ON THE RECORD: Weill & Brecht's Happy End, plus Kern & Hammerstein's Music in the Air

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Weill & Brecht's Happy End, plus Kern & Hammerstein's Music in the Air
 
The first-ever English language recording of Kurt Weill and Bert Brecht's Happy Ending is out on CD, as is an obscure recording of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's unjustly forgotten Music in the Air.
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HAPPY END [Ghostlight 7915584418]
Falling under the category of unexpected pleasures is the original cast album of the American Conservatory Theatre production of the Weill-Brecht Happy End. Pure, unadulterated and acerbic joy. Three quarters of a century after the piece opened and closed in a cloud of controversy, we finally have an English-language cast album. The Happy End score, from 1929, proves to be every bit as flavorful as its 1928 predecessor, The Threepenny Opera.

Michael Feingold has championed this piece since at least 1972, when his adaptation was produced at the Yale Rep. It was mounted on Broadway in 1977 but failed to attract an audience, this despite a knockout performance by Meryl Streep in the central role. (If you think Streep is a powerful performer now, you should have seen the virtual unknown commandeering the Martin Beck stage with all the authority of — well, Mother Courage.)

The Feingold adaptation has been presented here and there over the last 30 years, landing on the A.C.T. stage last June. Ghostlight has seen fit to record it, with smashing results. There are two prior recordings of the piece, including a 1960 German-language LP with Lotte Lenya (on Columbia). But now we have Happy End in English, and it is quite something.

American theatre audiences are perhaps familiar with "Surabaya Johnny" and "The Sailors' Tango," and I defy anyone to escape without "The Bilbao Song" rattling around in their consciousness for a week. There is plenty more to delight us, beginning with the Salvationary hymn "God Bless Rockefeller" and "Song of the Big Shot" (sung here by Sab Shimono, of Mame fame). The cast is headed by Charlotte Cohn (as Hallelujah Lil) and Peter Macon (as Bill Cracker), with an especially strong supporting performance from Linda Muggleston (giving us the "Ballad of the Lily of Hell"). While I count myself a big Weill fan, I didn't quite realize what we were missing. This first English-language cast album of Happy End demonstrates that it is another Threepenny, with an arguably richer score (in that it is less fragmented). Music values are tip-top, with Constantine Kitsopoulos (of the Broadway La Boheme) leading what seems to be Weill's original eight-piece orchestration.

One wonders whether director (and A.C.T. artistic director) Carey Perloff's production was as strong on stage as it is on the CD. In any case, this Happy End belongs on your shelf.

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MUSIC IN THE AIR [Sepia 1085]
Yet another relatively unknown 70-year-old musical by master songwriters has also just come to CD. Music in the Air is probably Kern and Hammerstein's second best, after Show Boat. The original 1932 production was successful, at least by Depression standards. The show's Bavarian setting seems to have worked against it, for post-World War I American audiences at least. (When it was revived on Broadway in 1951, the locale was listed as Switzerland.)

Music in the Air has been all-but unheard over the last half-century; a shame, given that the high-quality score contains some of Kern's very best songs. If ever there was a prime candidate for Encores treatment, Music in the Air is it – and let's add in Kern and Harbach's 1933 The Cat and the Fiddle. The librettos might come across as creaky, and neither show is likely to fill up the balcony seats, but these are shows we want to hear.

With South Pacific, The King and I, and a return engagement of Oklahoma! on the boards, the fall of 1951 seemed a logical time to bring back Music in the Air. Hammerstein himself directed, with his brother Reggie – something of a black sheep – given producer billing (although the show was funded by Billy Rose). On board were two major Broadway stars of the '20s, Charles Winninger (the fabled Cap'n Andy of Show Boat) and Dennis King (of Hammerstein's Rose-Marie and Ravenal in Ziegfeld's 1932 revival of Show Boat). Playing the female lead was Jane Pickens, a popular radio singer who had successfully invaded Broadway in 1949 in the starring role of Marc Blitzstein's Regina. The show, unfortunately, seemed as dated as last year's date-nut bread. (Did anyone notice the big city/small town parallels to Hammerstein's 1947 Allegro, I wonder?) At any rate, the revival lasted a mere nine weeks at the Ziegfeld. RCA, fighting to compete with Columbia in the Broadway cast album market, had announced a cast recording. With the show collapsing, they went ahead anyway with a considerably less-expensive studio album featuring Pickens and a chorus. The album quickly disappeared, yes; but let it be added that RCA got the next two Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals.

The good news is that we can now, finally, hear the songs. There have been at least two other studio recordings of Music in the Air over the years, neither of them very complete; a radio version has also been released on LP. But the Pickens Music in the Air gives us ten tracks, which is more than I think you'll find elsewhere. These include "The Song Is You," an anthem in the class with "All the Things You Are" and "The Way You Look Tonight"; "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star," as charming a song with as pure a melody as you're likely to find; and two somewhat lesser but memorable numbers, "I Am So Eager" and "There's a Hill Beyond a Hill."

The less than happy news comes in the arranging end. I don't know for a fact, but I'd have to guess that these are 1951-era studio arrangements, presumably made for this recording. Russell Bennett's originals were newly copied and readily available, as they were used in the revival (with alterations by Bennett). But what we hear is definitely not Bennett; I went so far as to seek out the original scores and compare them to the CD, just to make sure. The only music credit is Al Goodman and His Orchestra, with the "Guild Choristers." Goodman was a top Broadway man in his time, musical director of such shows as Good News, The New Moon and Life Begins at 8:40. (The estimable Don Walker, in referring to the basics of Broadway orchestration, often cited "the Goodman Principles.") Even so, Goodman's Music in the Air would border on the unlistenable if there were any other version available.

The CD is filled out with 16 tracks by Southern songbird Pickens. Hailing from Macon, Georgia, the Curtis Institute-trained Pickens led the family act "The Pickens Sisters"; after the others left the business, Pickens made a career of her own. (She wound up married to Walter Hoving, the long-time owner of Tiffany's). The recordings here are Southern, all right; the lady not only whistles "Dixie," she sings it in such a manner that would nowadays no doubt get Pickens picketed. And get this: sitting at the keyboard, she introduces the "Dixie" – you know, "I wish I wuz in de land of cotton" — with a full-scale flourish from Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor. She also gives us "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Summertime." Plus two tracks with Alfred Drake from Kiss Me, Kate, recorded two weeks after the show's opening under the baton of Lehman Engel. But it's worth it, if only for the opportunity to hear Music in the Air.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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