GOLDEN RAINBOW GL Music GL309
All good musical comedy fans know that a bad musical can be a whole lot more fun, on CD, than a far better specimen. Which brings us to the 1968 mess-of-a-musical Golden Rainbow. A mess, yes; but this long-out-of-print cast album is a treat for people who like bouncy, 1960s-style Broadway. This was a star vehicle in the strictest sense of the word. Steve Lawrence's first show, the 1964 What Makes Sammy Run?, was one of those just-miss musicals scuttled by a lack of focus and ineffective producing. (It was also one of the first shows to break the five-hundred performance mark but still lose money). As Sammy disintegrated, star and producer waged a nasty, highly public battle in the press.
This unpleasant experience apparently convinced Lawrence to hold the reins on his next (and final) Broadway show. He selected Arnold Schulman's 1957 play A Hole in the Head, a mildly effective comedy about a widower struggling to keep custody of his young son and avoid bankruptcy. The locale was moved from Miami Beach to Las Vegas; the hero, played by Paul Douglas onstage and Frank Sinatra in the 1959 movie, was a natural for Lawrence; and the relative trying to take away the kid — David Burns onstage, Edward G. Robinson in the film — was played by Eydie Gorme. And yes, there was a romance between the two of them; it turns out the Lawrence character had dated Gorme before marrying her sister. (Original author Schulman, who started out as the librettist, quit along the way; as things got worse and worse, the director and choreographer were both fired.)
The score was written by Walter Marks, composer/lyricist of the 1964 failure Bajour. (Bajour librettist Ernest Kinoy ended up as the bookwriter of record on Golden Rainbow.) The songs can best be described as bouncy. Five of them range from adequate to somewhat better-than-adequate; some of them, though, are bottom-of-the barrel. The Vegas setting called for tacky material, certainly; there's even a song that goes "All You Need Is Good Taste," which is a fair assessment of the show's shortcomings.
But nobody is asking us to sit at the Shubert and watch Golden Rainbow; they just want us to listen to it. The score is so well dressed (by the musical staff) and well-performed (by Mr. Lawrence), that the CD pays off like a silver-dollar slot machine. Almost, anyway. The big song, and the only one which had a life outside the show, is "I've Gotta Be Me." This is a dramatic anthem, in the Tony Newley vein; think "What Kind of Fool Am I?" and "Who Can I Turn To?" Americanized to a throbbing Vegas beat borrowed from Ravel's "Bolero." It might not be art, but it sure works, and Lawrence really delivers. (He holds the final two notes forever, while the band plays on.) "We Got Us" is a perky adult/child duet (in the manner of "Mutual Admiration Society"), sung by Lawrence and twelve-year-old Scott Jacoby. The latter gets half a song with Lawrence, half a (bad) song with Gorme, and that's it. Featured comic Joseph Sirola has one comedy number — the tasteless "Taste" — but everything else is sung by Lawrence and/or Gorme. Gorme's big number, "He Needs Me Now," is effective if overwrought — the song is addressed to the kid, but she seems to be singing about the father (with lyrics asking "will he remember my touch?"). There's also a catchy star duet called "For Once in Your Life," which builds into an exuberant production number for Eydie and the chorus boys.
This last features an especially fine dance arrangement, presumably by Marvin Hamlisch. (When Ron Field was fired, the replacement choreographer brought in Luther Henderson to finish the show. Hamlisch and Henderson share billing.) The orchestrations are by Pat Williams and Jack Andrews, and they make the material sound gold-plated. Brass-plated, rather; if you like musical comedies with blaring trumpets batting out high note after high note, Golden Rainbow is for you. The Overture, especially, will really knock you out. (In the theatre, though, I suppose that the first chair trumpet never got through a Saturday night without two or three flubs.) Elliot Lawrence, one of the finest musical directors of the era, is at the podium. He assembled a first-rate group, including legendary big-band drummer Jimmy Crawford, who helped break Broadway's color line with Jamaica and Gypsy, and played for (Elliot) Lawrence in How to Succeed and Bye, Bye Birdie. The lead trumpeter, I'm told, was John Glasel, who later became president of Musicians' Local 802. Lawrence owns the masters to the Golden Rainbow recording, and it is available only from his GL Music (at www.steveandeydie.com)(http://www.steveandeydie.com)/). They do not intend to distribute it through stores, so if you want Golden Rainbow — and it's loads of fun — you'll need to get it from Steve and Eydie. Fans of the pair will also find three composer anthology albums, featuring guest stars like Bob Hope, Ethel Merman, Gene Kelly, Carol Burnett,and Sammy Davis, Jr.
More to the point, Lawrence also owns What Makes Sammy Run? and plans to release it on CD in the future. Sammy is far more impressive than Golden Rainbow, and Lawrence's strong singing/acting performance indicates that he could have had an important musical theatre career. So order Golden Rainbow, and hope for Sammy sooner rather than later.
FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE Bayview RNBW011
The British musical of the mid-1950s — exemplified by lightweight charmers like Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend and Julian Slade's Salad Days — was upended with the appearance of Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be.
This was an altogether new sort of Fing. Set in a low-class Soho "club"; peopled by gamblers, whores, and pimps; written by a rock-and-roll composer and an ex-con librettist; and seemingly improvised on the spot. I can only imagine that the show had the same impact — theatrically and sociologically — as Hair did in America, nine years later.
Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be sprang from Joan Littlewood's experimental Theatre Workshop. It opened for a six-week run in February 1959, and was revived for two weeks in April. Bart's Lock Up Your Daughters opened to great success that May, presumably encouraging Littlewood to reschedule a revised version of Fings for December. After another seven weeks, it transferred to the West End in February 1960, where it ran for 897 performances. (Bart's biggest hit,Oliver!, opened that June — giving him three West End hits in sixteen months.)
It's plain to see the reasons for Bart's success. His songs are at once tuneful, friendly, spirited and somewhat raucous. The title song, for example, is a rambunctious duet bemoaning the passing of the good old days. ("Somehow the bus'ness doesn't seem the same," complains a tired old whore.) Bart sets this lament to a catchy soft-shoe, and it's delightful.
"G'night Dearie," "Layin' Abaht," "Contempery" — all are unconventional, musical theatre-wise. But so refreshing. The composer also includes the first of those very pretty melodies found in his musicals, "Where Do Little Birds Go?" The melody is pretty, although the comic lyric — for a forlorn streetwalker — is about a very different type of bird altogether. This is sung, and very nicely, by Barbara Windsor. The cast also includes James Booth; he starred with Windsor in 1965 in the wild but ill-fated Robin Hood musical Twang!, which pushed Bart into bankruptcy. Booth has a rather whimsical turn in "The Student Ponce" (about an apprentice pimp). Miriam Karlin, who played Golde in the West End Fiddler on the Roof, sings the title song with Glynn Edwards.
As much as I enjoy this album, I feel impelled to add that it is very much a live recording. The poor fidelity, combined with strong accents and audience laughter, might make Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be slightly difficult on some American ears. Bart himself sings "Contempery" and "G'night Dearie" on bonus tracks, which are even more enjoyable because you can understand the lyrics without straining. Those who know the composer only from Oliver! are in for a surprise. Most of Bart's theatre work was every bit as melodic as his Dickens musical, but far more earthy. And always wiv a twinkle in his eye.
-- Steven Suskin,author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.