ON THE RECORD: Oh! Captain and Jerry Herman's Parade

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03 Nov 2002

OH CAPTAIN! [DRG 19030] In 1948 and 1949, two Oscar-winning Hollywood songwriters — Jule Styne and Frank Loesser — decided to storm Broadway, with fantastic results. (While they had collaborated in Hollywood, they worked individually in New York.) This, apparently, encouraged the rest of the boys. Burke and Van Heusen, Harry Warren, and Livingston and Evans — among others — all tried it in the following decade; all went back West, licking their wounds.

OH CAPTAIN! [DRG 19030] In 1948 and 1949, two Oscar-winning Hollywood songwriters — Jule Styne and Frank Loesser — decided to storm Broadway, with fantastic results. (While they had collaborated in Hollywood, they worked individually in New York.) This, apparently, encouraged the rest of the boys. Burke and Van Heusen, Harry Warren, and Livingston and Evans — among others — all tried it in the following decade; all went back West, licking their wounds.

Jay Livingston (music and lyrics) and Ray Evans (lyrics) met while at the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. Their first break came in 1941, when they started writing material for Olsen and Johnson; one of their songs, "G'bye Now," was added to the long-running Hellzapoppin'. They hit it big in Hollywood 1945, with the title song for the film "To Each His Own." They won their first Oscar in 1948 for "Buttons and Bows," from "The Paleface." They won again in 1950 for "Mona Lisa," from "Captain Carey, U.S.A." They didn't win in 1951 for that Christmas perennial "Silver Bells," but they won once more in 1956 for "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)". And then they came to Broadway.

Oh Captain! was one of those not-very-good musicals that — oddly enough — left behind a highly enjoyable cast recording. Two duets come off best, perhaps: the swinging "You're So Right for Me" and the gentler "You Don't Know Him." But there are at least eight numbers that I find highly enjoyable. This has to do with Livingston's way with a tune, yes, but I think it has more to do with the tip-top orchestrations. Oh Captain! was unique in that it had eight credited orchestrators: Robert Ginzler, Joe Glover, Ray James, Phil Lang, Walter Eiger, Sy Oliver, Cornel Tanassy and Oscar Kosarin.

Other musicals have had multiple orchestrators, of course; we know that Carousel and The Music Man each had at least five. But these shows only credited one fellow on the title page. Oh Captain! listed them all, and I don't know of any similar case in Broadway history. (For the record: Don Walker did much of Carousel, but parts were by Robert Russell Bennett, Joe Glover, Stephen Jones ["You'll Never Walk Alone"] and Hans Spialek ["When the Children Are Asleep"]. On The Music Man, Walker was assisted by Ginzler, Eiger, Sidney Fine and Irv Kostal ["Trouble"].)



We don't know which of the Oh Captain! orchestrators did what, but there are a lot of good charts to go around. Ginzler presumably did "Surprise" and the "Paree/Hey Madame" number; the woodwind parts are surely by the same person who scored "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Put on a Happy Face" and "Been a Long Day." "Surprise" is a good example of how an orchestrator can make a difference. It is a mild song, all told, but the orchestration really helps it along; so does the arresting vocal arrangement by Jay Blackton, featuring some unusual but provocative harmonies). I would guess that Lang did the Gilbert & Sullivan-like opening number, "A Very Proper Town." I don't know who did "You're So Right for Me" — with its swinging countermelody — or the joyously raucous "Double Standard." Regardless of who did what, these charts make the cast album soar in places. (This first-time-on-CD release uses the tapes from the stereo version of the show, which remained unheard until it was briefly issued on LP in 1977.)

Tony Randall starred in the show, which was based on the 1953 Alec Guinness film The Captain's Paradise (and was one of the earlier cases of a decent film transformed into a lousy musical). Randall does very nicely, making it somewhat surprising that he never did another musical. Jacquelyn McKeever does an attractive job as the captain's wife. Eileen Rodgers sings the mistress in place of Abbe Lane, who was under contract to another label. She was replaced in the show not by Rodgers but by Dorothy Lamour; the show folded, embarrassingly, the week that Lamour arrived. (An old time manager once told me an intriguing story about Oh Captain!, the details of which I unfortunately can't remember in their entirety. It had something to do with the producer raising more money, in actuality, than appeared on the partnership papers, somewhat in the fashion of Max Bialystock.)

High-octane support was offered by the remarkable Susan Johnson, a standout as usual despite a grafted-on role and some strange material. (Johnson left The Most Happy Fella to star in The Carefree Heart, which collapsed in Cleveland just before Oh Captain! went into rehearsal.) Also in the cast was Edward Platt, who is better known to us for his TV role as the Chief on Get Smart. Platt, who had worked extensively with director Jose Ferrer, was called in to replace Xavier Cugat (Abbe Lane's husband); he does a surprisingly good job on "You're So Right for Me."

Ferrer was an entertainment powerhouse in the 1950's. After winning an Oscar for "Cyrano de Bergerac" (which he'd first played on Broadway), he directed and produced Stalag 17; directed The Fourposter; and directed, produced and starred in The Shrike — winning five Tonys in the first six years of the Awards. But he had never written or directed a musical. The songwriters, the producer, none of them had done a musical; the only one of the creators with any musical comedy experience was choreographer James Starbuck — and he had been fired from his only show, Fanny. Is it any wonder Oh Captain! went rudderless?

But I love those orchestrations.

Continued...

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