ON THE RECORD: The 1959 Jones Beach Revival of Song of Norway and London's Most Happy Fella

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05 Sep 2010

We listen to the first-time-on-CD releases of the 1959 Jones Beach cast recording of the Wright & Forrest (& Grieg) Song of Norway and the original London cast album of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella.

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SONG OF NORWAY [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
It is interesting to note how an indifferent or otherwise unsatisfying original cast album can knock a musical off your list of shows worth listening to. As for instance, Song of Norway. Edwin Lester established the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in 1938 with a well-received production of the beloved 1921 Shubert operetta Blossom Time. (That's Shubert as in the Brothers Shubert, who took a 1916 Viennese operetta derived from the music and fictionalized life of Franz Schubert and had Sigmund Romberg Broadwayize it, to monumental success.) Lester quickly expanded his operations to San Francisco, following those Schubertian blossoms with Romberg operettas The Student Prince and The New Moon.

Realizing that West Coast audiences liked these easy-on-the-ears, nostalgic operettas, Lester determined to grow one of his own. Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest had made a name for themselves with screen adaptations of such operettas as Romberg's Maytime, Rudolf Friml's The Firefly, and Victor Herbert's Sweethearts. They had also lent a hand to Lester's 1941 stage adaptation of Herbert's Naughty Marietta, so when Lester was ready to produce an operetta from scratch he set the boys to work on the work of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The book, roughly — but very roughly — based on said composer's life, was written (or perhaps basted together?) by Homer Curran, Lester's San Francisco producing partner (and namesake of the Curran Theatre). Song of Norway opened in July 1944 to a resounding reception in Los Angeles and San Francisco, resulting in an immediate transfer to Broadway. It arrived at the Imperial on Aug. 21, 1944, entertaining war-weary customers for 860 performances — or almost twice as long as the competing but non-nostalgically modernistic On the Town.

Decca Records had thus far monopolized the Broadway cast album field, which it would continue to do until Columbia and RCA jumped on the bandwagon in 1947 (quickly relegating the smaller label to the background). Decca added Song of Norway to its fast expanding catalogue, which already included Oklahoma! One Touch of Venus and Carmen Jones, and had yet another strong seller. Which leads me back to my opening sentence; unlike the aforementioned Decca cast albums (and the soon-to-come Bloomer Girl, Carousel, and Annie Get Your Gun), the original Decca cast album of Song of Norway has always left me cold. Or more specifically, bored. I dutifully listened to the LP reissue — I wasn't around for the 78 RPM era — and gave the show another chance or two when it appeared on CD, but simply found the thing dull. And mind you, I listen repeatedly to other Wright & Forrest operettas like the Borodin-derived Kismet and the Rachmaninoffonian Anya.

Columbia finally got around to Song of Norway, when they recorded the Jones Beach production. The Jones Beach Marine Theatre was one of those gargantuan projects of master builder and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who placed this 8,000-plus-seat outdoor amphitheatre in the hands of Guy Lombardo. Lombardo would take big musicals — operetta revivals, usually — and blow them up to massive-sized summer attractions, making full use of Zach's Bay, upon which the place was built. Sea water filled the area between the seating and the stage, with movable docks linking stage and apron (where intimate book scenes were played, into standing microphones). In the present case, the opening number told of the mythological creation of the country (hence, the "Song of Norway"), incorporating full-sized replicas of eighth century Viking ships — commissioned from the home country by Lombardo, made of hand-hewn lumber — gliding across the lagoon and topped by dragon heads. A cast of about 200, too.

I never did listen to the revival cast album; I suppose I saw the LP in second-hand record stores over the years, but why would I wish to submit myself to another hearing of this stodgy Grieg soup? Said item has finally made it to CD, via a digital release from Masterworks Broadway (and also available as a disc-on-demand from Arkivmusic). And what do you know? It turns out that this Song of Norway is a song worth hearing. No, it doesn't supplant the raucous Kismet or the occasionally rhapsodic Anya in my estimation; but it won't sit on my shelf unlistened to for decades. Grieg contrived glorious tunes, I suppose you can say, and the highlights of Song of Norway make perfectly listenable entertainment. Although I for one am glad that I came to the score wholly familiar with the Piano Concerto in A Minor; otherwise, I suppose, the Song of Norway derivations might ruin it for me.

