ON THE RECORD: Vintage Cast Recordings and Sondheim DVDs

News   ON THE RECORD: Vintage Cast Recordings and Sondheim DVDs
This week's column examines three vintage cast recordings — This Is the Army, Call Me Mister and Sail Away — as well as several Sondheim DVDs.

THIS IS THE ARMY/CALL ME MISTER [Decca Broadway B0000831]
Decca Broadway continues its jaunt through the archives, where there are still quite a few titles that — after 50 years or so out-of-print — might well be unfamiliar to many listeners. The newest issue is a twin bill of two World War II revues, Irving Berlin's This Is the Army (1942) and Harold Rome's Call Me Mister (1946).

Berlin had contributed to the World War I effort with his 1917 money raising revue, Yip Yip Yaphank. As U.S. troops spread across the world once more, he envisioned something grander. This Is the Army — launched on a surge of goodwill and publicity — opened on July 4, naturally, at the Broadway. After a smashingly successful limited engagement of 113 performances, it headed across the nation on a 12 city tour, winding up in June 1943 on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood. With the film in the can, Berlin and Co. headed to England, after which the show played for servicemen in the various war zones. This Is the Army finally disbanded in October 1945, having earned millions for the cause. (Berlin not only wrote but produced, donating his services.)

Call Me Mister engendered a different sort of good will. The word "Mister" had a different connotation, just then. "Plain civilian from now on / There'll be nobody to shove me / No one below or above me" goes the lyric of the opening number. "Did our share for liberty / Fought the guys that would destroy it / Now we're goin' back to enjoy it." Harold Rome was the perfect man for the job, having made his mark with humorous, topical revues before going into the Army in 1943. He spent the war writing soldier shows; one of them, Skirts — from the Special Service Section of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force — turned up at the Cambridge Theatre in London in 1944, boasting "music and lyrics by PFC Frank Loesser and PFC Harold Rome."

Melvyn Douglas — the man who made Garbo laugh, in Hollywood's Ninotchka — determined to mount the sort of revue he had produced while in the service. (Major Douglas had served in the first war, too, in the Medical Corps.) As co-producer, Douglas was joined by Rome's accountant, Herman Levin. Call Me Mister was outfitted with a staff and cast of ex-Servicemen, ex-Servicewomen, and U.S.O. entertainers. The show was met with an exuberant welcome; the Journal American found it "youthful without being juvenile, funny without being forced, satiric without being bitter." Call Me Mister opened April 28, 1946, at the National (now Nederlander), enjoying a 734-performance run. Berlin himself made a nod, of sorts, to Call Me Mister, naming his 1950 musical Call Me Madam.

Listening to This Is the Army and Call Me Mister side by side, the scales continually tip toward the latter. This Is the Army sounds almost sedate in comparison. This is due, in part, to the nature of the times; the situation was grave in 1942, while the country was jubilantly victorious in 1946. The eight songs on the This Is the Army cast album are relatively polite. Only one track stands out, "That's What the Well Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear." ("Sun-tan shade of cream, or an olive-drab color" is the front part of the title statement.) This was performed by a fellow billed as Corporal James "Stump" Cross and the All-Soldier Swing Band, and it's a hot little number. The rest of the songs recorded here lack fire. (The album, originally issued as a set of four 78s, was released by Decca eight months before Oklahoma! — which is repeatedly and inaccurately hailed as the first original cast recording of a Broadway show.) Berlin's score does have some other intriguing songs; a short but swinging excerpt from one of them, "That Russian Winter," can be heard 90 seconds into the overture. But the score has little of the spirit of Berlin's prior musical, Louisiana Purchase [DRG 94766].

The difference between This Is the Army and Call Me Mister can be handily illustrated by a glance at two similar comedy trios. "The Army Made a Man Out of Me," says Berlin, with a soldier confessing "I used to sleep with brother / But now I sleep alone / I used to be a tenor / But now I'm a baritone." (The singer's voice cracks on "baritone," and it's one of the most famous voices of the time; Ezra Stone, who appeared in and directed This Is the Army, was radio's Henry Aldrich — a character spun off from a 1938 George Abbott farce, What a Life.)

