ON THE RECORD: Ernest In Love, Marco Polo, Puppets and Maury Yeston

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Ernest In Love, Marco Polo, Puppets and Maury Yeston
The parade of reissues continues. Sony Classical, RCA and Decca Broadway have hit-filled archives to draw upon.

Independent labels must license these titles, which can be problematic. Hugh Fordin at DRG seems to have developed a special relationship with Sony. As well he should, having produced Sony's tip-top cast album of The Producers. DRG has continued its stream of first-time-on-CD releases from albums from Columbia/Sony.

The 1954 Marc Blitzstein adaptation of The Threepenny Opera proved, as it ran along for six years, that there was a place for musicals Off-Broadway. A second, long-running Off-Broadway musical came in the spring of 1959, when a revival of Kern & Wodehouse's Leave It to Jane opened for a run of more than two years. These shows convinced commercial producers and investors that there was money — significant money — to be made downtown. And I'm not talking about producing shows in hopes of a transfer; rather, small-scale, small orchestra musicals that were decidedly not Broadway fare.

The 1959-1960 Off-Broadway season saw no less than 12 musicals and revues. The fall was highlighted by an operetta spoof that proved to be a little goldmine, Little Mary Sunshine. May saw back-to-back openings of two intimate, gentle musicalizations of late-nineteenth century plays. The first, from an obscure 1894 work by Edmond Rostand (of Cyrano fame), was to become Off-Broadway's most enduring hit; the second was a musicalization of Oscar Wilde's 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest, no less.

Ernest in Love was warmly received. "Everything has been done in the most impeccable taste," said Brooks Atkinson of the Times, "Lee Pockriss's music is deft and droll. Anne Croswell's book and lyrics are clever." Mind you, this is the same Atkinson who didn't much like The Fantasticks the night before Ernest in Love opened or Bye Bye Birdie three weeks earlier. The long-time dean of theatre critics had already handed in his notice and was gone by the first show of the fall. But other major reviews were as enthusiastic as Atkinson.

The venture began as a television musical. Croswell came from advertising, where she wrote commercials. Pockriss was a pop composer with one standard to his credit, "Catch a Falling Star"; his theatre credits included dance music for Three Wishes for Jamie and Top Banana. Who's Ernest was presented in October 1957 on the U.S. Steel Hour, under the guidance of the Theatre Guild. The reaction was positive enough to encourage the authors to expand their show to full length, although it took a few years to line up a production. As it turned out, Ernest in Love did not have the staying power of The Fantasticks or Little Mary Sunshine, closing after a moderate run of 111 performances. The show had a respectable afterlife on the stock and amateur circuit, in the early sixties at least. (It must have been a natural for school groups, in the days before Music Man, Sound of Music, Birdie and Fiddler became available.) But the show has long since faded from memory.

The quickly deleted Columbia LP has finally made the transfer to CD, with pleasant results. Pleasant is the correct word; Ernest is not a high-powered show or a high-powered score. It makes a nice CD, though, for people who like literate, gentle musicals with pretty tunes and charming performances. (If Little Mary Sunshine and The Fantasticks spawned Broadway stars-to-be, none of Ernest's cast were so fortunate.) The music is generally catchy, rising to its best in the ballad "Perfection." There are quite a few other bright spots, like "You Can't Make Love," "The Hat," "Wicked Man" and "A Handbag Is Not a Proper Mother." Bright spots musically, anyway; the lyrics are generally too specialized for their own good. I can think of some lyricists who might have the dexterity to take on Oscar Wilde, but Ms. Croswell isn't one of them.

The success d'estime of Ernest in Love was enough to get Pockriss and Croswell a Broadway assignment. Tovarich it was, a problematic enterprise with a problematic Vivien Leigh in the lead. That score [DRG 19025], like Ernest, has some infectiously lively numbers. If you like to listen to Tovarich, as I do, then you might well want to try Ernest.

The songwriters did not come to a happy end. Croswell went on to write the lyrics for the 1968 fiasco I'm Solomon, which sent her away from Broadway forever. Pockriss hasn't been back either, although he is still out there writing musicals. His Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? tried out in Houston in 2002, although at present it seems unlikely to reach New York.

Back in the early days of TV, programmers hit on the idea of presenting star-driven, abbreviated versions of musicals. These started in earnest not with Who's Ernest in 1957 but in 1953 (with a few early attempts as far back as 1944). Some were written for TV, most were existing shows; some telecasts were legendary (like Peter Pan and Cinderella), most are long-forgotten.

Max Liebman, a comedy-writer-producer, hit it big on television with "Your Show of Shows" (starting in 1950). This enabled him to produce a series of TV musicals, beginning with the 1954 color "spectacular" "Satins and Spurs," written by Livingston and Evans for Betty Hutton. (DRG has this on their schedule of future releases.) Liebman's thirteenth TV musical came in April 1956, when he presented Alfred Drake in "The Adventures of Marco Polo."

Before I go any further, let me say that for years and years I have been digging out my old "Marco Polo" platter — this was one of those early, thick, Columbia long-playing records, that came enclosed in double cardboard covers — simply to play one spectacular song. So I am exceedingly glad (albeit rather surprised) to have "Marco Polo" on CD.

