ON THE RECORD: Betty Buckley's "Ah, Men!," Plus "Scott Alan Live" and Call Me Madam

By Steven Suskin
26 Aug 2012

Cover art for Call Me Madam

Call Me Madam [Masterworks Broadway]
There is something to be said for the sound of the original Broadway cast album, circa 1950. Fidelity was on the low side, decidedly; the musical numbers were often truncated, the better to fit on a single side of a 78. (Long playing records had been introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records, but cast albums were still being released as sets of five or six, two-sided, 78 RPM platters.)

But these now-ancient recordings almost scream the word Broadway in a manner that 21st-century OBCs rarely do. And given the remastering and remixing capabilities of current-day recording engineers, the old platters can be cleaned up and aurally overhauled.

One of the oddest cast albums of that olden day — and one which, due to said oddity, was for many years difficult to come across — is Irving Berlin's 1950 musical, Call Me Madam. This was a major hit for as long as Ethel Merman remained willing, though without the legs of the prior Berlin-Merman smash, Annie Get Your Gun. When Ethel stood on the stage of the Imperial and let loose, everybody was exceedingly happy.

Everyone was happy, that is, except RCA, which controlled the recording rights. Merman was under exclusive contract to Decca Records, the trailblazer in the Broadway cast album field which was just then beginning to suffer from the competition offered by Columbia and RCA. (Decca — label of Oklahoma! and Carousel — never quite rebounded from the loss of hits like Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Goddard Lieberson at Columbia. They did well with Guys and Dolls in 1950 and The King and I in 1951, but by then Columbia was clearly the label of choice.)

It was a common occurrence for labels to release their performers in cases like this; surely Leland Heyward, producer of Call Me Madam, anticipated that Merman would be lent by Decca. (Heyward was first and foremost a high-powered agent, with his big name list of clients including Merman.) Heyward arranged for NBC — RCA's parent company — to finance the show, in exchange for the investor's share of the profits plus the cast album rights. Which presumably left him embarrassed when he couldn't deliver Ethel.


Dinah Shore

The end result was that RCA went ahead with the original Broadway cast album of Call Me Madam, albeit without Ethel Merman. Decca simultaneously produced a studio cast album of Merman singing songs from Call Me Madam. Decca, obviously, won this part of the battle. RCA did very nicely nevertheless, from the investment.

So what of the Merman-less original cast recording of Call Me Madam? The discussion begins with Dinah Shore, who had just signed an expensive deal with RCA. Shore had been a top recording star for almost a decade. It turns out that she is pretty good as Mrs. Sally Adams, the self-described "hostess with the mostes' on the ball." Shore's Southern lilt does well enough with the numbers, and I suppose that she'd be fine if we'd never heard of Merman.

What makes this album — which has in the past appeared on non-authorized CDs, but is now brought to us in fine condition by Masterworks Broadway — so listenable takes us back to the beginning of this discussion. This is a 1950 original Broadway cast album in all its glory. What did a Broadway musical comedy sound like back then? Abbott musicals of the era — for this was a George Abbott musical — typically featured a bright, brash orchestration from orchestrator Don Walker. (Joe Glover did four numbers, including the song hit "You're Just in Love." There were also the usual ghosts, with "Hostess with the Mostes'" bearing Red Ginzler's stylistic fingerprints. For the recording, RCA added studio orchestrator Hugo Winterhalter to do some minor augmentation for Shore.)

You have a big chorus, with strong-voiced singers. Madam was conducted by Jay Blackton, of Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and more. While the vocal arrangements aren't credited, I suspect that they are his. The score itself, from Mr. Berlin, is — for me — only a B+ effort; "Hostess," "It's a Lovely Day Today" and "You're Just in Love" are dandy, but the big booming ballads don't quite get to me and the rest is in the average range. With Merman singing the songs, though, I'm sure the show provided rollicking entertainment.

The other feature of this original Broadway cast album is — well, the original Broadway cast. The standout is Russell Nype, who took his first of two 1950s Tonys playing the juvenile lead and singing that big, show-stopping duet with Merman. ("Put your head on my shoulder, you need someone who's older," she sings.) Nype, by the way, had made his Broadway debut a year earlier as Leo, the ne'er-do-well youngest of the little foxes in Marc Blitzstein's Regina; that's a performance we'd like to have heard.

Leading man to Merman was Paul Lukas, who won the 1943 Oscar for recreating his Broadway role in Lillian Hellman's 1941 drama Watch on the Rhine. (So strong was Lukas as a noble, German refugee that he beat out both Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca" and Gary Cooper in "For Whom the Bell Tolls.") Lukas sings his songs like — well, like a refugee dramatic actor. Also featured in the show as a mittel-European princess was Galina Talva, who has quite an accent as she sings an ode to an ocarina and who never seems to have resurfaced since.

As for Merman's Decca album — with a studio orchestra, unengaging orchestrations, and a small supporting cast (including pop singer Dick Haymes singing Nype's role) — it did extremely well. But I haven't cared to listen to it since I first discovered RCA's Merman-less Madam.

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