ON THE RECORD: Ahrens and Flaherty's Lucky Stiff and Porter's Mexican Hayride

News   ON THE RECORD: Ahrens and Flaherty's Lucky Stiff and Porter's Mexican Hayride
This week's column discusses the York Theatre recording of Flaherty and Ahrens' Lucky Stiff and the long-out-of-print cast album of Cole Porter's all-but-forgotten Mexican Hayride.

I missed Lucky Stiff when it played at Playwrights Horizons for about two minutes in 1988. It wasn't until 1994 when I discovered this first full musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, courtesy of a studio cast album from Bruce Kimmel and Varese Sarabande [VSD-5461]. This was one of the not-very-many show albums that I was moved to immediately replay without getting out of my chair. (In the old days, you had to get up and flip the LP.) I've been praising this show ever since, whenever and wherever the occasion presented itself.

Lucky Stiff is not the perfect musical, mind you. It played a limited run of 15 performances at Playwrights, with no transfer in the offering. This is understandable, I suppose. Despite the overabundance of quality and creativity in evidence, I'm afraid there is a question of commerciality. (Hey! It's this really funny story about a corpse that travels to Monte Carlo in a wheelchair . . . .)

The 1994 album was a studio affair, apparently assembled in response to a successful stock engagement at the Olney Theatre in Maryland — and reflecting the oncoming team of songwriters, who had in the interim been on Broadway with Once on This Island and My Favorite Year.

Flash forward past Ragtime, Seussical and A Man of No Importance. The "Musicals in Mufti" series at the York Theatre presented Lucky Stiff in October 2003, reassembling a half-dozen members of the 1988 cast. This severely under-exposed musical demonstrated its many charms once more, moving the London-based Jay Productions to offer a second cast recording. (Jay also recorded Flaherty and Ahrens's Man of No Importance [CDJAY 1369], which I saw fit to leave off last year's Holiday Gift list. I was summarily admonished by a discerning reader for this oversight; and I must say, on reflection, that said reader was correct in his judgment. So consider the CD in question amended to last year's honor role.)

I confess that I approached this new Lucky Stiff with a decided partiality towards the Varese disc, which includes Judy Blazer at her best. The earlier disc also features a five-man band (with composer Flaherty at the keyboards), as opposed to the one-piano accompaniment of the new disc. Musical director David Loud — who does a fine job throughout — is at the keyboard; Flaherty plays the bonus track, a cut song for the shoe-salesman hero entitled "Shoes." Fortunately, Mary Testa appears on both versions. Nobody is indispensable, I suppose, but Testa seems to fill this role in a way that few others could. She is ably abetted by Malcolm Gets as the recalcitrant Mr. Witherspoon, Janet Metz as the heroine from the Universal Dog of Home Brooklyn, and seven others who are all in on the fun. This is also a fuller version of the score than was heard on the Varese disc.

Lucky Stiff still seems an unlikely prospect for Broadway, unless one of our resident non-profits sees fit to do it as a holiday lark. This new CD, however, will hopefully spur a sharp increase in stock and amateur productions. In that market, I should think, Lucky Stiff can be a surefire audience-pleaser.

MEXICAN HAYRIDE [Decca Broadway B00003125]
The early forties were big box office for Broadway, thanks to wartime audiences and the end of the Depression. While there were numerous hit musicals, they were not necessarily distinguished. The "great" songwriters of the past 20 years were all but absent. Gershwin was gone, Youmans and Kern remained silent (with only one Broadway visit from the latter after 1933, a flop in 1939). Berlin, too, contributed only one book musical between 1932 and 1946. Rodgers, who had been highly active with seven shows between 1937 and 1940, only wrote two new musicals between 1941 and 1945.

This left an open field for Cole Porter. Between 1939 and 1944, he wrote an astounding six hits in a row! The great songs that came out of these shows are: "Friendship." That's it, unless you want to add "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" to the list. (Compare this with Porter's 1948 Kiss Me, Kate, which has about ten superb songs.) Porter's six-for-six hits have been revived on Broadway: Never. Du Barry Was a Lady, the second of the group, is the best of them; but the other shows have little to recommend them nowadays.

Of course, they had something to recommend them at the time. Not "Girls! Girls! Girls!," to quote a song from the last of the shows, Mexican Hayride, but Stars! Stars! Stars! Ethel Merman toplined three of the six; the others had comic legends Bobby Clark, Danny Kaye (in the role that wafted him to Hollywood), and the fabled team of Gaxton and Moore. Nevertheless, a hit is a hit, and the team of Porter and Herbert Fields (librettist for all but the first of the six) could seemingly do no wrong. But the shows weren't very good, and the scores are — for Porter — remarkably uninteresting.

Mexican Hayride has just been issued on CD after all these years — 60, count 'em — and it makes an interesting experience. The eight recorded songs fall flat, one after another. The composer laughed out of the side of his mouth all the way to the bank, I suppose; but there you have it. Porter, Fields and producer Mike Todd even got a film sale out of it, although by the time Mexican Hayride went Hollywood it was a Porter-less vehicle for Abbott and Costello.

Two songs display some life, thanks to the performer. Not Mr. Clark, who is unaccountably absent from the disc, but featured comedienne June Havoc. (Gypsy Rose Lee's sister, just out of Pal Joey, played a female bullfighter called Montana.)

"There Must Be Someone for Me" is a list song, falling somewhere between "Let's Do It" and "Nobody's Chasing Me." Not that it is wholly successful, mind you, but it adequately fits the formula. "Abracadabra," too, has some life; or is it just Ms. Havoc? The booming-voiced Wilbur Evans, who played the romantic lead, gets to sing "I Love You," which achieved some popularity at the time. He is also given "Girls," which seems remarkably simplistic — although I feel sure that it was something else, again, when the decidedly non-romantic Bobby Clark shuffled his way through the number. The orchestrations are credited to Russell Bennett and Ted Royal, although I detect Don Walker's musical sense of humor in the two Havoc numbers cited above. For all the praise typically heaped upon the legendary Cole Porter, a song-by song analysis of the nine musicals he wrote between Red Hot and Blue (in 1937) and Kiss Me, Kate (in 1948) displays an inordinate amount of pedestrian material. I've come across almost 100 of the songs from this period, and I can find little of note in nine out of ten — which makes Kiss Me, Kate all the more remarkable.

The 23-minute Mexican Hayride set is supplemented by the six-sided 1940 personality album "Cole Porter Songs sung by Mary Martin." And what do you know? This is a fine collection of early Porter. Mary, who had just made her smashing debut in Leave it to Me, brings along her rendition of the aforementioned "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," and it almost shouts out "show-stopper." Martin had spirit and spunk in those days, which might surprise listeners who are accustomed to her latter persona. Some of these Porter songs are what you might call racy, like "Katie Went to Haiti." (Katie had her Haiti, we are told, "and practically all Haiti had was Katie.") Mary knew just how to score every point.

Also on hand are "Let's Do It," "What Is This Thing Called Love?," "Why Shouldn't I?" and "I Get a Kick Out of You." The orchestrations are uncredited, but they are good; they capture the spirit of these songs, without intruding on the material. Conducting was a fellow named Ray Sinatra, whose skinny cousin was just about to make a name for himself.

Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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