ON THE RECORD: Two Gershwin Rarities and Wonderful Town
By Steven Suskin
TIP-TOES and TELL ME MORE New World 80598
TIP-TOES and TELL ME MORE New World 80598
The music of George Gershwin was first heard on Broadway in 1916. He was more or less established by 1919 (at the age of 21) and began to churn out songs and musicals and revues. By fall 1925 he had written fourteen more-or-less complete scores, with only one substantial Broadway hit to his credit, the 1924 musical Lady, Be Good!. (This, plus a little tone poem called "Rhapsody in Blue," which made him an instant celebrity.) Looking through the complete surviving works of Gershwin, I count about 160 show tunes through the summer of 1925. These include 10 very good-to-wonderful songs (including "Swanee," "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," "Somebody Loves Me," "Boy Wanted," "Fascinating Rhythm," and "The Man I Love"). The other 150, I'm afraid, are relatively modest. Gershwin was still young, although as it turned out he was almost halfway through his career. Up until this time, Gershwin for the most part seemed to be musically restrained; by old formulas, perhaps? It also seems that Gershwin — in his musical comedies — was trying to emulate his hero Jerome Kern.
Gershwin's style changed noticeably, in my opinion, with Tip-Toes, which opened December 28, 1925. All constraints were off; Gershwin's music suddenly gained a self-confident assurance that was to mark his work for the next five years. In many of the earlier songs, especially the revue numbers, Gershwin seemed to be searching for ideas. Now, it was as if he suddenly decided to simply write whatever popped into his head — with the self-confidence to know that it would be good. (My theory is that George's growth was directly linked to Ira's development from proficient lyricist to expert musical dramatist.) "Looking for a Boy" is a good example of the "new" George; a delectable tune pivoting around those delicious "blue" notes. And "That Certain Feeling," which breezes along effortlessly until Gershwin throws in a little roadblock of repeated notes at the end of his "B" section. These songs are endearing, near-perfect little gems. Gershwin also provided the third of his dynamically syncopated dance tunes (the first of which was the aforementioned "Fascinating Rhythm"). This one was called "Sweet and Low Down," and it certainly is. The score also has a second fine, if not immortal, dance tune with a driving rhythm, "When Do We Dance?," as well as other charmers like "These Charming People." (Ira borrowed the title from Michael Arlen's short story collection, which was all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic at the time.)
The score has been carefully restored by Rob Fisher, who also conducted and produced the Tip-Toes portion of the recording. Most of the orchestrations were found along with other important musical theatre scores in 1982 in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. The orchestrations sound wonderful, giving us the chance to hear precisely what we would have heard in a Broadway theatre at the time. (Oddly enough, they were able to find the orchestrations but nobody seems to know the name of the orchestrators. I'd guess Bill Daly and Russell Bennett had a hand in.) This was one of four Gershwin musicals that featured the two-piano duo of Victor Arden and Phil Ohman in the pit; the piano parts are lost, so Fisher and Joseph Thalken have reconstructed them (using sensible and clever methods).
This CD is the cast album of Rob Fisher's 1998 concert version, produced by Carnegie Hall at the Weill Recital Hall. The cast is headed by Emily Loesser, Lewis J. Stadlen, Andy Taylor, and Lee Wilkof. Loesser plays the title role, and she does wonderfully well; her "Looking for a Boy" is a special joy. (This role was originated by Queenie Smith, the only musical comedy star I can think of who was married to a first-string New York drama critic.) Ms. Loesser, who recently opened on Broadway in By Jeeves, has just left that show to have her first child; we don't generally report future releases of this sort, but hey, this is a grandchild of Frank Loesser!
