ON THE RECORD: Sherry! and Lorelei

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
08 Feb 2004

This week's column discusses the star-packed, first-ever recording of The Man Who Came to Dinner musical Sherry!, and Lorelei, the 1973 revision of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

SHERRY [Angel 7243 5 33787 0 6]
"Sherry!" the title song of the ill-fated 1967 musicalization of The Man Who Came to Dinner, sounds like a million bucks on this new, meticulously produced studio cast album. Here is a song that effortlessly coaxes the blues right out of the horn, to coin an old phrase (circa 1966). This duo for poison-pen pals practically out-Hermans Jerry; the number builds and builds, regaling us with the sort of gibes and quips that you get when a couple of bosom buddies join together and let down their hair.

This song is not exactly unknown, nowadays; it was captured on Bruce Kimmel's Unsung Musicals back in 1994, at which time it had a similarly rousing effect. But with Carol Burnett, at her musical comedy best, dishing the dirt to an eagerly receptive Nathan Lane, "Sherry!" is quite something.

The title song turns out not to be a highpoint, but the highpoint. Sherry! is a show with a past, alas. It is available for our listening pleasure once more, after shuttering 30-odd years ago at what they used to call the Alvin Theatre after a mere 65 performances. There is a great deal to recommend in this recording, but the spotlight does tend to corroborate the critical and audience verdict of long ago.

Sherry! had a hard time of it, certainly. The root of the problem, I suppose, goes back to poor old Auntie Mame. Morton da Costa was Broadway's golden boy for about three years. Da Costa — born Tecovsky — came to town in 1942 playing a couple of small roles in the original production of The Skin of Our Teeth, following which he hooked up with Maurice Evans. Over the course of a decade, Tec moved backstage and began directing touring companies for Evans. He began his ascent with two 1955 hits, a moderate one (Plain and Fancy) followed by a major one (No Time for Sergeants). In 1956, da Costa had a colossal hit, Auntie Mame, which he followed a year later with the stupendous The Music Man. He directed the film versions of the last two, in 1958 and 1962 respectively, which made him a talent to reckon with.

Except — da Costa seems to have decided that he didn't get enough credit for his two blockbusters. He conceived and wrote the libretto for his next musical, the 1959 disaster Saratoga. After finishing the Music Man film, he came back with another "Morton da Costa production," the even more-troubled Hot Spot (1963). Da Costa was quickly terminated after the Washington opening, with a press release claiming ulcers. (One columnist estimated that Hot Spot went through 11 directors in all, but that's another story.) When Bobby Fryer, producer of Auntie Mame, decided to musicalize said property, you would think that he'd go to the guy who successfully did the play and the film. Not so, not after living through the Saratoga and Hot Spot bloodbaths.

So the 1966 musical Mame went to Gene Saks. (It went to Josh Logan, actually, but that's another story.) And da Costa signed on for Sherry! — like Mame, a musicalization of a rollickingly popular success. But a close reading of The Man Who Came to Dinner might well have indicated trouble ahead. The show certainly was that; pure hell from the first performance of the tryout.

(I love old newspaper reviews, like this from Kevin Kelly of the Boston Globe, who called the show "so awful that it makes Holly Golightly [Breakfast at Tiffany's] look like a nostalgic work of art, and I'm not kidding.")

The star, George Sanders, was quickly dispatched, with Clive Revill (from Oliver!) rushing in to take the reins. Da Costa was fired next, along with choreographer Ronald Field (who between Cabaret and Zorba was fired from two major musicals). As for da Costa, he made one more Broadway musical attempt, the adequate but uninvolving Maggie Flynn in 1968. He also directed a negligible review, An American Jubilee; a negligible play, Doubles; and an Off-Broadway musical flop, Show Me Where the Good Times Are.

How much da Costa had to do with the development of Sherry! is something I can't tell you. (The original ads credited the stars and "entire production directed by Morton da Costa," but no authors or choreographer.) What is clear is that whoever made the decisions, decided wrong. Joe Layton (of No Strings) eventually signed on, but was unable to turn the show around.

The problem being that the Kaufman and Hart original is extremely funny, but at a lightning pace. Sherry! was converted by preserving those same funny lines, but slowing them down. Way down. A dynamite joke might take eight seconds to deliver; build it into a song lyric, and it takes relatively forever. Lyricist-librettist James Lipton had no choice, presumably, but to keep all those wonderful old lines. But those wonderful old lines couldn't, and were never intended to, support four minutes of music.

A particularly egregious example comes with the "Crockfield" saga. Near the end of a frenzy-filled first scene, Kaufman and Hart gave Sheridan ("Sherry") Whiteside a bathetic speech of the sort that Alexander Woollcott used to emote on his radio show. This was the evening's first moment of relative quiet — although it was punctured, at story's end, with a wisecrack from Sherry's secretary. In the musical, this was converted into a production number for Sherry and a male chorus of convicts. A simple speech — which Kaufman and Hart used as a much-needed respite, and which has little bearing on the plot or the action — is expanded to a point where it stops the show, and not in a good way.

Mind you, James Lipton does some fine work, impressively so for a novice lyricist. (Sherry! was his second, and final, Broadway writing credit.) Here, and elsewhere in the score, there are some highly amusing touches, the sort of moments that make you sit up and listen. In the Crockfield number, for example, the convicts tell how Miss Anderson teaches them crafts. "I made an ashtray," sings one, "I made a gun," sings another, "I made Miss Anderson," sings the last. Droll enough, in itself, but moments later Lipton has the fellow try to give us the line again, with the other men shutting him up. Very nice.

