ON THE RECORD: Mamma, Elaine's King & Charlie Brown

By Steven Suskin
26 Nov 2000

YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (Decca Broadway 012 159 851-2)

People who know You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown only from the 1999 Broadway revival — and/or its cast album — might well be surprised by the charming original off-Broadway cast recording, which has just been remastered by Decca Broadway. An earlier, poorly-mixed CD version was released in the 1980s by Polydor, but it has been long out-of-print.

The revival had its fans, certainly; I heard from several of them when I gave it an unfavorable review, as I found it overblown and underwhelming. The scenic and musical enhancements were especially harmful, it seemed to me; the unassuming, child-size characters were overwhelmed. Clark Gesner's score for Charles Schulz's beloved comic strip characters has a featherweight charm, though it is positively flimsy in places. Director Joe Hardy's original 1967 production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown was modest in just about every possible way; the main scenic elements were oversized geometric cubes, which served as props, and the two-man band consisted of keyboard and percussion. Listening to this CD - and comparing it to the revival — one can appreciate the marvelous contribution of musical supervisor/arranger Joe Raposo. This 'piano and xylophone' sound was typical of off-Broadway shows of its time, and it's refreshing to hear it again. Especially compared to the sound of the revival. Which is not to say that the 1999 music department did a bad job; it's simply that the concept of a big, new You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown worked against the inherent qualities of the material. Everything was so small in the pint-sized original that the characters could soar, and when they really got going - as in Snoopy's showstopper "Suppertime" - you totally forgot the teensy scale. When Bill Hinnant leapt from atop his doghouse and went into a cakewalk, the spirit and the show soared (as it does on the cast album). My favorite number, perhaps, is the "Book Report," in which everybody but Snoopy deconstructs "Peter Rabbit" in one hundred easy words. (The last sentence of Lucy's carefully counted essay: "And they were very, very, very, very, very, very happy to be home.") And the theme song, "Happiness," is tenderly simple, swelling to a grand finale; you get a tug in your heart when Snoopy starts ah-oooooing in the final refrain. Other cast members included Gary Burghoff (as Charlie), Reva Rose (as Lucy) and Bob Balaban (as Linus).

All in all, a tender little show - with an impressive 1,597-performance run, followed by a 31-performance Broadway visit in the summer of 1971 — and a tender little album. Bonus tracks consist of four of the songs recorded by the composer and Barbara Minkus as an audition for Charles Schulz. The cartoonist liked them enough to greenlight the project, and countless audiences in schools all over the land are glad he did. The show is understandably still popular in the stock and amateur field, where they disregard the 1999 version and wisely stick with the original.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com