ON THE RECORD: I Had a Ball and Jessica Molaskey's “Good Day”

By Steven Suskin
01 Jun 2003

Buddy Hackett in I Had a Ball.
Buddy Hackett in I Had a Ball.

This week’s column features discussions of the original cast recording of I Had a Ball and the latest solo disc from Jessica Molaskey.

I HAD A BALL [Decca Broadway B0000204-02]
A distinctive and highly successful genre of early twentieth-century musical comedy was the clown show, in which a (usually) non-musical star was plugged into the middle of a standard song-and-dance story. There was always an ingénue and a juvenile to sing the love songs, a secondary couple to provide amusement while the star was in his dressing room, and a bevy of pretty girls. The songs sometimes came from Broadway's biggest names; folks like the Gershwins or Rodgers & Hart or Berlin or Arlen or DeSylva, Brown & Henderson. But these shows weren't about song hits. They were about the fellow — almost always a man — at the center. Ed Wynn or Bert Lahr or Victor Moore or the brothers Marx, or long-forgotten funnymen like Bobby Clark or Joe Cook or Leon Errol.

Things changed with the integration of musical comedy in the mid-forties. Bobby Clark held on, with Mexican Hayride (to a score by Porter) and As the Girls Go; but otherwise the creators started to mix the clown into the proceedings. Phil Silvers, for example. While he was not the romantic lead of his three musicals (High Button Shoes, Top Banana and Do-Re-Mi), he played a character — borrowed, but separated from, his public persona — and had his share of book-related songs to sing. Clown driven shows continued, with folks like Carol Channing and Zero Mostel at the helm, but the stars were integrated into the show (and thus more easily replaceable). Clown shows are still around today; when are you comin' back, Nathan Lane?

With Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof atop the SRO list in the fall of 1964, garbage hauler-turned-restaurateur Joe Kipness — co-producer of High Button Shoes — decided to produce an old-fashioned clown show. Nightclub comic Buddy Hackett was a good idea for Broadway, I suppose; he was a decidedly funny (if eccentric) buffoon who could be expected to sell theatre tickets and at the same time bring along his own fan base. But a singer he wasn't.

"Having to sing bothered me a little bit, because I was a comedian, not a singer," said Hackett, "but I figured that I could get away with taking a crack at it. I sang in the picture ‘The Music Man,’ but in pictures it's a little different. That's the good thing about movies. If you make a mistake, you can do it over. If you make a mistake on stage, it lays there in front of God and everyone." Hackett, playing a fortune-telling Coney Island con man, wound up with one song and one reprise in I Had a Ball, but I wouldn't exactly call it singing.



So what you got, once again, was a non-musical funnyman plugged into the middle of a song-and-dance show, with an (unconventional) ingénue and a not so-juvenile to sing the love songs and a secondary couple to provide amusement while the star was in his dressing room.

Kipness assembled an inauspicious crew. Songwriters Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman had almost no Broadway experience; Lawrence collaborated with Don Walker on the score of Courtin' Time, a one-month failure in 1951. Librettist Jerry Chodorov had one musical hit to his name, Wonderful Town, but he had followed it with the creaky Girl in Pink Tights and the dismal Christine. For director, Kipness enlisted Lloyd Richards of A Raisin in the Sun. This was a step forward, certainly; Richards became the first African-American to direct a "white" Broadway musical. He was fired on the road, though, replaced by the uncredited John Allen. Richards was quickly given another show for which he didn't seem especially well suited, the 1965 musical The Yearling. He was fired from that, too. In both cases, mind you, the problems were in the writing, not the direction. Richards didn't get another Broadway shot until 1978.

If I Had a Ball was a ragtag enterprise, it makes a highly entertaining CD. For three reasons, mostly: that not-so-juvenile leading man (with below the-title star billing), the unconventional ingénue and the exuberant arrangements and performances of the mostly mediocre songs.

Let's start with Richard Kiley (1922-1999), who by this time was typed as the best leading man to get when the leading lady was the real star of the show. That's the slot Kiley filled, and extremely well, in Redhead and No Strings, while the producers and press agents were selling Gwen Verdon and Diahann Carroll. (Verdon and Carroll won Tonys for their efforts; Kiley got one of his own for Redhead.) Kiley wasn't a musical guy to begin with, really; he replaced Tony Quinn in the national company of A Streetcar Named Desire, and made his Broadway debut in the 1953 revival of Shaw's Misalliance. But later that year, Albee Marre — of Misalliance — fired the juvenile lead in a musical he was trying out. He called in Kiley, who got to introduce "Stranger in Paradise," and a musical comedy star-to-be was born.

