ON THE RECORD: A Man of No Importance Plus Noel & Cole

News   ON THE RECORD: A Man of No Importance Plus Noel & Cole
This week’s column examines the original cast recording of A Man of No Importance as well as works by Noel Coward and Cole Porter.

The opening number of A Man of No Importance weaves its way through a combination of character introduction and plot — mixed with exposition and foreshadowing — in such an unwieldy and unconventional manner that you wonder how Flaherty and Ahrens expect to carry it off. As in the theatre, three-quarters of the way through the eight-minute number they've got you; the gentle, underplayed manner pays off by enveloping you in the Dublinesque spell of the piece.

Most unfortunately, we soon discover that the score is divided into three unequal parts: the inventive and atmospheric numbers, which present A Man of No Importance at its best; more or less standard musical comedy, which is an understandable necessity under the circumstances; and outlandish numbers bordering on camp. These last include a butcher singing about heart and marrow and sausage, while holding up a pig's head he calls Yorick; an advanced-age frump singing about her performance as Peter Pan; and — in the second act — a number out of the "King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade" (of My Favorite Year) which gives us Salome tap-dancing through her dance of seven veils, with zippers. Yes, zippers.

It is neither my place nor desire to counsel the Messrs. Flaherty and McNally and Ms. Ahrens; they know what they are about. I suppose they settled upon this fragmented approach after much determination, hoping that the excesses of the one prong of the fork would counteract the moodiness of the other. No, it didn't work, not for me; nor for the majority of the critics and audiences at Lincoln Center. But the weaknesses, so off-putting in the theatre, are only minor drawbacks on disc. What is important is the emotional outpouring of Flaherty's score; this is, presumably, what they were aiming at. On CD, A Man of No Importance is for the most part overwhelming.

"Love Who You Love," "Man in the Mirror" and, most especially, "The Streets of Dublin" are all you need to hear. And should hear. Once they get past that Salome-with-Zipper number, the sheer beauty of the rest of the disc overtakes you. And you might well want to set your player to repeat "The Streets of Dublin."

It is a given that the majority of people interested in musical theatre at large were unable to make it to the 299-seat Newhouse during the three month run of A Man of No Importance. For them, this CD is essential. None of Stephen Flaherty's six professionally-produced musicals to date have been commercial successes, for a variety of reasons; but he is, and remains, one of our most important practitioners of musical theatre. And let me take this space, once more, to plug the team's first musical. The woefully overlooked Lucky Stiff [Fynsworth Alley VSD-5461] is a wonderfully macabre romp, with an inventively comic score. Flaherty and Ahrens are firmly aided by the music department (Ted Sperling, Rob Berman, William David Brohn and Christopher Janke) and the cast. Roger Rees was performing under a bit of a handicap in the theatre; I suppose too many people were thinking that this man of no importance should have been older or fatter or sadder or something other than Rees was, in type. For me, though, he created a suitably haunting man in the mirror; and he comes across very effectively on disc.

Faith Prince is saddled with much of that musical comedy material — songs about how poor Alfie reads all those "booooks," which rhymes with "the poor sod cooooks." Once Prince gets suitable material, late in the second act, she is heartbreaking. "Why did you never tell me?" Lily asks her brother, adding — after he has left the stage — "you must have known I'd love you all the same." The cast of 19 is stocked with an impressive number of highly talented musical theatre artists, shining in tiny roles. Standing out is Steven Pasquale, wisely entrusted with the stunning "Streets of Dublin"; and Jessica Molaskey, who was all but invisible onstage until her voice sent the second act opening ("Our Father") soaring.

I suspect the piece will have a far happier afterlife than in its original incarnation, away from the showbiz spotlight and the weighty expectations into which the original production was thrust. Let us be thankful that this score was preserved; imagine what a loss if A Man of No Importance went unrecorded.

After listening to the CD twice, I wanted to go back and see the show again; quite an accomplishment, considering my mood when I left the Newhouse last fall. Yes, A Man of No Importance was a failure, at least in its original production. But yes, definitely, get this CD.

Noel Coward fans will presumably disagree, but it has always seemed to me that he peaked in the Thirties. The 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit was a deserved hit, in London and New York; but the rest of the plays and musicals — and there were still quite a few to come — I find relatively spotty, and not especially amusing. And, yes, that includes Present Laughter in my estimation.

Coward, who was born two weeks before the dawn of the century, saw his star diminish as he entered his late forties. While he remained a major personage in England, the party seemed all but over. His celebrity was unexpectedly rejuvenated when an American booker — Louis Armstrong's manager, of all people — had the audacity to suggest that Coward bring his London cabaret act to Las Vegas. Las Vegas, in the great American desert. What would gamblers know, or care, about "Mad Dogs and Englishmen?"

