ON THE RECORD: Carol Channing's Show Girl and Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Carol Channing's Show Girl and Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet
We listen to the original cast album of Carol Channing's 1961 revue Show Girl and a compilation album of Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet, incorporating stars of the original 1929 West End and Broadway productions.


SHOW GIRL [Kritzerland 20012]
Ah, the perils of creating an iconic musical comedy role! That can be said to be both the magic and the frustration of the Carol Channing. The Amazonian comedienne with the distinctively profound basso first gained recognition in the 1948 revue Lend an Ear, where she clowned through a variety of roles. While merely a featured player, she gave an irresistibly hilarious performance as a 1920ish musical comedy flapper in the extended sketch "The Gladiola Girl." So much so that Jule Styne and Anita Loos, in the process of musicalizing the latter's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, chose the unlikely Carol — cast wildly against type — to portray Lorelei Lee, the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" gal, in the resulting 1949 smash.

Channing happily played Lorelei on Broadway and took the show out on a rollicking road tour. But after regaling audiences for five years as a misplaced 1920s flapper, what do you do next? Especially when your property is purloined by no less than Marilyn Monroe — cast wildly to type — in the 1953 motion picture version of the musical. For Channing, this meant finding another role. The opportunity arose to replace Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, in New York (briefly) and on the road. Channing was reportedly quite good in the role, but she had two strikes against her. Ms. Russell had scored a phenomenal personal success in the show, and was cemented in the public's mind as the one and only Ruth Sherwood by virtue of having played the role not only on Broadway but in the earlier, non-musical screen version of the play ("My Sister Eileen") on which the musical was based. What's more, a significant portion of the audience which flocked to see Carol Channing in those very same cities where she'd regaled them in Blondes were half expecting to see another variation of Lorelei Lee; Channing as Ruth Sherwood, without a single diamond, faced a tough task. Which is the peril of creating an iconic musical comedy role.

What next? A new Broadway musical, The Vamp (1955), which lasted a mere seven weeks at the Winter Garden. At this point, Channing got rid of her second husband, an ex-football player and co-producer of The Vamp, and got a new one, television producer Charles Lowe. He lasted a lot longer, although the marriage ended in what you might call a sea of recriminations. But here was Carol, the legendary Lorelei; one of Broadway's biggest stars only seven years earlier, and unable to find a stage to cavort on. Lowe arranged a round of nightclub bookings, with a fair amount of success, but still — this wasn't Broadway.

So Lowe packaged her into a new stage revue. Charles Gaynor, who devised Lend an Ear, wrote the songs and sketches for what they called Show Business, which opened in San Francisco in the fall of 1959. Not a one-woman show, mind you; there was also a comic foil, Wally Griffin, and a French singing quartet, Les Quat' Jeudis (or the Four Thursdays, if you will). But it was mostly Carol, which was all to the good. After 14 months on the road, the show came to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in January 1961; for the occasion, the title was changed to Show Girl and Griffin was replaced by Jules Munshin (who was much better known). Munshin made his name on Broadway in the 1946 revue Call Me Mister and after Show Girl co-starred in the 1961 musical The Gay Life; he is best remembered as part of the Sinatra-Kelly-Munshin trio of sailors cavorting "On the Town" in the M-G-M musical of that title. The girl of Show Girl, though, was Ms. Channing. Gaynor reprised a couple of "Gladiola Girl" songs in the proceedings ("Join Us in a Little Cup of Tea," "The Yahoo Step"); incorporated Channing's already-familiar impersonations of Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich; and gave the two stars a reportedly very funny sketch in which the Lunts fussed about the housekeeping at the recently-opened Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (Munshin also scored in a sketch where he played a Sol Hurok-type.) These sketches are not included on the original cast album, which has just been issued by Kritzerland in a limited release of 1,000 copies. Mr. Munshin makes only two appearances on the disc, a negligible duet with Carol and a somewhat more interesting number with the Frenchmen. The quartet has three spots, one with each star and a French ditty of their own called "Mambo-Java" (the one song not written by Gaynor, coming from Noel Guyves). This includes a section where one of them sneezes rhythmically while another hiccups.

Show Girl played ten weeks on Broadway, which given the economics of the day was sufficient to allow this touring enterprise to show a profit. (For the New York run, producer Lowe partnered with Oliver Smith, the celebrated scenic designer who had co-produced Carol's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Los Angeles showman James A. Doolittle.) The show then went back on the road, with Griffin resuming the place he had vacated for Munshin. And then, in late 1963, Channing undertook Hello, Dolly! and found a second iconic musical comedy role even bigger than the first.

