ON THE RECORD: But Is It Really a Broadway Musical?

News   ON THE RECORD: But Is It Really a Broadway Musical?
"Yes it's on Broadway, in a Broadway theatre, but is it really a Broadway musical?" That's a the question we keep hearing nowadays. This is nothing new, it turns out.

Two items, each a half century old or so, have suddenly appeared on CD. No, neither is really a Broadway musical, despite being originally produced in a Broadway theatre. Both were quite remarkable in their time, if less than commercially successful, and are most welcome on CD.

A full-scale opera opens at the Broadway. "A magnificent theatrical experience, the most powerful drama of the season," says the Times. "A work of bold and stunning theatrical effectiveness, both as a musical work and as a drama," says the News. It wins two of the three big prizes, the Pulitzer and the Drama Critics Award. (The Best Musical Tony is taken byThe Pajama Game.) Despite wide acclaim and strong reviews, Gian Carlo Menotti's 1954 Saint of Bleecker Street limps along for three months and closes after 92 performances. The original cast album (from RCA) quickly goes out-of-print, and the show — rather, the opera — is never heard of along Broadway again.

"Why quibble over terms?" asked Harriet Johnson of the Post. "Despite the fact that the Broadway habitues are afraid of the word 'opera,' there is little doubt but that Menotti has written such a 'bete noir.' One that, amazing as it may seem, we quickly recommend to any theatregoer who can take tragedy as well as comedy in his stride. Following in the footsteps of Puccini and Mascagni, the composer has created a work in the Italian "verismo" tradition complete with murder tinged with his own haunting gift for fantasy. This Saint casts a somber spell, but one pierced by moments of agonizing melodrama and theatrical flamboyancy."

Strong, yes, but not strong enough to withstand the "opera" label. I mean, it's Saturday night and which would you rather see? Riotous strike-breakers in tights in Dubuque, Mary Martin in tights in Neverland, or a skinny saint in Little Italy?

Unlike Menotti's other operas,The Saint takes place in America — on Bleecker Street, only a few blocks east of Broadway. The immigrant faithful have hailed the young girl Annina a saint. "A sickly child who never grew, a simple mind in a pain-pierced body," she is; "numb-skull," the kids in school used to call her. But one Good Friday she was blessed with the stigmata; since then, the lame and blind and mute and devout throng around her. Her brother Michele, a rebellious non-believer, will have none of this. He forbids Annina to participate in the San Gennaro Day festival. Neither Annina nor Michele have a choice, though; the men of the neighborhood beat Michele to the ground, handcuff him to the playground fence on Mulberry Street, and carry Annina off to church. How's that for an Act One curtain?

The second act ends on an even more bloody note. Michele has spurned his mistress Desideria, an outcast girl of the neighborhood. When he passes one insult too many, she lays him low with the all-too-apparent truth: He is secretly in love with Annina. Ah, incest! This enrages Michele so much that he stabs Desideria in the back with a bar knife. She falls in Annina arms, with the latter saying a prayer as Desideria lay dying. Act Three ends, needless to say, with Annina's death. Michele, on the lam, returns to prevent his sister from taking the veil. He bursts in, but too late. Annina rises to receive "the ring of faith," falling dead to the stage floor as the priest slips the gold ring on her finger.

From all reports, The Saint of Bleecker Street was remarkably haunting at the Broadway. Composer-lyricist-librettist-orchestrator Menotti was a staging wizard as well; he set his piece to highly praised sets by Robert Randolph, in the style of painter George Tooker. Conductor Thomas Schippers had a 56-piece orchestra at his disposal, presumably the largest Broadway orchestra of the last half-century, and minimums be damned.

For the record, two sets of leads alternated as Annina and Michele. It is unclear at this late date whether any of them were deemed Tony-eligible, although I'd rather doubt it. Walter Slezak and Mary Martin took the best performer awards for Fanny and Peter Pan, with Cyril Ritchard (Pan) and Carol Haney (Pajama) taking the supporting awards. Bleecker Street won a lone Tony, for conductor Thomas Schippers.

With its mid-fifties setting amongst immigrants in a New York City ghetto, and its intermingled threads of forbidden love, murder, and betrayal, The Saint of Bleecker Street inevitably brings to mind Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge and the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents-Robbins West Side Story — both of which came after Menotti's Pulitze winner opened and closed. Every time I listen to the Act Two battle between Michele and Desideria, I keep half expecting Chita Rivera to come out and hiss, "A boy like that, who loves his seester; she'll be a nun, a week from Eeester."

The Saint of Bleecker Street comes across only intermittently on this new recording. Things don't catch fire until the entrance of Michele (Timothy Richards) midway through the first act. The Act Two scenes between Michele and Desiderata (Pamela Helen Stephen) are riveting as well, in a way that much of the singing of Annina (Julia Melinek) and her friend Carmela (Sandra Zeltzer) are not. This is a live recording from the Spoleto Festival in July 2001; I expect that the two sopranos would have done much better had they been able to stand in front of a microphone concentrating.

Unfortunate, yes, but this doesn't mar the power of the score. Menotti's music is soaringly emotional, and well-handled by conductor Richard Hickox; if only we could understand more of the words! The long out-of-print original Broadway cast album is one of the few that I've never been able to track down; after finally hearing the work, I'm determined to hear what it sounded like on Broadway at the Broadway.

