On the Twentieth Century has always been a bit of an anomaly where musicals are concerned. Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green devised a score that expertly pastiches the sound and conventions of operetta, conjuring memories of Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml and Victor Herbert, while simultaneously keeping the product sleek and contemporary in its feel.
Based on the 1932 play Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the piece follows bankrupt theatre producer Oscar Jaffe as he rides aboard the titular luxury train as it travels from Chicago to New York. Jaffe knows that his ex-lover, the Hollywood star and temperamental diva Lily Garland will be on board. He hopes to secure her to star in his next producing venture, counting on her popularity and star power to ignite the box office and help him overcome a long string of flops. Of course, there are obstacles along the way, including Letitia Primrose, a religious zealot with money to invest in creative ventures, the rival producer Max Jacobs, and the preening, narcissistic star Bruce Granit, Lily's current boyfriend. It's a comedy of errors: over the top, packed with farcical situations, and plenty of melodrama.
The original 1978 production of On the Twentieth Century featured Madeline Kahn, John Cullum, Kevin Kline and Imogene Coca in its ranks. Its cast recording by Columbia Records has been released several times over the years, and a one-disc, 20-track CD version of that recording is still in print. It effectively captures the music and the larger-than-life personalities of its characters and the performers who brought them to life. It has taken On the Twentieth Century a while to make its way back to Broadway, but thanks to the Roundabout Theatre Company's current revival, audiences are being treated to a lively new production starring Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Andy Karl and Mary Louise Wilson. Thanks to PS Classics, we also have a new Broadway cast recording of On the Twentieth Century, this time in a deluxe two-disc, 36-track, set that provides plenty of dialogue, a more complete and richer music experience (including the "new" song "Because of Her," as well as a gorgeous booklet that includes engaging photographs of this opulent production). How do these two cast recordings stack up against each other? Where are they similar and where are they different? How do the four leads match up vocally and in interpretation?
The casting of Kristin Chenoweth as Lily Garland in the revival is an inspired choice, considering the role was originally created onstage by the late Madeline Kahn. In their best theatrical moments, both actresses exude a daft zaniness that is an essential ingredient to Lily's quirks and tantrums. Both ladies also have robust operatic voices that are powerful and easily finessed to comedic effect. Since On the Twentieth Century is mock operetta meets screwball comedy, these talents were born to play these roles. In contrasting the two performances as they are captured on the aforementioned cast recordings, the difference in their interpretations can be distinguished in this way: Kahn's Lily is fragile-on-the-way-to-crazy, whereas Chenoweth is clueless-on-the-way-to-crazy. In the over-the-top, flashback set-piece "Veronique," each actress is required to play the young Lily (born Mildred Plotka) as director Oscar Jaffe tries to convince her she could play the leading role in his new project. Kahn sings the character with a tremulous disbelief, unable to grasp what is being asked of her, tripping and falling over her own uncertainty. Chenoweth seems to be missing the point altogether, unable to understand how anyone could think of her in this way. Each execution evolves into a bold and brazen portrayal of Veronique, the French street singer whose virtue ignites the Franco-Prussian War. This musical number best exemplifies the comedic range of both of these actresses, mining every ounce of their talent. This is equally apparent in the second act showstopper "Babette." It is in both Kahn's and Chenoweth's ability to channel quirk and comedy through their vocal interpretations, combined with their high energy turns, which make both recordings required listening.
John Cullum portrayed the egocentric, scheming producer-director Oscar Jaffe in the original production of On the Twentieth Century (and subsequently the original cast recording), winning a Tony Award for his efforts. Cullum's long career and his skill to embody a variety of characters, from the snarling, unyielding southern aristocrat Edward Rutledge in 1776, through the loving, heartsick father in Shenandoah, to the neurotic but imposing Mr. Cladwell in Urinetown, make him a hard act to be compared with. Peter Gallagher does his level best as Oscar in the revival and he understands the comedic without entirely embodying it. Both men sing the role with strength and confidence. Cullum, however, manages to find more of the desperation and edge in the character, and transforms both into comedy. That is especially apparent in songs like "I Rise Again" and "Mine," where urgency and ego are the driving forces. On the recordings, Cullum is immersed in both and the comedic tension unfolds organically with ease, where Gallagher works harder to achieve a less laugh-inducing result.
In supporting roles, Kevin Kline originated the part of Bruce Granit (in a Tony-winning turn), and Andy Karl is nominated for bringing the sublimely ridiculous character to life for the revival. Karl has been truly a breakout performer in the last few years, between his turn as the mysterious Neville Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and his heartfelt, understated title character in Rocky. Andy Karl is capable of just about everything and anything the theatre can throw at him, and he is deftly on point in On the Twentieth Century. His creamy voice mixes with his character's palpable ego and this translates beautifully to the new cast recording. Kline was equally funny in the original, always good at the role of a pompous clown, but Karl takes Granit to new heights when humor and vocal capability meld on the duet "Mine," where he all but steals the number. The always wonderful Mary Louise Wilson is a perfectly pious Letitia Primrose, coming across a bit like Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" from "Saturday Night Live." She is, however, more interesting in the unsung moments where her tendency toward subtle nuances register. Her big number "Repent" is a bit straightforward in comparison to the original recording's Imogene Coca. Coca reveled in her character's lunatic tendencies, and captured a real dichotomy within the song, swinging back and forth between righteous indignation and a devilish, compulsive obsession with sin.
This new recording demonstrates the changes enacted as part of the Roundabout Theatre's revival including the cutting of one song "This Is the Day" and the rewrite of the song "The Legacy," retitled "Because of Her" and featuring new lyrics by Amanda Green. "Because of Her" is an attempt to better flesh out Oscar's relationship with Lily, and to underline that her importance in his life stretches far beyond her talent and marketability. It is a wise addition to the piece, offering a more human side of Oscar than we have been privy to in the past. Larry Hochman has efficiently paired down the orchestrations from the original, but without losing impact. There is still a rich, full sound to the music that the 13 versatile musicians create, even as they effectively juggle multiple instruments to achieve it. The sound on the original recording is nowhere near as clean and sharp as it is on what PS Classics has expertly achieved here. In fact, this recording, from a technical standpoint, is quite wonderful, delivering an On the Twentieth Century that offers pristine sound quality, and that is both effective and complete. Even better, it manages to capture the fun and energy of this frantic musical.
The one thing to note about On the Twentieth Century is that there aren't really any breakout hits in the score. Every measure of music is expertly written and orchestrated, and every lyric is efficiently funny without ever being dazzlingly spectacular. The piece itself doesn't really allow the score to stretch that way, and the authors were wise to keep the songs careful character studies. Most of what happens here is intimate, confined to the size of a train car, so we seldom find ourselves in the position for big chorus numbers or power ballads. The title tune is vibrant, and it is repeated enough that it sticks with us, but most of the story is focused on a handful of colorful characters full of idiosyncrasies, humorous backstories, and quirky internal conflicts. Coleman, Comden and Green created the best score to tell this story and to paint these characters.
PS Classics' new recording of On the Twentieth Century is a must-have for any musical theatre enthusiast because of its completeness and the fact that it lovingly archives a musical that doesn't get nearly as many productions as it deserves. The original cast recording is just as delightful in its own right, but if you are smart, you know that you can never have too much of a good thing. The revival cast recording is an essential purchase due to its lively performances, its technical strength, and for its inclusion of so much formerly unrecorded material. All aboard!
Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."