ON THE RECORD: The Fantasticks, Jacques Brel and Rae's "Songs I Taught My Mother"

News   ON THE RECORD: The Fantasticks, Jacques Brel and Rae's "Songs I Taught My Mother" This week's column discusses the cast albums of the new Off-Broadway revivals of The Fantasticks and Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, as well as the CD reissue of Charlotte Rae's 1955 "Songs I Taught My Mother.
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Cast albums of revivals inevitably bring to mind the original cast album. In this season of revivals, there are currently on the boards Off-Broadway revivals of two long-running and well-remembered Off-Broadway musicals of the 1960s. Both of which have recently released revival cast albums.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks [Ghostlight 8-4415] demonstrates the perils of double jeopardy, as it were. It is impossible — even if you "try to remember" not — to ignore the 1960 album, which is no doubt ingrained in the memory of many readers of this column. You can't beat the young Jerry Orbach, Rita Gardner and Kenneth Nelson. Think of "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and those are the voices you're likely to hear in your inner ear. This is the version we grew up with, and no other need apply (although it seems to be currently out-of-print).

Even so, Burke Moses, Sara Jean Ford and Santino Fontana on the revival cast album do very nicely. As loyal as we might want to be to Jerry, Burke gives an assured and enjoyable performance. Let us point out that Jerry was gone within months anyway, moving to Broadway for Carnival; I only know four people who saw the original cast, and they all worked on the show. Let us also point out that in this season of revivals of long-running hits from the '60s, '70s and '80s, The Fantasticks is the only one that gives us the full, original-sized orchestra. It's only two pieces, true; but the other revivals have dispensed with who knows how many pieces, combined. The Fantasticks comes to us without even one wee little synthesizer, and isn't that a relief!

Current-day recording techniques allow the harp — played here by Erin Hill — to be very much in evidence. The new CD includes the incidental music, considerably expanding the length of the original album and giving listeners the opportunity to hear librettist-lyricist Jones (aka Thomas Bruce), as the old actor, recite. He appeared in the same role in the original, but was all but invisible on the first cast album. Here, today, he is quite a treat, adding a special bonus to this recording. The cast also includes two Broadway veterans, Leo Burmester and Martin Vidnovic, as the parental horticulturists. The revival CD contains one additional track, composer Schmidt singing and playing "O Have You Ever Been to China," an early song that was ultimately replaced by "Round and Round." Keen listeners will hear the germ of "They Were You" in the bridge. For all you budding musical directors out there, let us mention that when Schmidt was auditioning pianists back in 1960, one fellow came in and said: "Gee, so much of it sounds like it might be better to use a harp." This suggestion got Julian Stein the show, in place of someone who was to become a major Broadway conductor. Try to think of The Fantasticks without that harp, and then consider that this was a creative contribution that came about only because someone made an unsolicited suggestion at his audition, earning himself the job.

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Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris [Ghostlight 8-4416] was also a major Off-Broadway hit (unless you compare it to the 41-year run of The Fantasticks). Brel opened at the Village Gate in 1968 and ran more than four years, 1,847 performances to be precise. The show had an outsized influence, being a protest musical in those dark days of Vietnam. And Brel — with the four-person cast headed by the equally remarkable co-creator/translator Mort Shuman and Elly Stone (the other creator/translator's wife) — was altogether galvanizing.

The present revival, which opened in March at the Zipper Theatre, isn't. Galvanizing, at least to this viewer. The production has attracted many ardent admirers; I'm glad for the production, and glad for the admirers, but I am not one of their number. As goes the production, so goes the recording. Fans of the revival will no doubt love the CD as well, and that's fine with me.

Let us point out that the song selections are not precisely the same as in 1968; most of the important songs remain, but other Brel numbers (including "Ne Me Quitte Pas") have been added. Neither are the song assignments the same, although Robert Cuccioli sings most of the important Shuman songs (except "Next"). Gay Marshall and Natascia Diaz split Stone's songs, and Rodney Hicks serves as the fourth member of the cast.

Music director Eric Svejcar chimes in on a few numbers while leading the three-man band in new arrangements. Which, again, I can't say I find preferable to the old. But maybe I am unfairly predisposed to the original? That can be a problem with cast albums of revivals (although this does not prevent me from enjoying the new Fantasticks). For fans of the Brel revival, let me add that an additional seven tracks – including "Brussels" and "I Loved" – must be purchased separately; the liner notes tell us that they "are available via the Internet through your favorite digital music provider."

