ON THE RECORD: At Long Last, Regina

By Steven Suskin
August 9, 2010

We listen to the release, finally, of Marc Blitzstein's long-out-of-print Regina, the musical version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.

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REGINA [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
In his 1949 musical drama Regina, Marc Blitzstein uses music and lyrics to weave a musical tapestry in a manner that can be compared to — what — Sweeney Todd?

Now that I've grabbed your attention, let's look at that statement. Blitzstein started with Lillian Hellman's strikingly effective melodrama The Little Foxes and used music — in songs, musical scenes, and dialogue-set-to-music — to heighten the already-sharp emotions to fever pitch. The rule of thumb for musicalizations is, or should be, if you can't make it better then leave it alone. How can you add something constructive to something that's already pretty damn good? Hellman's grabbin' Hubbards of Alabama don't seem to need anything much in their primal state, but Blitzstein accentuates the positive (what little there is of it), the negative (of which there is a lot), the sympathetic, evil, pathetic, blustery, pastoral, comedic and more.

Consider that moment in the play when Horace's bottle of heart medicine breaks and he is fatally stricken as Regina — instead of fetching the other bottle — looks on; good, edge-of-your-seat theatre. How does Blitzstein heighten it? He precedes the moment with Horace's lacerating last stand against Regina ("I'm sick of you, I'm sick of this house") followed by Regina's ringing condemnation of her husband (she always hung on to the probability that he would die first), punctuated by fierce drumbeats, ending in a swooping "I'm lucky — I'm lucky — I've always been lucky." Then a moment of silence — which, after this rush of music, is in itself stunning — and the breaking of the glass. Silence, deafening silence for an instant as Regina decides not to get more medicine. As Horace realizes this, he lunges for the stairs and starts up but collapses. And Blitzstein gives us a fierce whoosh of music. Yes, the original scene works splendidly in the play. The music, though, transports it.

Let's go back a few steps. Hellman's 1939 drama was only ten years old when Blitzstein's version reached Broadway. (He started writing in 1946, with the blessing of Hellman — a prominent sponsor of his controversial 1941 musical, No for An Answer. During this time, Blitzstein wrote incidental music for the original Broadway production of Hellman's 1946 Another Part of the Forest, which was a prequel to The Little Foxes.) Memories of Tallulah Bankhead as Regina were still fresh when Regina opened, memories of Bette Davis in the 1941 motion picture version were even fresher. So this was not some old, half-forgotten play; this was as if Adam Guettel came to Broadway in February with a musicalized Proof.

Regina opened 30 years before Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Before Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti or Candide, before Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, and before any other adventurous genre-shaking musicals you wish to name. Before the advanced, high concept musicals of Robbins, Prince, Fosse, Bennett. Rodgers and Hammerstein had by this point written Carousel (1945), which has an extended opening section that explored the possibilities of the dramatic musical; and Gian-Carlo Menotti's one-hour one-act The Medium had made a splash at the Barrymore in 1947. But The Medium was pure opera, transferring to Broadway after a successful uptown premiere for a limited run.

Regina was a full-scale Broadway production from an innovative producer, Cheryl Crawford, who prided herself in expanding the horizons of the Broadway musical with unconventional and provocative works. (These included Kurt Weill's Johnny Johnson, One Touch of Venus and Love Life; Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon and Paint Your Wagon; and the wildly unconventional Flahooley and Celebration.)

Regina met a mixed reception back in 1949; Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific were the reigning holdovers, Weill's Lost in the Stars opened to a similarly mixed response the night before Regina, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes came along a month later to become what would be the only hit musical of the 1949-1950 season. Without a discernible audience to target, Crawford could manage a run of only seven weeks at the Forty-Sixth Street. What's more, Blitzstein was unable to arrange a cast album; as a last resort, he took the five leads into a studio at Carnegie Hall and taped five songs, accompanying them on the piano. And that is all that was preserved of the original Regina.

But vindication was soon to arrive. Partial vindication, at least. The New York City Opera produced a somewhat altered Regina as part of its 1953 season. It went on to do another production with further revisions in 1958. That production was finally given the full Columbia Masterworks treatment, resulting in a three-LP set that was and remains one of the most startlingly good recordings of a serious Broadway musical that we have. Conditions being what they are, this City Opera Regina has been long out of print; understandably, it never seemed commercially viable to rescue and reissue it. Along comes the new Masterworks Broadway operation, and technology that permits the economical release of these things digitally and disc-on-demand (through Arkivmusic). If ever there was a recording that begged such treatment, Regina is it. Now you can finally have Marc Blitzstein's Regina in your hands, and people who love such things will find it a revelation.

