STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Drat! The Cat! Unexpurgated

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Drat! The Cat! Unexpurgated I'm not complaining, mind you. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to write liner notes for the new studio cast album of Drat! The Cat! that Bruce Kimmel and Varese Sarabande were planning.

I'm not complaining, mind you. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to write liner notes for the new studio cast album of Drat! The Cat! that Bruce Kimmel and Varese Sarabande were planning.

And when I asked Bruce how much to write, he did say, "Write as much as you want. I'll use as much as I can." So the terms were clear.

And when I submitted 43 paragraphs of enthusiastic copy, Bruce did say, "I won't be able to use all this. It's just a little eight-page booklet."

So I wasn't at all angry when I saw that 14 full paragraphs didn't make the cut. Or when I saw that a few of the survivors had something taken out of them, too. In fact, I congratulate Bruce on a nice job. Seems that's he's a good editor as well as a good producer.

But just in case you'd like to see what was on my mind when I thought about Drat! The Cat,, which was released in August, here are The Unexpurgated Liner Notes:


Warning: The album you are about to hear is going to make you very angry.

For after you listen, you'll be furious that a work of such quality should only be heard on Broadway for eight performances.

Yes, Drat! The Cat! a musical comedy about a cat burglar plundering 1890's New York society, opened on October 10, 1965 -- and closed on its first weekend. And that's a bigger crime than ever The Cat ever pulled. Bookwriter-lyricist Ira Levin and composer Milton Schafer wuz robbed, and we lost out on seeing a pretty good musical that would have made a very fine cast album.

Columbia Records' intentions were good. It invested pre-production to get the cast album rights. As was the (wonderful) custom of the time, it gave its artists the chance (or the order) to cover the potential take home tunes as singles. "He Touched Me" became the most famous of these, of course, via a Barbra Streisand recording. The song not only became a standard, but also, years later, became a TV commercial.

By the way, if you've ever doubted that Ira Levin is one of the world's more formidable writing talents, consider this: He wrote the longest running play of the last 20 years (Deathtrap). By then, he'd been on the scene for 22 years, when he made his Broadway debut with an adaptation of a novel (No Time for Sergeants) that became a comedy smash. Yet to come were his conceiving a couple of titles that would become idioms (Rosemary's Baby and Stepford Wives.) Add all those other best-sellers, and if those aren't enough, add in that he wrote the lyric for a Streisand hit.

Streisand heard the song early because she was then married to Elliott Gould, who'd been signed as the show's leading man. She liked his big first-act ballad, "She Touched Me," changed the pronoun, and sang it. Then, for the flip side (as we used to call it), she gave equal time to one of leading lady Leslie Ann Warren's songs -- "I Like Him."

Meanwhile, Columbia's florid baritone Jerry Vale was busy waxing "Deep in Your Heart," and the then-rather popular vocal quartet, the Kirby Stone Four, sang the title song -- without any lyrics. Guess they liked the melody, but couldn't see themselves starting a record with, "He's here! The Cat! The fiend of Union Square, and Irving Place and Sutton Place and Lord above knows where." So they just scatted their way through the melody.

But drat! The scat, and those three other songs -- all of four 45s -- were all we stagestruck got.

For a while. But if you were around at the time, you might have been offered the Drat! The Cat! reel-to-reel tape. It was made during a Broadway performance, perhaps through the theater's sound system. Or maybe not, considering the choppy nature of the recording. Songs began mid-verse, indicating that the person who did the taping wasn't familiar with the show. Could it have been someone on the cutting edge of electronics who had a prototype cassette recorder? Either that, or nobody noticed this person lugging into the Martin Beck a big reel-to-reeler with, presumably, quite a long extension cord.

Whichever it was, this great granddaddy of in-theater tapings was a mixed blessing. The sound was, to be polite, primitive, with songs suddenly becoming louder, then softer, fading in and out. Worse, the recording was plagued by stop-and-start-itis. For as soon as the audience responded to a song with applause, the taper would shut his machine, and keep it off until the next time he saw a tune coming. He didn't do too well, so the subsequent song would often be minus a few introductory words or notes.

During the next decade, an album miraculously appeared from an outfit called Blue Pear. It had a beautiful rendered yellow cover with the original logo, and liner notes (by someone named Niles Marsh) that were equally fine.

