ON THE RECORD: High Button Shoes, Seventeen and Brel of La Mancha

By Steven Suskin
May 1, 2005

This week's column discusses the CD twofer of the cast recordings of the Booth Tarkington-Milton Berle Seventeen and the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn-Phil Silvers laugh-fest High Button Shoes, as well as the Belgian French cast album of Jacques Brel in L'Homme de La Mancha.

SEVENTEEN/HIGH BUTTON SHOES [Sepia 1048]
Seventeen is a prime example of what they used to call a "summer musical." In pre-air conditioned days, things along 44th Street mostly closed down in June. Hence, the traditional season began in the fall. By 1951, Broadway no longer closed shop, but the real theatregoers were off on vacation by late June, when Seventeen opened. The Shuberts were glad to have summer tenants with family musicals; if they turned out to be successful, they could always move them to a less prestigious house when the time came.

Booth Tarkington's 1916 novel was fondly remembered; it had already served as source material for two films and the 1926 Broadway musical Hello, Lola. The score for Seventeen, by pop writers Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, is of the pleasant variety; no great shakes, save for one number, but nothing to throw darts at. The only remarkable thing about the show, I suppose, was the top-billed producer: Milton Berle???

The aforementioned song is called "Reciprocity," and it is a winner. Exceedingly bright and insouciantly breezy, the character — Lola Pratt, Tarkington's infamous "baby talk lady" — seems to take Ado Annie's advice to heart. Ann Crowley's initial refrain is followed by an absolutely delicious dance break; this is followed, in turn, by a final refrain from Ann and her boys. It is the combination of elements that makes this song work. The dance arrangement (by Jesse Meeker) is perfect; the dance orchestration is even better. This is surely not by Ted Royal, who received sole credit for the show. It seems almost certain that he had help from Bob Noeltner, Charles L. Cooke and one or two others. The "Reciprocity" dance, with violins gliding from pizzicato to hoedown, is far too artful for Ted or the others. Whoever did it, it's surprisingly good.

People who elicit interest in such things will note that one track begins with the following lead-in: "Say, how's it happen you got this record out here? Heard a fellow do that on opening night in the Ziegfeld Follies on the New York route. It went something like this." This is perhaps the baldest song cue in Broadway history, at least until this season. The song, let me hasten to add, is entitled "Ooh, Ooh, Ooh, What You Do to Me!"

The cast is as pleasant as the score. Kenneth Nelson does everything extremely well, although not especially believably, as the 17-year-old Willie Baxter. Nelson would go on to create two major Off-Broadway roles of the 1960's, as Matt (the "Soon It's Gonna Rain" boy) in The Fantasticks and as the host to The Boys in the Band. When last seen, he was playing the lead in Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. Talk about troubled musicals.

Sepia has most happily bundled Seventeen together with the 1947 musical High Button Shoes. Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were Hollywood pop guys, with a raft of hits to their names (like "I'll Walk Alone," "I Fall in Love Too Easily" and "It Seems I Heard That Song Before"). Their first Broadway attempt, Glad to See You!, closed during its 1944 tryout, and there was little reason for great expectations from their second. The score turned out to be functional, highlighted by a durable, old-fashioned soft shoe ("I Still Get Jealous") and a rollicking polka ("Papa, Won't You Dance with Me"). High Button Shoes withstood less-than-laudatory reviews and went on to become a long-run hit. (The show, at 727, outlasted that year's Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon.)

Cahn, eager to return to Hollywood, did so. Styne, though, determined that Broadway was the place for him. If High Button Shoes was a long running financial success, Styne's 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a longer-running and more wholly satisfying affair that demonstrated that he could write musical comedy songs as well as anyone then practicing the art.

The keys to the success of High Button Shoes were two. Peering out at the crowds through window-pane glasses was a small-time comic up from burlesque called Phil Silvers. Nobody questioned what Silvers was doing in this somewhat pastoral turn-of-the-century romp; they just embraced this new clown, the most lovable scamp to come along since Bert Lahr 20 years earlier. Broadway — which at the time was the center of the entertainment industry — anointed Silvers, who within a dozen years sparked three written to-order Broadway vehicles as well as his eponymous hit sitcom (also known as Sergeant Bilko).

