ON THE RECORD: The Baker's Wife and Nanette

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Baker's Wife and Nanette THE BAKER'S WIFE (Jay)
Through an unusual confluence of events, I happened to see the final two performances of The Baker's Wife in both Boston, starring Topol, and Washington, starring Paul Sorvino. (I still have, in storage somewhere, the ten-foot long baker's paddle they thrust out over the orchestra pit into the auditorium in the "Fresh, Hot Bread" number.) That was four performances in six weeks, and that was the end of the Broadway-bound Baker. So I had plenty of opportunity to pinpoint the fatal flaws in the Stephen Schwartz-Joe Stein musical: a too, too simplistic story of a middle-aged nice-guy married to a pretty young lass who beds the hot young baritone but realizes she loves her husband more. This was apparent from the very moment the Baker and his wife entered, and matters weren't helped by the most unimaginatively stereotypical assortment of stock musical comedy villagers you've ever seen in a bad musical comedy. A priest, a teacher, a local spinster, a roue of a marquis with his three chorus girl "nieces," etc. You need only compare this to the way Frank Loesser handled similar material in The Most Happy Fella, for example, where he enhanced the humanity of his leads and filled out the source material with a small world of interesting characters. Loesser also came up with a bounteous score filled with surprises, with which The Baker's Wife cannot begin to compare.

THE BAKER'S WIFE (Jay)
Through an unusual confluence of events, I happened to see the final two performances of The Baker's Wife in both Boston, starring Topol, and Washington, starring Paul Sorvino. (I still have, in storage somewhere, the ten-foot long baker's paddle they thrust out over the orchestra pit into the auditorium in the "Fresh, Hot Bread" number.) That was four performances in six weeks, and that was the end of the Broadway-bound Baker. So I had plenty of opportunity to pinpoint the fatal flaws in the Stephen Schwartz-Joe Stein musical: a too, too simplistic story of a middle-aged nice-guy married to a pretty young lass who beds the hot young baritone but realizes she loves her husband more. This was apparent from the very moment the Baker and his wife entered, and matters weren't helped by the most unimaginatively stereotypical assortment of stock musical comedy villagers you've ever seen in a bad musical comedy. A priest, a teacher, a local spinster, a roue of a marquis with his three chorus girl "nieces," etc. You need only compare this to the way Frank Loesser handled similar material in The Most Happy Fella, for example, where he enhanced the humanity of his leads and filled out the source material with a small world of interesting characters. Loesser also came up with a bounteous score filled with surprises, with which The Baker's Wife cannot begin to compare.

Stephen Schwartz's score was melodic, certainly; notably so, by today's standards. But his moving, emotional ballads were overbalanced by a brace of pallid comedy songs for those villagers. (The squabbling song; the gossip song; the men's song about how lucky you are to get rid of your wife; the women's song about foolish men; etc.) Some of the music -- and there's a lot of it, eighty-four minutes worth -- sounds as if composer Schwartz had been listening to way too many Edith Piaf recordings, or maybe just the cast recording of Marguerite Monnot's Irma la Douce. Lyricist Schwartz doesn't help matters either, with his all too frequent lapses into cutesy rhyming. ("What is as luscious/as a brioche is?"; "Who would be selfish/over a shellfish?"; "I'll kiss the hand which/hands me a sandwich.") One woman sings "So she's searching for romance/who am I to look askance?", which just hasn't got that Gallic je ne sais quoi. In Schwartz's Provence, "specimen" rhymes with "lesser men," "French" rhymes with "essential," and "truly yet" rhymes -- needless to say -- with Romeo's "Juliet."

