ON THE RECORD: "Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies" and Clownaround

By Steven Suskin
June 9, 2013

This week's column examines conductor John Wilson's salute to "Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies" and the cast album of the long-lost Gene Kelly musical ClownAround.



Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies [EMI Classics]

British conductor John Wilson led a well-received Rodgers and Hammerstein concert as part of the BBC Proms series at Royal Albert Hall August 22, 2010. (This, incidentally, was the day before the fiftieth anniversary of Hammerstein's death). Wilson went into the studio in 2012 — with two of the five Proms soloists — to record most (but not all) of the selections in the concert. The results have now been released by EMI Classics under the title "Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies."

We get fifteen tracks, from the film versions of Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. Everything sounds good, and well played by the large orchestra. Julian Ovenden does an especially fine job singing Billy Bigelow's "Soliloquy" and, with Sierra Boggess, "If I Loved You," which makes one wonder whether Mr. Ovenden might have a Carousel in his future. Ovenden, you may recall, was forced by illness to leave the 2011 New York premiere of Maury Yeston's Death Takes a Holiday. He did, however, play the first press previews, so half of the first night critics (myself included) saw him in the role — and he was impressively good.

Ovenden and Boggess also give us a bit of Curly and Laurey from Oklahoma!, while Joyce DiDonato gives us those two booming songs: "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." Anna-Jane Casey and David Pittsinger offer a few pieces of South Pacific, and the CD pretty much does what it sets out to do.

But I have to wonder: what constitutes Rodgers and Hammerstein "at the movies"? I suppose some listeners will just say the music is good, leave it alone. But as someone who knows the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook exceedingly well, I have to question both the music selections and the choice of arrangements.

Sierra Boggess

First off, let us acknowledge that Rodgers and Hammerstein did indeed spend a good deal of time at the movies, meaning in Hollywood (and briefly in Astoria, New York). To my knowledge, though, they only wrote seven songs as a team for the movies. Two of them are standards: "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and the altogether dandy, "It Might As Well Be Spring." A third, "There's Music in You," is presently being recycled in the new stage version of Cinderella. None of these seven — the only songs that the team wrote for the movies — is included on this CD. The boys each did write, separately, well over a hundred movie songs; but only one of these, Rodgers' "I Have Confidence," is included.

So what we get is show tunes pulled from the boys' greatest successes, performed using the Hollywood orchestrations. I suppose this is what they mean by "at the movies." But why? Does anyone believe that the movie orchestrations are better than, more authentic than, or in some way supplant the stage versions? Rodgers didn't seem to. Certainly, when Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I were revived during his lifetime, he did not insist on replacing the official versions of the songs with the Hollywood improvements.

Compare Russell Bennett's brightly exciting overture for Oklahoma! and his majestic one for The King and I with the versions on this CD and you'll instantly see what's missing, as well as the fallacy of using the movie overtures to represent composer Rodgers.

Julian Ovenden
We refer not just to the orchestration, but the arrangements as well. Yes, the films were scored for larger orchestras, which provided a fuller sound than a Broadway pit. But bigger isn't necessarily better, and a film version does not necessarily reflect the artistic desires of the authors. Changes made to The Sound of Music would presumably have been forbidden had Hammerstein been alive during the filming.

When Carousel was performed by the New York Philharmonic in February, they used a symphonic-sized orchestra but did not use the film orchestrations. They stayed with Don Walker's original charts, augmenting the string sections with more musicians. The results were as musically glorious as you or I or Rodgers could hope. The same can be said for Bennett's orchestrations for South Pacific, as performed in 2008 with a full orchestra at the Vivian Beaumont.

So let me say that John Wilson's CD sounds perfectly fine, and will presumably sell plenty of copies. But I myself would have preferred hearing Wilson, Ovenden and the rest perform the real thing.

Cover art

ClownAround [Masterworks Broadway]

Rummaging through the combined archives of Columbia and RCA Victor, the folks at Masterworks Broadway have come up with one of the more unusual cast recordings ever. ClownAround was a whatnot, or, to borrow one of the song titles, a "Thingamajig."

Think back to 1970, a time long before traveling Disney shows and Muppet shows filled over-sized arenas with family audiences. There were circuses, yes, but no Cirque de Soleil. You still had some ice shows and horse shows, but nothing in the way of slick, Broadway-style entertainment. A then-new company specializing in trade shows and national tours — Theatre Now was their name — decided to create a really big show suitable for the arena market. Somehow or other, they managed to get one of the entertainment world's biggest stars to sign on. Thus, they instantly had something called Gene Kelly's ClownAround.

Early on, Kelly was supposed to appear in the show. By the time they got into production, though, he was neither acting nor choreographing. The producers signed comedienne Ruth Buzzi — well known from her appearances on "Laugh-In" — as headliner, along with lesser-known "Laugh-In" alumnus Dennis Kelly plus a cast of 70 circus clowns, acrobats and showgirls. The show itself seems to have been formless, with the only interesting element being the massive "clown machine" unit set from designer Sean Kenny, who had a decade earlier revolutionized stage scenery with his work on Lionel Bart's Oliver!

ClownAround was devised by one Alvin Cooperman, who had a long career in television sandwiched by time with the Shuberts (starting as an office boy at 16, ending as the chief booker during the turbulent sixties). After which he devised ClownAround, writing the script (what there was of it) and lyrics as well. Music came from Moose Charlap, another TV veteran who had a checkered career on Broadway. His songs "Tender Shepherd," "I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying" and "I Won't Grow Up" remain popular favorites, even though half his score for the Mary Martin Peter Pan was supplanted by Comden, Green and Styne. His other shows were the disastrous (but colorful) Whoop-Up! and the outright disasters The Conquering Hero and Kelly.

Charlap had a way with melody, although it is not much in evidence in the recorded score for ClownAround. There is little song information available; even on the LP, descriptions were sparse. From the sound of it, the music was pre-recorded and piped into the arena. Ruth Buzzi is clearly not present on the recording; it sounds like the solos come from a pair of demo singers who are supplemented by a studio chorus (and presumably not the cast of 70). The twelve songs themselves are generic, and the lyrics are heavy on stuff about clowns and smiles and laughter.

ClownAround opened April 27, 1972 at the Oakland Coliseum. While the show was initially booked for six months, the whole thing collapsed at the Cow Palace in San Francisco after only two weeks. All vestiges of ClownAround quickly vanished, save this under-impressive quasi-cast album.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)