Silvers is present on three of the eight tracks of the truncated cast album. (Record companies were glad to record classy musicals like Allegro, Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow. The best High Button Shoes could arrange was four two-sided 78s from RCA.) Silver's juicy delivery, combined with fresh-minted leading lady Nanette Fabray on the aforementioned "Jealous" and "Poppa," have always made the High Button Shoes cast album prized, albeit only 24 minutes long. The eight tracks were rereleased on LP by one of RCA's budget-priced labels; later reissued (in "electronic stereo") on RCA; and appeared on a limited edition CD in 1996. Milton Rosenstock, who was to remain Styne's preferred musical director, conducted; Phil Lang led the orchestration team. Hugh Martin has confirmed that he did "Poppa" and "There's Nothing Like a Model 'T'" (which is no surprise, as it not only features his distinctive sound but also teases us with a bit of his "Trolley Song"). The vocals are otherwise credited to Bob Martin, but this seems to be either an error or a pseudonym, as I can find no other trace of Bob Martin.

The other highlight of High Button Shoes was Jerome Robbins' "Bathing Beauty Ballet." This comic marvel was a ten-minute showpiece inspired by those old Mack Sennett two-reelers. (This ballet is second in prominence, musical comedy-wise, to George Balanchine and Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from On Your Toes. Which, not coincidentally, was — like High Button Shoes — a George Abbott musical.) "The Bathing Beauty Ballet" was not included on the truncated original cast album, and understandably so. (The song from which it is derived, "On a Sunday by the Sea," is included on the recording.) The ballet was eventually recorded twice. Both versions have made it to CD, on Lehman Engel's Ballets on Broadway [Painted Smiles PSCD-149] and the cast recording of Jerome Robbins' Broadway [RCA 60150]. Either is worth seeking out.

L'HOMME DE LA MANCHA [DRG 8485]
Belgian-born singer-songwriter Jacques Brel was reportedly underwhelmed when he came to town to see Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, the 1967 Off-Broadway songbook revue adapted from his catalogue. What struck his fancy, though, was the super hit Man of La Mancha. Brel had a personal connection with the character; the novel was a longtime favorite of his, and Le Figaro called Brel "the Don Quixote of Chanson." (Brel's outspoken songs regularly jousted at the conventions of society.)

Contemporary Broadway musicals were not popular in Europe at the time, and La Mancha seemed an unlikely candidate for transfer; but Brel was a major entertainment figure, and his name alone was enough to make it so. L'Homme de La Mancha opened in October 1968 at Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, before moving on to the Champs-Elysees in Paris. The run was cut short by the star's illness; we are told in the liner notes that things ended badly, with Brel being sued for non-appearance. We are also told in the notes that the star, and the production, were remarkable; while this is commonplace copy to find in liner notes, I tend to suspect that the reporting is accurate.

Certainly, Brel was one artiste incroyable. In our recent review of the anthology album Brel Infiniment [DRG 5578], we commented that "the emotion is absolutely searing, on song after song; those of us with little or no French might have no idea what he's singing about, but no matter. The power comes through, almost startlingly so." Here on La Mancha, we know what he is singing about; again, the singing is supported by layers of acting and believing.

Brel quickly lined up an Aldonza, but the Paris rights came with a price — the participation of the American director's American wife, as Brel's costar. Seeing as how this was Joan Diener, who originated the role, this made a certain amount of sense. Diener was a highly mannered performer, so much so that she sometimes bordered on caricature; but I don't suppose her Aldonza has ever been equaled. When she sang those kitchen-slut songs, they were sung. To someone who knows her English-language performance well, Diener's French rendition is comparable but surprisingly unmannered. Brel and Diener make an exciting pair, although the characters don't exactly sing any duets together.

Musically, the French playing sounds remarkably similar to what was heard on Broadway (although the instruments are crisper here). "Pourqui Fait-il Toutes Ces Choses?" is given a significantly slower tempo than "What Does He Want of Me?" This might well have been for the purpose of accommodating a more introspective lyric; otherwise, Paris sounds very much like New York. (The billing page of the CD credits musical director Francois Rauber with the orchestrations, but this might simply be an error in translation; they certainly sound like Neil Warner's fine originals.) This CD differs from the Broadway cast album in that it includes the "Knight of the Mirrors" sequence, while omitting the overture. Yet another Diener La Mancha is soon expected on CD; the complete, two-LP London cast recording, in which the lady shared the stage with Keith Michell.

Brel used a free hand in translating the lyrics, and the above-mentioned notes tell us that he vastly improved them. This is harder to judge, at least by someone with sophomore French; but considering the overall quality of Joe Darion's originals and the overwhelming power of Brel's other songwriting work, my guess is that Brel wins the contest. As the CD moved on to its end, I found myself eagerly awaiting to hear what Brel would do with Darion's "giblets of my toes." Helas, "A Little Gossip" is omitted from the Brel of La Mancha cast album.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.