ON THE RECORD: Two Gents, of Verona and Dogpatch

News   ON THE RECORD: Two Gents, of Verona and Dogpatch TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA Decca Broadway 440 017 565
Two Gentlemen of Verona starts with a blast — a trumpet blast. That's a good way to describe the show, which rode a clutch of rave reviews from the open-air Delacorte in Central Park to the St. James on 44th Street. Two Gentlemen of Verona was, indeed, a blast. It opened on December 1, 1971, running for 627 performances, beginning Joe Papp's invasion of Broadway. By the time the show closed in 1973, Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival had four Broadway hits and three Tony Awards. After 30 years, the long out-of-print original cast album has finally been transferred to CD.

TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA Decca Broadway 440 017 565
Two Gentlemen of Verona starts with a blast — a trumpet blast. That's a good way to describe the show, which rode a clutch of rave reviews from the open-air Delacorte in Central Park to the St. James on 44th Street. Two Gentlemen of Verona was, indeed, a blast. It opened on December 1, 1971, running for 627 performances, beginning Joe Papp's invasion of Broadway. By the time the show closed in 1973, Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival had four Broadway hits and three Tony Awards. After 30 years, the long out-of-print original cast album has finally been transferred to CD.

In the spring of 1971, Papp asked director Mel Shapiro to fashion what we would today call a multi-cultural rewrite of one of Shakespeare's lesser comedies. The plan called for a play-with-songs suitable for free Shakespeare in the Park, to be followed by a mobile tour (on the back of a truck) of the city's underprivileged neighborhoods. Real street theatre, on the street, for the people.

Galt MacDermot, just then composer-in-residence at the Public, was put on the job. MacDermot was the composer of Broadway's biggest hit at the time, Hair, which had been initially developed at and produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. The NYSF rights lapsed before Hair reached Broadway, teaching Papp an expensive lesson. When Verona proved a hit at the Delacorte, Papp raised funds to allow the Festival to produce the transfer itself (and reap its considerable financial rewards).

Shapiro had just directed the 1971 Off-Broadway hit The House of Blue Leaves. He invited that play's author, John Guare, to collaborate on the Verona adaptation and write the necessary lyrics. (Guare had written some highly humorous songs for Blue Leaves, including the imperishable "Where is the Devil in Evelyn [What's it Doing in Angela's Eyes!]") As work progressed, the musical portion of Two Gents grew and grew until the piece had more music than a typical musical comedy; they went into rehearsal for the Delacorte with nine songs, and opened on Broadway with more than thirty. The original cast album was issued on two LPs. Decca Broadway has been able to fit all four sides onto one 78-minute CD.

The overabundance of music added to the free-wheeling spirit of Two Gents in the theatre. This does not work so well on the CD, alas; there are 37 tracks, many of which seem a mite too incidental taken out of context. Eighteen of them run less than two minutes, making the CD a bit choppy. But there are more than enough high points. The opening number, "Spring, Spring," is one of the tunes that will stay with you; the song's interlude, "I Love My Father," will remain in your conscience for days. (They repeat it numerous times, in the show and on the album.) The title song is a free wheeling joy; "Calla Lily Lady" ("I'm So Happy for My Best Friend") is a wild jaunt; "Born Lover" is a delectably corny, hayseed duet; and there is a lovely setting of "Who Is Sylvia?" (Shakespeare's, not Edward Albee's.)

Three steamy songs, "To Whom It May Concern Me," "Night Letter" and "Love Me" really take off, and threatened to make a major star of Jonelle Allen (who had been featured in the NYSF version of Hair). She soon left the show, though, and was replaced by Hattie Winston. Allen never originated anything else on Broadway. She was well-matched by Clifton Davis, who joins her on the first two and has his own showcase in "Love's Revenge."

The real find of the show, though, was Raul Julia. The San Juan native had been working — mostly Off-Broadway — since the mid-sixties, but Two Gents introduced him to mainstream audiences. Julia (1940-1994) was an immensely charming actor who could also sing; as his career progressed, we learned that he was extremely versatile. Two Gents revealed that he was also a talented buffoon, a trait that was not especially evident in his later work. (For evidence, listen to Julia go wild with "Calla Lily Lady." And catch Guare's work, too.)