Tip-Toes is coupled with Tell Me More (which was recorded back in 1995). Tell Me More opened April 13, 1925, eight months before Tip-Toes. While no orchestrations survived, the Secaucus warehouse brought forth virtually complete piano/vocal parts — in Gershwin's own hand. This allowed Tommy Krasker to carefully restore the score to a close approximation of how it played, complete with encores. Russell Warner, who is so good at this sort of thing, prepared a new seven-piece orchestration in the proper style, so the whole thing sounds highly Gershwinesque. Rob Fisher does his customarily fine job as musical director, playing the piano part as well.
That being said, the Tell Me More songs — to these ears — are relatively ordinary. As discussed above, Gershwin seemed to enter a new creative phase with Tip-Toes; Tell Me More shows us where he was coming from. (Ira collaborated on the lyrics with B. G. DeSylva, who had been George's main lyricist from 1922-1924.) The two "big" songs sound like they were both written with a metronome in the background; they can't begin to compare to "Looking for a Boy" (from Tip-Toes) or "Someone to Watch over Me" and "Maybe" (from Gershwin's next musical, Oh, Kay!). "Baby" is based on a seven quarter-note, bugle-like call, which resolves off the beat. It then develops with lots more notes, but never grabs us. (The music was originally used in the 1923 London revue The Rainbow, under the title "Sweetheart, I'm So Glad that I Met You.") "Why Do I Love You?" starts with a single note ("Why") held for six beats, finishing the title phrase with "love you" repeated three times off the beat; the results sound constructed, rather than inspired. (The song bears a coincidental similarity to Kern and Hammerstein's "Who," which made it to Broadway a few months after Tell Me More closed. Even more coincidentally, Kern and Hammerstein wrote their own infinitely better song called "Why Do I Love You?" for Show Boat.)
The other ballads sound remarkably tame for Gershwin. I don't suppose we would even recognize Tell Me More as a Gershwin score were it not for one remarkable song, "Kickin' the Clouds Away." This is another one of George's indescribably joyous dance tunes; it simply makes you want to "get in the swing." Tell Me More also has two surprises, for me. One is the droll and breezy second act opener, "Love Is in the Air." This is similar to "Hello, Good Morning," a song the Gershwins used in the same spot in Of Thee I Sing. It's one of those songs that can't fail to bring a smile to your face, and I'm thrilled that it has herewith been rescued from total oblivion. The other is an ethnic comedy number called "Mr. and Mrs. Sipkin," the sort of thing Groucho Marx might have sung. (The show's star was Lou Holtz, whom I suppose you could describe as a third rate Bert Lahr.) The song is very ethnic, but David Garrison manages to carry it off with style. Garrison is joined on Tell Me More by Christine Ebersole, Sally Mayes, Diane Fratantoni, Philip Chaffin, and Patrick Cassidy.
Let me add a note for those of you who have a great Aunt Etta who keeps insisting that her second husband Milt's first wife Tillie saw My Fair Lady in Atlantic City in 1925, ten years before Julie Andrews was born: this was it. "My Fair Lady" was supposed to be the song hit of the show, I guess; hence that was the title during the tryout. The song is bland, as you can hear on the CD; they renamed the show after the slightly less bland "Tell Me More," which similarly failed to set Tin Pan Alley on fire and is long forgotten. Tell Me More itself was a failure, lasting only 100 performances. Oddly enough, the British production - which opened six weeks after the Broadway opening — was far more successful, running 264 performances. Gershwin, with three hit shows in the West End in 1923-1924, was a far bigger box office draw at the time in London than in New York.
The weaknesses of the score do not in any way argue against purchasing this 2-CD set. Tip-Toes is more than strong enough to carry the day. There are still at least a couple of Gershwin musicals awaiting restoration; let us hope that the Gershwin Trust and the Library of Congress sees fit to bring us more. In the meanwhile, they have just now brought us yet another treat: the 1999 Encores! production of Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke's Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (Decca Broadway [440 016 056]). It reached me too late for inclusion in this column, and I'll get to it soon; but based on one hearing, I can certainly recommend it.
