ON THE RECORD: Bock & Harnick's The Body Beautiful and Hugh Martin's "Hans Brinker"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Bock & Harnick's The Body Beautiful and Hugh Martin's "Hans Brinker"
Giving a listen to the York Theatre Company CD of Bock and Harnick's first musical, The Body Beautiful, and the TV musical "Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates" starring Tab Hunter.


THE BODY BEAUTIFUL [Original Cast 6231]
The Body Beautiful opened at the Broadway in January 1958 and closed after eight weeks, leaving nary a trace. The competition was brisk — The Music Man, Jamaica, New Girl in Town, and West Side Story were all recent arrivals, with My Fair Lady still the monster hit in town — leaving the boxing-themed musical a mere contender. Coming from all-but-unknown authors and producers and without any stars, The Body Beautiful didn't even merit a cast recording. History tells us that this was the first collaboration of Jerry Bock (writing his second Broadway musical) and Sheldon Harnick (writing his first). A poorly-recorded live tape has long been in circulation, and at one point was given a pirated release. The sound quality is so very poor, though, that it leaves us with only a taste of the first Bock-Harnick score.

Broadway lore tells us that producers Bobby Griffith and Harold Prince, of the newly-opened West Side Story, found The Body Beautiful strong enough to invite the new team to write some songs on spec for their next show. Bock and Harnick did just that, with "Politics and Poker" instantly nabbing them the assignment; their score for Fiorello! ultimately earned them not only a Tony but a Pulitzer as well. All because Griffith and Prince were impressed by what they heard on opening night performance at The Body Beautiful.

And now we get to hear, more or less, what Griffith and Prince heard. The Body Beautiful has languished in the Samuel French catalogue for 50 years, virtually untouched and unperformed. The York Theatre Company gave it a go last spring in their Musicals in Mufti series of staged readings, a sort of pennywise reduction of what Encores! does across town at City Center (with 2,000 seats more worth of income per performance). What was learned was that The Body Beautiful is, indeed, a good example of a weak musical comedy with no legs; but that the music and lyrics carried the promise of a new-style Broadway team. Bock and Harnick weren't the type to try to fill their scores with hit songs, like other musicals of their immediate time (such as Guys and Dolls, Kismet, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and more). They wrote for their characters, first and foremost and always. If you remove Fiddler on the Roof from the discussion for a moment, you'll find that the Bock and Harnick shows — Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree, The Rothschilds — contain almost no song hits whatsoever.

These were some of the most flavorful musicals of their time; in the case of Fiorello! you are talking about what might be considered a refreshingly well-rounded show, and in the case of She Loves Me you have one of Broadway's most perfect scores ever. But the songs are designed to fit characters and plot; they are not extractable for Hit Parade or pop cavalcade purposes. Fiddler did indeed provide a handful of standards, but almost against its will; the show was so successful that popular demand extracted such titles as "Matchmaker," "To Life (L'Chaim)," "If I Were a Rich Man," and "Sunrise, Sunset" even though they weren't standard fodder for the recording artists of the day. (Frank Sinatra sings "Matchmaker, Matchmaker"?)

The score for The Body Beautiful isn't in a class with the other Bock and Harnick musicals, certainly; the main ballads — "Leave Well Enough Alone" and "Hidden in My Heart" — are weak, especially the latter (which might be the most bafflingly ineffective Jerry Bock song we've heard). But the score is filled with delicious touches; to paraphrase Mrs. Lovett, and why not?, bright ideas just pop into their heads. All through the score. I have often noted while watching Bock and Harnick musicals that audience members seem to sit forward during the songs, listening intently for the next flavorful joke, pun, or bright image that gets lobbed across the footlights. And this is not just thanks to the lyricist. The composer seems to accommodate him, again and again; the words land because the melodies make room for them. The Body Beautiful score is filled with delectably colorful images; you'll have to listen to it yourself, as I fear that pulling lyrics out of context won't do them justice. But Harnick has his oafish pugilists sing of their right cross, their left cross, and their Blue Cross; he has a trio of blonde golddiggers define "incompatible" as having to do with judging a man's income to determine how pattable he might be; and more of the same. The closer you listen, the more you get.

And this in a score and a show which, from the outset, is clearly non-champ material. To begin with, the book (by Joseph Stein and Will Glickman) is below-grade. Lots of punching-bag color, but little meat. The story tells of a fight manager with a ring full of clients with glass jaws or two left-feet or whatever the proper metaphor is. He finds a real contender, from Dartmouth, whom his secretary immediately falls for. There is a second boxer-and-his-girl couple (the "colored" couple, as they put it in those days); and there is the fight manager, drowning in a sea of alimony as he tries to land wife number three. Stein and Glickman give us three unconvincing storylines for the price of one, which is at least one too many.

