By Steven Suskin
21 Mar 2004
A big, bouncy new musical from the director, co-librettist and co-producers of Broadway's biggest hit bounds into the Imperial with a novel gimmick — an onstage swimming pool, surrounded by a skimpily dressed chorus — and little else. The critics all but massacre the show; but thanks in part to an endlessly-plugged title song that takes the airwaves by storm, it quickly finds an audience and builds into Broadway's biggest musical hit of the year. A very bad year for musicals, needless to say; but still. Wish You Were Here was the only successful book musical of 1952, and the only one (by far) to make it past the one-year mark.
Wish You Were Here has gone down in history as an extremely lucky hit, with little to recommend it. South Pacific, Josh Logan and Leland Hayward's other musical around the corner, it wasn't. But Harold Rome provided an enjoyably entertaining score, balancing his top-of-the-chart title tune with a light-heartedly amusing song assortment. As the show ended its 598-performance run, a British edition opened at the London Casino on October 10, 1953. With the original Broadway cast album of Wish You Were Here — briefly issued on CD in 1996 — once more out of print, Sepia has seen fit to bring us the London album. Which makes for a happy surprise.
Sepia is one of those relatively new labels that has been transferring out-of print cast albums to CDs. This is a boon to musical theatre fans, who can now look forward to hearing long-lost titles they might never have heard before. The long-term prospects of these labels, of course, depends on public support. Sepia, which I have only just discovered, already has a dozen theatre-related discs on the market. (While they are unlikely to turn up in your neighborhood store, they are available at Footlight, and on the Internet from www.footlight.com or www.worldsrecords.com.)
I'm quite satisfied with the Broadway album of Wish You Were Here, mind you, but the London disc gives us the score with significantly clearer sound. The Broadway album was one of those early RCA Victor releases, which tend to sound like they were recorded in a tunnel. The London disc was pressed only 16 months later, but in the present restoration sounds much cleaner. I'm sitting here listening to orchestral colors that I don't recall hearing before on the RCA disc.
And the orchestrations are a lot of fun. Don Walker was the supervising orchestrator, but in those days he regularly farmed out a considerable amount of work (as discussed in our last column, in connection with Wonderful Town). And no wonder; Walker was credited with six musicals in 1952. Pending examination of the charts — if they still exist — I would guess that Red Ginzler did "Shopping Around" and "Flattery." The gypsy violins, Borscht Belt-style of "Social Director" and "Don Jose" seem to come from Irv Kostal (whom Walker assigned the not-dissimilar "Hernando's Hideaway"). Walker surely did the big ballads, including the swoopingly grand orchestration for the title song.
The London actors are a far cry from the Catskills; Camp Karefree, the setting of the show, was transplanted for London to one of the Butlins holiday camps. The cast contains two surprises. Shani Wallis plays the comic soubrette Fay (the role with which Sheila Bond stole the show on Broadway). Wallis, who had played the Princess in the 1952 West End Call Me Madam, made a less-than-impressive Broadway debut in the 1966 musical A Time for Singing. She catapulted to (short-lived) fame in 1968, as Nancy in the film version of Oliver! Playing the romantic rake, singing his heart out in "Summer Afternoon" and seducing the heroine in "Relax," is (of all people) Christopher Hewett. His next stop would be Broadway, as Zoltan Karpathy in the original production of My Fair Lady, although he is best known (at least in some circles) as Roger de Bris to Zero Mostel in The Producers.
The British cast is generally fine once you accept the accents, and the singers happily give us Jay Blackton's deep-voiced vocals (under the baton of Cyril Ornadel). The one major weakness is Bruce Trent as the romantic lead. The Broadway album features the young Jack Cassidy, a standout for his distinctive and strongly attractive voice. Trent sings well enough, but sounds like just another leading young man; the title song sounds significantly paler without the urgency that Cassidy brought to it.
The London Wish You Were Here dispenses with the Overture and Finale but includes "There's Nothing Nicer Than People," an introductory number for the two leading ladies. Rome and Logan added this to the show shortly after the Broadway opening. I must say I prefer "Goodbye Love," which was axed. But "Goodbye Love" was a solo for Teddy Stern (Patricia Marand), the romantic lead; with Sheila Bond attracting all the critical and audience attention, I suppose they felt they needed to bring her into the spotlight earlier on.
The spare Broadway album clocks in at only 49 minutes. Sepia gives us a full 72, filling out the disc with selections from two other West End transfers from that period. (Many of these American shows in London have already appeared on small-label CDs, with varying audibility.) Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, too, makes for interesting listening; again, we can hear colors that we don't get from the Broadway cast album (also on RCA). The recording, unfortunately, is highly abridged, even more so than the Broadway cast album. Here, we get four tracks, combining two or three songs each. Paint Your Wagon remains one of those shows that calls for a complete cast recording. (There is apparently one on the shelf at Jay Records, awaiting release.)
The London Paint Your Wagon features Bobby Howes, a musical comedy star back in the 1920's. By 1953, though, he had trouble sustaining the notes. Even so, his big solo — "I Still See Eliza" — comes across as the fine song it is. ("I Still See Eliza," "Another Autumn," "They Call the Wind Maria," "I Talk to the Trees" — an impressive lineup of songs for an all-but forgotten show!) Howes is joined by his 22-year-old daughter Sally Ann, who soon wafted across the ocean to replace Julie Andrews in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.
The Wish You Were Here disc is rounded out by six songs from Guys and Dolls, featuring London's Sister Sarah (Lizbeth Webb) and Sky Masterson (Jerry Wayne). These are not very impressive pop versions, I'm afraid, arranged and conducted by Wally Stott (Angela Thornton). Continued...