ON THE RECORD: "Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies" and Clownaround

By Steven Suskin
09 Jun 2013

Julian Ovenden
We refer not just to the orchestration, but the arrangements as well. Yes, the films were scored for larger orchestras, which provided a fuller sound than a Broadway pit. But bigger isn't necessarily better, and a film version does not necessarily reflect the artistic desires of the authors. Changes made to The Sound of Music would presumably have been forbidden had Hammerstein been alive during the filming.

When Carousel was performed by the New York Philharmonic in February, they used a symphonic-sized orchestra but did not use the film orchestrations. They stayed with Don Walker's original charts, augmenting the string sections with more musicians. The results were as musically glorious as you or I or Rodgers could hope. The same can be said for Bennett's orchestrations for South Pacific, as performed in 2008 with a full orchestra at the Vivian Beaumont.

So let me say that John Wilson's CD sounds perfectly fine, and will presumably sell plenty of copies. But I myself would have preferred hearing Wilson, Ovenden and the rest perform the real thing.

Cover art

ClownAround [Masterworks Broadway]

Rummaging through the combined archives of Columbia and RCA Victor, the folks at Masterworks Broadway have come up with one of the more unusual cast recordings ever. ClownAround was a whatnot, or, to borrow one of the song titles, a "Thingamajig."

Think back to 1970, a time long before traveling Disney shows and Muppet shows filled over-sized arenas with family audiences. There were circuses, yes, but no Cirque de Soleil. You still had some ice shows and horse shows, but nothing in the way of slick, Broadway-style entertainment. A then-new company specializing in trade shows and national tours — Theatre Now was their name — decided to create a really big show suitable for the arena market. Somehow or other, they managed to get one of the entertainment world's biggest stars to sign on. Thus, they instantly had something called Gene Kelly's ClownAround.

Early on, Kelly was supposed to appear in the show. By the time they got into production, though, he was neither acting nor choreographing. The producers signed comedienne Ruth Buzzi — well known from her appearances on "Laugh-In" — as headliner, along with lesser-known "Laugh-In" alumnus Dennis Kelly plus a cast of 70 circus clowns, acrobats and showgirls. The show itself seems to have been formless, with the only interesting element being the massive "clown machine" unit set from designer Sean Kenny, who had a decade earlier revolutionized stage scenery with his work on Lionel Bart's Oliver!

ClownAround was devised by one Alvin Cooperman, who had a long career in television sandwiched by time with the Shuberts (starting as an office boy at 16, ending as the chief booker during the turbulent sixties). After which he devised ClownAround, writing the script (what there was of it) and lyrics as well. Music came from Moose Charlap, another TV veteran who had a checkered career on Broadway. His songs "Tender Shepherd," "I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up" remain popular favorites, even though half his score for the Mary Martin Peter Pan was supplanted by Comden, Green and Styne. His other shows were the disastrous (but colorful) Whoop-Up! and the outright disasters The Conquering Hero and Kelly.

Charlap had a way with melody, although it is not much in evidence in the recorded score for ClownAround. There is little song information available; even on the LP, descriptions were sparse. From the sound of it, the music was pre-recorded and piped into the arena. Ruth Buzzi is clearly not present on the recording; it sounds like the solos come from a pair of demo singers who are supplemented by a studio chorus (and presumably not the cast of 70). The twelve songs themselves are generic, and the lyrics are heavy on stuff about clowns and smiles and laughter.

ClownAround opened April 27, 1972 at the Oakland Coliseum. While the show was initially booked for six months, the whole thing collapsed at the Cow Palace in San Francisco after only two weeks. All vestiges of ClownAround quickly vanished, save this under-impressive quasi-cast album.

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