ON THE RECORD: The Boy From Oz and Frank's Business

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Boy From Oz and Frank's Business
 
This week's column examines the new cast recording of The Boy From Oz, the reissue of the original cast recording of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the new tome, "The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser."

THE BOY FROM OZ [Decca Broadway B00015778]
I am not, generally speaking, optimistic about book musicals compiled from catalogues of existing songs. The art of musical theatre — and it is an art, although that might not always be apparent — derives from the integration of several elements, the most primary of which are song and story. People like Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Frank Loesser, and Betty & Adolph developed a form in which the song words (or lyrics) serve the story, usually by illuminating the characters or furthering the action. Lyrics that were not written to serve the story or characters — lyrics that were in most cases written long before the Broadway show in question was devised — cannot be expected to have much dramatological bearing on the proceedings.

That is not to say that a song-catalogue book musical can't be satisfying and/or successful; there are some commercially viable examples trodding the boards at the moment. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. Supportive lyrics can be a valuable asset to a musical, as hard as this might seem to believe. Just go over to the Shubert or Hirschfeld or Simon or Golden for proof.

The lyrics that are used to tell the story of the so-called Boy from Oz don't add much to the proceedings. Hugh Jackman does, mind you; he gives quite a performance. Peter Allen might have been a marvel in nightclubs or concerts; I only saw him on the Broadway stage, in Soon and Legs Diamond, and there is no comparison. Jackman is a star, all right, and he almost singlehandedly keeps Oz afloat.

The same can be said of the Boy from Oz cast album. This is a collection of about two dozen of the greatest (?) hits of Peter Allen, a string of songs that doesn't have all that much to offer fans of musical theatre. But Jackman sings on well more than half the tracks, bringing entertainment and empathy to the proceedings. In the theatre, Jackman implores the audience to love him. His eyes seemingly dart from spectator to spectator, searching for someone — anyone — to connect with him, to love him, to take him home. But Jackman's Allen never holds the gaze; he's always searching for the next stranger. This can't be transferred to CD, naturally; even so, Jackman's performance shines through.

Jackman is supported by Isabel Keating playing Judy Garland and Stephanie J. Block playing Liza Minnelli. Block does well, Keating does better; but are these impersonations or performances? (For the difference, consider Jackman's Allen or Striesand's Fanny Brice.) Michael Gibson — John Kander's orchestrator for the last two decades — provides some nice charts, respecting the era and the style of composer Allen (and his many collaborators) while adding Broadway savvy. The band plays well, the CD (from producer Phil Ramone) sounds very good indeed. The songs, though, are what they are; a random string of songs that only incidentally serve the characters and story.

HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING [Victor 82876-56051]
After 40-odd years, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying remains one of Broadway's very finest musical comedies. How to Succeed was a cartoon of a musical, a breezy satire of what they used to call Big Business. Song for song, Frank Loesser's score shrewdly supports the comedy, in some ways unlike that of any musical ever. That statement might sound too pat, so I suppose I should explain.

Abe Burrows's laugh-a-minute book (or, rather, two-laugh-a-minute book) was equally partnered by Frank's sparkling lyrics. The music, though — typically the leading creative element of a musical — was relegated to a supporting position. How to Succeed isn't short on tunes, mind you; "I Believe in You" and "The Brotherhood of Man" both became standards, and they were joined by a number of other nifty songs. But Loesser consciously avoided hit-bound ballads in favor of comic construction. This led to a general impression that the music wasn't strong.

When Tony time arrived, How to Succeed took home seven. But Loesser lost, passed over in favor of Dick Rodgers's lesser No Strings. Frank did win the Pulitzer, though. As inevitably simple as it all seemed, it was nothing of the kind. Abe Burrows, who in 1950 had stepped in to write the book for Loesser's Guys and Dolls when they fired some other guy, stepped in to write How to Succeed when they fired some other guys. (While the fired librettists received full billing on the show, the Pulitzer judges knew enough to present the prize only to Abe and Frank. Which leads us to note that the new Deluxe Collector's Edition CD is accompanied by a picture-filled, 18-page booklet — but no billing page!)

Frank wasn't much interested in the new project; he didn't like to repeat himself, and he figured that he had already written his "wise guy" musical. Nor was Loesser interested in joining up again with producers Feuer and Martin, with whom he had a rocky relationship. This impelled him to have a producing interest in shows like The Most Happy Fella and The Music Man. But Burrows talked him into it, with Frank's Frank Productions getting a significant slice of the action.

