Every time I discover a previously unfamiliar cast recording of a British musical from the '50s or '60s, I savor the experience of the first hearing. Some sound interesting, or quite interesting; others sound — well, like I don't need to hear them again, or even side two. But always, I wonder: What was this show? How was this show? With Broadway musicals, we have plenty of reference sources; for British musicals, little information is to be found.
That void has now been filled by the wonderfully informative "A Tanner's Worth of Tune" by Adrian Wright [Boydell]. (This is a British publisher, with a domestic branch in Rochester, NY.) Wright, the dedicated musical theatre enthusiast who runs the Must Close Saturday label — which purveys reissues of rare British cast albums — has a well-rounded knowledge of the shows of this period. He covers hundreds of musicals from roughly 1945-1972, sharing information and insights with us in an entertaining manner.
Wright starts his survey with discussions of the earlier composers Ivor Novello and Noel Coward, whose work set the stage for the period in question. (They continued to write into the new era, although in increasingly quaint manner.) The new age arrived in 1954 with two refreshing and equally whimsical hits, The Boy Friend from Sandy Wilson and Salad Days from Julian Slade. Both of whom met with less and less success while their initial shows played on.
Wright then moves into the rougher world of librettist Wolf Mankowitz and his main collaborators, Monty Norman, David Heneker, and Julian More. Who each broke off into their own directions. After all this came the phoenix-like emergence of Lionel Bart. Six musicals in six years, five of them hits (including the international powerhouse, Oliver!). Bart's sixth effort, a massive flop by the name of Twang!!, sent Lionel into a tailspin and ended his career altogether. Wright's discussions of specific musicals range from brief to comprehensive, based not on success but on elements of interest to the author. (Some of this can be difficult to follow for readers unfamiliar with the scores; but I suppose that detailed analysis of Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, Falsettos, or Grey Gardens might be similarly mystical to those without access to the cast albums.) Wright gives us a fine snapshot of the era, although there are several excluded shows that I would have liked to learn about. That's a minor qualm, considering all that is expertly covered. There are 40-odd photographs, plus a 35-page index of show data which is most helpful.
"A Tanner's Worth of Tune" — the name borrowed from a song in the 1960 musical, Johnny the Priest — seems to be an outgrowth of Wright's seemingly inactive website "British Musical Theatre" (at http://www.musical-theatre.net). Which remains online, and helpful. But the web site is something of a work in progress; "Tanner's Worth of Tune" is more of a polished, finished version. And a much welcome one, too!
Just in time for the Tony Awards, here comes "The Book of Mormon: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical" by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone [Newmarket]. I offered a lengthy review of the Mormon CD in last week's column, so I needn't restate myself. The playscript is, not surprisingly, highly readable and extremely funny. Notable are any number of jokes you might miss in the theatre; it is impossible to keep up with the dialogue and lyrics when so much is buried in laughter.
Included in this paperback is a forward by Mark Harris; a collective author's introduction from Parker, Lopez and Stone; and a nine-page selection of quotes from the first-night critics. The text is printed in three colors, with snatches of dialogue highlighted in extra-large type, and the whole is interspersed with numerous color photos. Not merely production shots, but props and set pieces as well. Close-ups of the texting machine, the magical frog, a light switch with which to "Turn It Off," etc. All with a sense of humor similar to that of the show itself.
I don't know who does the graphic design for Mormon — in this book, in the CD liner notes, in the advertisements — but they have certainly found a way to capture and represent the anarchic spirit that the authors and choreographer/co-director Casey Nicholaw have lavished on every element of the production.
The Mormon script is likely to be one of the few libretti that will actually sell in this relatively sleepy branch of the publishing world. Applause, meanwhile, has brought us two additional volumes in their Libretto Series: "The Last Five Years: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Musical" by Jason Robert Brown and "Memphis: The Complete Book and Lyrics of the Broadway Musical" by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan . Both are more straightforward than the flashy Mormon book, traditionally typeset and printed in good old black and white. The Last Five Years has an introduction by Mr. Brown, plus an eight-page insert of full-color shots of the original cast (which consisted of the young Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, way back in 2002). Memphis has an intro by Loraine Alterman Boyle along with 14 pages of photos.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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