Coward went to the Desert Inn in 1955 for four weeks, and he was a smash. From the looks of it, every Hollywood superstar stopped in to catch Coward in the desert. Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records recorded the act live, resulting in the best selling “Noel Coward at Las Vegas.” (The LP featured a cover photo of a resplendent Coward, teacup in hand, standing in the desert. "Mad Dogs and Englishman" out in the midday sun, indeed.) The success of this engagement — and his appearance in the star-packed Mike Todd film “Around the World in Eighty Days” — jumpstarted a new career for Coward. While he continued to write plays and musicals, with less and less success, he became even more celebrated. Yes, he'd been a major star in London and New York, back in his heyday; but now he was famous for being famous. And he remained so until his death in 1973.

“Noel Coward at Las Vegas” has been issued for the first time on CD by DRG. And it's wonderful. Yes, I'm sure it was wonderful in its time; but listening to it today, almost 50 years later, one marvels at how very good Coward is. He knows his material, of course; he wrote most of it himself. But this is an exceptional performance, sculpted by young arranger Peter Matz (whose main credit at the time was for dance and vocals on Harold Arlen's 1954 musical House of Flowers). Coward takes full advantage of every word, every musical note; he knows where to underplay, where to pounce, where to breeze through with dizzying speed, where to pause for the audience to catch up with the nuance.

I am by no means familiar with all of Coward's recorded performances, and I am admittedly not his biggest fan. But let me say, “Noel Coward at Las Vegas” is by far the best Coward I have ever heard. A real treat.

Hollywood discovered the Broadway musical with the coming of the talking picture in 1927. Warner Bros. quickly bought Harms, Broadway's top music publisher, and major Broadway composers gladly hastened westward to pick up movie money. The oh-so-sophisticated Cole Porter had a bumpy start, though. His 1929 Broadway musical Fifty Million Frenchmen was filmed with all of the songs cut; only one song, "Night and Day," was retained when they filmed his 1932 Fred Astaire-vehicle “The Gay Divorce.” Porter continued to write the occasional movie — “Born to Dance,” “Rosalie,” “Something to Shout About” — but with none of the success of Kern or Berlin or Gershwin. Then came Kiss Me, Kate, which renewed Porter's career in 1948. M-G-M released their movie adaptation in 1953, and quickly embarked on three more Cole Porter projects (released in 1956 and 1957). “High Society” was a major star package, with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and even Louis Armstrong having a go at Katherine Hepburn's old Philadelphia Story. “Les Girls” was handed to a different Kelly, Gene, who had temporarily outpaced Astaire with “American in Paris” and “Singin' in the Rain.” “Silk Stockings,” Porter's fifth and final Astaire mating, was an adaptation of (and improvement upon) the uneven 1955 Broadway musical with which Porter ended his theatrical career.

Warner Home Video has given us all-new digital transfers of these four Cole Porter musicals — along with the Porter-Astaire “Broadway Melody of 1940” — on DVD, as the Cole Porter Collection of the Classic Musicals series. Fans of movie musicals are no doubt familiar with these films, at least most of them; they look as fresh-and-new as you'd expect, and are accompanied by vintage shorts and cartoons. “Kiss Me, Kate,” with a score far superior to the others, is the best of the bunch I daresay. Not only for the material and the production design, but for the jaw-dropping introduction of young Bob Fosse (in his second film).

For it's Fosse — dancing with Carol Haney — who choreographed that remarkable 67 second interlude of "From This Moment On." Fosse comes sliding in on his back out of nowhere, then freezes; it's as if we've entered a new era. As familiar as the moves are to us now, they must have been startling at the time. Within the year Fosse was on Broadway, as choreographer of The Pajama Game. He took Haney along as his featured dancer. He also took along the moves from his “Kiss Me, Kate” showcase, incorporating many of them in the "Steam Heat" number. That arm-extended-from-the-forehead pose was prominently featured in Haney's major number in the first act of Pajama Game, the "Once a-Year Day" dance. As for Fosse himself, he is the very model for the Fosse-dancer. Bobby Van and Tommy Rall are his companions in "Tom, Dick and Harry," and they make quite a trio.

Should you wonder at those strange camera shots that pepper “Kate,” they were there to support the 3-D process in which the film was originally released. When Kathryn Grayson throws tableware at the camera to punctuate "I Hate Men," that pewter plate had moviegoers literally ducking in their seats.

—Steven Suskin, author of the newly released "Broadway Yearbook 2001 2002," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

Today’s Most Popular News: