ON THE RECORD: archy and mehitabel and Something to Dance About | Playbill

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On the Record ON THE RECORD: archy and mehitabel and Something to Dance About This week's column discusses the "back alley opera" archy and mehitabel (starring Carol Channing) and Kim Criswell's recording of songs from Call Me Madam.

archy and mehitabel [DRG 19064]
DRG has brought us archy and mehitabel as one of the titles in its "The Child in All of Us" series. I hereby confess that I remembered George Kleinsinger's "back alley opera" only vaguely; I recalled liking it, but not enough to bother listening to it again since I don't know when. Ninety bluesy seconds into the twenty-seven-minute saga of the humble cockroach and his feline friend, I was totally hooked, and am pleased to recommend it to people looking for something a little different.

Different it is, that's for sure. Don Marquis wrote the Sun Dial column in the New York Sun. One morning in 1916 he entered his office to find a poem stuck in his typewriter. Archy, the aforementioned cockroach with the soul of a poet, pecked it out overnight; at least, that's what Marquis reported in his column. (Cockroaches can't operate the shift key, hence it was all lower case and without punctuation. "The main question," archy (Marquis) wrote to critics of his style, "is whether the stuff is literature or not.") This wasn't an accidental invention; Marquis had difficulty filling the space in his daily column, and archy allowed him to store up copy in advance, for days when he had nothing newsworthy to say. The adventures of archy continued long after Marquis left the daily grind, encompassing about 500 pieces in all. Marquis published his third book of archy's work in 1935, and died in 1937.

After a depression and a world war, archy and mehitabel was somewhat forgotten. But the tales were kept alive and given a boost with the 1950 publication of the anthology "The Lives and Times of archy and mehitabel," with an appreciation by E.B. White. This seems to have put archy back in the public eye, much as the 1994 publication of Joseph Moncure March's long-out-of-print 1928 poem "The Wild Party" spawned dueling musicals in 2000. George Kleinsinger was what you might call a "symphonic jazz" composer. He had one major hit to his name, an introduction-to-the-orchestra piece he wrote with Paul Tripp in 1942. Nothing much happened until four years later when Columbia recorded it on two 10" 78s. Tubby the Tuba, aimed specifically at the children's market, became iconic. In 1953, Kleinsinger turned to archy and mehitabel, working with little-known lyricist Joe Darion (who in 1965 would pen "The Impossible Dream").

Carol Channing played mehitabel, the toujours gai alley cat with a past, and she is quite something here. "Why does life have to be one darn litter after another?" she asks to the strains of an ashcan lullaby ("mother dear will be hustling for fishcakes and cream"). This all must have sounded pretty amusing in 1954 (or 1916, originally), but kittens drowning in an ashcan — "I will make a home for the little innocents," says the reluctant mother, "unless of course providence should remove them" — takes on a whole new meaning in our enlightened age.

This is not the Carol of Dolly Levi, mind you; this is a decade earlier, when she was still a slinky-if-larger-than-life siren. (The small photo on the original LP has been further reduced for the CD, making it hard to make out. But there she is, a svelte blonde in a black halter-top dress with a ponytail hanging down her back.) Archy was recorded just after Channing returned from touring her diamond-decked Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; she proceeded to a tour of Pygmalion, and returned to town for a second recording session just after replacing Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town. Carol couldn't match Roz at the box office, but she took the show on a national tour — and I'm told she was quite good in the role. David Wayne was the most celebrated of the three perhaps, the first actor to win a Tony Award for a performance in a musical (for Finian's Rainbow, 1947); at the time of archie and mehitabel he had just won another, for Teahouse of the August Moon. This made him only the second man to win two acting Tonys, joining Jose Ferrer. Wayne might well have won in 1948 as well, but there was no such thing as a "featured" award at that point, so his critically acclaimed Ensign Pulver lost — understandably so — to Henry Fonda's Mister Roberts. (If Ferrer and Wayne had a pair of Tonys on their mantle, the remarkable Shirley Booth had already won three within five years — and an Oscar as well!)