But take out your stopwatch, folks. Kaufman and Hart's Sherry gave us his speech in about two minutes. Here, it's a full seven-minute oratorio for the star, backed by the boys. By the time they finish "Crockfield" — the fifth track on the first of two CDs — it is apparent that Sherry! is DOA.

A shame. But we keep running up against the adaptation problem. Lipton and composer Laurence Rosenthal provided a few good numbers: "How Can You Kiss Those Good Times Goodbye" has the old showbiz pizzazz, and "Maybe It's Time for Me" do well enough. (Rosenthal, who started his career turning out especially good dance arrangements for musicals like da Costa's The Music Man, Goldilocks, and Take Me Along, was by 1967 a major Hollywood composer with films like "The Miracle Worker" and "Raisin in the Sun" to his credit.) But the book songs are something else again, with the characters plodding along the plot points, and oddly bringing to mind old style operetta. "If you only knew what's been going on," the lady of the house sings to one of the chorus matrons, "you would not believe it." And then she sings about what's been going on.

When Sherry — the viperish, curmudgeonly tyrant that Kaufman and Hart pulled whole from the pasty forehead of Alexander Woollcott — starts to dream of marrying the girl himself, all is lost. Sheridan Whiteside marrying the girl??? Musical comedy, indeed.

Much is made in the liner notes about the mystery of Sherry!'s orchestrations. The trunk full of music parts disappeared in 1967 when the set was taken to the dump, and that seemed to be the end of that. As record producer Robert Sher started to assemble the recording project in 2000, the orchestrations were unearthed, intact, at the Library of Congress.

Hurrah, huzzah, and all that. But here we are with another mystery. Sherry!, the CD, contains orchestrations by no less than nine arrangers. The information in the liner notes is a little cryptic, but it seems clear that about 15 of the 22 charts are newly orchestrated. (Seven of the songs were orchestrated by people who are long gone, and thus presumably from 1967.) Studio cast albums often use new orchestrations, like it or not, and there is certainly is no rule that you need to use the old ones. But if they miraculously found the entire set of orchestrations prior to beginning preparations for the recording, as they excitedly point out, why did they throw out two-thirds of the charts? Were they so bad?

People interested in such things might well perk up their ears when they reach the eighth track — "With This Ring" — and think "very nice, who did that?" Phil Lang, it turns out, who is credited with four of the charts. "How Can You Kiss Those Good Times Goodbye" has the flavor of Lang's Mame, and the reprise of "Putty in Your Hands" has some lovely pseudo-Egyptian touches (accompanying business with a mummy case).

There's another especially clever chart, from Clare Grundman (of Two's Company). "The Proposal Duet" has the Gertie Lawrence character (here played by Burnett) singing into a telephone. Out of the orchestra pit comes the other side of the conversation, courtesy of the trumpet. The fellow on the other side of the line stutters, poor thing, which translates into a veritable tattoo of staccato. Hard to explain, but very funny.

The seven charts that presumably hail from 1967 come from four orchestrators, which sent me trying to unravel what happened and why. Larry Wilcox (of Walking Happy) was given sole credit on Sherry! in Boston and Philadelphia. Wilcox, an under-appreciated and very good arranger, was a close colleague of and ghost for Ralph Burns (on shows like Funny Girl, Do I Hear a Waltz? and Sweet Charity). No orchestrator whatsoever was credited in the opening-night program, giving at least one critic an easy crack about the wisdom of anonymity. At some point during the four-week run, "orchestrations by Philip J. Lang" was added to the billing page. Allyn Ferguson did most of the new charts, including the sparking title song — which, as previously indicated, sounds pretty much like Lang's chart for the title song of Mame.

What this all means, I can't tell you. But this is indicative of Sherry! itself. There have been any number of Broadway musicals that lost the star, the director and the choreographer during the tryout. But I can't think of any musical that lost its star, director, choreographer and orchestrator. Which is to say, whoever assembled the group that sat together on the first day of rehearsals made a few small miscalculations. (As soon as I wrote this, I thought of another show that lost star, director, choreographer and orchestrator: The Baker's Wife. But there can't be many.)

We have gone on at length with the strange saga of Sherry!. With problems like this, it is not surprising that the CD does not reveal a masterpiece of a musical. But it is highly listenable. Nathan Lane essays the title role, and he does an exceptional job; it is hard to imagine George Sanders or Clive Revill gnawing on the lines quite so deliciously. One wonders if Lane could make this show float despite the material, like Hugh Jackman is currently doing over at the Imperial. I would certainly go and watch Lane in this role; and let me add that Lane displays considerably more authority as Sherry on CD than he did in the 2000 revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Roundabout.

Ms. Burnett has chosen her role wisely; this is the Carol of 40 years ago, before TV turned her into a legend-with-dignity. As Lorraine Sheldon, she is a lowdown clown, pulling out each and every stop she can find. (This sort of rambunctious spirit was not apparent in her last two Broadway appearances.) It warms the soul to see that Burnett's still got it, and knows precisely what to do with it.

Bernadette Peters also lends her estimable participation to the proceedings. (Peters, who has made five recordings for Angel, presumably had a hand in getting them to release what is, after all, a two-CD recording of a long forgotten and negligible Broadway flop). The star must have realized, though, that Lane and Burnett had all the good material. She makes a good showing, especially in her big ballad "Maybe It's Time for Me," but she is relegated to third position. Tommy Tune steps in — rather tentatively — to perform the Noel Coward-inspired role, while Mike Myers of all people takes on Harpo (here called Banjo). Phyllis Newman and Lillias White are hidden away in tiny roles, and Noah Racey leads the heard-but-not-seen tap dancers.

The CD includes an enhanced video portion, with interview clips and some footage from the recording sessions. But I suppose that's more than enough talk about Sherry!



Continued...

1 | 2 Next