David Merrick's 1976 production of The Baker's Wife underwent a tortured tryout, losing its director, choreographer, leading man, and leading lady along the trail to oblivion. The show was revamped under the direction of Trevor Nunn for a short-lived 1989 London visit; the CD at hand is a digital remastering of the album from that production. Mr. Nunn certainly did well by the material, but I'm afraid the various new and/or rewritten songs don't make much of a difference; all those cliched villagers keep dragging us back to formulaic olde Broadway. But Alun Armstrong makes a wonderful Baker; while I did not see his performance, he comes across on the CD as far more sympathetic than the invulnerable Topol or the spineless Sorvino. (None of them match the matchless Raimu in the original 1938 film, Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono's "La Femme du Boulanger," but Raimu had the camera working for him.) Armstrong holds this version of the musical together; you actually sit and wait to hear him sing again, which is not the case with his predecessors. Sharon Lee Hill hasn't the appeal of Patti LuPone, who gave one of her first and best (and least mannered) performances in the title role; and I also miss the voice (though not the acting) of Kurt Peterson as the lover. The score is given a terrific lift by the fine London orchestrations by David Cullen. (Among those fired back in 1976, I regret to report, was the great Don Walker.)

All things considered, while I am not -- and never have been -- a fan of The Baker's Wife, I can nevertheless recommend this 2-disc album to those in search of this sort of thing. For all its several faults, it is a lush, romantic musical -- and to quote a somewhat later Schwartz song title, "What's Wrong with That?"

An historical footnote: a musicalization of The Baker's Wife was first announced in 1952 as Frank Loesser's follow-up to Guys and Dolls. (Feuer & Martin were the producers, with librettist Abe Burrows and star Bert Lahr in the lineup). The underlying rights to the material proved unobtainable, causing Loesser to switch his sights to Sidney Howard's 1924 Pulitzer-winning play, They Knew What They Wanted. Which was also about a plain middle-aged man cuckolded by his mismatched young wife, and which turned into the aforementioned The Most Happy Fella. Yet another unproduced Baker's Wife was announced in the late 1950s, with Jackie Gleason as the hapless boulanger.

NO, NO, NANETTE (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
I suppose it is impossible to explain to younger theatregoers just what sort of impact the 1971 revival of Vincent Youmans' No, No, Nanette had on Broadway.

This was a time when no producer in their right mind would have attempted a revival of a musical. "Nobody's gonna pay full price for an old show," went the conventional wisdom. And Nanette wasn't even an especially accomplished show in the first place, just a slapdash entertainment with two enormous song hits. When the 46-year old Nanette toddled to town, there had not been a successful, full scale, top ticket revival of a musical since Pal Joey in 1952. But Nanette was the right show for the right time; and Broadway has been besieged with revivals ever since the Ruby Keeler-led nostalgia fest started coining dollars. Audiences awoke to the realization that the good old days -- when hits were turned out left and right by Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe and Bock & Harnick and even Jerry Herman -- were gone. Nanette was preceded by the 1970-71 season's big theatre party attractions: Bock & Harnick's leaden The Rothschilds and Richard Rodgers and Danny Kaye's mirthless Two by Two. Another two lesser attractions, Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen (an aimless musicalization of Teahouse of the August Moon) and Ari (an amateurish musicalization of "Exodus") had also quickly come and gone. The season's other two big name musicals never even made it to town, Alan Jay Lerner's ill-conceived Lolita, My Love (based on you-know what) and the startlingly unpalatable Angela Lansbury/Gower Champion/Jule Styne Prettybelle (about a manic-depressive faded Southern belle nymphomaniac). As you might imagine, Nanette seemed stellar in this company -- and it was, in fact, immensely entertaining. (I have purposely left out of this equation two award-winning Sondheim/Prince musicals which sandwiched Nanette, the moderately successful Company and the failed Follies, both of which attracted a different audience.)

