ON THE RECORD: The Firebrand of Florence and "On the Waterfront"

News   ON THE RECORD: The Firebrand of Florence and "On the Waterfront" This week's column discusses the first-ever full recording of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's The Firebrand of Florence and an album of music by Leonard Bernstein.

THE FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE [Capriccio 60 091]
Ira Gershwin has no place on the list of Broadway's most underrated lyricists. His name remains well known a half-century after he retired his rhyming dictionary, although one can ascribe a great deal of the fame of his name to nepotism. Many of Ira's songs are unquestioned classics, and more than a few of his lyric phrases have passed into general usage (like "it ain't necessarily so"). But when it comes to weighing musical theatre innovation, Ira is generally overlooked.

Ira started out as a playfully clever lyricist. A late bloomer, his kid brother George had a half dozen musicals — and one Rhapsody in Blue — on his resume before Ira came into his own in 1924 with Lady Be Good!. The Gershwin musicals remained frivolous — and their songs delightful but interchangeable — until the end of the decade, with Strike Up the Band (completed in 1930) and especially Of Thee I Sing (1931). George and Ira, along with librettists George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, came up with a new sort of Broadway musical comedy, idea-packed — these were political satires — but with the message floating on clouds of melody laced with wit.

The scores were marked by extended musical scenes, as well as songs that fit the plot to almost ridiculous lengths. A hymn to a Chocolate Choral Society, for example, or a paean to the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon. These would be out of place in the typical musicals of the time, like George and Ira's own Girl Crazy (1931). Gilbert & Sullivan were the influences for these scores, Gilbert far more than Sullivan. George could write just about anything, yes; but I expect that during this period Ira began to guide his brother into mature musical theatre composition (as opposed to scores full of prospective song hits).

This innovative musical theatre writing gained immediate acceptance. Of Thee I Sing was Broadway's biggest musical hit of the early Depression, with the Pulitzer committee going so far as to honor the show with an award that had theretofore gone to the dramas of Eugene O'Neill and Sidney Howard and Elmer Rice. Imagine — a mere musical!!! George and Ira and George S. followed their first two satires with Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933) — a sequel to Of Thee I Sing — which died a quick death despite some remarkable material. Produced in the depths of the Depression, Cake — taking a bow from Marie Antoinette — had the President of the United States setting up a dictatorship. There's a guillotine, too.

This turned out to be the brothers' final Broadway musical. George set to work with DuBose Heyward on Porgy and Bess (1935), while Ira teamed with composers Harold Arlen and Vernon Duke for a couple of hit Shubert revues. Ira also lent a hand on Porgy, contributing the "smarter" material (including the Sportin' Life songs). But then the brothers went to Hollywood. George died there, in 1937, and Ira remained in Beverly Hills until his death in 1983. Ira never fully recovered from George's early death. He did return to Broadway for two musicals with composer Kurt Weill, in both of which he continued to work with expanded musical scenes. The highly successful Lady in the Dark (1941) was built around three extended dream sequences; the highly unsuccessful Firebrand of Florence (1945), with a libretto by Edwin Justus Mayer, was an attempt at an American equivalent to the opera-comique of Offenbach. This worked exceptionally well, at least in the extended first scene of the first act. Here is 20 minutes or so worth of plot, told completely in music and lyrics. ("One man's death is another man's living," sings the Hangman.) Rodgers and Hammerstein performed a similar feat of musical integration four weeks later in Carousel, with more durable results.

Firebrand of Florence was based on Mayer's hit 1924 play The Firebrand, which featured Joseph Schildkraut as sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. (The play included an incidental song, "The Voice of Love," with music by Robert Russell Bennett and Maurice Nitke — and a lyric by the up-and coming Ira Gershwin.) Due to a combination of problems and a severely under-inspired wartime production, the musical hit the stage as more of a costume operetta than a comic one, and quickly expired. Lost it has been, almost entirely, ever since, until a 2000 broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during Weill's centennial year. Sir Andrew Davis led the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with a cast headed by baritone Rodney Gilfrey (who made a smashing musical theatre appearance last winter in the Encores! production of The New Moon). The BBC broadcast has now been released as a two-CD set by Capriccio, a German label that has long specialized in Weill's work.

This is a remarkable and much-welcomed recording, although one can quibble with some of the choices. There was a considerable amount of material cut from Firebrand along the way. Most of the cuts have been restored, under the reasoning that the deletions were made in 1945 because the performers couldn't handle the material. I think not; it seems to me that this material was cut, mostly, because it severely impeded the action. Things grow groggy from time to time, and I think this recording affirms that. Contrarily, they saw fit to cut "March of the Soldiers of the Duchy" ("Just in Case"), which was in the Broadway version and which I've always found to be a nifty combination of Weill's soldier choruses with Ira's sly politicizing.

Consider Lady in the Dark. Imagine a production where they restore the entire Minstrel Dream. Yes, that's what Weill and Gershwin originally intended for the show; but they would surely agree that the Circus Dream — with "The Saga of Jenny" and "Tchaikowsky" — worked better. Waste not, want not; the "Song of the Zodiac," in which Liza Elliott explains why she refuses to marry Kendall Nesbitt, turned out to be the highlight of Firebrand's Trial Scene in the second act. ("You Have to Do What You Do Do," went Ira's revision, with Weill also turning it into an exuberantly giddy waltz.)

