ON THE RECORD: Skyscraper and Of Thee I Sing

News   ON THE RECORD: Skyscraper and Of Thee I Sing SKYSCRAPER DRG 19026
Perhaps the worst year ever for Broadway musicals was 1965. (Up until 1965, that is.) The previous year, 1964, had seen the openings ofHello, Dolly!, Funny Girl andFiddler on the Roof. As retribution, perhaps, theatregoers the following year were subjected to Kelly; Baker Street; Do I Hear a Waltz?; Flora, the Red Menace; The Roar of the Greasepaint; Pickwick; Drat! the Cat!; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; Skyscraper; Anya; andThe Yearling. These plus two keenly anticipated shows that closed out of town, Frank Loesser and Bob Fosse's Pleasures and Palaces andHot September, the David Merrick-Josh Logan musicalization ofPicnic. The year would have been a total loss were it not for the least likely of them all, an adaptation ofDon Quixote that opened in Greenwich Village just before Thanksgiving calledMan of La Mancha.

SKYSCRAPER DRG 19026
Perhaps the worst year ever for Broadway musicals was 1965. (Up until 1965, that is.) The previous year, 1964, had seen the openings ofHello, Dolly!, Funny Girl andFiddler on the Roof. As retribution, perhaps, theatregoers the following year were subjected to Kelly; Baker Street; Do I Hear a Waltz?; Flora, the Red Menace; The Roar of the Greasepaint; Pickwick; Drat! the Cat!; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; Skyscraper; Anya; andThe Yearling. These plus two keenly anticipated shows that closed out of town, Frank Loesser and Bob Fosse's Pleasures and Palaces andHot September, the David Merrick-Josh Logan musicalization ofPicnic. The year would have been a total loss were it not for the least likely of them all, an adaptation ofDon Quixote that opened in Greenwich Village just before Thanksgiving calledMan of La Mancha.

Skyscraper wasn't the worst, but it was pretty far down on the list, one of those aimless shows devised out of bits and pieces. Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin came up with an idea — announced in 1957 — about a landmark preservationist who refused to sell her brownstone to make way for a modern skyscraper. In 1959 they announced a musicalization of Elmer Rice's 1945 comedy hitDream Girl. (NotDreamgirls, mind you.) Sometime later, Feuer and Martin signed a two-show deal with Hollywood songwriters James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. This pair of transplanted New Yorkers were highly popular just then, with a string of Sinatra song hits. They had won three Oscars since 1957, for "All the Way," "High Hopes" and "Call Me Irresponsible." Van Heusen had a prior Oscar for "Swinging on a Star" (with lyricist Johnny Burke); Cahn had one for "Three Coins in the Fountain" (with composer Jule Styne).

The first of the Van Heusen-Cahn shows, an adaptation of the British play Hobson's Choice, was delayed until 1966-1967 when it opened under the title Walking Happy. For the other project, Feuer and Martin decided to piece together two unworkable ideas — the brownstone project and Dream Girl — into one unwieldy whole. Julie Harris, just then one of Broadway's top ticket sellers, was signed to play the lead, but Rex Harrison she wasn't. (If Rex Harrison had material likeSkyscraper instead ofMy Fair Lady, he would probably never have sung again either.)

Julie wasn't much of a singer, but she displays a certain amount of winsome charm as she chirrups along. Peter L. Marshall, who starred in the London production ofBye, Bye Birdie and later led the "Hollywood Squares" game show, sings well enough. Charles Nelson Reilly, a last-minute out-of town replacement, tries to insert some comedy in the laughless material.

Van Heusen, over the course of his long career, displayed a great sense of melody; Cahn was one of the nimbler lyricists of his time. Neither had much stage sense, though. They came up with only one tolerable song for Skyscraper, a ballad called "Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong." This has a lovely "pop" sound to it, although the lyric eventually falters. ("You and life can skip the strife, and you'll both get along," it goes. Yes, it rhymes; but what is it supposed to mean?) The score otherwise contains one almost-workable ballad, "I'll Only Miss Her When I Think of Her," and three of the worst production numbers of the time. Talk about extraneous! This was the sort of show in which the stars went to dinner at the Gaiety Deli, allowing everybody to dance and sing "Delicatessan! Delicatessan! it could replace a wife!" Cahn rhymes wife with knife and — once again — life and strife; hold that rhyme!! There are also embarrassing songs about girl watching and, out of the blue, about "Haute Couture." Character man Rex Everhart somehow manages to get through both of them. Elsewhere, Dick O'Neill also gets by with similar material.

