years around the business, trying to get a break. He finally got one the following year, namely Promises! Promises!; Jonathan Tunick hasn't stopped working since.

The aforementioned ballads are called "Nobody's Heart," "Careless Rhapsody" and "Wait Till You See Her," three songs that fit right in with the best (if not the best-known) of Rodgers & Hart. Two comedy numbers also rise to the occasion, "Life with Father" — kind of a successor to "The Heart Is Quicker than the Eye" — and especially "Everything I've Got," an insult duet in the style of (but superior to) "What Can You Do with a Man."

The Mikado [DRG 19106]
At the same time, DRG has brought us the Columbia Masterworks recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado," as presented on the Bell Telephone Hour on April 29, 1960. This was, mind you, a 53-minute version — which is what an hour amounted to in those days, after commercials. Fortunately, they had a little more leeway when Goddard Lieberson took them into the recording studio. What makes this "Mikado" unlike any other — and, indeed, what brought the telecast exceptionally high ratings — was that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner with his little list, was played by that notable Savoyard, Groucho Marx.

Don't laugh; well, of course laugh. But Groucho is not as farfetched an idea as he might sound. His stage-to-screen roles, in The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, were built around patter songs. What are "I'm Captain Spalding, the African Explorer" and (somewhat later) "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady," after all, if not Gilbert & Sullivan list songs? At first, Mr. Marx seems somewhat out-of-place in what is otherwise a traditional (if streamlined) rendering of the fabled operetta. But he gets right into it, and then some; by the time we reach "Here's a How-De-Do!" and "Willow, Tit-Willow" Groucho is a most welcome participant. His duet with Helen Traubel, "There Is Beauty," is at one and the same time G&S and Marx&Dumont. It all works quite nicely.

The cast is filled with some interesting theatre/operetta names. Along with Ms. Traubel comes Robert Rounseville, of Candide and Man of La Mancha, as the wandering minstrel; Barbara Meister, whom I recall seeing as Julie Jordan somewhere, as Yum-Yum; and Stanley Holloway, of My Fair Lady, as Pooh-Bah. Dennis King, star of The Vagabond King, The Three Musketeers, I Married an Angel and countless others, plays the title role. Martyn Green, the longtime leading comedian of the D'Oyly Carte Company, wrote the adaptation; he could not perform, as he had just then lost a leg in an elevator accident. (Green and King appeared together, as it happens, in the ill-fated 1956 Harry Warren stage musical, Shangri-La.) Donald Vorhees did the musical adaptation, while Broadway's own Buster Davis conducts.

Let us close by saying a word in appreciation of DRG. When the CD format came along, the survivor companies of the major labels — Columbia, RCA and Capitol — dutifully (if in a sometimes puzzling manner) transferred a good portion of their respective catalogs. But that was then. The newer corporate parents seemed to lose interest, the stream or reissues dried up, and many of the titles fell back out of print. Over the years, DRG has happily picked up many of the fallen cast albums, and with great dedication and care has brought them — as well as various never-before-on-CD titles — back into print. At this point, the catalog includes such titles as No Strings, Plain and Fancy, Greenwillow, The Gay Life, the superb Shirley Jones/Jack Cassidy Brigadoon, Oh Captain!, Golden Boy and more. Each of which, really, should be on your CD shelf; at least, I find myself listening to them frequently. And most are on sale on the DRG website.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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