SAY, DARLING [DRG 19109]
Here, after fifty years, is the CD debut of Say, Darling, the musical that changed the way Broadway sounded. That's quite a claim, and only half-seriously made; but this unassuming "comedy about a musical" did, in fact, directly bring about the revolution in orchestration that took us from the age of Russell Bennett to the age of — well, Gypsy.
Richard Bissell was a Dubuque-born, Harvard-educated steamboat pilot who came to Broadway to adapt his Book-of-the-Month Club novel "7½ Cents" into a musical comedy. The success of The Pajama Game (and his stint as a flavorful joke doctor during the troubled tryout of Damn Yankees) impelled him to write a satirical novel about his adventures in the Broadway game. "Say, Darling" was published in 1957 and immediately snapped up for production. So we got a Broadway musical about a Dubuque-born, Harvard-educated steamboat pilot who came to Broadway to adapt his novel into a musical comedy. The names were changed to protect the guilty, although several of the characters were lovingly-drawn caricatures of Pajama people including a veteran, no-nonsense director (such as George Abbott); an impossibly egotistical songwriter (read Richard Adler); and an impossibly young and charming boy producer (Harold Prince).
"Say, Darling," the novel, is a joy to read. This, from someone who has the collected novels of Richard Bissell on a top shelf. Haven't read them in years, but the man was a humorist in the vein of Mark Twain and Ring Lardner; not nearly as enduring, certainly, but pretty good considering his era (the Eisenhower years). Say, Darling the musical, alas, isn't near as good as the novel. Jule Styne, who at the time was trying to turn himself into another Richard Rodgers, produced; he hired Abe (Guys and Dolls) Burrows — next best thing to George Abbott? — to direct and collaborate on the book with Bissell. The songs, naturally enough, came from Styne with his bright collaborators from Bells Are Ringing, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
The problem, or perhaps I should say the main problem, was in the conception. Somewhere along the line they decided to do the show not as a musical with an orchestra in the orchestra pit, but as a play with songs provided as if in a rehearsal hall. Say, Darling, thus, fell somewhere in between. Whenever it was time to set off into a roaring show tune, they did so; but whenever the time came to bleed through the scrim to a full set and for the rehearsal pianists to be overtaken by full orchestra — nothing happened. The singers just kept going, backed by the pianos, until the song ended and the scene continued. That being the case, the songs never quite landed. Styne, Comden and Green wrote spoofs in many flavors, but their hearts — or at least their best efforts — seemed not to be in it. The entire affair was so in-between that the one Tony Award nomination the show gathered came not in the musical category but for Featured Actor in a Play category. For Robert Morse, who chewed up not only the scenery but I think the first two rows of seats. (Here's Walter Kerr: "The determined satirists introduce us to a glossy young nincompoop who wears white shoes, paws everybody in the chummiest possible manner, flickers his indolent eyes as he drops knowing phrases and generally behaves himself like a land-crab on rollerskates. They call this fellow a producer, and they encourage a brilliantly comic young actor named Robert Morse to shiver his jello shoulders, flip his feet out in front of him as though he had just kicked them off, and look as though he had recently eaten a very distressing blintz every time anybody is rude to him.")
However, we started this discussion claiming that Say, Darling changed the way Broadway sounded, and I suppose we'd better address that bit of hyperbole. In the theatre, the affair was accompanied by Colin Romoff and Peter Howard at the twin pianos. RCA reasoned they should add an orchestra, the better to sound like a real Broadway cast album, so they commissioned staff arranger Sid Ramin to work something up. Ramin had done some wonderfully lush "living string" albums for RCA and only recently worked on his first musical, as one of two orchestrators assisting Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story. Ramin called in Red Ginzler, his co-orchestrator from TV's "Milton Berle Show," and the pair set to work. While Ramin had little Broadway experience, Ginzler had written literally hundreds of Broadway charts (albeit without credit or recognition): "Steam Heat," "Whatever Lola Wants," the nifty Indian dance in Peter Pan, vast chunks of Wonderful Town. Ramin and Ginzler split the show equally, although Red — who was not an employee of RCA — once again received no credit.
The songwriters walked into the recording session, knowing only that RCA had thrown together some type of in-house arrangement. After hearing the overture, the astounded Styne toppled over as if in a faint, so much did he love what he heard. Listening to these songs for months with only piano accompaniment, any orchestral treatment is bound to be invigorating, but Ramin and Ginzler's overture was especially breathtaking. (Even moreso, considering the quality of the songs.) Styne's prior musical, Bells Are Ringing, had the full Robert Russell Bennett treatment (with contributions from Walker, Lang and others). The orchestrations for the recording of Say, Darling, though, convinced Styne to switch to Ramin and Ginzler for his next musical; thus, a new Broadway sound for Gypsy featuring blasting brass, highly chromaticized reeds, and what you might term "the works." All of which you can hear, bright and clear, all through Say, Darling.