Drake followed his 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate with Kismet, which he'd been playing since 1953 in New York and London. "Marco Polo" was clearly patterned on Kismet, with Rimsky-Korsakov replacing Borodin for the occasion. This was no accident, of course. While "Marco Polo" was produced under the "Max Liebman presents" banner, Drake's fingerprints are all over it.

Liebman's several Broadway credits were insubstantial; his one major production was Shootin' Star, a 1946 road flop about Billy the Kid (played by David Brooks of Bloomer Girl and Brigadoon). It was not a good idea, it turned out, to directly follow Annie Get Your Gun into New Haven; Billy lost his gun three weeks later, in Boston. Liebman's most substantial theatre credit was as director and sketch writer of The Straw Hat Revue, which lasted two months in 1939. This was the show that launched newcomer Danny Kaye, but the cast had a few other notable performers: comedienne Imogene Coca (whom Liebman was to match with Sid Caesar), dancer Jerry Robbins and singer Alfred Drake. In 1955, Drake — by then Broadway's most important musical comedy star — made his TV debut in Liebman's adaptation of Naughty Marietta.

Liebman set his in-house staff to work adapting Rimsky-Korsakoff to "Marco Polo." The music came from composers Clay Warnick and Mel Pahl, with musical direction by Charles Sanford and orchestrations from Irv Kostal. Liebman gave the libretto job to a pair of his comedy writers, guys with no conception of musical theatre named Neil Simon and William Friedberg. (Warnick and Sanford and Simon all came to the Broadway musical in 1962, when Sid Caesar surrounded himself with Liebman staffers for Little Me.) Drake, for his part, brought lyricist Edward Eager to "Marco Polo." Eager had collaborated with Drake on the book for the 1950 musical The Liar, which Drake also directed; the 1952 adaptation of Ugo Betti's The Gambler; and, later, the Drake-directed 1964 musical Rugantino. Eager had worked with Warnick back in 1944, on the fast flop Dream with Music.

Drake also mandated the presence of Doretta Morrow, who played his daughter for three years in Kismet. (The relationship was not filial, or so I've been told.) The exquisitely voiced Morrow had made her debut as Billy's gal Amy in Liebman's Shootin' Star, moving on to impressive performances in Frank Loesser's Where's Charley? and Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Drake and Morrow first met when Alfred came in as vacation replacement for Yul Brynner.

"Marco Polo"'s score almost slavishly follows Kismet in style and subject, although the 13 songs are sung almost exclusively by Drake and Morrow. One can imagine Alfred — having spent countless hours in his Kismet dressing room hearing some chorus boy sing "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and Dick Kiley sing "Stranger in Paradise" — decreeing that he gets all the men's songs, thank you very much.

The big duet ballad of "Marco Polo" was called "Is It You?" out of Scheherazade, and it's pleasant enough. (Dream with Music included at least one song derived from Scheherazade, "I'm Afraid I'm in Love.") But the song I especially like is something called "The Garden of Imagining" ("based on a theme from Le Coq D'Or"). This is Broadwayized harem music, Rimsky-Korsakov gone boogie. Totally wild, helped along by raucous trombones; sort of Rimsky meets Minsky. I don't know whether we should thank old Nikolai, or Warnick & Pahl, or Doretta; or maybe it's just Kostal working magic. Whatever the case, this number's a knockout.

Kostal didn't get his first official Broadway credit until West Side Story in 1957, but he knew his stuff, theatre-wise. While serving on Liebman's staff, he had been busily moonlighting. We know that Kostal did "Ohio," "Hey There" and "Trouble." Based on the brass growlings in "Garden of Imagining," I would wager that he did "Whatever Lola Wants" as well. Marco Polo seems to go on and on, with narration bridging the numbers; but Kostal has a field day with Rimsky-Korsakoff, mixing blaring colors with what they used to call schmaltz. The strong-voiced Drake, the delectable Morrow and those charts combine to make "Marco Polo" worth a try.

You have by now heard all sorts of positive things about Avenue Q, no doubt. The original cast album, which was recorded this week by Victor, will be in our hands by Halloween. In the meantime, let me add that the score is inventive and uproarious and lovely. Yes, the good-natured music is often matched with wildly ribald words; but somehow the combined effect is endearingly sweet. Definitely not for the children, alas. I can't help but feel sorry for all those children who will miss the joy and the theatricality and the downright good common sense of Avenue Q.

In discussing the reissue and revival cast albums of Nine three columns back, I mentioned Maury Yeston's involvement with The Queen of Basin Street (as La Cage aux Folles was originally called). I said that when director Mike Nichols and choreographer Tommy Tune withdrew from the project, "producer Allan Carr wasn't about to gamble on a new and untried songwriter without Nichols backing him up, so that was the end of Yeston on Basin Street."

This was inaccurate. After the departure of Nichols, Tune and librettist Jay Presson Allen, Carr had Yeston prepare a second New Orleans-based version of the musical (with Maury writing the libretto himself). Due to a fascinating tangle of legal complications, it ultimately transpired that the material could not be transplanted to New Orleans. At this point, Yeston — with his Nine Tony Award already in hand — was invited to collaborate with Harvey Fierstein on a third version. For a variety of reasons, the composer decided to step aside in favor of Jerry Herman (who 20 years earlier, get this, had been Yeston's summer camp counselor).

Yeston nevertheless did nicely by La Cage, as he retained a share of the royalties. More importantly, he retained the rights to his jazz influenced Basin Street songs — which we just might, under favorable conditions, get to hear one day.

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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