Show Girl gives us a fine portrait of the post-Lorelei, pre-Dolly Carol Channing. And she is quite droll. The highpoint of the CD is a sketch that has happily been included. "The Inside Story" it is called, with Ms. Channing portraying one Cecilia Sssissson, ssstar of the sssilent ssscreen. This dame made one talking picture, "Missssissssippi Melody," and then overnight "hit the ssskidsss, ssso to ssspeak." Altogether hilarioussss.

Noel Coward's Bitter Sweet [Sepia 1130]
There was a time, back in the late 1920s/early 1930s, when Noel Coward could hardly open a tin of sardines without being smacked in the face with a brace of huzzahs. It is an exaggeration to suggest that he was the British theatre's answer to America's the up-and-coming comedic playwright S. N. Behrman, the up-and-coming dramatic playwright Eugene O'Neill, and the up-and-coming composer-lyricist Cole Porter combined; but with plays like The Vortex and Hay Fever, and musical revues like This Year of Grace!, Mr. Coward certainly had all bases covered. Not only that, he starred in some of them too.

So it surely must have come as a surprise to nobody when Coward decided to write book, music and lyrics for a 1929 operetta-like musical which — of course — turned out to be a grand success. Bitter Sweet it was called, the "bitter" in the title coming from the circumstance that the leading man got himself shot and killed in the second act. This appeared on the heels of Show Boat, which might have partially influenced the unhappy love story. Coward was no Kern nor no Hammerstein, neither, and his musical did not displace that 1927 landmark. But Bitter Sweet ran a good 697 performances when it opened in the West End in July 1929, and it got off to a fast start in New York when Flo Ziegfeld — the producer of Show Boat — opened it at his eponymous playhouse (home of Show Boat ) that November. A little thing called the Stock Market Crash intervened, however, with benumbed audiences running out after five months. Coward, by the way, directed both productions. While Bitter Sweet was still playing in London, let it be added, dear Noel dashed off, directed, and starred in a little item he called Private Lives.

Bitter Sweet has not, heretofore, garnered much attention from me. Sepia, a U.K. label which specializes in reissuing vintage musicals on CD, has now brought us a compilation of Bitter Sweet recordings. After several listenings, I find Coward's score growing on me. "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," the playwright had his alter ego state in that same Private Lives, in which he saw fit to use the song-hit of Bitter Sweet. "I'll See You Again" is potent, certainly; not cheap, however, as it surely contributed a pretty penny to the master's personal exchequer. A fine song it is, too. The show also contained a second standard, "If Love Were All," from whence came the sentiment "I believe that since my life began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse." "A talent to amuse" might be Coward's epitaph. Bitter Sweet brings two additional songs, heretofore neglected by me, which similarly amuse: a pleasant duet, "Dear Little Cafe"; and the lively gypsy plaint "Ziguener."

Coming along long before the advent of the original cast album, this Bitter Sweet has been assembled from several parts. Most complete is a 1958 studio cast recording featuring Vanessa Lee, with Roberto Cardinali as the foreign piano teacher to whom she gives her heart. Ms. Lee does a fine job, but she and her associates are hampered by an overwrought orchestration from Brian Fahey and Ray Terry. Even so we get 11 tracks, nine songs plus overture and finale. (There was also a complete recording made in 1988, which is not represented here.) Then come four tracks recorded by original cast members in 1929. Peggy Wood, the American star who was imported for the occasion, sings "I'll See You Again" and "Dear Little Cafe" with George Metaxa, as well as giving us her somewhat wild rendition of "Ziguener." Also present is Ivy St. Helier, who introduced "If Love Were All." (These tracks are conducted by Reginald Burston with his pit orchestra, suggesting that they feature the original orchestrations by a fellow called Orellana.) Next come "I'll See You Again" and "Ziguener" from Evelyn Laye, the British star who was imported to New York for the Broadway presentation. The 23-track CD continues with four selections from Jane Marnac, star of the 1930 Paris production, and ends with the master himself giving yet another rendition of "I'll See You Again."

Why import an American for the London edition and a Brit for t'other? Bitter Sweet was apparently intended for Ms. Laye, one of the biggest stars of the day. But Coward and producer Cochran had paired Laye's husband Sonny Hale with Jessie Matthews in the aforementioned 1928 revue This Year of Grace!. Mr. Hale left Ms. Laye for Ms. Matthews, with the wronged party apparently holding it against Mr. Cochran. So over came Ms. Wood, best remembered as a dramatic actress but originally a Broadway chorus girl who attained stardom as heroine of the biggest musical hit of World War I, Maytime. Ms. Wood created the role of Sarah in Bitter Sweet. Ms. Laye, apparently knowing a good role when she saw someone else on the stage triumphing in it, took the job in Ziegfeld's production and ultimately replaced Wood on the West End. Love, fame, fury and ego — it all sounds like a Noel Coward operetta. (Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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