Rome takes a different tack. "He was a jerk before he got into the service," we are told in "Military Life." "He would shoot with loaded dice / Loved to peddle stolen ice / Sold children reefers in his spare time / But oh, the charm of Army life / The touch of discipline and strife / Thru the muck and the mire / Thru the flack and the fire / The military magic did its work / From a foreign shore he is back once more / — still a jerk." Pardon the lengthy quote, but it demonstrates the brisk freshness of Rome at his best, and of Call Me Mister.

Rome gives us warm, if not immortal, melodies, matched with delicious lyrics. In "Little Surplus Me," Betty Garrett, as a waitress in a once crowded lunchroom, tells us "I'm just like a munitions dump spot / Loaded with old TNT." "Hey you in the Pentagon," she wails, "all the men you sent are gone." Garrett more or less stole the show with her several comedy numbers. In "South America, Take It Away," a Carmen Miranda take-off, Rome practically explodes with quintuple rhymes. "All this makin' with the quakin' and the shakin' of the bacon leaves me achin'"; "I hear the rockin' of maracas and the knockin' of the knockers in my carcass"; and, as a mere quadruple rhyme, "There's a great big crack in the back of my sac ro- / iliac." The title song is buoyantly exuberant: "There's a lift in the air / There's a song ev'rywhere / There's a tang in, a bang in, just living / Da di-ah-di-da." Pure, breezy joy.

The recording, conducted by Lehman Engel, also features the strong and attractive voice of Lawrence Winters in three important spots. Call Me Mister was a rarity at the time, assigning non-color specific material to a man simply because he had a wonderful voice. (Winters sang Porgy on Engel's excellent, full-length 1951 recording of Porgy and Bess.) This Is the Army, meanwhile, was conducted by some newcomer from the Brooklyn Symphony named Corporal Milton Rosenstock.

Also included are four numbers from Moss Hart's 1943 play with songs, Winged Victory. This was the Air Force's somewhat forced answer to the Army's Berlin show. The songs, two of them original compositions by Sgt. David Rose, might as well have been left in the Decca archives. But This Is the Army makes this disc a patriotic choice for Berlin fans, while Call Me Mister and Harold Rome and Betty Garrett provide the entertainment.

SAIL AWAY [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 179]
My most recent column contained a discussion of orchestrations, and what can happen when you change them. The 1962 London cast album of Noël Coward's Sail Away provides an interesting example. Listeners relatively familiar with the 1961 Broadway edition might come away thinking that the London disc sounds similar but oddly different.

There's a reason for this. Harold Fielding, who produced the London edition, refused to pay reuse fees and royalties to Irv Kostal, the original orchestrator. Kostal, who had just won his first Oscar (for "West Side Story"), wouldn't back down, so Fielding hired locals to redo the score at the much lower British rates.

Instead of starting from scratch (which is to say, the original rehearsal copies of the songs), they worked mostly from the New York piano conductor parts. Thus, they retained many of Kostal's striking figures and countermelodies but gave them to other instruments to play. While it is certainly possible to make improvements in this fashion, the better the originals, the paler the replacements. It is change not for the sake of character or singer or clarity, but change for the sake of change (and to avoid a lawsuit).

Which is not to say that the London orchestrations are bad; they are competent, but pale in comparison to the sparkle of the Broadway charts. You can't really blame the orchestrators; they were not asked to re create the charts, but merely to follow them. Wally Stott, who led the London team of music men, was an accomplished and respected arranger. His reputation was so strong that he continued to work after becoming Angela Morley, making him one of only two female theatrical orchestrators I can think of. Morley later earned an Oscar nomination for Lerner and Loewe's "The Little Prince." Another member of the London Sail Away team was Ken Thorne, who went on to win an Oscar for his film adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, another musical originally orchestrated by Kostal.

The London recording of Sail Away is not without interest. The show opened in New York in a harried state; the romantic leading lady was axed on the road, with her role uncomfortably merged with that of comedienne Stritch. The Broadway album reflects this, with the harried Stritch seemingly running on adrenaline. On the London album, she is clearly the star, no question about it. Stritch performs with somewhat more authority, which merits a tad less empathy than on the earlier album.