Skyscraper was previously released on CD by Broadway Angel in 1993. There are 12 songs, plus an overture and one reprise. The same problem applies to almost all of the so-called book songs. Van Heusen and Cahn seem to have consciously written typical pop songs and then added unrelated mini-songs at the top. Not verses, which should naturally lead into the refrain, but separate sets of music and lyrics that attempt to link the song that follows to the scene that preceded it. "An Occasional Flight of Fancy" starts with a one-minute piece about being a somnambulist. (Q: "Are you trying to tell me I'm a nut, doctor?" A: "No, I'm the nut doctor, you're a nut patient.") "Run for Your Life" starts with an extended duet section ("Get Out, Bert") for a pair of brothers, before the leading man gets around to singing his solo. "Opposites" has a long lead-in in which Ms. Harris refuses a date with Mr. Marshall, allowing Cahn to obliviously rhyme dinner with Yul Brynner and Pulitzer Prize-winner, sinner, thinner, beginner and even Cornelia Otis Skinner. They go on and on like this, desperately trying to relate the songs to the story (except in those ghastly production numbers, where they don't even try). Peter Stone wrote the book, his second after the equally problematicKean. Things picked up for him in 1969, with 1776.

Feuer and Martin, who joined together in Hollywood to storm Broadway in 1948, produced a string of successful shows. These included three Frank Loesser musicals, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying; more hits included The Boy Friend and Cole Porter's Can-Can. Their other musicals, though — Silk Stockings, Whoop-Up, Skyscraper, Walking Happy — ranged from poor to worse. Not incidentally, the first group of musicals were directed by people like George Abbott, George S. Kaufman and Abe Burrows. The latter shows were directed by Cy Feuer himself. Enough said.

OF THEE I SING DRG 19024
Of Thee I Sing nabbed the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, back in the days when awarding the Pulitzer to a musical was as unthinkable as awarding four stars to a fast-food restaurant. The prize went to librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and lyricist Ira Gershwin, but not brother George (who wrote music but no words). These gentlemen were honored for coming up with the most ridiculous story imaginable.

A President of the United States is sued by a Southern dumplin' for alienation of affection. Political bigwigs pressure the President to cut short the scandal by resigning, the President refuses, the Senate threatens. ("You decline to resign, we will teach you, we'll impeach you!") The President is duly impeached. The case ultimately goes to the Supreme Court before a decidedly arbitrary set of Justices. ("We have powers that are positively regal, only we can take a law and make it legal.") Whoever heard of such goings on? Maybe these guys should have gotten the Pulitzer for Non Fiction.

Of Thee I Sing is perhaps the closest Broadway ever came to Gilbert and Sullivan. It is extremely funny, although as topical satire written before FDR ousted Herbert Hoover, it has understandably dated. The lyrics are especially deft; Ira Gershwin worked wonders with his stubby pencil. As far as I'm concerned, his work here should be required reading for aspiring lyricists interested in what you can achieve in musical comedy.

The passing years worked against the show when it was revived in 1952, just in time for the Eisenhower/Stevenson contest. The show was also revived Off-Broadway in 1968 (Nixon/Humphrey) with even poorer results. The 1952 revival has now been reissued by DRG, and it remains an uninspired and abbreviated reading of the score.

Kaufman, who directed this revival, appears to have had a hard time with casting. Jack Carson, a B-movie second-banana, made his only Broadway appearance as President John P. Wintergreen; Betty Oakes, a chorus girl from Where's Charley?, played the first lady. Neither makes much of an impression. Lenore Lonergan, as Diana Devereaux, is especially bad. As a ten-year-old, she had proved a wise-cracking asset as Katharine Hepburn's kid sister in The Philadelphia Story, which she followed with successes as a teenager in the comedies Junior Miss and Dear Ruth. As an adult, though, she has a grating voice that might want you to turn the thing off altogether.

Paul Hartman co-starred as Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom. This was basically a comedy role, with only a brief amount of singing (in "The Senate Roll Call"). This CD does, though, give you the opportunity to hear the man who, in 1949, was the first winner of the Best Actor in a Musical Tony (for Angel in the Wings). Also of interest is Florenz Ames, re creating his original role as the French Ambassador who sings "she's the illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon." The only performer on this disc who sounds like he is anything but canned is Jack Whiting, a popular juvenile of the 1920's and 1930's who plays the Chief Justice. The original orchestrations by Gershwin, Russell Bennett and Bill Daly were replaced for this production, with a new but inferior set by Don Walker. (Red Ginzler was credited in the program, though not on the album, as assistant orchestrator.) This gives the score a modern sound, circa 1952, which doesn't help much today. There is a considerably more complete recorded version of the show [CBS M2K 42522], coupled with Let 'Em Eat Cake, the 1933 sequel to Of Thee I Sing. That CD is ineffectively cast as well, but a much better way to get your dose of Ira Gershwin at his finest.

But, be of good cheer. DRG plans to continue its parade of reissues with several first-time-on-CD releases from the old Columbia catalogue. Some of these cast albums are real treats, so we have something to look forward to.

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.