ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's Assassins and Bart's La Strada

News   ON THE RECORD: Sondheim's Assassins and Bart's La Strada This week's column discusses the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins and Lionel Bart's ill-fated La Strada.

ASSASSINS [ps Classics ps-421]
I went into the 2004 revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Assassins with vibrant memories of the original cast. Most of them, anyway. I left the theatre with the old performers joined by new ones. Most of them, anyway. This is uncommon; in cases like this, you usually come out with a clear preference. Today's leads were as strong as yesterday's. There is no sense comparing the old actors to the new; Jonathan Hadary and Denis O'Hare, for example, painted equally remarkable pictures of McKinley's murderer Charles Guiteau.

The new Assassins as a whole was a bit stronger, although this was surely somewhat circumstantial. "All you have to do is move your little finger," Sondheim tells his characters, and "you can change the world." In 1990, this tale of awkward loners setting their sights on Presidents was an historical fantasy. Today, there are warning signs on the streets and in the subways.

The revival — one of the strongest the Roundabout has given us in many years — was a full-size physical production, with all the bells and whistles and gunshots. This contrasted with the enhanced-workshop surroundings of the Playwrights Horizons mounting, in a theatre a fraction of the size. Musically, too, there was a vast difference. The Roundabout offered 13 players, led by the esteemed Paul Gemignani (entering his fourth decade as Sondheim's musical director of choice). Thirteen years ago, Assassins was performed by two keyboard players — Paul Ford (who is still aboard) and orchestrator Michael Starobin — with Gemignani conducting from his drum set.

The other major change is the addition of the song "Something Just Broke," which was added to the 1992 production at the Donmar Warehouse in London. (I would guess that the need for this song was apparent to Sondheim and Weidman during the Playwrights production, and that "Something Just Broke" or its equivalent would have been written in time for the 1991 Broadway transfer, which never occurred.) This song is crucial to the piece. After spending the evening with an assortment of assassins, we are suddenly presented with ordinary people — that is, you and me. Anyone who has a memory of 1963 remembers what they were doing when something just broke. What made the new Assassins so chilling, today, is that everyone over the age of ten knows what they were doing when something just broke again.

I have always admired the Playwrights Horizon cast album [RCAVictor 60737], which preserved those six or seven memorable performances. (The recording was enhanced with a full orchestration, by Starobin.) Admired, yes, although I must admit that the original Assassins ranks first or second on my list of least-played Sondheim original cast albums. The new album is pretty much identical, with the exception of the aforementioned "Something Just Broke" and some additional sections of dialogue. But the CD sounds significantly more vibrant, more alive. Is this due to director Joe Mantello? the actors? or perhaps the sound engineer? I would have to point to all of these plus the material itself, which has so much more meaning today. "The Gun Song" and "Another National Anthem," especially, are absolutely searing. Always were, I suppose. We just didn't sense what Sondheim sensed. The bottom line, I suppose, is: Does this new Assassins supplant the worthy original? My answer, on consideration, is a definite yes.

LA STRADA (The Road) [Bayview RNBW028]
Many years ago, someone gave me a cassette recorded off a scratchy LP of a concept album of Lionel Bart's La Strada. This appears to have been a private album; it had a full cover and notes, but I can't find any record of its having been released. Bart and Chris Curtis produced the recording, in 1967, from the "first draft score"; Ken Moule arranged and conducted, while the only performers listed are Madeline Bell (presumably as Gelsomina) and the Michael Sammes singers.

Bayview Records, which has happily given us CDs of Bart's Lock up Your Daughters and Maggie May, has found a clean copy of the La Strada LP and transferred it to CD.

I could never quite understand how this La Strada, with a collection of interesting songs, turned into such a fiasco. Bart's final produced musical opened and closed at the Lunt in December 1969, taking with it the hopes of a budding star-to-be named Bernadette Peters. What I learned over the years was that the Broadway La Strada was Lionel Bart's La Strada in name only. A mere two or three songs (depending on who you ask) remained in the show on opening night; the Playbill was slipsheeted with an insert that said "additional music and lyrics by Elliot Lawrence and Martin Charnin."

La Strada was a Broadway original, and remains the only one of Bart's shows other than Oliver! to appear on Broadway. (Bart's final London musical, the 1965 Twang!, was met with jeers, which might account for the decision to originate his next show in New York.) The true details of what happened to La Strada on la strada are unknown to me, but Bart apparently never showed up stateside; he was indisposed, as they say, far across the sea. Bart's songs, for whatever reason, must not have worked in context. No producer would arbitrarily go to the astronomical expense of new songs, new orchestrations at out-of-town rates, round-the-clock copyist costs, and considerable overtime rehearsal costs.

