ON THE RECORD: "The Magic of Diahann Carroll" and Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: "The Magic of Diahann Carroll" and Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend
 
This week's column discusses "The Magic of Diahann Carroll," circa 1960, and the original London cast album of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend.

THE MAGIC OF DIAHANN CARROLL [DRG 91488]
Let us suppose you were a Broadway composer or producer looking for a musical comedy idea; and let us suppose you wandered into The Persian Room, at the Plaza Hotel, one February evening in 1960, to catch Diahann Carroll's act. Carroll was not unknown on Broadway, having made a stunning debut in 1954 as a 19-year-old singing Harold Arlen art songs in House of Flowers.

Carroll's 1960 set, originally released as "The Persian Room presents Diahann Carroll," plays like an audition for a Broadway star to be. The singer starts out with a bang with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" (just eight months after it was introduced by Ethel Merman). She then gives a reading of "Misty," self-described as "romantic and mushy." This is followed by — what, one of those Harold Rome comedy numbers for lovelorn secretaries from the Bronx? "Shopping Around" it is, from Wish You Were Here, and Carroll carries off the comedy with aplomb. This is followed by a spitfire performance of Johnny Mercer's "Goody Goody."

Now, here is a girl who can sing anything, you (a composer/producer, remember?) think. Not only that; she's got looks, style, sex and star quality. True, there's the question of what you do with her, plot-wise, in the days when large swaths of America are still segregated. You could conceive what they used to call a "black musical," like Jamaica, Hallelujah, Baby! or Purlie. Or you could try something less conventional and more dangerous.

Richard Rodgers, as far as we know, did not see Carroll at the Persian Room. He relates that he was watching Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" the following April, when on came Carroll singing the Persian Room arrangement of "Goody Goody." That was enough of an audition for Rodgers; as Broadway's most famous composer and one of its most bankable ticket sellers (and powerful producers), Rodgers could do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do was a musical with Diahann Carroll, and not relegated to the role of a West Indies native or somebody's maid. No Strings (1962) was the result, with Carroll appearing opposite Dick Kiley.

DRG released a reissue of the No Strings cast album last year [DRG 19065]. While the musical has little to do with "The Persian Room presents Diahann Carroll," one can find parallels in the material if one wishes. Rodgers consciously provides Carroll with spots that demonstrate the same facets; "An Orthodox Fool" presents the packed-with-dynamite Carroll of "Goody Goody." The similarity is no doubt part Rodgers, part Peter Matz. The conductor/orchestrator of the Persian set also served as musical director and arranger of No Strings; Matz and Carroll first joined in the rehearsal room of House of Flowers. Matz's Persian Room orchestrations are typical of his early style, with trumpets a-blazing. (A section of Carroll's "All or Nothing at All" sounds like the big dance number in Whoop-Up!, which opened six weeks before Carroll at the Plaza.) Carroll is in fine hands with Matz, and you can hear it.

"The Magic of Diahann Carroll" incorporates two 1960 LPs, with the Persian set preceded by "Diahann Carroll with the Andre Previn Trio." This is apparently the earlier of the two recordings, with some of the flash but less authority than the Persian set. Two Rodgers and Hart songs, "Spring Is Here" and its second cousin, "Nobody's Heart," are especially felicitous. There are also two original songs, written by Previn with his then-wife Dory Langdon.

Jule Styne described Carroll's opening night in his liner note, reprinted from the Persian Room LP: "This beautifully fragile, delicately feminine young woman singing 'Heat Wave' made us believe in her as the most dangerous of 'femme terrible,' became a lyrical, wistful maiden-in-love singing 'Misty,' and a charming child-woman singing 'Goody Goody.' It was a total performance, not just a gesture here and a facial expression there. She became all these personalities and we in the audience believed in her. To paraphrase from Diahann's opening song (which quite by accident happens to be one of mine), 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' for her, and for her, and for her, etc."

Write that girl a musical! You can almost hear the Broadway telephones ring. That is, back in the days when telephones still rang.

THE BOY FRIEND [Sepia 1042]
Broadway fans interested in a good backstage battle are perhaps familiar with the travails surrounding Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend. Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, with Guys and Dolls and Can-Can under their belts, imported the 1954 sleeper from London. By the time the show reached the Royale, Wilson and director Vida Hope had both been locked out on 45th Street. The Broadway Boy Friend was a hit nevertheless, one that spun out a new star in the person of Julie Andrews. (It was a good fall for 19-year-olds; Diahann Carroll arrived three months later in House of Flowers.)

Wilson had written a gentle valentine to the musical comedies of the 1920s; actually, a valentine to the London productions of American musical comedies of the 1920s. The Boy Friend, which was first performed in an abbreviated version at the Players' Theatre in April 1953, went on to become a major hit when it transferred to Wyndham's in January 1954 for a 2,084-performance run. Feuer and Martin, however, saw something else in the material. Not a gentle valentine to the musical comedies of the 1920s, you will, but a pastiche parody of the musicals of the roaring twenties.

That's where Sandy Wilson and Cy Feuer parted ways. Apparently taking inspiration from all those "vo-de-o-dos" in the first act showstopper "Won't You Charleston with Me," Feuer commissioned a roaring twenties orchestration from Ted Royal and Charles Cooke. The Broadway Boy Friend band soared; Feuer dressed them in straw hats and had them stand for solos during the overture, stopping the show before it even started.

Effective, yes; but Feuer effectively removed the genteel from Wilson's gentility. This was not Wilson's Boy Friend; it was rather like taking your favorite maiden aunt, bobbing her hair, and painting her face like a kewpie doll. (Feuer took Wilson's "Perfect Young Ladies" and turned them into flappers, complete with makeup out of John Held, Jr. illustrations.) The battle turned nasty, but the show was a hit; the author returned to England and quietly collected his royalties. Wilson went on to do some equally strong musical theatre work over the years, although nothing achieved the popularity or success of The Boy Friend.

This discussion is prompted by what is apparently the first CD release of the original British cast album of The Boy Friend. One can quickly understand Wilson's objections to the approach. When the Broadway version gets really lively, out come the trumpets, to say nothing of the ole banjo; on the UK disc, featuring two pianos and a drummer, they make do with a woodblock. (The Wyndham's production apparently utilized five musicians, although there are only three on this cast recording. Broadway was scored for thirteen.)

The British approach, despite the small band, is more authentic to the sound of Broadway musicals of the twenties (or, rather, West End reproductions of Broadway musicals). The New York production more or less reproduced the sound of the roaring twenties, although not the sound that was heard emanating from Broadway orchestra pits in those days. Both versions, thus, accomplished what they set out to do; the backstage struggles arose because the composer wanted it done his way. Not unreasonably so, mind you; but he was a young Brit composer tackling with the sharks of Broadway. Take the money and run. The U.K. disc does not have Julie Andrews; the cast is headed by Anne Rogers, who went on to play Eliza Doolittle in the West End My Fair Lady, as well as on tour in America. (She also created Barbara Cook's role in the London She Loves Me.) On consideration, I must say I prefer the Broadway version [RCAVictor 60056]; I've been listening to it so long that I can't help but Miss That Banjo. Still, the original original cast has plenty to recommend it, and Wilson's point of view deserves our consideration. Sepia has supplemented The Boy Friend with selections from three of the London productions of the American musical comedies that more or less inspired it, The Girl Friend, Hit the Deck and No, No Nanette. All of which make for interesting listening.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], 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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