But you can't judge a record by its cover. Inside was an LP onto which had that reel-to-reel tape had been waxed. "Dreadful sound!" cried everyone -- who'd never heard the tape. The rest of us were astonished at how well the recording had been cleaned up, and how comparatively wonderful it sounded. Not that it could compare to a cast album, but that, of course, we'd never have.

Never say never. Bruce Kimmel and Varese Sarabande have given us a new Drat! The Cat! Jason Gould is now Patrolman Bob Purefoy, who isn't as much of an asset to the police force as was his father and his father before him. Susan Egan is Alice Van Guilder, the debutante who's thought quite a bit about her society background, and has come to the conclusion that girls like her are a dime-a-two-dozen.

Drat! The Cat! begins with an Overture, but the creators couldn't wait for the action to begin. So, instead of having us just stare at a red curtain while we listened, they brought us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the Academy of Music, and a private room at Delmonico's. The Cat surreptitiously visits them all, too, and lifts a many-carated diamond at each.

How this cat burglar is confounding the police! That's one of the things that's killing Chief of Detectives Roger "Bulldog" Purefoy, who, on his deathbed, begs his quite naive and less accomplished son, Patrolman Bob Purefoy, "My Son, Uphold the Law."

Bob will, starting on Saturday night, when he guards the social event of the season -- Lucius and Matilda Van Guilder's party. When Bob goes to discuss security measures with the money-grubbing Lucius and his dim witted wife, into the room comes Alice Van Guilder. Love at first sight -- for Bob.

You can't accuse Alice of being uncooperative, though. She says she wants to help catch the Cat. They can be, she sings, like "Holmes and Watson."

May we take a moment for me to say that this is one of my favorite charm songs of all-time? Schafer provided a delicious melody, and Levin proved he knows how to write a Broadway lyric that employs tricky but never forced rhymes. Wish Jason Graae and Susan Egan had used the colloquial pronunciation of "Watsin" instead of the literal "Watson," so that the rhymes would have come across as perfect. But you can't have everything.p Maybe Graae was sweating because he knew what was ahead of him. How do you sing a song the world knows as A Streisand Song, one few have ever heard sung by anyone else? Poor Elliott Gould! He made his Broadway debut five years before his wife did, and then she goes and steals I Can Get It for You Wholesale, for which HE was supposed to be the lead. By the time Drat! the Cat! rolled around, she was finishing a long run in a musical where she played a wife who eclipsed her husband. Hmmm.

If that wasn't enough, there was her recent smashing CBS special "My Name is Barbra" that brought her national attention and raves. It would win a bunch of Emmys four days after Gould opened in Philadelphia to mixed reviews with Drat! The Cat!

But the real stick-in-the-eye was the success she was then having with "He Touched Me." Sure, you could say that with Gould getting it first and Streisand afterwards, she was once again "Second Hand Rose." But as it turned out, Streisand came out smelling like a first-class rose, while Gould wound up singing the song to a handful of sparse houses -- and never got to record it. Even he, though, might have felt this was all for the best. Who needs to go cord-to-cord with Streisand in a vocal contest?

"She Touched Me" works well in the context of the show. Bob sings of his even greater Love-at-First-Touch. As it turns out, there's was a verse Streisand didn't do, which helps Graae ease himself into the standard..

Speaking of that verse -- in it, Bob asks of Alice, "Is she really real?" Truth to tell, no. What she really is "Wild and Reckless" -- and the Cat. "How many of you guessed?" she asks fourth-wall. Virtually, everyone, I'd assume. For on everyone's lap was the Playbill with a logo -- a fetching-looking young woman dressed in a pre-Andrew Lloyd Webber cat uniform, holding her calling card that proclaims, "So Long, Charlie -- the Cat Strikes Again!"

Yes, Alice is indeed wild and reckless. And has the music for any verse ever been more carnal, or more sexually escalating in excitement in the entire history of musical theater? I'm serious. Well, Alice IS frustrated. All her parents want is for her to marry well. She wants to be a career girl at a time when there weren't career girls. Don't misunderstand. Alice would agree with Lorelei Lee that diamonds are a girl's best friend. She only wants to earn them in her own way, thank you.

Meanwhile, wouldn't you know that Bob is telling his sainted mother "She's Roses," which Levin imbued with some carefully placed childish imagery to reiterate the kid's naivete. But if you think he's innocent there, wait till you see him when he's "Dancing with Alice" at the party. If this song is not, as Alice insists, "the world's longest waltz," it's at least a pretty big production number.

