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.
The first is a little ditty called "Lucky Pierre" (by Ronny Graham) featuring a pint-sized Parisian scamp who sounds like Maurice Chevalier in knee pants. Robert Clary is the name; he is familiar to a generation of Americans for his role as a pint-sized Parisian scamp in the sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." He is lucky Pierre, the chorus girls sing for no discernible reason, but he sure sounds irresistible. "Love Is a Simple Thing" (June Carroll-Arthur Siegel) is another breezy song about nothing. A girl, one Rosemary O'Reilly (who did not turn out to be a memorable New Face), sings it charmingly enough. Mr. Clary then does a refrain in rather outlandish French, making something of a cartoon of it. Then comes a somewhat cyclonic rendition from the indescribable voice of an Alabama-born waif called Eartha Kitt. The three join together for a refrain meshing the highs and lows of their personal renditions. As a capper, June Carroll — kid sister of Mr. Sillman — comes out to deliver it in the style of a Charles Addams cartoon. (Love is "soft as a mummy's hand," we are told.) Another song, "Bal Petit Bal" (Francis Lemarque) is so charming that you want to be swept away to a Quatorze de Juillet celebration with M. Clary and Mlle. Kitt (who is here very French). 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.
NEW FACES OF 1956 [Arkiv RCA-04443]
The success of New Faces of 1952 inevitably brought forth New Faces of 1956. This one had some especially bright New Faces, one knockout and two especially droll numbers, and holds a certain amount of interest for musical theatre fans. But while 1952 had a handful of songs so charming that you can't help smiling your way through the cast album, the charm songs in 1956 fall flat one after another. What was magical in the first turned mundane in the second. To accentuate the problem, Sillman prevailed upon RCA to record 21 tracks; this gives us six previously-unreleased tracks, and let's just say that they only serve to drag down an already spotty affair. Now, those of us who like our cast albums certainly need New Faces of 1956. To begin with, we have New Faces Maggie Smith, Jane Connell, Virginia Martin, John Reardon, and Inga Swenson — quite a group. (There are some secondarily pleasing folk too, like Tiger Haynes and Billie Hayes. Sillman miscalculated in his attempt to manufacture a second Eartha Kitt; Bombay-native Amru Sani is simply puzzling, and has some dreary material including a song about life back in the Sultan's harem.)
Ms. Smith's solo, "One Perfect Moment" (Dean Fuller-Marshall Barer-Leslie Julian-Jones), doesn't come across as well on recording as it did on stage; the scene was an extended sight gag. (A stage manager friend of mine, the late Morty Halpern, told me that Peter Larkin's scenery for the show was intricate and phenomenal — but that the various scenic tricks rarely worked properly more than six or seven times a week.) Ms. Connell, who went on to create Agnes Gooch in Mame as well as other memorable roles, serenades us with a lovely ditty about "April in Fairbanks" (Murray Grand), where "the air is perfumed with the smell of blubber frying." "The Greatest Invention" (Sid Silvers-Harold Karr-Matt Dubey) is an infectiously toothsome duet for Billie Hayes and Johnny Haymer. But it is Virginia Martin, who graduated to Hedy LaRue in How to Succeed and Belle Poitrine in Little Me, who purloins the proceedings in Paul Nassau's "Talent." This is a jab at Marilyn Monroe, who had just caused a stir by taking some classes at the Actors' Studio.
Things do go downhill from there. Tallulah Bankhead had headlined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1956, which folded during its pre-Broadway tryout five weeks before New Faces of 1956 arrived. Sillman's grand idea was to bring in Tallulah, in the person of female impersonator T.C. Jones, to introduce the acts.
Katharine Hepburn comes along too, when Tallulah has "zipper trouble"; Bette Davis as well. If this sounds hysterically funny, it apparently wasn't. The Arkiv release includes the original liner notes, adding full-page photos of Ms. Connell and Ms. Smith in the above-mentioned numbers. New Faces of 1956 ran for 220 performances. Sillman's seven post-1956 offerings did worse and worse, culminating in 1970 with a three-week run for Shirley Booth in a dreary production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever. I met with Leonard a few times in the mid-1970s, when I was drafted into doing a few budgets for a proposed Best of New Faces. Never got paid, needless to say, but the experience was worth the time expended. Sillman owned one of the finest townhouses in New York, quite a feat considering that he never had money for cab fare; by that point I suppose he was 20 years behind on his mortgage, somehow managing to evade eviction by charming his banker and various benefactors. (Leonard seems to have served as Mel Brooks' prime model for Max Bialystock, with something of the je ne sais quoi of Roger DeBris mixed in.) The bank no doubt collected royally when they sold the house on East 79th; the current inhabitant was recently named by Forbes as the richest man in town, and is planning to run for a third term as Mayor of our town.
(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)