It could well be that first-time producer Charles K. Peck assumed that the material he was handed, coming from the internationally famous Lionel Bart, was stage-ready. It could be, as well, that Peck was expecting a libretto from Bart (who usually served as his own librettist). In any event, Peck received sole credit as librettist. (Not a good sign, as his only other libretto was for Pearl Buck's 1960 musical Christine, which ran twelve times as long as La Strada — which is to say, a week-and-a-half). Peck hired Alan Schneider and Alvin Ailey, both of whom had strong credits as director and choreographer but neither of whom had ever done a Broadway musical. Without Bart on hand, they all seem to have been lost.

If they'd started rehearsals for Oliver! with 12 songs, a copy of Dickens, and no Bart, I don't suppose they'd have gotten very far, either. Bart (1930-99) soon resurfaced; I saw him eight months after La Strada opened and closed. I was a teen-aged usher at the Off-Broadway Orpheum Theatre; one night I found a gnome-like man, absolutely blubbering on the stairs to the balcony during the second act of The Me Nobody Knows. "I'll go back in, but I just can't help it," he said in all sincerity. "It's just that the singing, it's so beautiful." He told me about his new project, a version of Gulliver's Travels that never seems to have been finished.

The songs from La Strada — at least, the ten songs on Bart's concept album — are (mostly) an attractive lot. The best is "Belonging," a fine ballad of unrequited love along the lines (though not the style) of "As Long As He Needs Me." It is the best song on the pirated live tape of La Strada that is floating around; the show version, sung by Ms. Peters, has a stronger lyric than on the CD.

Bart was always a formulaic writer; in his case this was not a detriment, because his forms were so original. "To Be a Performer" has all the bounce of "Consider Yourself"; I can imagine this one staged as a grand production number, starting as a duet and growing as it moves along through chorus after chorus. Bart typically built his numbers in the same manner as our own Jerry Herman. Speaking of Herman, "Ciao" (which is also called "Hullo and Goodbye") could be seen as an Italian "Shalom." Italian in name only, mind you; Bart's score for La Strada is miles and miles away from anything you might describe as Fellini-esque (or Nino Rota-esque, for that matter.) But I suppose that if you want a score that sounds like Fellini, you don't call Lionel Bart, do you?

"Something Special," too, has the sunny bounce of Oliver!, while "If Her Mother Only Knew" is one of those lusty tavern songs for chorus (like "Oom Pah-Pah"). Some of the songs on the CD are problematic. Zampano's big soliloquy, following in the mold of the soliloquies in Oliver! and Blitz!, doesn't hold together (despite some strong sections); while "Nothing" is really strange. Those of you who are up on obscurities might recall something called "Scratch My Back" from New Faces of 1956. That's as close as I can come to describing "Nothing."

Strange is a good word for La Strada, all told. (Strange was a good word for Mr. Bart, as well.) But Bart — for me — is always interesting. And I do hope we can look forward, some day, to the altogether indescribable Twang!

Fans of Bart might also want to listen to Bart for Bart's Sake, a nine track collection that has been coupled with Vivian Ellis's ten-track You've Never Had It So Good, under the joint title Vivian Ellis and Lionel Bart Sing Their Songs [Must Close Saturday MCSR 2004]. Bart recorded this 30-minute set in 1960, just before the tryout of Oliver!

Four of the songs will be familiar to some listeners, as they come from Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Lock Up Your Daughters. Laurie Johnson, Bart's composer for the latter musical, arranged and conducted this freewheeling collection. Highlights include a humorous rendition of "Contempery," with Bart lvas a prissy wallpaper salesman; and an especially swinging reading of Johnson and Bart's "When Does the Ravishing Begin," festooned with blaring brass. The arrangements throughout are fittingly frisky and humorous. Bart also provides a bit of narration; to wit: "Side Two, or Side One if you play it first, you mad, controversial thing you."

Among the tracks sure to be unfamiliar is a somewhat unlikely story-song called "Newmarket Nightmare" about the day "they entered a philly from the USSR" at Ascot with the daring name "For a Lasting Peace and a People's Democracy." She beats the favorite, "Challenge Royal," causing an uproar. (Bart, at this point, was a card-carrying Communist.) This is an eight-minute effort, with Bart playing all the roles — and quite well, too. In the final song, Bart asks, "Why can't we do what Dr. Kinsey says?" Sample rhyming: "According to this guy / More boys you're kissed by / More boys you'll want to kiss / He says that the act is better with practice / Come and by promiscuous, miss."

The Bart on display is playful, good-natured and sprightly; it is hard to imagine that this is the same fellow who had just written "Where Is Love?," "Who Will Buy?," "As Long As He Needs Me" and all those other Oliver! songs. Unusual, colorful and charming, here is Bart for Bart's Sake. An original he was, who left behind some highly flavorful delights.

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

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