It's worth it, though, for late in the song you'll hear the deep and distinctive voice of someone who'd snare some votes as The Reigning First Lady of the American Musical Theatre. Well, she did understudy Merman in Call Me Madam and obviously learned from her. Listen closely. You'll immediately know who she is.

At the party, Alice filches a 42.77-carater and shoves it in her mouth. Bob doesn't see her do it, nor does he suspect her even after he's asked her seven questions that she answers "Mmm! Mmm!" Then the diamond comes popping out of her mouth.

Alice is one, though, who can always make the best of out a bad situation. She knocks out Bob with a champagne bottle, drags him to the basement, then comes out and tells the cops that HE's really the cat. They believe her, as Bob is downstairs, chained, realizing in "Purefoy's Lament" that he's in love with the cat, employing some sentiments that could be described as sorry-grateful. His police colleagues aren't at all ambivalent. "A Pox upon the Traitor's Brow," they sing, giving an entirely new spin on police brutality.

Alice too is getting brutal. She pulls a gun on Bob, who tells her that "Deep in Your Heart" she really isn't a bad girl. Alice proves him right by not pulling the trigger during this quintessential '60s second-act love song. (Note the Richard Rodgers-like choices Schafer made for the coda.) The only thing is, during your usual second-act love song, the hero usually isn't threatened by a woman wielding a gun, that's all.

But Bob's right -- Alice is no killer. She lets him go, before requesting, "Let's Go," far away. (By the way, is this a song Mel Torme should have recorded or what? And he was with Columbia at the time, too. How did everyone miss this?)

As for Alice's parents, they join the ranks of the many fathers and mothers each of whom accuse the other that "It's Your Fault." Here's your second chance to hear that aforementioned Reigning First Lady of the Musical Theater Nominee. You did guess it was Elaine Stritch, didn't you?

Bob? Turns out he's "Wild and Reckless" too, as he sings a reprise (that didn't make that aforementioned tape/Blue Pear record). Now he'll set himself up as the patsy to help save The Woman He Loves. Fine with the police department, who'd just as soon be able to close the case, unabashedly proclaiming, "Today is the Day for a Band to Play."

But, as we say, Alice is really a good kid. She realizes she does have feelings for Bob and won't let him take the blame. She doesn't overstate the case, but feels, "I Like Him." (Streisand fans: Note the profound difference in the final three words of this character's rendition. Much more interesting.)

Still, this song had to be Egan's turn to sweat. Now she too had to go up against La Barbra, even though this cut isn't nearly as well known as "He Touched Me." (Indeed, it was never on any album until the Streisand Pink Box set came out.) But Egan too had the liberty of a verse to ease her into the song. (Drat! The Cat! you'll see, has a higher-than-usual number of verses. 10 out of 15 employ the convention.)

Well, it all works out happily for Alice. Suspended sentence and a wedding. All right, so Levin never found a marvelous solution that would make you clap your hands loudly and say, "Oh, that's marvelous!" But you just might say "Marvelous!" during the Finale, when Jason and Susan sound as exuberant as Mickey and Judy.

And even if the author of Deathtrap couldn't find even one tricky twist for the final scene of Drat! The Cat!, should the show have been relegated to a mere week?

You might assume the reviews weren't good. Steven Suskin, in his "More Opening Nights on Broadway," tallies them as three positive, one mixed, and two negative. But the producers were new, and didn't have the money notices or the money -- or maybe the stomach -- to tough it out. So Columbia canceled its recording session.

But now, at last, with all of Hershy Kay and Clare Grundman's nifty original orchestrations intact, here's a real recording of Drat! The Cat!

Postscript: After playing it non-stop for weeks, I went back to the bootleg record. I can say that I prefer Graae and Egan to Gould and Warren. That's rather unfair, I'll admit, because the '97 cast had the advantages of a studio setting, retakes, and editing. But Gould really was more comfortable playing macho and neurotic, not naive and well-meaning, so he wasn't as right for Bob as Graae is. Nor did Warren have the real warmth that Egan comes by naturally. She virtually purrs. Not a bad thing for a Cat, eh?

But I'll admit it: In one way, I prefer the LP. There, the songs were constantly interrupted by long, healthy, and warm laughter. I miss hearing how happy the crowd was that saw this performance -- a group of people who must have been very angry when they learned the show they so loved was gone the next week.

About as angry as you'll be when you hear this terrific Drat! The Cat!

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com