ON THE RECORD: The Pajama Game and the Six-CD "That’s Entertainment"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Pajama Game and the Six-CD "That’s Entertainment" This week’s column discusses the Harry Connick two-CD set — including The Pajama Game and Thou Shalt Not — and the six-CD box "That’s Entertainment: The Ultimate Anthology of M-G-M Musicals."

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HARRY ON BROADWAY, ACT I: THE PAJAMA GAME/THOU SHALT NOT [Columbia CK 99035/99036]
The Roundabout Theatre and director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, with the not inconsequential participation of Harry Connick, Jr., recently took the somewhat creaky 1954 musical comedy The Pajama Game and crafted it into a fast and funny entertainment for 2006 audiences.

The show, when revived on Broadway in 1973 with what they used to call an interracial cast, proved mighty pokey. This despite the presence of author-director George Abbott, the participation-by-proxy of choreographer Bob Fosse, and all those immensely enjoyable songs by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. A 2002 visit to Encores! (supervised, but not staged by, Ms. Marshall) fared somewhat better, demonstrating that the high points still worked but the low points were disheartening.

Changes — some of them severe — have now been made in songs, characters and story line. Happily, these have almost all worked for the better. Traditionalists may carp, as that is what traditionalists are meant to do; but as someone fond of and very much familiar with the show [I was stage manager of the 1973 revival], I am glad to say that the current group has made workable a somewhat weathered musical that clearly needed tending.

The presence of Connick took what might otherwise have been just another revival and put it in the media spotlight. That being the case, when the show turned out to be good, the Roundabout found itself with a smash hit. How this will translate when the show is remounted without Connick as an open-ended Broadway run next fall, is another question. Connick gave a different sort of performance than his predecessors. No matter, as his singing, and his charm, carry it off.

A full share of credit for the success goes to musical director/arranger David Chase and orchestrators Dick Lieb and Danny Troob. Theirs was a tricky job, taking the original 26-piece orchestration and whittling it down to the 12 that made economic sense at the 721-seat American Airlines Theatre. Lieb and Troob did a very good job, retaining most of the feel of the original (and many of the main instrumental solos) while filling in the middle with, alas, the inevitable synthesizer. In a few places, the orchestrators had the opportunity to go back and start over. They responded with a Connick-suitable piano-crooner setting for "A New Town Is a Blue Town"; an energized "There Once Was a Man," which is a knockout in the hands of Connick and the altogether excellent Kelli O’Hara; and the much-discussed, newly envisioned "Hernando’s Hideaway." The song section, as well as the first part of the dance, hark back to the original chart. Midway through, though, Harry (not unreasonably) sits down at the piano. This section — presumably arranged by Connick and Chase, and well-orchestrated by Lieb and Troob — is the most exciting thing on the CD. And on the stage, for that matter.

Let us add that Chase has done a typically strong job. He is one of the few arrangers who write dance music for revivals that sounds like it was written with the composer in the room. (This was especially apparent in the recent Music Man and the London Guys and Dolls, where he even made the "Havana" sequence sound good.) Chase has also added some close harmony vocals to The Pajama Game, which perfectly suit the show.

Of the new songs, "The Three of Us" works especially nicely. The second act of The Pajama Game has always suffered from the climactic "Jealousy Ballet," which is more or less unstageable (unless, I suppose, you have Carol Haney to dance it). "The Three of Us," which was written by Adler for and introduced by Jimmy Durante in 1962 or so, fits the slot perfectly. The co-starring role of Hines always seemed to fade away; now he has a strong finish that provides a lift for the show.

The new recording preserves the performance of Connick, which in itself should make it an especially brisk seller by cast album standards. Even so, I sheepishly express disappointment. The surge of excitement that washes the American Airlines Theatre from start to finish is evident in spots — especially the aforementioned "There Once Was a Man" and "Hernando’s Hideaway" — but absent elsewhere.