Either way, Stritch provides a good deal of amusement. But either way, Sail Away is not very good. Norman Nadel, of the World-Telegram, said "Sail Away easily could have qualified as the musical of the year if it had opened in 1936," and that pretty well sums it up. The show failed in New York and London, and periodic attempts at fixing it have only accentuated the problems. (Ben Whiteley, who wrote the liner notes for this release, did a fine job conducting Kostal's charts in 1999 when Stritch re-created her role in concert at Weill Recital Hall.) Even so, the Broadway cast album of Sail Away, which was briefly issued on CD by Angel in 1993 [Angel ZDM 0777 7 64759], is long out of print. So is Goldilocks, the only other Broadway musical built around Stritch. Fans of the bravura Elaine Stritch at Liberty might well be curious to hear what the lady sounded like in her prime. The star is joined by Grover Dale, the Broadway juvenile who repeats his two flavorful numbers (to weaker orchestrations). The new cast members include David Holliday as the leading man and John Hewer — Julie Andrews's love interest in the Broadway production of The Boyfriend — as the Purser. Also prominent, with a cut song from New York restored, is Edith Day — who two generations earlier starred on Broadway (in Irene and Wildflower) and London (in Show Boat).

It rarely occurred to Broadway producers, during the so-called Golden Age of the Broadway Musical, to allow their shows to be televised. Producers — and investors — lusted to have their musical bought by Hollywood, with Hollywood bucks. Television, in those days before home video, could only generate a fraction of the income; once a show was telecast on free TV, who would want to pay to see it (either on stage or screen)? There were exceptions, led by Mary Martin's Peter Pan; others, like Wonderful Town, were shows for which the producers and authors did not control screen rights.

In the 1970s, musicals-without-film-sales began to be videotaped. Pippin and Sweeney Todd are two examples; in both cases, these were touring companies featuring the original staging but replacement casts. Taping a spanking-new, full-scale musical in its Broadway theatre — with its original cast, for commercial release — remained an impossible dream until 1986, when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George was preserved by PBS and released on video. This was followed by the two other Broadway musicals by the pair, Into the Woods and Passion. These ventures, oddly enough, were made possible by the financial failure of the productions. As the writing appeared on the wall, in red ink, the producers had every reason to release the rights and pick up at least some money in the process.

The three shows in question have their champions and their detractors, as well as a Pulitzer and various other prizes between them. By any stretch of the imagination, they are important and invaluable documents of the musical theatre of the late twentieth century. Image Entertainment has included them in its new six-disc Stephen Sondheim Collection [ID1753IMDVD], bundling them with three other Sondheim programs of varying interest: Follies in Concert, a behind-the scenes documentary about the 1985 concert version of this show; Sondheim — A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, a 1992 PBS special; and the recent Sweeney Todd in Concert (starring Patti LuPone and George Hearn). It goes without saying that your DVD remote control allows you to watch and study these shows as you never have been able to before. Sondheim fans will, presumably, snap up The Stephen Sondheim Collection with alacrity.

In response to my recent discussion of the brilliantly restored "Modern Times" and other late Chaplin films, a reader steered me to a seven-disc set (also from Image Entertainment) called "Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics [ID0457DSDVD]", subtitled "the complete restored Essanay & Mutual Collection." This is pretty much as advertised; the films, especially the later Mutual series, look far better than I've ever seen them. The prints were reassembled from the best existing originals, and digitally remastered. But that's not all. "They are at correct projection speeds with all original intertitles. The musical scores are newly revised, re orchestrated, freshly performed and recorded in digital stereo," says the promotional material. We were properly proud of our earlier editions, but this one represents a startling improvement in the appearance."

Startling improvement is a good way of putting it; no more of those choppy films with the messy titles and inappropriate Dixieland music loops in the background. Not only does this treatment make the films presentable; you can actually, now, see how very good some of them are. (Best of the bunch of 27, per me: "Easy Street.") There are any number of editions of these public-domain Chaplin films out and available; I recently viewed parts of a newly-released, competing set. But there is absolutely no comparison, folks. I can now retire all the others. This Image Entertainment set presents these films — 87 to 90 years old, mind you — in as close to pristine condition as we're likely to see.

—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:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting playbill.com with your ad blocker.
Thank you!