Bock and Harnick provide songs for them all, but it is rather too much for too little. Even so, many of the songs are winning, pointing the way forward for the team. "The Body Beautiful" is upbeat and enjoyable; "Fair Warning" is a somewhat combative romantic duet; and "All of These and More" is an altogether winning, uptempo love song. On the comedy side, there are two winners: "The Honeymoon is Over," for that trio of pattable blondes; and "Gloria," a folksy softshoe which I have long enthused over. ("Gloria, you're so feminine," Harnick relates, "you're a cup of tea with cream, and lemon in.") And "A Relatively Simple Affair," in what is more or less the "Marry the Man Today" slot, is a surprise charmer. Bock and Harnick were not the first Broadway songwriters to come to town with a lemon of a musical, certainly; but The Body Beautiful served almost as an audition. Listening to the new CD, I can understand Griffith and Prince — with four-out-of-four hits under their belt — thinking: these guys could by winners, if they only had a good book and a good director and some real producers to help guide them.

The CD itself, from Original Cast Records, serves to introduce us to The Body Beautiful well enough. York presents its Muftis with a small combo, as necessitated by the size of their basement playhouse. In the present case we get musical director John Bell at piano, accompanied by bass and drums; the drummer is way too present on the recording, only accentuating the lack of orchestra. (Bonus material includes songs from the authors with Jerry at a lone piano, which come across as something of a relief). The York cast does its job well, with Brad Oscar (as the manager) and Laura Marie Duncan (as his secretary) taking top honors. Mike McGowan does well enough as the nominal romantic lead in a role that I suspect isn't especially well-written, and Capathia Jenkins delivers full value in the role which gave Barbara McNair her start. Megan Lawrence gives the comedy role of prospective wife number three such a squeaky voice (presumably as directed) that I almost want to skip through her numbers, which would be a mistake given the contributions of Mr. Harnick. And the show's rock 'n' roll specialty "Uh-Huh, Oh Yeah" — which was originally performed by a group of pre-teen boys — is poorly served by having it sung by grown men. Kids were out of the question at the York, where economics dictated a cast of 14; but maybe they could have brought in three or four boys for the recording session? "Just My Luck" suffers to a lesser extent thanks to Ms. Duncan, although the number would be far more charming performed as intended, with the lady backed by a group of boys.

A cast album of The Body Beautiful is 50 years overdue. Yes, we would prefer one with an orchestra, but that is beside the point. What's important here is the opportunity to hear Bock and Harnick's first score, and it comes across with very nicely indeed. The 19 tracks from the York are supplemented by two vintage but not-so-good 45s ("Hidden in My Heart" and "Just My Luck") by Mindy Carson, who played the secretary in the 1958. She is backed by little-known bandleader Sherman Edwards, who rose out of obscurity a decade later as composer-lyricist of 1776. Another two selections feature Susan Watson (backed by Buster Davis), and best of all are four flavorful demo tracks from Bock and Harnick.

Having brought us CD versions of Hugh Martin's 1951 Broadway musical Make a Wish and his 1952 West End hit Love from Judy, Sepia has now favored us with Martin's television musical "Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates." This was a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, starring the 27-year-old Tab Hunter as the 15-year-old skater from Zuyder Zee. The program aired on Feb. 9, 1958, and was apparently a big hit for Hallmark. Hunter sings perfectly well, if he is perhaps overgrown for the role. Also on hand are pop singer Peggy King and world class skater Dick Button, who as an 18-year-old won the Gold Medal for figure skating in the 1948 Olympics (and remains the youngest person ever to do so). Czech soprano Jarmila Novotna, longtime favorite at the Met, plays Tab's mother and sings one lullaby. Directing was Sidney Lumet, within a year of his breakthrough with "Twelve Angry Men." Martin's score has all the spirit and sweep of his songs for the 1944 Judy Garland-starrer "Meet Me in St. Louis"; the seven songs do not have the soaring melodies of that film, though, which has relegated them to the lost song folder. (Sepia fills out the CD with 20 vocals by either Hunter or King, including Tab's No. 1 1957 hit "Young Love.")

Even so, the brief score is highly recommended for Martin fans. "Ice" is bright and lively; "My Own True Love," which is more accurately titled "Clop Clop Clop" — that's the sound of wooden shoes on the streets of Amsterdam — has a nice beat to it, as well as a pert, tricky mid-section; and "Hello Springtime" is one of those Martin tunes that's likely to spread a smile on your face. Best of all, perhaps, is the tender "I Happen to Love You," which just misses the distinction of its first cousin "The Boy Next Door." Musical values are top notch, with vocal arrangements by Martin's long-time assistant Buster Davis, dance arrangements by John Morris, and orchestrations from the estimable Irv Kostal (just after West Side Story and prior to Fiorello!).

The many fans of Hugh Martin — who is alive and well and 94, living outside San Diego — have even more reason to cheer this month, as "The Songs of Hugh Martin" has just been published. This folio is packed with information on all his shows, interesting and rarely seen photos, and three-dozen songs. The old favorites — "The Boy Next Door," "The Trolley Song," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Ev'ry Time," "Pass That Peace Pipe" — are joined by quite a few stunningly good songs you might not know, with a handful of charmers appearing in print for the first time.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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