ON THE RECORD: Saturday Night on the Via Dolorosa, w/ Rodgers & Hammerstein

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Saturday Night on the Via Dolorosa, w/ Rodgers & Hammerstein SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Polydor)
I will readily admit there is no reason why a movie musical cannot and/or should not be translated into a successful stage show. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to adapt the material to the medium -- as was done in the highly theatricalized Gower Champion/David Merrick 42nd Street -- rather than just throw the thing on stage and hope for the best. (I might add that I worked on two stage versions of beloved all-time great movie musicals, both of which were ill-conceived shambles from the outset.)

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (Polydor)
I will readily admit there is no reason why a movie musical cannot and/or should not be translated into a successful stage show. It has always seemed to me, though, that you need to adapt the material to the medium -- as was done in the highly theatricalized Gower Champion/David Merrick 42nd Street -- rather than just throw the thing on stage and hope for the best. (I might add that I worked on two stage versions of beloved all-time great movie musicals, both of which were ill-conceived shambles from the outset.) Next up is Saturday Night Fever, the hit British stage adaptation of the 1977 film, which is scheduled to be transplanted to Broadway this fall. It is hard to tell from the liner notes how much, if any, of this score is new; how much of the stage score is included in this twelve track, forty-one minute disc; or anything whatsoever about the plot, story, or characters. (I did see the film once, long ago, but it didn't make much of an impression, and I recall nothing except a guy in a white suit and a dance floor with built-in lights.) A number of the songs are familiar, certainly; back in the early eighties you couldn't escape them no matter how hard you might have tried. It does appear, from the album's steady disco beat, that this Saturday Night Fever consists exclusively of dance floor production numbers -- not unlike Michael Bennett's Ballroom, which in its final form was little more than a series of well-choreographed dance floor numbers, separated by book scenes with little theatrical bite. (Coincidentally, the mirror ball artwork on the Saturday Night Fever back cover looks uncannily like the Ballroom logo.)

There could well be an audience for this sort of thing; apparently there's is an eager one in London. As for the cast album: it is an apparently authentic representation of the show, it is certainly pleasant, and I imagine it will sell an awful lot of albums as a souvenir of the event.

VIA DOLOROSA (RCA)
You might naturally think that a 90-minute monologue examining Israeli and Palestinian affairs, written and performed by a prolific playwright who typically concentrates on a different sort of affair altogether does not seem likely material for an original cast album. But Via Dolorosa doesn't sound like it's going to be riveting in the theatre, either. Tens of thousands of playgoers in New York and London can tell you that David Hare's most recent play is very special indeed. (Were Dolorosa and Hare blanked out of the Tony nominations because his Blue Room, which most critics and theatre professionals highly disliked, had the temerity to sell out?)

It is not an unparalleled act to issue a cast album of a non-musical, certainly; important plays -- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Great White Hope, the Richard Burton Hamlet, even Judith Anderson's Medea, have been recorded over the years. Via Dolorosa is not in their class, perhaps, but I guess its release makes a certain amount of sense. The recording derives from a BBC radio version of the play, which was broadcast last October (a month after the London opening). Which is to say, the production costs of making this compact disc were presumably minimal.

The notes tell us the material has been adapted for radio by Hare. The disc clocks in at seventy-eight minutes, about ten less than the Broadway version. It seems to me very little is missing, though. If you cut out all the audience laughter (the play, oddly enough, is filled with jokes) and the audience applause, and the time Hare takes entering and exiting and crossing from stage right to stage left to sit at two little matching tables to drink matching glasses of water, well, I suppose the CD version is close to complete.

Sitting in your living room listening to Via Dolorosa certainly cannot compare with sitting in the Booth with David Hare himself, and I'd think anyone interested in this type of theatre would get over to Shubert Alley if at all possible before Hare leaves town (on June 13). But this is not the sort of play likely to hit the road on a forty-city tour. Out-of towners interested in this type of theatre might well want to hear Hare as he describes his self-education along the road to Jerusalem. For them, this disc should prove extremely rewarding.

