ON THE RECORD: Taboo and Divorce Me, Darling!

News   ON THE RECORD: Taboo and Divorce Me, Darling! This week's column discusses two musicals from across the sea, Boy George's Taboo (the Broadway edition) and Sandy Wilson's sequel to The Boy Friend, Divorce Me, Darling!

TABOO [DRG 94773]
Boy George's Taboo was, shall we say, one of the more unusual Broadway musicals of recent memory. Taboo, produced by Rosie O'Donnell, opened at the Plymouth last November and closed after a stormy 100 performances. The show had its vociferous fans — most of Broadway's recent multi-million dollar flops nowadays have vociferous fans, don't they? — but Taboo alienated most of the theatregoers it attracted. Long before opening night, the graffiti was on the wall.

When Ms. O'Donnell produces a show it gets produced, all right; regardless of the artistic outcome, she certainly stood by Taboo long past the moment when most Broadway producers would have thrown up their hands and headed for the Hamptons. Now she has brought us a cast recording of the show, which some theatregoers might automatically place in the thanks but-no-thanks category. And not without reason. I, for one, was unmoved by Taboo in the theatre. (Unlike some similarly disastrous musicals, it didn't send me moving for the door.) Must I really listen to the score once more, I wondered? How far would I get before I reached for the remote?

Yes, some of the Taboo songs are as noisy and abrasive as remembered from the theatre, and without much apparent point. But the CD reveals, rather surprisingly, that there is a heart, and a musical art, to Taboo. What seemed hopeless in the theatre has attractions on CD. O'Donnell faced a continuous round of second-guessing from many in the industry; they were more than glad to see someone come into the field waving million-dollar bills, but wondered why she picked this.

The answer, my friends, is on the CD. The best of it was so smothered in hyper-theatrical ambience that it was lost on stage, to my ears at least. But there is some good writing here, and some true emotions effectively translated into dramatic song. We have all heard numerous musicals that were just as bad on disc as on stage, which starts one wondering why they bothered. Taboo has been relegated to the failure-heap, yes; but the CD tells us that there was a show there, at least.

Raul Esparza leads the pack, on the CD as he did at the Plymouth, with another bravura performance. I have yet to see him do anything onstage that was less than remarkable. Some day, I suppose, he will walk out on stage and appear to be ordinary — but no doubt with a trick up his sleeve. Euan Morton brings some humanity to the character of Boy George, who is quite a character. He is well-supported by Cary Shields, Jeffrey Carlson, Liz McCartney and the others. So chalk up the cast album of Taboo as a surprise, with more of interest than you might expect. And if I wasn't impressed by the show, I was certainly impressed by the producer. Imagine the job she will do, someday, when she has more workable material.

DIVORCE ME, DARLING! [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3013]
Musical theatre has historically looked unkindly upon sequels. The great George and Ira fizzled when they tried Let 'Em Eat Cake, a continuation of the Pulitzer-winning Of Thee I Sing. Strouse and Adams had an even harder time when they tried to Bring Back Birdie; Strouse (with Charnin) also tried to duplicate the gold mine called Annie with Annie 2 and Annie Warbucks, too, with diminished returns. And a misguided team of Texans were embarrassed — and how — when their Best Little Whorehouse went Public.

On the other side of the pond, Sandy Wilson tried the same treatment when he returned to the Villa Capri in Nice ten years later, with his one-time girl friend and Boy Friend now singing Divorce Me, Darling!. Which is to say, he rounded up the fictional characters from his twenties lollipop and placed them in something more deco. Divorce Me, Darling! opened at the Players — birthplace of The Boy Friend — on December 15, 1964. It transferred to the West End on February 1, lasting a mere 87 performances.

But don't let that bother you. Wilson traded in his mock operetta cloak for a snappier model, and the score is an unalloyed delight. Well, an almost unalloyed delight. I have always been fond of The Boy Friend, but it is (for conceptual reasons) on the mild side. Try to recall the delectable "Won't You Charleston with Me" and "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love," and recast them in thirties' musical trappings. Now, multiply them three or four fold, and you'll get an idea of what Wilson has in store for you.

"Someone to Dance With" is a direct follow up to The Boy Friend's big "Charleston" number, while the dirty-old-man of "Never Too Late" returns for a toothsome spree "On the Loose." (Lord Brockhurst was played by Geoffrey Hibbert, who had played the role in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend. While in New York he had a son, who 50 years later is accomplished character man Edward Hibbert.) "Out of Step" is one of those Astaire-Berlin songs, and a charmer. The three suitors from the "Safety in Numbers" number have an ingratiating softshoe serenading "Maisie."

"No Harm Done" is a charming song-and-dance, in the manner of "A Room in Bloomsbury" (but the style of Kern and Hammerstein's "All in Fun"), while "Whatever Happened to Love?" takes us where "Poor Little Pierrette" left off. (The soprano is so shrill here, mind you, that one wonders whether this is intentional.) The sentimental ballad "Together Again" features a gentle but-buoyant vocal arrangement. Given this song lineup, I choose to ignore two numbers that I find grating, a Dietrich spoof and a swing-time extravaganza. The orchestrations, by Ian MacPherson (who also conducted), catch Wilson's tone perfectly, filled with saxes perky and mellow, crispy trumpets and glistening ivories. Let it be added that the score is driven by a drummer who is mighty good.

And let us not forget "You're Absolutely Me," a canny copy of one of those jaunty duets Cole Porter used to write for Ethel Merman and her palooka of the moment. [He:] "You're a baby Austin / [She:] Not a Rolls? Ah, shucks! / You're a fur coat costin' / Sev-e-ral thousand bucks!" Why this musical faded so quickly into oblivion, I can't tell you. (The liner notes indicate that the plot of Divorce Me, Darling! was more complex than Liza Minnelli's latest prenuptial agreement.) A team of Americans tried much the same thing four years later. Dames at Sea met with far greater success, its pocket-sized production playing at least a small part in the equation. (Dames used a cast of six, while Divorce Me, Darling! tipped the scales over thirty.) The score of Dames consists of lightweight pastiches. Divorce Me, Darling!, though, has real music; Wilson poured heart into his songs, in a manner not unlike that of Jerry Herman. The results are entrancing, endearing and tunefully snappy.

Listeners who already have the 1997 revival cast album of Divorce Me, Darling! [CDJay 1273] don't necessarily have to go out and get this one, although I find this new CD of the 1965 original preferable. But one way or the other, fans of The Boy Friend will want to hear what happened — musically — to Polly and Tony and Bobby and Maisie and the rest.

—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