Eddie Bracken, who was perhaps just as famous, played the cockroach archy. He was trouping from the age of six, going on to early film comedies. He made his Broadway debut six years later, in 1931; and he was finally "discovered," for all intents and purposes, as a George Abbott farceur in 1937. His third Abbott show, the Rodgers & Hart musical Too Many Girls, took Bracken back to the screen, where he soon gave two of the finest farce performances of the forties. Both came in 1944, from director Preston Sturges: As Norval Jones, the unwitting (and unrelated) father of quintuplets in "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek"; and as Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith, an ex-marine with hay fever, in "Hail the Conquering Hero."

By the early fifties, Bracken's film career, and his brief stardom, was all but over. He starred in the national companies of The Seven Year Itch and Teahouse of the August Moon, and then drifted into a career as a sometimes producer, sometimes director, sometimes theatre operator; always trying to make a go of it, never quite succeeding. (His last two Broadway appearances were as one of Carol's many Vandergelders, in her 1978 Dolly, and as Mickey Rooney's replacement in Sugar Babies.) When last I bumped into him, he was hopelessly trying to raise money to produce the musical Sayonara on Broadway. It was rather disconcerting to say the least; this helpless little old man, who had peaked 50 years earlier in 1944. He died in 2002 at the age of 87; but those two film performances remain uproariously evergreen.

The recording of archie was apparently highly successful; it was quickly reissued in 1955 as one of Columbia's earliest long play records, those thick discs with the purple labels packed in a cardboard sleeve within a cardboard sleeve. In 1957, the recording spawned a full-scale musical, which was apparently not such a great idea; the expansion, entitled Shinbone Alley, all but crushed poor archy. Bracken re-created his role opposite Eartha Kitt as the cat. Wayne's role as narrator/Marquis was not carried over, though the newspaperman had some offstage lines. (These were read by one of the stage managers, Julian Barry, who 14 years later wrote Lenny.)

The first-time songwriters were joined by a first time librettist, Mel Brooks; none of them was able to provide the spark that was needed, and Shinbone Alley closed after seven weeks. There was a bit more exposure of the piece, on television and as an animated feature (starring the voices of Bracken and Channing), but archie has been relegated to the cobwebs of long ago.

Which makes the new CD a happy surprise. The style is, as I say, symphonic jazz; I'm not going to say it sounds like Leonard Bernstein, but if you forced an uninformed listener to try to identify the bursts of dance music for the cats — not the hep cats, but the actual alley cats — the best guess you get might well be that it has something to do with West Side Story (which was written four years later).

The disc is filled out with the Kleinsinger and Darion sequel to archy and mehitabel, echoes of archy, which stars Wayne (without Carol and Eddie); and Ogden Nash's take on Saint-Saen's Carnival of the Animals. This last will definitely appeal to fans of the narrator, Noel Coward; I am not one of their number, in this case at least, which makes this Carnival challenging listening. But don't overlook the fabled archy, the singing-and-typewriting cockroach now approaching his ninetieth year.

With three American cast recordings of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam on the shelf, Something to Dance About, a British showcase of the singer Kim Criswell which incorporates seven Madam selections, seems unlikely to add anything to the mix. But appearances are deceiving. No sooner do they launch into "The Hostess with the Mostes'" than we realize that Ms. Criswell — and her producer, John Yap — are now, for the first time, demonstrating what this show must have sounded like in the theatre.

This statement calls for some explaining. Berlin wrote this score for Merman, and Merman recorded it during the Broadway run, didn't she? Well, yes. But RCA Victor, the principal backer of the stage show, was unable to borrow Merman from Decca (with whom she had an exclusive contract). Decca gladly brought out its own collection, Ethel Merman: 12 Songs from "Call Me Madam" [Decca Broadway 0881 10521], and did very well with it. But this is not the Broadway Call Me Madam; it features decidedly non-theatrical arrangements by Gordon Jenkins. We get the Merman voice, yes, which you'd think would be more than enough; but a cast album it isn't.