How much of Nanette's magic shines through on disc, all these years later? A fair amount, I suppose, with full credit due the outstanding music staff: musical director Buster Davis, orchestrator Ralph Burns, and dance arranger Luther Henderson. But I can understand how someone discovering it today might find parts of Nanette rather quaint. "I Want to Be Happy" certainly captures the energy -- and folks, this was one of the most cyclonic showstoppers I've ever seen in the theatre. It began as a gentle little duet between Jack Gilford and Susan Watson. They sang their little ditty, then left. A bunch of chorus boys in pastel sweaters and argyle socks strolled on, strumming ukeleles and singing a refrain in close harmony. Then sixty-year-old grandmother Ruby Keeler appeared at the top of the stairs and did a charming little bit of a tap dance as she descended to the stage, folksily twisting a curly lock off her forehead. Then the stage exploded, with thirty-odd dancers tapping away like jackhammers. The number built into a challenge dance between Ruby and the twenty-year-olds, and who do you think won? I stopped back four or five times to watch this number, and it never failed to provoke sheer delirium.

Helen Gallagher also remains radiant on record. Gallagher -- a hard-luck Broadway baby who had endured a flop-filled career -- was the true sparkplug of the show. She played a somewhat subsidiary role, as Nanette's mother's friend, but nevertheless walked off with the best actress Tony. (Her last true success had been when she won her first Tony Award -- in that 1952 revival of Pal Joey.) Gallagher's performance is a joy, coupled with Bobby Van in the song-and-dance treat "You Can Dance with Any Girl at All," and singing a valiant mock torch song, "Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues."

This entry in the Columbia Broadway Masterworks series includes sixteen minutes of previously unreleased material. Most welcome is the Turkey Trot finale of "You Can Dance with Any Girl at All." The second act opening "Peach on the Beach" has been added, although it was more memorable for its staging -- with the girls balancing precariously on giant beach balls -- than for the music. There are also five not very enlightening interviews with the stars, and a negligible Ruby Keeler/Jack Gilford duet called "Only a Moment Ago." Director/adapter Burt Shevelove wrote the lyrics for this song -- cut during previews -- to an unpublished tune found in Vincent Youmans' trunk.

The other major change in this reissue is that Cyma Rubin is now billed as the producer of the show. Mrs. Rubin -- known backstage as "the Black Witch" -- fired veteran producer Harry Rigby during the tryout, and seized the glory (and the money) for herself. When she removed Rigby's name, she also replaced her own with the corporate title "Pyxidium Ltd." Rubin's name is now back over the title, but poor Harry and Ruby and Shevelove and Gilford and Patsy Kelly are all long dead, so I suppose no one will even notice. While we're on the subject, how about a word for Vincent Youmans? Youmans and George Gershwin started out as friendly rivals; they were born a day apart, in 1898. The younger Youmans was clearly in the lead, along Broadway anyway, until around 1926. (Youmans wrote his first musical in 1921 with Gershwin's brother Ira, followed by a 1923 blockbuster written with the pre-Show Boat Oscar Hammerstein II.) Youmans's career self-destructed due to a series of ill-advised decisions, and tuberculosis forced him into retirement in 1932 at the age of thirty four. (George Gershwin died of a brain tumor in 1937; Youmans remained in a sanitarium until his death in 1946.) Youmans was professionally active for only twelve years in all, and left less than one hundred published songs. Yet a dozen or so of them are classics, including a handful of the very best show tunes of the century. Nanette includes two top hits, both of them deceptively simple: "I Want to Be Happy" and "Tea for Two." His later style brought forth exquisite ballads like "More than You Know," "Through the Years," and "Time on My Hands."

MUSICALS ON DISC
A recent column briefly touched upon the practice of reissuing CDs of musicals already issued on CD. This brought forth a spate of e-mail from readers lamenting the unavailability of their favorite cast recordings. At least four people mentioned Frank Loesser's pastoral 1959 musical Greenwillow which is, happily, presently available on disc. Your local record store might not carry it -- it's from DRG, a relatively small label -- but you can easily order this charming and tender Tony Perkins vehicle over the Internet or directly from the manufacturer. I also heard from fans of Lizzie Borden, Michael Brown's peppy recounting of the Fall River tragedy from New Faces of 1952 (the catchphrase of which is "You can't chop your poppa up in Massachusetts/ Massachusetts is a far cry from New York"). While New Faces has not been issued on compact disc, this one track has. It was included on Volume 2 of the "Celebrate Broadway" series on RCA.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com