The score, throughout, features some exuberant instrumental sections; the exit music is especially vibrant. The billing —in the theatre and on the CD — lists neither orchestrator nor conductor. I suppose that Harold Wheeler, credited for "musical supervision," and MacDermot himself did the charts together; and I seem to remember Harold in the pit. Whatever the case, the score really takes off.

MacDermot's music is not unlike his work for Hair, which is to say cheerfully melodic and rhythmically bright, with a kitchen-sink eclecticism and a hidden sweetness. Two Gents gave Galt two consecutive hits. That was the end, for him; his future Broadway shows — Dude, Via Galactica and The Human Comedy — were supersized bombs. Recordings of Dude and Human Comedy have since demonstrated their musical worth.

Guare provided Two Gents with some wildly dazzling lyrics; some indecipherable ones, too, but hey — this was street theatre. Each listening to the CD reveals additional, daffy touches. One of the numbers was an out spoken anti-war song that is incredibly scathing (and on target), "Bring All the Boys Back Home." (The villainous Duke of Milan sings: "What does that sign say? Me and graft — Put that guy into the draft.") This during the presidential campaign of 1972, when Nixon was reelected despite the mounting evidence of the Watergate affair that would result in his impeachment. There is also a scatological refrain in "Thurio's Samba" consisting of a doggerel string of four-letter words. I was surprised at the time that Two Gents got away with these two songs. Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar were being picketed, at least on the road; Two Gents was a popular, award-winning hit suitable for family audiences. Make Shakespeare fun, and you can get away with anything, I suppose.

Guare chose to concentrate thereafter on plays, which was unfortunate for the musical theatre of the seventies and eighties (which could have used his comic flair). His Broadway career didn't really take off until Blue Leaves was revived by Lincoln Center Theater in 1985; LCT has been a home to Guare ever since. The link is producer Bernard Gersten, who was instrumental in the early success of the Shakespeare Festival (where he received associate producer billing). While Papp basked in the limelight, Gersten did a great deal of the work. He has been keenly involved in the creation of such musicals as Hair, Two Gents, A Chorus Line, Ballroom and Contact.

Two Gents is best remembered in some circles as the show that bested Follies for the Best Musical Tony Award. Sondheim won the Tony for his score, as well he should have; but Two Gents, as a show, was infinitely more enjoyable and satisfying than Follies. I was a teenager selling orange drink in the balcony at the time, and let me tell you: People streaming out of Two Gents were for the most part ecstatic. (The exuberant finale, with cast members tossing Frisbees over the heads of the audience, contributed to the carnival-like atmosphere.) Audiences slinking out of Follies were for the most part sullen. Especially people over forty. While audience-happiness and entertainment value are not synonymous with quality — and while the Sondheim show has had far more of an afterlife — Two Gentlemen of Verona, in the theatre, in 1971, worked; Follies did not.

I've dug out the Two Gentlemen cast album a few times over the last 30 years and always enjoyed the experience; but it's not one of those shows I've wanted to listen to all that frequently. I'm glad to hear it again on CD and expect that new listeners will enjoy it. But it's not one of those CDs I'll play again and again, like . . .

LI'L ABNER Sony Classical SK 87700
I've listened to my old LP of Li'l Abner repeatedly over the years. Since 1990 I've listened repeatedly to the indifferently-mastered CD that was released (for a limited time) by CBS Special Products. Sony Classical, as part of their Columbia Broadway Masterworks series, has finally rescued poor Abner from near oblivion, and all I can say is it's a happy day in Dogpatch.

Gene de Paul (1919-1988) is one of the most anonymous composers ever to write a Broadway hit. He contributed songs to a string of B-movie scores in the 1940's, including films for the Andrews Sisters and Abbott and Costello. His early work included the novelty song "Cow Cow Boogie," which was a hit on the new Capitol record label, co-founded by Johnny Mercer. That link, presumably, resulted in de Paul being selected to collaborate with Mercer on the 1954 MGM movie musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," a film with a brace of fine songs. Mercer and de Paul also provided songs for the not very-good "You Can't Run Away from It," a 1956 remake of "It Happened One Night" (with Jack Lemmon in the Clark Gable role, so help me).

