ON THE RECORD: The Donmar's Parade and the Long-Lost Simply Heavenly

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Donmar's Parade and the Long-Lost Simply Heavenly This week's column discusses the cast album of Donmar Warehouse's recent reconfiguration of Jason Robert Brown's Parade and the CD debut of the 1957 Langston Hughes musical Simply Heavenly.
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PARADE [First Night CASTCD 99]
Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Parade is the latest failed Broadway musical to find its way to a smaller, simpler and more economical version. Rob Ashford, the Southern-born director-choreographer who served as Pat Birch's assistant on the original production in December 1998, seems to have personally shepherded the piece to the estimable Donmar Warehouse. Smaller, simpler and more economical this production was; a company of 51 actors and musicians was reduced to a mere 24. The scenic production at the intimate Donmar was, necessarily, a fragment of the grand pageant Hal Prince put on the stage at Lincoln Center. The severe doubling caused a certain amount of rethinking, with a not insignificant amount of rewriting by the Messrs. Brown and Uhry. All told, this was a considerably different Parade.

The results, at least insofar as they are presented (complete with dialogue) on the new cast recording, indicate that Brown, Uhry and Ashford have improved and strengthened the piece. Parade, despite its inarguably impressive score, has been in virtually-unproduceable limbo for nine years. The changes necessitated by the Donmar experience have not necessarily improved it; I suppose that champions of the original production might still hold on to the majestic (if slow-moving) musical epic that it was. But this new version — again, judged from a recording but not an in-theatre visit — has an impact that the 1998 production lacked.

The phrase "failed Broadway musical" warrants a bit of an explanation. Parade opened to downbeat reviews and a less-than-enthusiastic audience response. (The show, mind you, relays the real-life tale of the murder of a child and the lynching of the apparently innocent defendant.) Produced as an offering of Lincoln Center Theater, it ran through its scheduled run and closed after a mere 84 official performances. That said, the show might have turned the proverbial corner had there been a financial cushion sufficient to keep things going until April, when Parade garnered a bouquet of nominations (nine Tony, 13 Drama Desk). At this very moment, though, Livent — which was billed with LCT above the title — began to show signs of the financial turmoil that would soon scuttle that gargantuan enterprise. With no guarantee of additional funds, the non-profit LCT had no choice but to close the show, with the Parade passing by on the final day of February.

Brown and Uhry did, indeed, win their Tonys; they deserved them, too, even if the competition was laughably inferior. (Best Score competition: Footloose and The Civil War.) Had the show been running when the voters came to town, though, Parade might have picked up even more awards and gone on to a healthy run. Which is pretty much what happened with Lincoln Center's Light in the Piazza, which got off to a similarly nervous start. The Donmar Parade is headed by Bertie Carvel and Lara Pulver as Leo and Lucille Frank, with noticeably strong support (on the CD, anyway) from Gary Milner as Governor Slaton. Thomas Murray conducts from a new, especially strong nine-piece orchestration by David Cullen. The cast album is produced by Jeffrey Lesser, who served the same capacity on the similarly excellent Broadway recording [RCA 09026-63378]. The two-CD package is accompanied by a DVD [viewable on U.S. DVD players] entitled "Behind the Parade," which consists of interviews with Brown, Uhry, Ashford, Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage and designer Christopher Oram. While these things are often self-congratulatory promo pieces, this one contains some rather interesting discussion of the changes in the piece (including a major new song in the second act, "The Glory," sung by Judge Roan and Dorsey at a rural fishing hole).

Mr. Brown has not returned to Broadway since Parade in 1998. (We expunge from the record some interpolations into one of those lame screen-to-stage efforts, which shall go unnamed here). Listening to this new recording of Parade, one can only hope that this versatile and talented songwriter returns to these environs, and soon.

SIMPLY HEAVENLY [Sepia 1105]
"Did you ever hear the blues?" That's the question asked in an impressive song from Simply Heavenly, which leads to another question: "Did you ever hear Simply Heavenly?" This is one of Broadway's long-forgotten musicals; even people who trade in the Happy Towns and Happy as Larrys turn a blank ear when someone brings up Langston Hughes' 1957 musical or — even more so — his twin obscurities The Barrier (four performances at the Broadhurst in 1950) and Tambourines to Glory (three weeks at the Little — now the Hayes — in October 1963).

Hughes, who is better known as a Harlem poet, has one relatively well-known musical to his credit, Street Scene. But that was written in collaboration with Kurt Weill. His other Broadway visits came with lesser-known composers, and don't even make it into the Broadway trivia conversations. I cannot find any information whatsoever about David Martin, his composer on this occasion; this despite some rather lively music in a jazzy blues style.

Simply Heavenly had an interesting history, at least. Hughes devised a gentle soul of a character named Jess Simple in a newspaper column in 1943. He kept Simple alive, featuring him in stories and novels including the 1953 "Simple Takes a Wife," which served as the nominal source material for the musical. (The musical's underwritten plot follows the episodic nature of the stories; Simple sits around in a bar, more or less, trying to raise enough money so he can get a divorce so he can marry the girl he loves.) Simply Heavenly attracted friendly notices when it opened in May 1957 in a West Side venue temporarily dubbed the 85th Street Playhouse. (As best I can tell, this was the auditorium of a church or convent.) The place was condemned as a fire-trap after five weeks, leaving Simple and his friends homeless. Abe Enklewitz, the manager of the Alvin, picked it up and moved it to his other Broadway spot, the Playhouse. (This theatre, on 48th Street near the Cort, is perhaps best remembered for its Pulitzer-winners, Street Scene and The Glass Menagerie. It was memorialized on celluloid — prior to demolition in 1968 — as the home of Springtime for Hitler in "The Producers.") Simply Heavenly opened on Aug. 20, 1957 — five weeks before West Side Story came to town — and struggled on for two months. The affair recongregated at the Renata on Bleecker Street a month later, for another two months. All told, Simple and his friends played 169 performances.

The show then moved to London, with Melvin Stewart recreating the title role, and opened at the Adelphi on May 20, 1958. Lasting only two weeks, alas. For reasons unknown, Simply Heavenly resurfaced in London at the Old Vic in March 2003. The production met with far greater success than heretofore, warranting an eventual transfer back to the West End for a seven-month run at the Trafalgar.

Back in September 1957, Goddard Lieberson saw fit to bring the original cast into the studio. This is perhaps the rarest of the Columbia original cast albums, although those who have heard it are well aware that it is of significantly more interest than some of the more questionable Columbia entries. Mr. Stewart and Claudia McNeil (soon to move on to A Raisin in the Sun) lead the cast, with support from John Bouie, Anna English and another dozen players; Sticks Evans — how's that for a name? — leads a band of eight. Several of the numbers are very nice indeed, led by the blues that caps this review. Sepia has supplemented the original Broadway cast with Ms. McNeil's single of "Did You Ever Hear the Blues?" plus the 1956 album "Jazz Singer," which features Bertice Reading — of the 1958 West End cast — and the Art Simmons Quartet.

*** As a member of the 2008 Tony Award Nominating Committee, it is impolitic for me to comment upon this season's crop of musicals prior to Nomination Day. Cast albums have begun to appear from some of these new shows, to whit: Grease [Masterworks Broadway 88697-16398], Xanadu [PS Classics PS-858] and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein [Decca Broadway B0010374]. All three faithfully reproduce the scores of the shows in question, and make suitable souvenirs of their respective experiences.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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