What do I mean when I say that Frank sacrificed his music for the sake of the whole? Compare How to Succeed to Guys and Dolls, a show that is every bit as smart and clever. Still, every so often everything stopped to allow the lovers to sing "I'll Know," "If I Were a Bell," "My Time of Day" or "I've Never Been in Love Before." Frank-the-composer was allowed slots for non-funny songs in Runyonland, which was not the case — by design — on Madison Avenue. The swift-paced hilarity never stopped in the world of How to Succeed, which is why it ranks among the funniest musical comedies ever.

(Those of you who know the show only from the 1995 revival might wonder what I'm talking about. The revivalists presented the show virtually intact; they kept most of the words and most of the songs, but omitted most of the laughs. So if you don't know the original 1961 cast album, get it now.) The closest Loesser was allowed to a ballad was "I Believe in You," a song which the hero sang to himself, in a mirror. Loesser wrote this, naturally enough, for the girl to sing. "Frankie, you're going to kill me for saying this," Abe said, "but how would it be if our young, ambitious, climbing hero sang 'I Believe in You' to himself?" Loesser reacted with irritation, which turned to fury but soon worked its way into a smile.

There is another number that approaches a love song. The hero J. Pierrepont Finch (Robert Morse) starts to sing of his love as he proposes to "Rosemary." ("Just imagine if we kissed, what a crescendo," he sings — allowing Loesser to throw in ten wild bars of Grieg's A-minor Piano Concerto.) As the number develops into the remarkable "Finaletto Act One," Finch keeps singing — but now he sings his own name.

Consider this. Rosemary (dreamily): "Suddenly there is music in the sound of my name." Finch (on the phone, to the man who paints names on office doors): "J. Pierrepont!" Rosemary (prompting him): "Rosemary." Finch (proudly): "Vice-president in charge of advertising." Frump (scheming): "There must be a way to stop him." R: "Rosemary." Frump: "There must be!" Finch: "F-I-N-C-H."

Thus you have the girl accepting a proposal; the hero exulting over his promotion; and Charles Nelson Reilly's comic villain stewing in his own devious juices. All within twelve measures, twenty-three seconds by the clock. Imagine! Where in musical theatre have we ever seen so much going on, clearly and hilariously, at once? Loesser only wrote six complete musicals, in fifteen years, but his unique combination of talents created some remarkable theatre.

The How to Succeed songbook is overstuffed with jokes and cleverness. So rich that you can find gems at random; pick a song, any song. Frank thinks nothing of having his heroine pine "to bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect." Few lyricists, I expect, would pass that line on to their composer, but Loesser makes it sound inevitable (and perfectly understandable). Elsewhere, his office types tell us that "a secretary is not a pet, nor an erector set; her pad is to write in, and not spend the night in." Frank also presents us with a sly, extended rhyme, quadruple or sextuple depending on how you slice your syllables. "Oh do not leave us minus / Our vicarious bonus / We want to see His Highness / Married to your lowness / On you, Cinderella, sits the onus / So when you name the happy day / Please phone us!"

Most importantly, each song supports the enterprise, either in terms of the action or the characterization. "The Company Way," "Been a Long Day," "Paris Original," "Coffee Break," "Grand Old Ivy": All offer inspired hilarity, helping sustain and propel the tone of the show. Not only cleverly written, but cannily constructed. And the eleven o'clock song, the revivalist "Brotherhood of Man," just about knocks the roof off the theatre. The hero, mind you, doesn't mean a word of it.

The sparklingly witty score is matched by the music department. Robert Ginzler turned in one of his typically fine sets of orchestrations, slyly matching Loesser's tone. The charts abound with clever touches, like a solo typewriter at the center of the "Secretary" dance. Or "I Believe in You," where Ginzler approximates electric razors — Finch is singing to himself in the mirror of the executive washroom — by switching his five reed players to kazoos. Elliot Lawrence (who, like Ginzler, came over from Bye, Bye Birdie) offers firm control in the pit; everyone, cast and band, is in top form. The dance arrangements are uncredited, but whoever worked out the "Secretary" routine deserves a bow. (This number was created during the Philadelphia tryout, with choreographer Bob Fosse and assistant Gwen Verdon hiding away from Loesser while they transformed his gentle waltz into a giant softshoe. In response to a few e-mails, I received an eye-witness report that Fred Werner — Fosse's dance arranger for Conquering Hero, Little Me and Sweet Charity — did the routines.)

As with Victor's other recent reissues, the CD is filled with bonuses. (We get 77 minutes, only 48 of which come from the 1961 cast album.) There are seven brief tracks that were recorded for (but unused on) the 1995 revival cast album. The "How To" reprise stands out, for its clumsy lyric and fussy orchestrations. This was used in place of "Cinderella, Darling," which someone must have thought would be offensive. I don't know who wrote the lyric; you'd think they would label it, lest we blame Frank for stuff like "how to assess all his assets" and "how to wind up with the beach house."

