ON THE RECORD: West End Hit Grab Me a Gondola, Plus "A Fine Romance"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: West End Hit Grab Me a Gondola, Plus "A Fine Romance"
 
This week's column discusses Grab Me a Gondola, a forgotten but long-running British musical of the late '50s, and KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler's salute to lyricist Dorothy Fields, "A Fine Romance."
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Grab Me a Gondola [Sepia 1101]
Sexy movie star invades Italy, causing trouble and finding true romance. Sounds like more of a situation than a plot, but this provided the germ of two mid-50s musicals. The first, Ankles Aweigh, was a negligible American affair that made a poor showing on Broadway in 1955. The second, Grab Me a Gondola, was a substantial West End hit in 1956. If you're a fan of the cast album of Ankles Aweigh — which I, myself, find trashy but nevertheless rambunctious entertainment — you're likely to embrace Grab Me a Gondola.

Diana Dors was a U.K. candidate for the local Marilyn Monroe. Sporting credentials of 35-23-35, Dors (née Fluck) was — according to Time Magazine, at least — the second-highest paid British film star at the time (after Vivien Leigh). Briefly, albeit. In search of publicity, she went to the 1955 Venice Film Festival, floating down the Grand Canal in a gondola wearing a mink bikini. That got out the photogs, all right. It also inspired writer lyricist-librettist Julian More to concoct a musical comedy about a sexy starlet in Venice. Grab Me a Gondola opened at the Lyric on Dec. 26, 1956 (after a four week tryout at the Lyric, Hammersmith) and ran an impressive 687 performances. Impressive, and successful, yes; but nowhere near the level of the twin 1954 musicals Salad Days (2,283) and The Boy Friend (2,084), or even More's 1958 hit, Irma La Douce (1,512).

Grab Me a Gondola told of starlet Virginia Jones, on the loose in Venice. She is in search of publicity, with a secret desire to play — get this — Portia, daughter of that merchant of… well, you know. She both courts and is hounded by the press, including columnist Tom Wilson. He is traveling with his fiancée Margaret. Put together the starlet, the reporter and the fiancée and what do you get? Well, haven't you seen any '50s musicals??? The jealous fiancée goes out to Harry's Bar — called Jimmy's Bar in the musical — and meets Luigi Corielli, a lonely Venetian prince. All ends as you might suspect, with the clean cut reporter getting back his gal and the starlet nabbing the prince.

It is the score, with music by James Gilbert, lyrics by Gilbert and More, that makes Grab Me a Gondola an enjoyable listen. (The show was recorded in the earliest days of stereo, but was never released in that format until now.) Best of the songs is "That's My Biography," sort of a U.K. version of Lorelei Lee's "Little Girl from Little Rock," and exceedingly droll. The title song, though unwieldy, sets the tone. ("Grab — grab — grab me a cab, I mean, grab me a gondola," the British chorus sings.) Ingenue and juvenile have a pleasant-enough ballad in "Plain in Love," while the girl has a perky "Many a New Day"-type turn in "Bid Him a Fond Goodbye." You will likely find yourself listening, though, for some songs that fall on the other side of the quality ledger. "Cravin' for the Avon" incorporates all those Shakespearean titles in the same manner as Cole Porter's "Brush up Your Shakespeare," albeit without the wit. I suppose you can describe this one as a hoot. There is a song about broken-down motor cars, a rock 'n' roll monstrosity, and another in which the leading lady sings "I want a man, not a mouse," backed up by her boys. Oh, and there's a celebratory paean to Chianti. Oh, and get this: A salute to — yes! — mink bikinis. Joan Heal made quite a splash, figuratively, as the damsel who gets thrown into the Grand Canal wearing that mink bikini. (It must have gotten chilly on those cold winter nights at the Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue.) Heal had been prominent in West End revues for years; her one big hit did not translate into long term success, though, and she now seems to be more or less forgotten. Denis Quilley, as the reporter, gets to sing some juvenile-type material and does so convincingly. Gondola lead him to a replacement job in Irma La Douce, which he played opposite Elisabeth Seal on Broadway. His career remained relatively workmanlike until he joined the National Theatre in 1972, playing opposite Olivier in Long Day's Journey and as Hildy Johnson in an acclaimed production of The Front Page. He moved to the RSC in 1977 for Privates on Parade, which set him back on a musical theatre path, with West End roles including Sweeney in Sweeney Todd and Georges in La Cage aux Folles. Jane Wenham shows flair in her role as the fiancée. During the run of the show, she was the real-life fiancée to little-known actor Albert Finney. They wed in 1957, divorced in 1961. Named as correspondent: Zoe Caldwell.