By 1964, Kiley was in a thankless position. There he was, playing yet another negligible leading man role, as a replacement in Here's Love. Why not take a new show, with presumably a bigger paycheck, even if it meant playing second fiddle to Buddy Hackett? (Hackett and Kiley had a mutual friend, Bob Fosse.) When I Had a Ball closed after less than six months, Kiley was reduced to doing summer stock with Marre; fortunately, the show — a musical version of Don Quixote, yet — turned out all right. And while Kiley was paired with the director's wife Joan Diener (who had been featured above Kiley in Kismet), this time he was unquestionably the star of the show. It was to be Kiley's only brush with greatness; he followed it with two bad musicals, three bad plays and a handful of revivals. But Man of La Mancha made Kiley a Broadway legend, and deservedly so.

The unconventional ingénue, Karen Morrow, was at the start of her Broadway career. She had made a splash Off-Broadway singing for her supper in the 1963 revival of The Boys from Syracuse, after a stint understudying Tammy Grimes in the tour of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Morrow took the stage in I Had a Ball, and one spin of the CD will make it crystal clear: she could sing! (And she still can, 40 years later.) Morrow was in several ways the successor to Susan Johnson; they were both unconventional in type, possessors of equally distinctive clarion voices of the Merman school, and fated to a series of flop Broadway musicals. Morrow provided scattered moments of mirth in such dire enterprises as A Joyful Noise, I'm Solomon, The Grass Harp and The Selling of the President before heading west.

Morrow amazes in her opening number, "I've Got Everything I Want," and she appears to knock the roof off the Coney Island set with the title number. The latter points up the hidden secret of this CD: the arrangements. The songs are for the most part mediocre if catchy; but the performance takes off like a rocket. Orchestrator Philip J. Lang had a checkered output, as far as I'm concerned; he scored quite a few hit musicals in his 40-year career, but much of his work is considerably less than vibrant. Oddly, he seemed to be freer and more inventive when working on low-profile musicals like Li'l Abner, Whoop-Up and I Had a Ball. This might be related to Lang's first big-name show; composer Irving Berlin and producer Richard Rodgers threw out most of his orchestration in New Haven, sending a posse to find Russell Bennett. Bennett reworked the show in a couple of days, bringing along Ted Royal for help. (Annie Get Your Gun is officially credited to Lang, Bennett and Ted Royal.) As best we can tell at this date, Lang's work was too fancy for Berlin; too much going on in the accompaniment, too little melodic support. Lang quickly learned his lesson, but maybe too well. Many of his shows feature lively overtures — Mame and Mack & Mabel are two good examples — after which the orchestrations become muted. Lang also had a disturbing tendency to repeat the same orchestral figure from show to show; there's something wrong, in my mind, when the same precise notes come out of the orchestra pits at Jule Styne and Jerry Herman and Anthony Newley musicals.

That title number of I Had a Ball is quite something. It starts with a brief verse, against an ascending scale, after which it quickly slips into a jazzy refrain with a strong countermelody from the reeds, sweetened by strings and sparked with brass. There is a belly dance instrumental interlude — this is Coney Island, remember — with the sound of Persia à la Broadway (as in Kismet). Then comes a trumpet tattoo, leading back to Morrow, who blasts the sell chorus backed by a full complement of singers and the rest. "Pound the drum, beat the brass," they sing, and do. This is as exhilarating a slice of sixties musical comedy as you're likely to hear, considering that the music ain't by Rodgers or Loesser or Styne or even Herman.

I'm tempted to suggest that Luther Henderson — the show's dance arranger — might have done this chart. It certainly swings, as do other sections of the score that sound far more like Luther Henderson of Do-Re-Mi than Phil Lang of Camelot. Whatever the case may be, Lang surely orchestrated most of I Had a Ball, and the arrangements make sections of this CD irrepressible. Musical director was Pembroke Davenport, of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate and Out of This World. Davenport's promising career disintegrated one afternoon in 1953 during the tryout of Can-Can. As I understand it, he made an off-color (albeit true) remark about the composer during a rehearsal break. Guess who was sitting a few rows behind in the darkened house? Milton Rosenstock was rushed to Philly, hastening Davenport into exile. He was thereafter reduced to lesser musicals, like 13 Daughters, Kean and I Had a Ball.

The rest of the company contributes to the festivities, with Luba Lisa and Steve Roland as the other couple and Rosetta LeNoire — as a matchmaker of the Midway — leading two tuneful production numbers. Decca Broadway has filled out the original Mercury LP (produced by Quincy Jones) with two pop recordings by Morrow, the title song and "Almost." There are also two cut songs, in instrumental versions, from Lester Lanin's recording of the hoped for song hits from I Had a Ball.

What you get, all in all, is a whirlwind of a cast recording of an old-fashioned musical comedy. A bad musical comedy, admittedly; but I expect that some listeners will agree with me that I Had a Ball sounds a whole lot more entertaining than some Broadway musicals currently on the boards.  Continued...