Brenda Lewis very much leads things as the searing Regina of the occasion. In the original production, Blitzstein and Crawford were impelled to go with well-known radio singer Jane Pickens (who apparently got through it, but just barely). Ms. Lewis played Birdie in 1949, moving into the title role for the City Opera productions. And a good thing it is, too; hers is a rapacious Regina. Elisabeth Carron is fine as Birdie, although the Carnegie recording of Birdie's Aria ("Lionnet") demonstrates that Lewis was a knockout. Carol Brice makes a superb Addie, while Helen Strine (as Alexandra) and Joshua Hecht (as Horace) are good. (Original cast members Priscilla Gillette and William Wilderman, on the early recordings, might have been stronger.) The surprise of the City Opera recording for me, and probably you, is the sneeringly villainous Ben, Regina's older brother, the vilest of those little foxes. The role is masterfully sung by — who's that? George S. Irving??? That's what it says. He never sang like that when I saw him, anyway. Maybe there was a second George Irving, but this guy was clearly billed complete with that middle "S."

Let it be added that the composer was forced to make certain key cuts from the score during rehearsals in 1949, at the City Opera in 1953, and once again in 1958 (by which time the Dixieland band Blitzstein wrote into the show was deleted, along with the critical song "Chinkypin"). Yes, this stuff is missing from the City Opera recording. No, I don't think it matters. Well, it surely mattered to Blitzstein; but this Regina works perfectly well, thank you very much. Or startlingly well, per me. A considerably full restoration was presented in Glasgow by the Scottish Opera in 1991, but the resulting recording — which is long out-of-print — doesn't begin to compare. It makes Regina sound dull, which Regina certainly is not, and makes a poor case for the restored material. (This Scottish production is also available-on-demand, so be sure you don't demand the wrong Regina.) Elsewhere, there was a production by the Michigan Opera Theatre in 1977 that starred none other than Joan Diener, whom I'm told couldn't quite handle it. I did see a 2005 concert version starring Patti LuPone, which seemed underprepared and underrehearsed and sure wasn't worth the trip to Washington.

Brief liner notes have been prepared for this release, consisting mainly of reproduced appreciations by Bernstein (obviously) and Loesser (perhaps surprisingly). Bernstein, in a frequently quoted pre-opening piece for the Times, points out that his mentor Blitzstein's method has been to give the deadly leading character music that is not harsh but purposely extra sweet ("the music reeks with magnolia, Southern gentility, splendiferous hospitality, honeyed drawls"). Lenny points out that Regina extorts from brother Oscar "in a heavenly Brahmsian phrase"; she blackmails Ben and Oscar "in a noble Handelian recitative"; and cites "Things" as "a charming dolce waltz that conceals some of the most venomous lyrics known to man."

Loesser's piece succinctly points out that this is no mere musicalization: "beyond delivering neat musical capsules that conveniently paraphrase steps in the narrative, Blitzstein gives a special magic illumination to the whole thing, making the already enormous emotion of the story even more wonderfully memorable than before." Listen to Frank, he knows whereof he writes: "Blitzstein has made a sort of giant song of the entire piece — consciously and deftly. Yet along with his astounding craftsmanship, he has poured in all his sense of the emotional, his instinct for finding and coloring those exclamation points in human drama (tragic or comic) at which the speaking voice can no longer contain itself and emerges as music."

I had intended here to go into a careful description of the two-dozen or so songs/scenes that I especially like, but I suppose I've made my affection for Regina clear. So I'll just refer you to Birdie's heart-breaking "Lionnet," as effective a character study/breakdown as we've heard on Broadway. And Regina's rapacious "Best Thing of All" and her dangerous waltz, "Things." And Addie's late night "Blues," and the beauteous "Rain Quartet," and Zan's "What Will It Be?" (a direct forerunner, it seems to me, of Loesser's "Somebody, Somewhere"). And Ben's "Greedy Girl," the artful "Bonds" sequence, and the spiritual ("Certainly, Lord") which galvanizes the final scene, and — oh, hell. Marc Blitzstein's Regina. On CD, finally.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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