Loesser himself is on hand as well, with demos of two songs (previously included on "An Evening with Frank Loesser" [DRG 5169]). "Organization Man" is an early attempt at the song that became "The Company Way." "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" made it into the show, but not in this original version (which was intended for the Biggley character). Oh, what a difference an arrangement can make! There are instrumental versions of the two song hits, both of which swing deliciously and are suitable for repeated listening: "I Believe in You" from J. J. Johnson (on trombone) and "Brotherhood of Man" from Woody Herman.

Finally, there are five minutes each from the Messrs. Morse and Reilly. Bobby is his charming self, recounting the show that made him a star (and deservedly so). Reilly hilariously repeats stories that he has presumably told hundreds of times, embellishing them as he goes along. Reilly auditioned with "Put On a Happy Face," which he was performing at the time (as Dick Van Dyke's understudy). But since he was auditioning on the set of The Sound of Music, he kept channeling bits of "the hills are alive." Loesser and Burrows fell out of their chairs, and dutifully wrote some of Reilly's maniacal glee into the role.

Reilly also tells us how Loesser cornered him after a year or so, about "Coffee Break." "You know," Frank said, "you're not singing the tune right." Charles said: "What tune? There's no tune here. Frank Sinatra's not singing this, Tony Bennett's not singing this. I am the only one singing this song. So I will sing it like a chanteuse, in my own interpretive way." And who can argue with that?

AND OFF THE RECORD
Frank Loesser has just appeared on the bookshelf as well. "The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser" [Knopf] has been compiled by Robert Kimball and Steve Nelson. As with Kimball's prior works spotlighting Porter, Hart, Gershwin and Berlin, this is a stunning and much-welcome volume. And because Loesser spent the first half of his career writing for the pop field and Hollywood, there is a great deal of material that will be new to Frank's Broadway fans.

Loesser (1910-1969) started writing professionally in 1931. A short-lived 1936 revue introduced lyricist Loesser and composer Irving Actman to Broadway. (It also introduced a Viennese emigrant, composer Frederick Loewe.) The Illustrator's Show had little impact, but earned Loesser and Actman a Hollywood contract, albeit at an unimportant studio. Loesser was quickly spotted as a man of talent. Composer Burton Lane, who was a couple of years younger than Loesser but already had hit it big, heard Frank's lyrics and got him a job at Paramount in 1937. "He knew how people talked, and how to fit that into a song," Lane succinctly noted. "He was good, he knew it, and from then on he was off and running."

Loesser-the-lyricist was instantly in demand. His first major hit was "The Moon of Manakoora," written to a theme from Alfred Newman's score for The Hurricane in 1937. In 1938 he had song hits with Lane ("Says My Heart") and Hoagy Carmichael ("Heart and Soul" and "Two Sleepy People.") He also wrote a song with Carmichael that for reasons unknown has long been a favorite of mine, if no one else, called "I Like Humped backed Salmon." Go figure.

In the next few years Loesser songs included "The Lady's in Love with You" (Lane), "I Hear Music" (Lane), "Dolores" (Louis Alter), "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" (Jule Styne), "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle" (Joseph Lilley) and "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" (Arthur Schwartz). In 1942 Loesser wrote words and music for "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," a major patriotic hit of World War II. He spent the war with Special Services, writing soldier shows.

Loesser went back to Hollywood in 1946, but now he was serving almost exclusively as his own composer with songs like "What Are You Doing New Years Eve?," "On a Slow Boat to China" and the Academy Award winner "Baby, It's Cold Outside." (The latter was written in 1944, although it wasn't published until it was included in the 1949 film "Neptune's Daughter.")

Frank's life changed in 1948, when he wrote the score for the musical Where's Charley? (Signed as lyricist, he took over the music assignment when Harold Arlen withdrew.) Where's Charley? turned into a hit by virtue of Ray Bolger's knockout performance and Loesser's song hit "Once in Love with Amy." But it opened to lousy reviews, and the marvelously crafted score received little respect. This left audiences and critics and Broadway professionals stunned when Loesser reappeared in 1950 with the platinum-plated Guys and Dolls.

But we are wandering from our subject, which is "The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser." Along with all those wonderful show tunes, you will find some especially interesting songs written in the late forties. These demonstrate, and handily so, that "Adelaide's Lament" was no fluke. (Eight of them, including "I Wish I Didn't Love You So," "Hamlet" and "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble," can be heard on the recently released Betty Hutton CD "Satins and Spurs" [DRG 19055] — which is for this reason recommended to all Loesser fans.)

As with Kimball's other books in this series, this volume is handsomely designed and a pleasure to hold in your hands. So put this one on your holiday list.

—Steven Suskin, author of 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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