ON THE RECORD: Flaherty's Loving Repeating, Coward's Conversation Piece and Drowsy on LP

By Steven Suskin
18 Feb 2007

CONVERSATION PIECE [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3039]
Noel Coward's 1934 Conversation Piece was intended to be a hit operetta along the lines of the 1929 Bitter Sweet. Times had changed, though, with the onset of the Depression, and Coward's followup was resoundingly non-successful both in London (with 177 performances) and on Broadway (with a mere 55).

With the advent of the long-playing record in the late 1940s, producer Goddard Lieberson and musical director Lehman Engel embarked on a fabled series of studio recordings for Columbia. Hidden amongst the important and beloved scores they chose to resuscitate was, oddly enough, this very same Conversation Piece. The casting possibilities, perhaps, had something to do with the decision. Here was Coward, recreating his starring role; Metropolitan Opera star Lily Pons, singing the show's waltz hit "I'll Follow My Secret Heart"; and that young English actor who had just then taken Broadway by storm in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, Richard Burton (in an acting but non-singing role). They were joined by the likes of Cathleen Nesbitt, Ethel Griffies (of Miss Liberty) and Rex Evans (of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

With so little going for it on the surface, it is a bit of a surprise to find Conversation Piece quite listenable. Set in Brighton-by-the-sea England — in the "gay heyday of the Regency," as Coward puts it — this is one of those tales of fortune hunters posing as gentry, on the prowl for advantageous marriages. Middle-aged fellow sets up protégé as his ward, looking to marry her off to nobility. Poor thing, turns out that the gal's secret heart belongs to — well, you know the rest. (How does that non-Coward song go? "Have I been standing up too close or back to far?")

The text — plenty of which is included on the recording, along with a dozen musical tracks — has apparently been re-conceived for records; "I must beware of this modern medium," says the narrating Coward, "Long-playing records can spell tedium." The whole thing is strung together by rhymed couplets, which might have seemed a bit too much in 1951 but has a certain charm 50 years later. At least in the voice of Mr. Coward. In addition to Ms. Pons' big solo, Coward gets to sing a couple of minor charmers, "Regency Rakes" and "There's Always Something Fishy about the French." And the young (26-year-old) Burton is in especially fine voice as the innocent Marquis upon whom Noel and Lily set their sights. But Lily doesn't have her heart in it; what are the fascinations of a Burton compared to the master himself?

Engel leads orchestrations by one Carol Huxley, a virtually anonymous name along Broadway. An Army friend of Engel, Huxley orchestrated (albeit without credit) the sparkling overture to Take Me Along, one of the better overtures of the 1950s. Huxley also did parts of Once Upon a Mattress and Camelot.

This abridged recording of Conversation Piece is a trifle, yes, but an amusing one.

As a special souvenir, Ghostlight has issued an abridged LP of their The Drowsy Chaperone. As you might remember, the onstage Man in the Chair (Bob Martin) regularly clutches to his heart the cast album of The Drowsy Chaperone (the 1928 Broadway classic by Jule Gable and Sidney Stein, not the 2006 musical). Now you may have your own facsimile copy of the Man in the Chair's stage prop.

Eleven tracks are included, pulled from the CD that fans of the show no doubt possess already. I suppose some vinyl-philes will explain that the sound is so much better than on a CD, but I'll leave that to them. Readers should be advised that they need special equipment to play this LP; it won't fit on your CD player. (It needs something even more high tech, namely a phonograph needle.) However, Ghostlight has helpfully included a CD version of the LP in the packaging.

It's all a gimmick, of course, although one wonders if maybe they should have released this one on 78s? The LP carries a relatively stiff price; not all that surprising, in that manufacturing costs for a limited run 33 R.P.M. are presumably on the high side (and the package does include a CD as well). The LP is available at the theatre and online at www.GhostlightRecords.com and www.drowsychaperone.com; we are told that a portion of the proceeds goes to the Actors' Fund. Fans of The Drowsy Chaperone, and fans of vinyl, this one is for you.

(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. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)