Which brings us back to the first-time-on-CD release of Say, Darling. David Wayne, Vivian Blaine and Johnny Desmond star, with Blaine and Desmond doing most of the singing. Johnny's solos — "It's the Second Time You Meet That Matters," "Say, Darling," and his version of "Try to Love Me" — are very much in the big band-influenced, '50s recording studio style; which is precisely the style that started to more or less push the old Russell Bennett sound out of the orchestra pit. Within a few seasons, the new sound took hold of almost half of Broadway's musicals, such as Bye Bye Birdie, Wildcat, A Funny Thing and How to Succeed.
This whole sea change, it can be said, started with this very Say, Darling cast album — which today's generation of cast album fans can now, finally, listen to. Using orchestrations that, in actuality, weren't part of the Broadway show. The Ramin-Ginzler charts were made available for stock and amateur productions, and still remain stored in Tams-Witmark's subbasement. They were even used, once or twice, in one of the few post-Broadway productions of the forgotten Say, Darling.
ANNIE GET YOUR GUN [DRG 19112]
Another strange tale of orchestration is brought to mind by the release of the 1963 studio cast version of Annie Get Your Gun, toplined by Doris Day and Robert Goulet (who apparently recorded their roles in separate studios, on separate coasts). The cover boasts "new orchestrations by Phil Lang," which takes us back to New Haven in the last week of March, 1946.
Actually, the trouble started months earlier. Richard Rodgers, co-producer with Oscar Hammerstein of Annie, took charge of the new Irving Berlin musical's music department. Jay Blackton, conductor of Oklahoma!, was the obvious choice for the job. So, one might think, was that landmark hit's orchestrator Russell Bennett or Don Walker, who had done Carousel and three other Rodgers shows since 1942. But by the end of 1945, Rodgers was mad at both Bennett and Walker due to perceived slights during Carousel. Rather than hire either of them for Annie, he vowed to stand on the street corner and hire the first orchestrator who came along. At this very moment, along came Lang with his first musical, the George Abbott-Jerome Robbins Billion Dollar Baby. Rodgers saw the show, heard the charts and hired this virtually-untried orchestrator.
The orchestra rehearsal for Annie, held a couple of days before the first performance in New Haven, was dismal. Not that the charts were poor, apparently; it's just that they were considerably different than what was expected. Lang, whose experience was mostly with bands, wrote in a newer style than Berlin (and apparently Merman) were used to hearing. Panic set in, and Rodgers was in the hot seat. Calling in favors, he immediately imported just about every professional orchestrator who could get to New Haven (including, naturally enough, Bennett and Walker). Over the next few days much of Annie was quickly rescored and patched together; once the show was up and running, Bennett et al continued to write new charts, replacing the replacements. By the time the show reached New York, the official credit was shared by Lang, Bennett, and Ted Royal — although there were at least ten arrangers rattling around the hotel rooms. (The only musical I know of with an even more severe orchestration problem was Barnum, where just about the whole thing was thrown out — with Lang among the ghosts rushed in to salvage the situation.)
The New Haven story makes it somewhat ironic that Lang was hired to orchestrate this Annie studio recording. This can be ascribed, in part, to the presence of conductor Franz Allers. A good friend of Lang from Plain and Fancy, My Fair Lady and Camelot, Allers himself was an odd choice. He was great for Fritz Loewe scores, but rather fusty when it came to musical comedy; at the time of this recording, he had just been fired during the tryout of his final new show, Hot Spot. Alternately, Lang might have been chosen by Berlin; despite memories of the original Annie, he had used Lang for his swan song, the 1962 Mr. President.
The recording in question does not use any of Lang's 1946 charts; unlike most of the Columbia series of studio cast albums of the era, they do not try to recreate the original sound of the show. The intention here seems to be to get Doris Day singing a Broadway musical, with arrangements that suit her style rather than the show as performed in a theatre. Day seems to be having fun, although someone apparently deemed the lyrics for "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" far too racy for general audiences. Imagine that! One can only imagine the reaction of Mr. Berlin when he heard it, as he was not one to welcome outside contributions to songs with his name on them. Goulet, meanwhile, seems to have been having a grand old time in his five songs. Ted Chapin provides an extremely interesting liner note with insights into Goddard Lieberson's studio cast albums of the era, with inside information from his father Schuyler Chapin (who was president of the Masterworks division of Columbia when this Annie was recorded).
Rodgers, for his part, followed the Annie situation by mending fences — more or less, anyway — with both Bennett and Walker. Although after the retirement of Russell and another flareup with Don, he — like Berlin — turned to Phil for his final musical, I Remember Mama. (Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)