By Steven Suskin
12 Apr 2009
Illya Darling [Kritzerland KR 20012]
The decline of the Broadway musical was baldly apparent in the 1966-67 season, at which point it became dishearteningly aware that the golden years might well have ended following the 1964 crop (which was highlighted by Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof). On the plus side, you had Cabaret and, marginally, I Do! I Do! (which being a two-character star turn didn't quite seem to count). On the debit side were the flawed The Apple Tree and Walking Happy, followed by three outright disasters in a row: Breakfast at Tiffany's, A Joyful Noise, and Sherry! These were capped by the season's biggest star-vehicle with the biggest advance sale: Melina Mercouri in the "Never on Sunday" musical, Illya Darling.
Not so darling, as it turned out; the charm of the 1960 low-budget Greek-language film was overblown into a full-scale Broadway affair with a distinct lack of charm or skill. Said distinct lack can be attributed to Jules Dassin, an American film director who was blacklisted in 1951 and fled to Europe. (Musical experience? He directed the forlorn 1950 Bette Davis revue, Two's Company.) Dassin wrote, directed and costarred in "Never on Sunday," which he followed up directing the popular 1964 jewel caper "Topkapi." As a Broadway director and bookwriter he was totally lost; he also appears to more or less have been the producer in fact, although he enlisted Kermit Bloomgarden as the name above the title.
The lack of experience continued with composer Manos Hadjidakis, who knew not much about the Broadway musical (or I suppose the Athenian musical, if there were such a thing). Hadjidakis did have an Oscar in his pocket for the title tune to "Never on Sunday"; that song was carried over to the musical naturally enough, with unnaturally enough the original Greek lyric. So here you had an immensely popular song, which everyone in the audience readily identified as "Never on Sunday," but Melina was singing "Ta Paidiα tou Peiraiα" (with, as it happens, not a word about Sunday, Monday or any day at all).
Was the score, indeed, doctored? I can't find any evidence of such, but listen to an atrocious little ditty or, rather, big production number called "Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This." It's pretty hard to believe that this is from the pen of Hadjidakis. Hopefully, some reader out there will know who wrote it.
The score is full of bouzouki music, bouzouki being that stringed instrument of the lute family sort of an overgrown mandolin with metal strings that resonate, and how. (Record producer Mitch Miller, of sing-along fame, used so much reverb in the recording session that you sometimes feel like you're inside a Greek pachinko machine.) Orchestrations came from Ralph Burns, just after Sweet Charity and the aforementioned Tiffany's, partnered with the uncredited Larry Wilcox. The prevailing mood among the professionals assembled for this cash-in-on-Melina's-international-fame affair can be summarized by a note from Ralph to his copyist on the score for the overture: "At this point shipyard noises and Illya's laugh etc. should come in if not before, as without them the audience will have left the theatre!" This, mind you, is not the rollicking, bouzouki-strong track which opens the LP; that was actually a number called the "Taverna Dance." Burns was referring to what was used as the Entr'acte on the LP, here restored to its proper place, and one can understand how it might have seemed mighty monotonous at the top of the evening.
Veteran musical director Lehman Engel was less discreet, making cracks to a newspaper reporter and getting himself summarily fired during the tryout. For an enlightening view of what can happen on a star vehicle with negligible material, read Engel's extensive discussion in his autobiography "This Bright Day." (If you can't find this, there is an abridged version included in my book "Second Act Trouble"; but do try to seek out Lehman's, as I didn't have space to use everything he wrote.) His assistant, Karen Gustafson, was moved up to the top spot, making her what seems to have been only the second woman to conduct a new Broadway musical. (The first apparently being Liza Redfield of Sophie. Gustafson, Redfield and other assistants had been conducting as subs, but women were woefully underrepresented in the Broadway music department except for the dance arranger slot.) Speaking of dance arrangers, Roger Adams' work on the show to Onna White's choreography sounds highly exciting; he presumably had a free hand, as one can't imagine the composer had much control or much practical skill.
The original cast album of Illya Darling, on United Artists Records, went out of print 40 years ago. The reissue rights proved elusive; I assume either the Hadjidakis or Mercouri permissions were difficult to track down. Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland has managed to make appropriate arrangements, and here is Illya. This was not a good show, and it is not an especially accomplished album. But it is a big Broadway musical, all right, and makes for flavorful listening. Collectors of Broadway musicals obviously need Illya on their shelf; Melina singing show tunes is as indispensable as Lucy singing show tunes in Wildcat, Vivien Leigh in Tovarich, or even the aforementioned Bette Davis debacle.
The recorded material has been aired out and reconfigured for the CD, as it were, and this handling makes for a marked improvement. The songs have been rearranged to reflect the running order of the show, with the long mislabeled Entr'acte moved to the top slot; the original opening number, "Po, Po, Po," rescued from the outtake file; and a second brief track ("Birthday Song") also added in. The original 1967 masters have been used it would have been prohibitively expensive to start from scratch but the sound department has worked wonders here; it really does sound better. The two rediscovered tracks have been newly mixed for the CD, and given that they were recorded at the same sessions as the rest of the album they illustrate just what can happen in the mixing room.
Mr. Kimmel has arranged a limited pressing of 1,000 CDs of Illya, in the same manner as his release of the Wright-Forrest-Rachmaninoff Anya last month. Kimmel tells me that after a month there are less than 200 remaining copies of Anya. Illya has gotten off to an even faster start, with the presale gobbling up more than 800. Who knew Illya would be more popular than Anya? Or maybe people waited until Anya had actually arrived and then ordered them both. Good score or bad, this is an album more than 1,000 collectors will want. If you are in that category, you'd better get it sooner rather than too late. Continued...