WONDERFUL TOWN Decca Broadway 440 014 602
The original Wonderful Town wins out, slightly, over the 1958 television cast [Sony Broadway SK 48021]; the other recordings don't even come close. The Sony CD has Roz Russell as well, and — most importantly — the original conductor Lehman Engel at the podium. The conductors on the other three discs (each of whom are British) simply don't seem to "get" the style. Ingenue Edith Adams — Edie, to you — was unable to recreate her role in the TV version, which is something of a minus. Jacquelyn McKeever, just then finished with Oh, Captain!, makes a suitable replacement, but Adams is missed. However, 1958 gets you Sydney Chaplin instead of George Gaynes, which is a strong plus. Chaplin charms his way through, as he did in Comden, Green and Styne's 1956 musical Bells Are Ringing (and as he would in Styne's 1964 Funny Girl.) The Helsinki-born Gaynes came from the opera; he began his Broadway career in Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Consul and as Jupiter in Cole Porter's Out of This World (under the name George Jongeyans). His well-trained voice sounds off-putting here, overly formal and without a sense of fun. (For what it's worth: Wonderful Town opened in February, 1953; Green and wife Allyn McLerie divorced in May; and McLerie wed Gaynes in December. Four years later, Gaynes played Chaplin's role in the London production of Bells Are Ringing, with McLerie in a supporting role.)
I have always greatly admired Don Walker's swinging orchestrations. Such colors! Such life! Wonderful Town showed a whole different side of Walker that wasn't evident in any of his other musicals (like Carousel, The Most Happy Fella, She Love Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and more). Now I learn that there was a distinct reason for this: Walker farmed out much of the score to other orchestrators, as he tended to accept more assignments than he could possibly handle. Walker's stable included a trio of guys from TV, Irv Kostal, Sid Ramin, and Robert Ginzler, who worked on such shows as Hazel Flagg, Wish You Were Here, Me and Juliet, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Silk Stockings, and The Music Man. My understanding is that Kostal did "Ohio," among other songs, and Ramin did the "Ballet at the Village Vortex." (Ramin was an old school friend of Bernstein. His and Kostal's work on Wonderful Town helped convince Bernstein in 1957 to offer the pair their first officially-credited Broadway job, West Side Story.)
This type of ghosting was apparently common at the time; from what I can tell, there was an enormous amount of it. Shows were written — and fixed — on tight schedules, and changes came fast and furious during tryouts. Walker himself ghosted, on occasion; he wrote that wonderful orchestration for "Carefully Taught" in South Pacific as well as "Shall We Dance" in The King and I, both credited to Robert Russell Bennett. It is at this date still possible to establish true authorship of many orchestrations of this period. Do enough people care about such things to make the effort, I wonder?
Getting back on the record, Decca Broadway has added a bonus of six selections from the prior Bernstein-Comden-Green musical, On the Town. These are great to hear, and make a welcome supplement to Wonderful Town. The 1945 recordings are an odd assortment, though. "New York, New York" is presented in something resembling its original form, although it is necessarily trimmed and at the end veers off into a Kay Thompson-like vocal arrangement. Comden and Green — who also appeared in the show — recorded their big duet, "Carried Away," shortly after the opening (with the original orchestrations). They re-recorded this number for the 1962 studio cast recording of the show, which remains the indispensable On the Town [Sony Classical SK 60538]. On the Decca Broadway track, though, they were almost twenty years younger. Nancy Walker, who also recreated her original role on the studio cast album, gives spirited renditions of "I Can Cook, Too" and "Ya Got Me" (both with non-show orchestrations, alas). The passing of time makes a big difference; she was only twenty when On the Town opened and she recorded these numbers. The two big ballads introduced by the show's male romantic lead are handed over to Mary Martin. "Lucky to Be Me" and especially "Lonely Town" have fairly awful orchestrations, with lots of atmosphere and dramatic strings. Comically poor, actually.
— Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen.
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