The Saint of Bleecker Street certainly won't replace The Medium on my all-time-favorite list of music drama, and I don't suppose that I'll listen to it as much as I do The Consul or Amahl and the Night Visitors. But being able to sit back and listen to a new-to-me Menotti opera is quite a treat, rewarding and satisfying.

JEROME MOROSS: "Frankie and Johnny" and "Willie the Weeper" [Naxos 8.559086]
"Something fresh and exciting, as American as a hot dog spiked with mustard." "The best song-and-dance show to reach Broadway this season." "A new form in which three major arts united to create compelling theatre." So said the Journal-American, the Daily News and the Herald Tribune, respectively. And this, from Richard Watts in the Post: "Nothing I have seen all season had the imagination, creative freshness, and theatrical intelligence. There may be some question as to whether the proceedings belong technically under the head of ballet or musical comedy, but there is none at all that they are theatrically enchanting. . . . The most important feature is that it is not only a successful experiment in mixing words, music, and dance but also is such good fun."

Ballet Ballads opened May 9, 1948, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre and transferred to the Music Box, for a combined run of 69 performances. The evening consisted of three one-acts, with music by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John Latouche. One of them, Willie the Weeper, is presented in full on this new CD. (Some of the song sections of The Eccentricities of Davey Crockett were included on "Windflowers" [PS Classics] and "Taking a Chance on Love" [Original Cast OC-4444]. The third piece ofBallet Ballads, Susannah and the Elders, remains unrecorded so far as I know.)

Willie the Weeper is drawn from two folk poems, "Willie the Weeper" and "Cocaine Lil." It tells of a chimney sweeper, who wasn't much of a man — except in his reefer-fueled dreams. Fans of Moross' film scores and his musical The Golden Apple will know what to expect: bounteous melody, unexpected grace, harmonic riches and sly humor. And there's also the underappreciated Latouche, who died at the age of 41 in 1956 while working with Bernstein on Candide. Sample lyric: "Buy some cotton in Spain, and then spin it in Egypt; sell it later in Decatur, where citizens can be gypped.")

Willie is joined on this new CD by an earlier Moross ballet, Frankie and Johnny. Written to a libretto by the composer (in collaboration with Michael Blankford), the "ballet suite for orchestra" was commissioned by choreographer Ruth Page for the Federal Theatre Project; it premiered in Chicago on June 20, 1938. According to the liner notes, this was "the first ballet to be truly 'American' in form, content and creative personnel." What this means, precisely, I can't say; but the calendar shows that Frankie and Johnny predated Copland's Rodeo, Bernstein's Fancy Free and even Rodgers'sGhost Town. (Copland recommended Moross — a member of his Young Composers' Group — for the Frankie and Johnny assignment.)

Frankie and Johnny stems from the old song of the same title, about a pair of lovers; Johnny done her wrong, and Frankie shot him. The song is threaded through the 22 minute, modern music ballet. Although based on a folk song like Kurt Weill's Down in the Valley, the music is closer in style to Fancy Free. Which is to say, this is exciting, lively stuff.

Moross' style falls somewhere between Copland and Bernstein; he might be described as a Bernard Herrmann who could write songs. Moross was also an expert orchestrator. His screen work included Copland's "Our Town" and "The North Star"; Frank Loesser's "Hans Christian Andersen"; and Hugo Friedhofer's "The Best Years of Our Lives." The orchestrations for Willie the Weeper are especially exciting; listen to the flutes embellishing "I've Got Me," and the trombones gone wild in the "Big Willie" section. This is our first hearing of these charts; Ballet Ballads was performed to a piano accompaniment in 1948 (and its 1962 Off-Broadway revival). Moross was difficult, ideologically; he made his Broadway debut at 21 with the 1935 "Social Revue" Parade, which was so social as to embarrass its sponsors. (The Theatre Guild thought that they were getting another Garrick Gaieties.) By the late forties Moross was blacklisted; he only reached Broadway twice, with Ballet Ballads and The Golden Apple. (His kid brother, Charlie Moross, pioneered the use of computerized payroll systems on Broadway in the mid-sixties.) Jerry Moross is best known for his 17 Hollywood scores, including the exuberant "Big Country" [Screen Classics SC-1-JM] and Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal" [Preamble PRCD 1778]. The latter features Bobby Morse, by the way.

"Frankie and Johnny" and "Willie the Weeper" is on the low-priced Naxos label; the disc retails at only $7.98. The program was recorded at the Hot Springs Music Festival under the direction of Richard Rosenberg. Rosenberg certainly understands Moross; the music, especially in Willie, soars. John DeHaan is the Singing Willie, and does quite a job of it; Melisa Barrick, Denise Edds and Diane Kesling are the soloists for Frankie and Johnny. The two ballets are joined by "Those Everlasting Blues," a 16 minute cantata Moross wrote when he was 19, and it's mighty lugubrious. But that's no drawback, compared to the grand exuberance of Frankie and especially Willie.

I wondered in my last column whether Ethel Merman ever heard the finished Ethel Merman Disco Album. One of our readers e-mailed that he watched as Merman listened, at a 1979 record signing at the Ice Palace disco on West 57th Street. "She didn't look too happy," he said.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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