ON THE RECORD: Wedding in Paris, Can-Can and Billy

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Wedding in Paris, Can-Can and Billy This week's column discusses three West End musicals, Wedding in Paris, Cole Porter's Can-Can and Michael Crawford's Billy.

WEDDING IN PARIS and CAN-CAN [Sepia 1041]
Sepia, the British independent label that has in the last couple of years brought us so many long-out-of-print West End and Broadway cast albums from the fifties, has given us more musicals. Wedding in Paris is another one of those long-gone British tuners, which we might well be excused for never having heard of.

This is one of those shipboard romances with two couples, one young and one middle-aged, just like in Irving Berlin's hit Call Me Madam. (Wedding in Paris's distinguished European gentleman with the accent, and its attractive young American reporter, were played by Anton Walbrook and Jeff Warren; the pair spent the prior year filling the same shoes in the British production of Madam.)

Playing "the elegant divorcee Marcelle Thibault," was Evelyn Laye, the beloved 1920s West End operetta star. Wedding in Paris had a score by Hans May and Sonny Miller, neither of whose work has to my knowledge ever crossed my victrola. The show, a self-labeled "Romantic Musical Play," opened April 3, 1954, at the Hippodrome and ran for just under a year.

I tend to enjoy these quaint musicals, if only because they give us something new (in that we never heard them before). The CD starts out in a lively manner, with a fast-paced mini-overture, blazed with overheated violins. It doesn't take long, though, for the work of the Messrs. May and Miller to turn as weak as a pot of tea steeped with one American teabag. The song titles — "A Man Is a Man Is a Man," "It Only Took a Moment," "I Must Have Been Crazy" ("to ever think that you could be in love with me") — tell us all we need to know about this little enterprise. There is a number called "I Have Nothing to Declare," which you really might want to listen to. "I have nothing to declare, but love" it goes; you can imagine a stageful of customs agents, opening suitcases and climbing on their tables as if they were in that Mel Brooks movie where Dom DeLuise plays the dance director with a bunch of cowboys crashing onto the soundstage.

Wedding in Paris is joined by the West End production of that other non-French Paris hit, Cole Porter's Can-Can. This opened October 14, 1954, at the Coliseum, for a fair-enough run of 11 months. Can-Can, I confess, has always left me cold. While it enjoyed a considerable success on Broadway, I have always found the original cast album lusterless, and I don't suppose I've ever put it on for entertainment sake. So I am surprised and pleased to report that the West End cast album is quite all right. There is life here, what do you know. Can-Can, suddenly, is actually listenable. It takes some consideration to figure out why, and how. First off, the tempos — especially in the star's numbers — are way faster than on the Broadway set. Why should this be, one wonders; Cole Porter, surely, must have set the tempos in New York, and that must have been what he wanted.

But maybe not. Lilo, the French singer who created the leading role, was famously difficult. And don't we remember something about her insinuating to the press that she was having an affair with Porter (which must have sent the poor songwriter fleeing down the halls of the Waldorf Towers). So perhaps Lilo sang 'em the way she wanted to, and don't send any notes backstage. Could the London tempos be what Porter intended? The speedy "C'est Magnifique" and "Live and Let Live," especially, are remarkably stronger.

The recording is also immeasurably clearer, sonically, than the most recent release of the Broadway album. This, I suppose, is due to the current remastering, as the original 1954 LPs (or were they '78s?) can't have sounded this good. For whatever reasons, the tempos have life and we can hear the instruments. Driving the score is a guitar, providing a most welcome beat (which is all but inaudible on the Broadway album). Why a guitar on a show that takes place in 1893 Paris, I can't tell you; I suppose it had more to do with 1953 Broadway, as seen by Phil Lang. If the instrumental sound is out of place, it certainly helps move things along. (Playing second fiddle, as it were, is a tuba, and very nicely.) The guitar was also used in the Broadway pit; it just isn't especially prominent on the recording.