Meanwhile, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, a pair of Hollywood writer producers, got the stage rights to Al Capp's comic strip "Li'l Abner." (Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane had already given up on the material.) Panama & Frank enlisted Michael Kidd as director-choreographer-coproducer. Kidd, who had choreographed "Seven Brides," apparently brought in Mercer and de Paul, who proved the perfect pair for this satirical hillbilly musical. This was Kidd's first show as a director and fourth as choreographer, following the hits Finian's Rainbow, Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. His twelve musicals after Abner, oddly enough, were all flops.

Li'l Abner opened November 15, 1956, at the St. James, forcing The Pajama Game to move to the Shubert for the final two weeks of its run. (Pajama Game closed November 24, Bells Are Ringing opened on the 29th. Things moved quickly in those days.) Abner was a fair-sized hit, with a respectable 693-performance run; it was small potatoes, though, against other 1956 musicals like Bells and My Fair Lady.

Li'l Abner is not a great musical by any stretch of the imagination. But the cast album is greatly enjoyable, thanks to a bouncy collection of tunes by de Paul and some of the finest comedy lyrics in Broadway history by Mercer. There are three especially flavorful leading performances, from Edith (Edie) Adams, who is delicious; Peter Palmer, who is ingratiating; and the ever-sunny Stubby Kaye (from Guys and Dolls and You Can't Run Away from It).

There is also an energetic ensemble and top-notch work from the music department. Lehman Engel was credited for "musical direction, continuity and vocals"; the routining of the songs and the vocal arrangements are very good, especially in the duets and big numbers. With a non-theatrical composer in attendance — or, probably, not in attendance — much of the shaping of the show was presumably done by Engel and Kidd. Phil Lang's orchestrations are perhaps the best of his career: bright, lively and anchored by the sound of backwoods fiddlers. I'm told that the Abner people specifically recruited a young, "hot" pit band, instead of using the oldtimers who'd been around since the days The Desert Song and Show Boat. The playing certainly sounds spectacular. Genevieve Pitot did the ballet music, which is represented on the CD by the "Dogpatch" dance (in "Rag Off'n the Bush") and "The Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet." The latter is a special bonus track, which is described in the liner notes as "an unslated rehearsal performance, complete with warts and clams." Even so, it absolutely blazes with excitement. Engel recorded it again several years later for his collection "Ballets on Broadway," but this unfinished performance by the original pit band is even better. Other bonus tracks include a stereo rendition of the overture; an expanded version of "The Matrimonial Stomp"; and Rosemary Clooney's recording of the cut song "It's a Nuisance Having You Around," which is every bit as pleasing as "Past My Prime." This reissue, part of the sixth batch from Columbia Masterworks, has been well produced by Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Propper. There are now 28 titles in the series, and this is one of the best.

Abner's score has 13 main songs, all but three of them charmers. The opening number, "It's a Typical Day," is one of the best of its kind, introducing the characters one by one with jokes all around. "If I Had My Druthers" is as charming a charm song as you're likely to find; "Namely You" and "I'm Past My Prime" are two dandy duets; and the list goes on. Most special, perhaps, are the three big comedy numbers Mercer devised for Stubby Kaye (as Marryin' Sam). "Jubilation T. Cornpone" pays homage to the hapless Confederate hero whose statue plays a key part in the proceedings. Here's Mercer: "There at Appomattox, Lee and Grant were present of course / As Lee swept a tear away, who swept up back of his horse? / Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone." This is one of 11 verses, each funnier than the last. That's writing! Sam and Abner, just back from Washington, have a duet called "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands." Sam: "The farm bill should be 89% of parity." Abner: "Another fella recommends it should be 93." Both (in harmony): "But 80, 95 percent who cares about degree? / It's parity that no one understands."

Or consider the 17-year-old Daisy Mae in "I'm Past My Prime": "Who'd think of marryin' an octogenarian? / An eighty-seven-year old hag / When you's in this position you lose your disposition / All the time it's nag nag nag." Or "I ask you who's elated? When you's Methuse-lated / Like a mummy underground / When you is antiquated / Boys ain't enchantiquated / They prefers you in the round."

If you don't like this sort of humor, then you might not appreciate Li'l Abner; I do, and I could happily give you another 20 Mercer quotes from this score. But you'll want to discover them for yourself. Li'l Abner is a musical comedy holiday.

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com