The Jones Beach production, which opened in June 1958, was a massive undertaking and reportedly an impressive extravaganza. The recording, though, is not exactly an original cast album. It appears that the decision to record the show came about when Lombardo determined to revive it for the summer of '59; with 8,000 customers a night, why not have an LP to sell in the lobby (or, rather, lobbies and parking lots)? But three of the five main performers chose not to return for the 1959 season; the men all left, presumably content to stay on dry land. Stephen Douglass, of Damn Yankees and The Golden Apple, was replaced in the role of Grieg by John Reardon, a City Opera singer who thus far had appeared on Broadway in the chorus of The Saint of Bleecker Street and as one of the minor New Faces of 1956. Robert Rounseville, who in 1956 had starred in the title role of Leonard Bernstein's Candide and played Mister Snow in the film version of Carousel, was replaced as Rikard by William Olvis, who had played the juicy but considerably smaller Candide role of the Governor of Buenos Aires ("Bon Voyage"). And Erik Rhodes, of Cole Porter's Gay Divorce and Can-Can, was replaced in the comedy role of the Count by Hollywood veteran Sig Arno. No loss here, as Arno had created the role back in 1944.

The recording was made in March 1959, at which point Reardon and Olvis had neither performed in nor rehearsed for the production. What's more, Frederick Dvonch — musical director of both the 1958 and 1959 stints — was not around to conduct the recording or coach the new stars. Or the band and chorus, which might have contained some Jones Beach holdovers but was surely much smaller. Dvonch was off in Boston with the tryout of First Impressions, so Lehman Engel — who spearheaded Columbia's series of studio cast recordings in the 1950s — did this one as well. The liner notes feature a photo of Engel conducting the recording session; he wears a dark-colored short-sleeve sweater with a light colored stripe across the chest, and looks like he is about to alight and take flight across the fjord. The orchestra, meanwhile, is dressed in traditional dark suit-and-tie garb.

So all that this recording retains of the Jones Beach production, in effect, are the two leading ladies (along with a third actress in the small singing role of Grieg's mother). The musical arrangements and orchestrations are presumably the same as used on the lagoon, but appear to be derived from the original 1944 set by Arthur Kay (with ghosting from several others, including what appear to be Don Walker charts for two of the big show tunes, "Strange Music" and "Freddy and His Fiddle"). Featured pianist is jazz musician Stan Freeman, who went on to serve as co-songwriter of two failed musicals, I Had a Ball and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. He serves as soloist on the big climactic Iceberg Ballet — mountainous canvas icebergs floating across the lagoon, that sort of thing. Freeman plays a six-minute reduction of the Piano Concerto, with many cuts and some obviously missed notes.

This is not to minimize the presence of the ladies. Brenda Lewis plays the purely fictional and purely musical comedy role of the Countess who intrudes on the young lovers. (This was originally played by Irra Petina, but recorded for Decca by Kitty Carlisle due to contractual entanglements.) Ms. Lewis is delicious here, positively feasting on her big solo "Now"; she apparently pretty much stole the show, and one can hear why. This is the very same Brenda Lewis who was highly praised in our recent column discussing the Broadway Masterworks release of Marc Blitzstein's Regina. Listeners unfamiliar with Lewis are in for a treat if they now discover her from these two long out-of-print recordings. (She is also prominent in the 1954 Sigmund Romberg-Don Walker Broadway operetta, The Girl in Pink Tights.) Let it be added that the Regina column brought forth an email from a friend of the singer — now in her late 80s — who told him that the Regina recording was made following a performance! And following the performance and recording session, Blitzstein took Lewis into a private booth — paid for from his own pocket — to re-record some of the high notes.

The Nina of the occasion, singing those Grieg-inspired love songs, is Helena Scott, who had played the title character in Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1953 musical Me and Juliet. Not one of the leads, mind you; merely the role of Juliet in the play within the play, as a result of which she did have the privilege of introducing "Marriage Type Love."

At any rate, Ms. Lewis and Mr. Reardon spark this recording of Song of Norway, with Ms. Scott and Mr. Olvis acquitting themselves adequately. Wright and Forrest's operetta-style reduction of Grieg sounds suitably grand, and it all makes a far better case for the show than that obsolete old Decca original cast album.



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