The leading lady helps significantly. Irene Hilda, the French singer who played the role in London, does a much more sympathetic job than her counterpart, providing both a sense of humor and Gallic charm. She is supported by Edmund Hockbridge, as the judge who falls in love with the dance hall hostess. Mr. Hockridge is still around, and he helpfully provides a liner note that ties Wedding in Paris and Can-Can together. (While he was appearing in Can-Can, his wife-to-be was understudying Evelyn Laye.) The bonus material includes a two-sided recording of Hockridge's "Soliloquy"; prior to Can-Can, he served as a replacement Billy Bigelow and Sky Masterson on the West End.

Maybe the secret to Can-Can, hidden all these years on this out-of print recording, is to play nearly everything at double time? The one bright spot on the first recording is Gwen Verdon, who participates in one song (and not a very good one). Her role is played here by a young dancer called Gillian Lynne. I wonder whatever happened to her?

BILLY [Dress Circle]
Billy created quite a stir when it opened at Theatre Royal Drury Lane on May 1, 1974. Produced by American talent agent Peter Witt, it seemed poised as the next big show at a time when Broadway audiences were making do with the likes of Gigi and Lorelei. Somehow or other, Billy never got around to transferring stateside; the material, based on the play (and film) Billy Liar, was — admittedly — very British. Still, those of us who were unable to get to London felt we just might have missed something. Transatlantic hopes were so high that Goddard Lieberson, the swami of Columbia Records, came out of semi-retirement to produce the cast album. (This was only his second British cast album, the other being the 1958 stereo edition of My Fair Lady.)

The cast album of Billy is long out of print. It was issued on CD, briefly, in the early nineties. It has now been reissued on a limited basis by Dress Circle, the indispensable musical theatre shop on Monmouth Street in London (and on the internet).

Billy is best remembered today as the show that launched the musical theatre career of the already-successful comic actor Michael Crawford. The score is highly enjoyable, in a sixties manner, although far from imperishable; several of the songs are, upon examination, somewhat weaker than remembered. But the over-all impression is favorable, suitable for replay (except for one horrendous, pseudo-rock-'n'-roll number in the 11 o'clock slot).

Film composer John Barry wrote the music, finding the success that eluded him in his other three stage attempts. (Passion Flower Hotel had an unsuccessful West End run in 1965; Lolita, My Love, written with Alan Jay Lerner, folded during its 1971 pre-Broadway tryout; The Little Prince and the Aviator shuttered in previews at the Alvin in 1982.) Even so, the man could certainly write a tune, as attested to by parts of Lolita and Billy (to say nothing of "Born Free").

Three songs stand out. "Some of Us Belong to the Stars" is a good introductory song for the star, driven by a somewhat contemporary beat. It gets things off to a fine start, despite some questionable lyrics from Don Black. "Lies" soon follows, a cheerfully lilting boy-girl duet. This is a list song of sorts, as the hero is an inveterate liar. The twist in the words — that he isn't lying when he says I love you — doesn't quite pay off, but the tune makes up for it.

Best of all is "Aren't You Billy Fisher?" An unwieldy title, yes, but I suppose you can call it one of the catchiest show tunes of the year. (If you don't believe me, look back at the slim pickings of 1974, why don't you?) This builds into a grand production number of six-minutes plus, carefully assembled in the manner of Mame. Choreographer Onna White was imported to the UK for Billy, and she had a particular aversion to sending the star off to his or her dressing room while the dancers do all the work. This grew, no doubt, from her stints as a Michael Kidd dancer in Finian's Rainbow and Guys and Dolls. Give her Bob Preston (in The Music Man) or Angela Lansbury (in Mame), and she was going to find a way to get them working out there in the big production number. Crawford she has tap dancing, all right, and he was apparently not a natural. In any case, "Aren't You Billy Fisher?" sounds like a true showstopper. It takes up about 15 percent of the disc, and you'll hear no complaint from me.

There are some other winning-if-not-overpowering numbers in "Billy" and "Any Minute Now," sung by the hero's girlfriends (the lesser of whom was played by an up-and-coming Elaine Paige). All of which conspire to make Billy well worth a listen or three. This despite some questionable lyrics scattered throughout, the sort of thing where "stars" rhyme with "Shangri-las" while "Thackeray" is paired with "banana daiquiri." In Billy's liar song, he talks of "the time that Shostakovich said that I could call him Shost." Shostakovich? Pretty posh for a daydreaming, lower-crust undertaker's clerk, eh what?

—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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