Ira Gershwin, in four musicals with George and two with Weill, pioneered this new form of musical comedy writing, moving away from the song and dance shows of the twenties. But does he get credit? Nope. Firebrand and Ira's 1946 effort, Park Avenue (in conjunction with Kaufman and Arthur Schwartz), were both dire failures, and the lyricist was more than glad to throw in the Broadway towel. He continued to write occasional film scores, when his arm was twisted, but by 1954 he had had it. (And what a way to go — with "The Man that Got Away.")

This first full recording of Firebrand is accompanied by an especially harmful narration. Someone has seen fit to recount the plot in pseudo Gershwinesque verse; but Gershwin it isn't. Where Ira was playful, this material is clumsy. For the sake of a rhyme, the adapter sees fit to label Benvenuto Cellini a "stud." This, in a Gershwin musical! The styles are different, resulting in a jarring switch of voices from moment to moment.

Simon Russell Beale speaks the narration, and very nicely. Rodney Gilfry makes a far stronger Cellini than the hapless Earl Wrightson, who tried the role in 1946. Felicity Palmer also appears to be much better than the original Duchess, the composer's miscast wife Lotte Lenya (who got raked over the critical coals). Which brings us to George Dvorsky as the Duke. Dvorsky is a fine performer, of the leading man variety; I caught his Scarlet Pimpernel when he was standing by for Douglas Sills, and he did very well. But he is not a buffoon, which is what the role of the Duke calls for. Melville Cooper played it originally, although they wanted Walter Slezak; nowadays, John Cullum or Bobby Morse fit the bill. Dvorsky doesn't sound like a funnyman, and this material needs all the help it can get.

Pardon my carping, though. Let's get back to the fact that Firebrand has been effectively buried since 1945, and it is the work of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin in their prime. No, this is not a masterwork of the musical theatre, nor the "Broadway opera" Weill intended to write, and this recording does not bring full value to the piece. I have long believed that Firebrand in concert should be a dazzling delight; if this performance isn't, I don't lay the fault with the composer and lyricist.

This recording is nevertheless unhesitatingly recommended. The opening Execution Scene and the second act Trial Scene in themselves are marvels of musical theatre writing. So this Firebrand is unquestionably well worthwhile — and worth Gershwin.

CHICHESTER PSALMS [Naxos 8.559177]
Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein became a VIP of the cultural world on that November day in 1943 when he stepped in for the ailing Bruno Walther and led the New York Philharmonic. Imagine: A 25-year-old American born Jew leading the New York Philharmonic! Fancy Free, his ballet with novice choreographer Jerome Robbins, followed in the spring of 1944, with the Broadway musical On the Town — devised from the scenario for Fancy Free — opening by year's end.

Bernstein quickly became a major celebrity, composing and conducting and performing in America and around the world; in 1953 he was the first American to conduct at La Scala, with Callas singing Cherubini's Medea, and in 1956 he was named co-director of the New York Philharmonic. But his presence on Broadway had been minimal. On the Town, a better-than-moderate hit in its time, was long gone. (The 1948 M-G-M version, which eviscerated Bernstein's original score, became the On the Town of memory.) Bernstein reunited with that show's Betty Comden, Adolph Green and George Abbott for Wonderful Town — an even bigger hit — in 1953. The Wonderful Town songs, written in a dash prior to rehearsals to replace a rejected score by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt, were colorfully entertaining and altogether delightful (as can be witnessed nightly at the Al Hirschfeld).

But the music of On the Town and Wonderful Town, combined, was not the stuff of legend. Bernstein's firm place on the list of Broadway greats results from West Side Story, and West Side Story alone. There are some who might include the 1956 Candide in the equation. But Bernstein's comic operetta was long gone by the time West Side opened ten months later, and I doubt that the worthy Candide would have gotten a second chance without limelight from West Side.

We listen to West Side today and think, yes, that's Bernstein all right. I suppose, though, that 1957 audiences were unprepared for the uncompromising score they heard. Consider the musical distance between "A Quiet Girl" and "Maria," or "Conga!" and "America." There is a missing link, which like the 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti has long been overlooked by Bernstein fans. During the run of Wonderful Town, Bernstein composed incidental music for Elia Kazan's film "On the Waterfront." And that's the subject of this discourse.

Bernstein was unhappy with the filmmaking process, wherein the composer is a minor cog and the music is likely to be buried or deleted altogether, and he never put himself into that position again. But he prepared a 20-minute "Symphonic Suite from 'On the Waterfront,'" which is offered as supplementary material backing up Chichester Psalms on this new Naxos CD. It is not so far, it turns out, from the docks of Hoboken to the blacktop playgrounds of the West Side; you can almost hear West Side's "Nightmare Ballet" (entwined with "Somewhere") in this 1954 work.

The Chichester Psalms is the marquee attraction on this disc, from the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. (Ms. Alsop served as a conducting fellow at Tanglewood, working with Bernstein shortly before his death.) Chichester was a 1965 commission from the Cathedral of the town of that name. The piece is of minimal interest, to me anyway, except for the introduction of two themes that were recycled into "Seena's Wedding" (in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) and "God Said" (in Mass, another underappreciated piece of Bernstein). The album is rounded out with the familiar "Three Dance Episodes" from On the Town, but it is the "On the Waterfront" suite that is most striking. If you have a recording of this suite hidden away on your record shelf, give it a listen. Otherwise, this CD — on the low-price Naxos label — is an easy choice for Bernstein fans.

—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.

Today’s Most Popular News: