ON THE RECORD: Stephen Sondheim Sings (again!) and A Family Affair

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Stephen Sondheim Sings (again!) and A Family Affair
 
This week's column discusses "Sondheim Sings: Volume II" and — at long last — John Kander's first musical, A Family Affair.
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SONDHEIM SINGS: Volume II, 1946-60 [PS Classics PS-9533]
"Where Do I Belong?" is the title of the penultimate track on "Sondheim Sings: Volume II." This song is from Climb High, an unproduced musical that Sondheim wrote in 1952 as a training tool under the tutelage of Oscar Hammerstein. The song is quite good, although the music might well have seemed complex in the days of Wish You Were Here, Me and Juliet and Can-Can.

More to the point, though, is the sentiment. The song was written for a character who seems to stand on the sidelines. "Am I the only one who waits and looks and waits?" he asks. Musically, "where do I belong?" might well have been a relevant question for composer Sondheim until 1970, when he turned the corner — so to speak — and turned 40, with Company. "Sondheim Sings: Volume II" is the second of a scheduled three CDs culled from the archives by the singer himself, in conjunction with archivist Peter E. Jones (who also produced the album and provided the informative and extensive liner notes). This covers an earlier period than the first CD, which began with Sondheim's first Broadway musical as a composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. None of the material has been heard on Broadway, other than in anthology revues; Volume II does not include early versions of songs we know and love, as its predecessor does. A few songs are by now familiar, but much of this material will be altogether new to the ears of most listeners. I suppose that the more you know of Sondheim's work, the more engrossing you will find this collection.

Of special interest are — well, all the tracks are of special interest. Saturday Night, the 1954 musical that was finally produced in London and Off-Broadway, four-and-a-half decades later, is represented with two songs, as is Climb High. There are also three from the unfinished 1956 project The Last Resorts, including "Pour le Sport" (written in a style that might seem familiar to fans of Sunday in the Park with George). "Do I Hear a Waltz?" is the first of three songs with that title (the other two with music by Richard Rodgers). This was written for a prospective 1960 television musical based on Arthur Laurents' Time of the Cuckoo, which five years later served as source material for the musical Do I Hear a Waltz?

Miscellania include a couple of birthday songs, including a 1954 list song titled "A Star Is Born." Written for the birth of the daughter of Sondheim's friend Charles Hollerith Jr., this bravura eight-minute effort is crammed full of allusions to some 60 movie stars, many of whom are obscure today (and some of whom were probably obscure in 1954). Here we have Sondheim-the lyricist, the nimble-penciled fellow of "I'm Still Here."

That same fellow gives us something called "Ten Years Old," written for but cut from a 1960 TV special, "The Fabulous Fifties." Sondheim sets his lyric to a succession of nursery rhymes — it runs well over six minutes — and it is a joyful digest of (then) current events. This is one of the brightest discoveries on the CD, along with "Where Do I Belong?" and an instrumental radio broadcast of "How Do I Know?" from the 1948 college musical Phinney's Rainbow. The liner notes are filled with photographs of the young Sondheim; there he is, a happy 12-year-old in military school garb, or — better yet — sitting at the counter in a crowded Williamstown college hangout behind a row of waiters. (The caption tells us this is a pub, but the counter-man is — for reasons unknown — posing with a bottle of Heinz Ketchup.) The most intriguing photos are on the slip-case, showing a handsome and happy teenager (circa 1946, when he was 16 years old) on the front; and on the back, Sondheim at the keys with a somewhat goofy smile (circa 1949).

The earliest recordings herein are three snippets of piano music from By George, a high school musical written by Sondheim at 16. The most unusual item is a 1943 message, herein labeled "Steve Greets Ockie," in which he sends his mentor Christmas greetings. (This recording, made by Sondheim on his own tape recorder, also included snippets from commercial recordings. These have, understandably, been edited out.) "Brush up on your chess," Sondheim tells Hammerstein, " 'cause I'm all set for a hot game." And there you have Steve Sondheim at 13.

A FAMILY AFFAIR [DRG 19068]
A new musical opened at the Erlanger in Philly on the day after Christmas, 1961, and it was a stinker. The idea: Jewish boy proposes to Jewish girl; Jewish parents of boy plan the wedding while Jewish uncle of girl also plans the wedding; everybody fights. But love conquers all — even Jewish in-laws — and boy and girl finally march down the aisle. Sounds like a crass ploy to sell tickets to Jewish audiences, circa 1960, don't you think?

A Family Affair came from a first-time composer and a team of first-time lyricist/librettists. The director had never done a Broadway musical; neither had the choreographer; and the producer (surprise!) seems never to have been anywhere near Broadway, before or since.

The producer did manage to line up three stars of sorts, but only one of them had ever appeared in a musical. Stand-up comic Shelley Berman was probably the biggest name, with the target audience at least; on the way up, he had appeared in a 1959 revue that flopped in two weeks. Eileen Heckart was a highly respected Broadway character actress, having given memorable appearances in dramas like Picnic and The Bad Seed. But a singer? Morris Carnovsky had no less than 40 Broadway credits, going back to the glory days of the Group Theatre. Neither Heckart nor Carnovsky was a musical comedy type, as was apparent when A Family Affair hit the stage.