CINDERELLA (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
Measured against the likes of South Pacific, Carousel, and The King and I, the 1957 television musical "Cinderella" has always held an understandably minor position among the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein. I, myself, don't think I've bothered to listen to it in more than twenty years. Now we have a "remastered and restored" edition of the original cast album, and I'm surprised to find that it really is rather charming. Part of the piece's reputation stems from the endless tinkering which has occurred since the one-time-only telecast on March 31, 1957. Rodgers and especially Hammerstein geared the piece towards a family audience, creating a gentle, child-oriented version of the tale of the lady and the slipper.

Cinderella was quickly recycled into a vehicle for pop-star Tommy Steele's 1958 West End debut, with a song interpolation by Steele (and apparently without the participation of Hammerstein). There have been no less than three stage adaptations and two television adaptations, all of which have attempted to fill out the score with not especially apt items from the trunk. They have also tried, more or less, to add "sophistication" to the piece -- which is precisely what Hammerstein originally chose to avoid. The result of all this is that unless you happened to be tuned in on March 31, 1957, the "Cinderella" you've seen has been an adaptation of Hammerstein's adaptation. The compact disc at hand is the original original, and that might explain why it is so much more refreshing than the myriad other versions.

The score ranges from okay to quite good, led by "Impossible" and "Do I Love You (Because You're Beautiful)". The songs are not top-drawer Rodgers & Hammerstein, but hey, they were writing a pre-sold, one-shot TV piece. Standing out, needless to say, is the young Julie Andrews, who had initially brought the project to R & H. She is in fine voice, as they say, and she does indeed sound even more magical here than on the Broadway and London cast recordings of My Fair Lady (of 1956 and 1958). The cast also features the husband and wife team of Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney as the King and Queen, Edith (Edie) Adams as the Fairy Godmother, and a young Jon Cypher as Prince Charming. The disc also contains four new-to-CD promotional tracks, two Julie Andrews vocals (with Rodgers at the podium) and two instrumentals with the composer at the keyboard.

FLOWER DRUM SONG (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
Also in the new crop of Sony's Broadway Masterworks is Rodgers & Hammerstein's penultimate musical, the 1958 Flower Drum Song. Following "Cinderella," the hitherto all-powerful duo were at their very lowest ebb. They suddenly had no shows running on Broadway, with no prospects; their two prior musicals, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream, had been harshly received; and their big motion picture project, the film adaptation of South Pacific, was in the midst of severe production problems. When the nonadventurous Flower Drum Song project materialized, the pair unsteadily signed on.

The score is more than adequate, certainly, but it clearly ranks with Me and Juliet as the least adventurous R & H offerings. It's workmanlike, professionally crafted, and somewhat typical of "B" level Fifties musical hits (like Plain and Fancy or Jamaica). The boys seem to have been especially unimaginative in plotting their song slots; a handful of the choices parallel their work on "Cinderella." "Impossible things are happening every day" sings Cinderella; "A hundred million miracles are happening every day," sings the mousy Flower Drum heroine. "You are beautiful" sings the Flower Drum baritone; Prince Charming sings "Do I love you because you're beautiful."

Flower Drum does include one extremely beautiful song, "Love Look Away"; but Dick Rodgers could write a beautiful song before breakfast. The show was moderately profitable, running less than half as long as the 1957 Music Man and ranking only sixth among the nine R & H musicals.

While I more or less enjoy Flower Drum Song -- I would guess I listen to it a couple of times a year -- I can't help but be disappointed that Sony has expended energies on something like this when they have some truly important musicals languishing in their vaults. This is the third different compact disc remastering of this undistinguished album, no less; I guess the Rodgers & Hammerstein brand name carries more weight than that of lesser mortals like Marc Blitzstein (of Regina and Juno) or Jule Styne (Subways Are for Sleeping).

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com