RCA plugged singing star Dinah Shore into the role, surrounding her with the rest of the original cast, supported by musical director Jay Blackton conducting the original orchestrations (almost). This album — now available, if you can find it, from the British label Flame [ROYCD 222] — sounds far more theatrical than the Decca. It also brings us leading man Paul Lukas (who is not much of a singer), ingenue Galina Talva (with her ocarina), and the personable performance of Russell Nype, who all but stole the show from Ethel and took home his own Tony Award. But there is a problem with this recording; there is an extra orchestrator billed, one Hugo Winterhalter, who is known for his "easy listening" style. He quite obviously provided special charts for Ms. Shore, although which and what was impossible for the listener to tell until 1995.

Until 1995, that is, thanks to the concert version of the show given by City Center Encores! and recorded by DRG [DRG 24761]. Finally, we had the entire show with the authentic orchestrations, giving us a good idea of what the show sounded like when Berlin was standing at the back rail of the Imperial. At least, we got an idea of how the ensemble numbers sounded. Rob Fisher and his merry band played everything as it must have been, but we weren't hearing the Merman role. Tyne Daly played the part, and she did quite well within the context of the concert version; but she wasn't singing, not in the manner that Berlin intended. So in 1995, we got to hear everything meticulously performed, except the star vocals.

Jay Records, now, finishes the task. They take the original orchestrations (apparently using the reconstruction prepared for Encores!) and add a singer who can sing these songs like they are supposed to be sung. Kim Criswell can sing, certainly; I might not be her biggest fan, as I usually find her overly mannered, but she knows what to do with a song (and the mannerisms are in this case very much in control). Criswell does extremely well by Call Me Madam, with just a little touch of the inevitable Merman here and there. Call Me Madam is not my favorite Berlin score, either; but the Merman songs are robust, and it's a pleasure to hear them on this recording.

The selections omit one of the Merman songs, "Can You Use Any Money Today?" while including "Mr. Monotony." This is one of the most interesting of the songs; one of Berlin's most interesting, to me, and quite unlike anything else he wrote. It was neither written for nor (in the end) heard in Call Me Madam. An unused song intended for the 1948 film "Easter Parade," Berlin incorporated it into his 1949 musical Miss Liberty. The sinuously jazzy number — about a gal who leaves her monotonous trombonist for a snappy clarinetter, because, in Berlin's words, "trombone players don't last long" — must have seemed out-of-place in a show taking place in 1885. But no matter; choreographer Jerome Robbins and dance arranger Genevieve Pitot worked it into what must have been quite a number. Out it went on the road, for obvious reasons, but Berlin and Robbins reinstated it a year later in Madam. Cut once more, it finally reached Broadway in the 1989 anthology revue Jerome Robbins' Broadway. "Washington Square Dance" and "Something to Dance About," two of Robbins' three big showpieces in the affair, come off especially well, giving us an audio snapshot of what the production numbers in Abbott-Robbins musicals sounded like. No, Merman didn't lead the "Square Dance"; but she launched the song, sat back while the girls and boys did their stuff to musical variations, and returned for the finish.

The orchestrations are suitably flavorful throughout, if not particularly distinguished. (Pretty much the same can be said for the Berlin's score.) The orchs are herein credited to Don Walker, which is not especially accurate. Walker, for reasons unknown and to his surprise, was replaced during the tryout; sitting at home in New Hope, he got a phone call telling him that Joe Glover was doing new charts. "You're Just in Love" (here done in duet with Matt Bogart) and "Something to Dance About" are definitely by Glover, as they were written after Walker's departure.

Glover wound up with "additional orchestration" credit, and apparently with no hard feelings; Walker, who had used Glover as early as Carousel in 1945, invited him into several of his next shows. Glover did quite a bit of ghosting over the years, as well as being credited on a few shows (the most important being Arthur Schwartz's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). His work was typically adequate and sometimes even better. The best charts of his that I've positively identified are "Wrong Note Rag" and "The Man I Used to Be"; he also did "Chop Suey," so help us.

Something to Dance About, the CD, is filled in with Criswell singing assorted numbers from the Berlin song bag, but the value here — at least for musical comedy fans — is Call Me Madam.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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