By Steven Suskin
18 Nov 2001
There are no less than five cast album CDs in print of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Wonderful Town. The 1953 original cast recording, starring Rosalind Russell, remains the best despite relatively primitive sound. It has now undergone remastering and "noise removal" and been re-released on CD. It sounds somewhat better than the 1990 "Broadway Gold" remastering, and considerably better than the old LP. Wonderful Town has a lively and fun-packed score; notable, mostly, for the four or five showstoppers the songwriters fashioned for their leading lady. Russell (who couldn't sing, exactly) has perfectly tailor-made material and she does a great job, making this score immense fun. (Word has it that the wonderfully entertaining 2000 Encores! production — starring Donna Murphy and under the musical direction of the ubiquitous Rob Fisher — might well make it to Broadway next season.)
The original Wonderful Town wins out, slightly, over the 1958 television cast [Sony Broadway SK 48021]; the other recordings don't even come close. The Sony CD has Roz Russell as well, and — most importantly — the original conductor Lehman Engel at the podium. The conductors on the other three discs (each of whom are British) simply don't seem to "get" the style. Ingenue Edith Adams — Edie, to you — was unable to recreate her role in the TV version, which is something of a minus. Jacquelyn McKeever, just then finished with Oh, Captain!, makes a suitable replacement, but Adams is missed. However, 1958 gets you Sydney Chaplin instead of George Gaynes, which is a strong plus. Chaplin charms his way through, as he did in Comden, Green and Styne's 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing (and as he would in Styne's 1964 Funny Girl.) The Helsinki-born Gaynes came from the opera; he began his Broadway career in Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul and as Jupiter in Cole Porter's Out of This World (under the name George Jongeyans). His well-trained voice sounds off-putting here, overly formal and without a sense of fun. (For what it's worth: Wonderful Town opened in February, 1953; Green and wife Allyn McLerie divorced in May; and McLerie wed Gaynes in December. Four years later, Gaynes played Chaplin's role in the London production of Bells Are Ringing, with McLerie in a supporting role.)
I have always greatly admired Don Walker's swinging orchestrations. Such colors! Such life! Wonderful Town showed a whole different side of Walker that wasn't evident in any of his other musicals (like Carousel, The Most Happy Fella, She Love Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and more). Now I learn that there was a distinct reason for this: Walker farmed out much of the score to other orchestrators, as he tended to accept more assignments than he could possibly handle. Walker's stable included a trio of guys from TV, Irv Kostal, Sid Ramin, and Robert Ginzler, who worked on such shows as Hazel Flagg, Wish You Were Here, Me and Juliet, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Silk Stockings, and The Music Man. My understanding is that Kostal did "Ohio," among other songs, and Ramin did the "Ballet at the Village Vortex." (Ramin was an old school friend of Bernstein. His and Kostal's work on Wonderful Town helped convince Bernstein in 1957 to offer the pair their first officially-credited Broadway job, West Side Story.)
This type of ghosting was apparently common at the time; from what I can tell, there was an enormous amount of it. Shows were written — and fixed — on tight schedules, and changes came fast and furious during tryouts. Walker himself ghosted, on occasion; he wrote that wonderful orchestration for "Carefully Taught" in South Pacific as well as "Shall We Dance" in The King and I, both credited to Robert Russell Bennett. It is at this date still possible to establish true authorship of many orchestrations of this period. Do enough people care about such things to make the effort, I wonder?
Getting back on the record, Decca Broadway has added a bonus of six selections from the prior Bernstein-Comden-Green musical, On the Town. These are great to hear, and make a welcome supplement to Wonderful Town. The 1945 recordings are an odd assortment, though. "New York, New York" is presented in something resembling its original form, although it is necessarily trimmed and at the end veers off into a Kay Thompson-like vocal arrangement. Comden and Green — who also appeared in the show — recorded their big duet, "Carried Away," shortly after the opening (with the original orchestrations). They re-recorded this number for the 1962 studio cast recording of the show, which remains the indispensable On the Town [Sony Classical SK 60538]. On the Decca Broadway track, though, they were almost twenty years younger. Nancy Walker, who also recreated her original role on the studio cast album, gives spirited renditions of "I Can Cook, Too" and "Ya Got Me" (both with non-show orchestrations, alas). The passing of time makes a big difference; she was only twenty when On the Town opened and she recorded these numbers. The two big ballads introduced by the show's male romantic lead are handed over to Mary Martin. "Lucky to Be Me" and especially "Lonely Town" have fairly awful orchestrations, with lots of atmosphere and dramatic strings. Comically poor, actually.
— Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both 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.