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Songs I Taught My Mother [PS Classics PS-644] Milwaukee-born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky stormed New York in 1950, finding a foothold as an eccentric nightclub comedienne at the Village Vanguard, the Blue Angel, and other similar spots. She made it to Broadway in the 1952 John Raitt-starrer Three Wishes for Jamie (recently reissued on DRG). Those who listen to her big number in that musical, "I'll Sing You a Song," will find what is easily one of the most over-the-top, scenery-chewing, unpalatable performances in the cast album archives. Rae was clearly doing precisely as instructed by director Abe Burrows, but even so; the track is so full of grunts and growls that you can almost hear the singer's eyes crossing.

That Rae had more facets to her talent was soon demonstrated when she played Mrs. Peachum in Marc Blitzstein's famed 1954 Off-Broadway adaptation of The Threepenny Opera. She also played Mrs. Juniper in the Broadway transfer of The Golden Apple. Rae developed a career as a diminutive funny lady, specializing in sometimes grotesque roles (such as Mammy Yokum in the 1956 musical L'il Abner). Memorable moments included a recurring role in the New Yorkese sitcom "Car 54, Where Are You"; a strong supporting stint in the 1963 Bert Lahr comedy "The Beauty Part"; and the 1965 Merrick musical Pickwick, for which she won a Tony Award nomination. (Rae lost to Threepenny castmate Bea Arthur, for Mame.)

As was the case with a select few 1950s Broadway comediennes (including Ms. Arthur and Jean Stapleton), Rae was plucked from the character actor shelf and catapulted to fame in 1979 when a supporting role in the sitcom "Diff'rent Strokes" was spun off into the multi-season hit "The Facts of Life." After 30 years of knocking around, Rae became an overnight TV celebrity, a lucrative payoff for a dedicated stage actress who never seemed destined for stardom.

Back in 1955, Rae went into the studio to record a set consisting mostly of her zany nightclub material. "Songs I Taught My Mother," she called it, on the independent Vanguard label. Fifty years later it has been brushed off and released by PS Classics. It turns out to be pretty good, with some very funny stuff and a couple of well-performed straight vocals as well.

The secret is in the material, assembled, arranged and conducted by Rae's husband John Strauss. The two ballads are Rodgers & Hart's "Why Can't I?" a lost beauty from the 1929 musical Spring Is Here, and the Vernon Duke-John Latouche "Summer Is A-Comin' In" from the 1942 disaster The Lady Comes Across. (Rae reprised this lovely number — suggested by the 13th century round "Sumer is icumen in" — the following year in the Phoenix Theatre's The Littlest Revue.) Duke is also represented by "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull," an Ogden Nash collaboration from the 1946 musical Sweet Bye and Bye; Latouche by a piece of special material written with Strauss, "A Nail in the Horseshoe" (being the horseshoe ring of boxes at the old Met).

Blitzstein has two numbers, "Fraught" (introduced by Carol Channing in 1941 in No for an Answer) and the 1944 song "Modest Maid" ("I Love Lechery"), written for but not used by Beatrice Lillie. Porter has two as well, "When I Was a Little Cuckoo" (which was indeed performed by Lillie, in the 1946 revue Seven Lively Arts) and "The Physician" (performed by Gertrude Lawrence in the 1933 musical Nymph Errant). All of the above are not without interest, and well delivered by Ms. Rae. The other four selections come from a talented young writer who was just then breaking in, Sheldon Harnick. (Rae had performed Harnick material when the two were students at Northwestern). These include "Merry Little Minuet" ("they're rioting in Africa, they're starving in Spain"), which was introduced in the 1953 revue John Murray Anderson's Almanac, and a very special "Backer's Audition." Taking their cue from the then-current hit Kismet, writers Harnick and Rae devise a new operetta "using all original music, originally by Tchaikowsky." This includes "a tune from Tchaikowsky's fourth. . . a lovely girl." The sketch is wildly funny, winding up with Rae simultaneously performing both halves of a Russell Nype-Ethel Merman contrapuntal duet. Set to the cannon theme from the 1812 Overture, Russell sings: "When I see her face I want to shoot myself." This somewhat unexpected set-piece alone is enough to recommend Rae's "Songs I Taught My Mother."

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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