Help, everybody yelled. The director was quickly dispatched. (If you were a producer with a musical about a Jewish wedding, would you hire Word [The Fantasticks] Baker, from Honey Grove, Texas?) No self-respecting replacement would go near A Family Affair, as the word was out and it was not good. Finally, the composer's agent Richard Seff said: "You know who wants to direct? . . ." He named a fellow who also had never directed a Broadway musical, but he had produced five hits in seven years, including West Side Story.

Hal Prince did want to direct, and took on the job. Here was a fully mounted Broadway musical, ready for fixing. Why not use it as a laboratory for learning? Prince signed on, with the proviso that he not receive credit, and headed to Philly. Over a two-week period, he oversaw an almost complete rewrite of the book.

As A Family Affair neared the Billy Rose for its January 27, 1962, opening, Prince rethought the situation. "I looked at the stage and said, 'You're a fool. Don't give Word Baker credit for this show.' Word was out it was a disaster. It opened, it wasn't a disaster. It wasn't a hit, but we had a new director among us." A Family Affair lasted two months, but the experience gave Prince the self-reliance to tell his authors, and his investors, that he was going to direct the upcoming She Loves Me. Prince was to do four more shows with the Family Affair composer, John Kander (including Cabaret), and two with lyricist-librettist James Goldman (including Follies). Yes, the show was a mess. But the music showed promise. (Book, music and lyrics, were jointly credited to Kander and the brothers James and William Goldman, although Kander wrote the music.) There are two especially rollicking numbers. "My Son the Lawyer" is an unabashed follow-up to "The Telephone Hour" from Bye Bye Birdie, although that show's corps of teenagers has been replaced by ten yentas. Kander has interwoven three themes in inventive cacophony, with delectable results. (One theme includes the ladies bleating a busy signal.) With wild vocal arrangements like this, it is usually an open question where the composer leaves off and the arranger begins. In this case, it's all Kander; this type of concerted number is one of his specialties, as evidenced by "The Telephone Song" (in Cabaret) and "It Isn't Working" (in Woman of the Year).

The other knockout number is the Dixieland jaunt "Harmony," a quartet led with firm hand by Bibi Osterwald. Fifi, the French dress designer — "Hazel, darling, which one of these is blue?" — is sung by chorus girl Linda Lavin, who by the time the show opened had at least four showy bit parts. And let us point out that Harry Latz — the prospective bandleader with his "nine cool Continentals" and a mother who sings — is Gino Conforti, who went on to create the role of the title character in Prince's Fiddler on the Roof. "Harmony," like the lawyer song, is pure delight.

The rest of the score can be described as amusing but mild. One ballad stands out above the rest, "There's a Room in My House" (sung by ingénue Rita Gardner [of The Fantasticks] and juvenile Larry Kert [of West Side Story]). Very pretty, but interesting in construction. The boy's strong melodic line is interrupted by a choppy response from the girl at the end of the first two cadences; Kander then follows up with an expansive bridge. I expect that it must have been especially difficult to write songs for stand-up comic Berman. One of them, "Revenge," a Ravelian bolero, is regularly interrupted by Shelley's trademarked telephone routines. But throughout the score, Kander demonstrates interesting and unconventional for-the-time ideas. A Family Affair is certainly a score worth knowing; it has taken an especially long time to appear on CD, as the original contracts for the United Artists Records LP were apparently lost.

Musically, the first-time composer put the show in fine hands. Kander had written additional dance arrangements for the 1960 import Irma La Douce; his main contributions — both of which are wonderful — are the "Dis-Donc" dance and the "Freedom of the Seas" ballet (with all those penguins, written into the music). For A Family Affair, Kander brought along Irma's orchestrator Robert Ginzler and musical director Stanley Lebowsky. If the two above-praised numbers take off with cyclonic fury, I suppose we have Stanley to thank.

"Red" Ginzler didn't receive his first credit as sole orchestrator until April 1960, with Bye Bye Birdie. (He had co-orchestrator credit in 1959 for Gypsy, written with his TV-land partner, Sid Ramin). If his name was unfamiliar, he had ghost-written some of the most memorable Broadway numbers of the fifties (like "Steam Heat" and "Whatever Lola Wants"). From Birdie on, Ginzler scored nine musicals — including How to Succeed — in the span of two-and-a-half years. And then he died, of a heart attack, in the final week of December 1962. Ginzler's work on A Family Affair, as on his other shows, is phenomenal; for starters, listen to those flutes in "My Son the Lawyer."

When Prince came in and started making wholesale changes, Ginzler was already off scoring All American. Don Walker stepped in, extending many of the numbers, bridging scenes and writing a new overture. (This is not included on the cast album, which uses a brief instrumental intro to the title number, pieced together from Ginzler's Philadelphia overture.) Ramin also orchestrated one number, which was cut; too bad, as it looks like a wonderfully swinging chart.

Esoteric composer Vernon Duke was still writing Broadway musicals at the time, although nobody wanted to produce them. In his 1963 book "Listen Here!" he found little to praise on the current Broadway scene. He did go out of his way, though, to commend the music of A Family Affair, pinning hope for the future on neophyte Kander. Yes, the score has its lapses, like a football fight song and a Yiddishe salute to "Kahlua Bay" which includes — I'm afraid — a lyric culminating in "Aloha Oy!" (This number also features the same electric guitar gag Kander used in Cabaret's pineapple song.) But I gladly join Duke in recommending A Family Affair to you. And I expect you'll enjoy "My Son the Lawyer" and "Harmony" as much as I do.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "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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