As is the habit with the Sepia label, the main event has been supplemented by musical odds and ends. In this case, they are of more than uncommon interest: selections from the West End productions of Wonderful Town (featuring Pat Kirkwood and the young Shani Wallis as the sisters from O-H-I-O) and Pal Joey. The latter is a special treat, as it brings us the Vera Simpson of Carol Bruce. Bruce was hailed as the next Mary Martin when she hit Broadway singing the title song in Louisiana Purchase. (Martin had similarly taken the town by storm in a featured role in the prior Gaxton & Moore musical, Leave It to Me!) Bruce's next major theatre job was as Julie in Show Boat, which she played in different productions in Louisville in 1943, the Ed Lester LA/SF circuit in 1944 and finally in the acclaimed 1946 Broadway revival.

But Broadway success was to be elusive. One of Bruce's numerous stock forays was a 1951 summer tour of Pal Joey. Composer Jule Styne saw it and determined to bring the show to Broadway. This he did, although it was deemed necessary to replace Bruce with Vivienne Segal, who created the role in the original production. (Segal had been an above-the-title Broadway star since Kern's Oh, Lady! Lady!! in 1918. Harold Lang, of Kiss Me, Kate, got the title role, elbowing aside Bruce's summer stock Joey, an unknown hoofer called Bob Fosse.) Bruce regained the role for the national company, playing the final two New York performances so that they could bill her as direct from Broadway. After a tour of seven months, she took Joey to London in March 1954, for a run of 245 performances at the Princes Theatre. Bruce's later Broadway appearances were few; as replacement star in A Family Affair, in 1962; as the lecherous landlady in the 1965 Rodgers-Sondheim musical, Do I Hear a Waltz?; and two years later as the teenaged-heroine's poetry-spouting mother in Henry, Sweet Henry.

Since Bruce's Joey — Harold Lang — had already recorded his role, a full cast recording was not made. Ms. Bruce recorded three numbers (with the show arrangements) on 78s: "What Is a Man?," a bowdlerized "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and "Take Him." Charlie Willard, the respected company manager and musical theatre historian who died in a boating accident in 1991 (and is much missed), told me on several occasions that Carol Bruce was the finest Vera Simpson ever. Listening to these tracks, I'm bound to agree with him; she is certainly the best Vera I have heard, and reason enough for interested parties to grab a copy of Grab Me a Gondola.

KT SULLIVAN & MARK NADLER: A FINE ROMANCE (A Dorothy Fields Songbook) [DRG 94780]
K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler performed their survey of the works of Dorothy Fields, "A Fine Romance," at the Oak Room of the Algonquin back in the fall of 2005. DRG issued a studio recording of the affair in 2006, and I am chagrined to report that I didn't get around to listening to it until just now. Let me quickly state that it is quite wonderful. Sullivan and Nadler have plumbed the catalog to find an almost astonishingly rich songbag.

Fields had a long and distinguished career, somewhat up-and-down in nature but marked by some of the best songs of the era. (And a long career it was, too, spreading from Blackbirds of 1928 through Seesaw in 1973.) "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Never Gonna Dance," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Big Spender" [not on the album], "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Pick Yourself Up" are only some of the highlights. But there are so many more. Arranger/pianist/performer Nadler crams 26 songs into the program, with the help of some well-routined medleys, and paints Ms. Fields as pretty exceptional. The composers in the case are many, with the Messrs. Kern, Coleman and Jimmy McHugh taking top honors.

Sullivan and Nadler, both, are somewhat eccentric talents; they don't sound like everybody else, or perhaps anybody else. Sullivan might be placed somewhere in the Judy Holliday mold; Nadler, here, is an exuberant song-seller in the Jimmy Durante vein. They make a perfect fit with the Fields songbook, and "A Fine Romance" comes across as something of a holiday romp. If I'm a year late in catching this CD, this is a somewhat timely report as Ms. Sullivan returns this week for her tenth stint at the Oak Room of the Algonquin (from Sept. 18-Oct. 10), with a new program built around that grand Vernon Duke song, "Autumn in New York."

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

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