By Steven Suskin
17 May 2009
NEW FACES OF 1952 [Arkiv RCA-04441]
Leonard Sillman (1908-1982) can best be described, I suppose, as a character — although over the years he was called far worse. He was a shoestring producer if ever there was one; over the course of 36 seasons, he managed to bring 20 shows — mostly musical revues — to Broadway. Of these, a grand total of one was successful, with a run of ten months. Another ran six months, and a couple more lasted four. Most of the others threw in the towel after three weeks, two weeks, or even one weekend. (There were also various ventures — in stock, in restaurants, and even on leaky ferryboats — that never made it to town.) Quality was not the hallmark of a Sillman show; often they had a certain sense of style, but they were usually pretty rickety.
Sillman started out as a song and dance man; as a teenager, he actually played the Fred Astaire role — yes, the Fred Astaire role — in the touring company of George and Ira Gershwin's 1924 hit Lady Be Good. In 1928 he formed a vaudeville act modestly called "Sillman and Gershwin, the Musical Comedy Favorites"; his partner was Frances, the kid sister of the songwriting brothers. Sillman's claim to fame was a concept that he developed at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1933 and brought to Broadway in 1934 as New Faces. The idea was just that; round up some young (and eager to work for bare-minimum-or-less) actors and give them something to do. In Pasadena, these included Eve Arden (then known as Eunice Quedens) and Tyrone Power. On Broadway, the first new faces deemed promising by Mr. Sillman included Imogene Coca and a fellow who auditioned doing hysterically funny impressions of infants, one Henry Fonda.
Leonard Sillman's New Faces and other ventures came and went, never creating much of a stir. Until 1952, that is. By this point the revue format was thought to be moribund; your friendly TV set provided full-scale theatre-style revues every week, headlined by such super-hams as Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Who wanted to pay good money — $6 — to see a non-star revue? New Faces of 1952 had style, though, along with some stunningly talented performers and loads of charm. The original cast album has just been released on CD for the first time. The show has three or so knockout numbers, for sure, but many mediocre musicals of the time had three or so high spots. In New Faces of 1952, the incidental numbers are so charming that you feel you are on a holiday. One after another they land, thanks to a combination of writing, routining and performance.
How is it that these songs are so irrepressibly charming? They are not theatre songs, just miscellaneous contributions from whoever passed through Sillman's grasp. He liked nothing more than taking songs and sketches from newcomers, who would plead with him to take their material at unconscionably low rates. (One of the highlights of this edition, in fact, was a "Of Fathers and Sons," a Death of a Salesman spoof in which Junior refuses to go into the family business, pick-pocketing, by TV-writer Mel Brooks.) In New Faces of 1952, everything Sillman had been trying to do for years came together magically.
The best of the songs are top-notch, led by something called "Boston Beguine," the tale of a spinster stenographer who gets uncustomarily potted and spends a night on the town. You can instantly tell that this songwriter, whose name is Sheldon Harnick, has a wildly talented way with words. He also has the perfect singing comedienne at his service, Alice Ghostley. "Boston Beguine" alone is, as they say, reason enough to buy this CD. Second on the list is "Monotonous" (Carroll-Siegel). In this one song, Ms. Kitt seems to have created her whole career. She purrs, she slides around the musical scale, and she creates the unworldly persona that carried her through 50 years of stardom. "Guess Who I Saw Today?" (Murray Grand-Elisse Boyd) is a one-joke song but an artful and poignant one, here delivered by Ms. Carroll. There is also a production number the likes of which you might never have come across. "Lizzie Borden" it's called, by Michael Brown (who kept himself busy for years with industrial shows), and it's about that infamous resident of Fall River. "You can't chop your poppa up in Massachusetts," Mr. Brown cautioningly points out, 'cause "Massachusetts is a far cry from New York." It certainly is.
Two tracks that didn't fit on the original cast album are included on the new CD (released on-line, and by Arkiv Records with an eight-page booklet reproducing the original liner notes with an added photo of Ms. Ghostley recording "Boston"). "Time for Tea" (Carroll-Siegel), a duet for spinsters Carroll and Ghostley, is rather endless I'm afraid. The other addition is a complete version of "He Takes Me off His Income Tax" (Carroll-Siegel), which Virginia de Luce delivered as a recurring gag throughout the show. Ted Royal and his associates (including Marion Evans, Robert Noeltner and Charles Cooke) provided the functional orchestrations, with musical direction by Anton Coppola.
The other New Face of note, along with Kitt, Ghostley and Clary, was Ronny Graham, who wrote a good deal of the material (including the charmer "I'm In Love with Miss Logan") and as an actor provided numerous comic highlights (topped by the sketch "Oedipus Goes South," in which he dissected Truman Capote). Appearing in smaller roles were Paul Lynde, who can be heard on the CD as the judge in the "Lizzie Borden" number; and dancer Carol Lawrence, who more or less served as a chorus girl, five years before West Side Story. Continued...