The reasons for this are unclear, although I wonder if it doesn’t rest with the orchestrations. Lieb and Troob did a careful and highly successful balancing act in the theatre, despite being restricted to only two reeds and three strings (one violin, one cello, one bass). For the recording session, they have seen fit to add ten players — all strings. This is not an uncommon practice for cast albums; the additional strings usually double or triple the existing string parts. But what do you do with eight violins when there is only one line on the page? In this case, they seem to have tripled or quadrupled the violin line while stripping other notes away from the synth part. This makes a certain amount of sense, but the full package of 13 strings — two more than used in the 1954 version —frequently overwhelms the rest. It seems like we’re getting violins out of nowhere, at the expense of the flutes and clarinets.

Lieb and Troob could no doubt give us a superb The Pajama Game with 21 pieces. Either one of them could do it individually, actually; they are both highly accomplished craftsmen. But I can’t imagine they would voluntarily fill more than half the pit with strings. This might be suitable for something like Light in the Piazza, but not a lively dance show like The Pajama Game. If you have a 12-piece band, you make do; but with 21 pieces, this score is starved for saxophones. Whether the added strings is the problem or not, something puts a damper on the energy. The interplay, in the theatre, is just right and kind of delicious. The layer of added strings on the CD is like a filter of sugar-water, blurring the contrasting flavors.

The inclusion of every bit of underscoring, too, is probably a mistake. (One rendition of "Her Is," for my money, is more than enough.) And let us say a word for poor Roger Adams. Typically enough, the billing page lists marketers and stagehands but omits any mention of Adams, who deserves credit if only for the startlingly original dance arrangement he worked out with Bob Fosse for "Steam Heat."

The Pajama Game has been issued in a two-CD package with "Songs from Thou Shalt Not," the wildly misguided musical that briefly appeared on Broadway in 2001. This despite a highly interesting score from first-time theatre composer-lyricist Connick.

Connick is joined on the vocals by Kelli O’Hara, his Roundabout co-star, and the two are obviously well paired. We get 11 songs — some used in the show, others cut — and I suppose you can say they make a fine collection for fans of recording artist Harry Connick. The inclusion of Thou Shalt Not, unfortunately, serves to increase the list price of The Pajama Game. Not by too much, true, but it seems like you can’t buy one without the other. (The way they are packaged, with separate liner notes and catalogue numbers, hints that they might one day be separable).

Any flavor of the show itself is altogether missing; this is kind of like listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Porgy and Bess. You get the words and music, but it ain’t necessarily the way that Gershwin wrote it. And, needless to say, Thou Shalt Not ain’t Porgy and Bess. An original cast album of Thou Shalt Not was independently released (under the auspices of Connick), and apparently remains available; this gives a better idea of what the score sounded like, and showcases the remarkable Norbert Leo Butz as well.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT: The Ultimate Anthology of M-G-M Musicals [Rhino R2 73192]
Let us suppose that you are an aficionado of M-G-M musicals. Let us further suppose that you were given carte blanche to rummage through the recorded archives, and select anything that took your fancy; and that somebody was standing by ready to take your assembled goodies, remaster them and assemble them into a lavish box set. Oh, and you were instructed to fill up five or six CDs. If you happen to be perceptive and possessed of a good ear, you are bound to come up with something like "That’s Entertainment: The Ultimate Anthology of M-G-M Musicals."

This is not an all-new assemblage. They started with the soundtracks of the three film compilations in the "That’s Entertainment" series, which — by design — included the best of the best. The sixth CD features so-called buried treasures, which is to say additional outtakes from M-G-M musicals. (An earlier version of this anthology was apparently released a decade ago, although it did not contain that special sixth CD.) What you get is all the songs there are in the heavens, M-G-M style. I needn’t list the 135 song-titles. Let’s just say that your favorite M-G-M songs and stars are here, naturally, along with dozens of surprises. Rhino has assembled this in a handsome box set, including an over-sized 108-page booklet loaded with information, color photos and posters, and the like. George Feltenstein produced the CD, wrote the booklet and is presumably responsible for the whole, stunning package. If you like movie musicals, here’s a dazzling present for yourself.

—Steven Suskin, author of the newly released "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.