ON THE RECORD: Ethel Merman Goes Disco, and an Arlen-Mercer Encore!

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Ethel Merman Goes Disco, and an Arlen-Mercer Encore!
A discussion of "The Ethel Merman Disco Album" and the recording of the City Center Encores! version of St. Louis Woman.

THE ETHEL MERMAN DISCO ALBUM [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 170]
What is one to make of "The Ethel Merman Disco Album"? Recorded in 1979, when Merman was 71 or so (her year of birth changed from time to time), this recording is — well — remarkable. That is, you probably never heard anything quite like it.

Merman, who died in 1984, was still very much active at the time. Her final Broadway appearance had been as the last star of the original company of Hello, Dolly! in 1970; but she continued performing — mostly in concert and on TV — into the early eighties. Her singing on this disc is quite something; she's a septuagenarian, yes, but there's no questioning the Merman voice.

I don't suppose, though, that this is how Merman wanted to be remembered. The "Disco Album" is a bad joke. (Disco itself, at this point, might be considered a bad joke.) The thinking at the time, presumably, was that this would take the ancient Merm and make her hip. The results, though, were less cross-over and more over-the-top.

Peter Matz produced, arranged and conducted the album; he is also credited for vocal and orchestral arrangements, as well as playing the keyboards. Matz, who died in August 2002, was a fine musician. He came to Broadway in 1954 as rehearsal pianist and dance/vocal arranger for House of Flowers. He went on to conduct Sail Away and No Strings, before joining with Barbra Streisand for a string of hit recordings starting in 1963. Matz returned to Broadway occasionally thereafter, most notably as orchestrator of Hallelujah, Baby! and Grand Hotel. (The liner notes for the disco album give Matz two Tony Awards, although he never won any.) While I have nothing but admiration for Matz's work, I don't suppose he would want to be remembered for this recording either.

Unlike just about any other greatest hits album, this is one where fans will not be able to identify the song from the intro, or even from the opening minute of music. The only intro that is readily identifiable is the one for "Everything's Coming Up Roses"; identifiable, yes, but it sounds curiously like "chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." Fynsworth Alley had the canny idea of digging up this curiosity, although the operative word might be embalming. The seven songs on the LP have been supplemented by an eighth; the liner notes tell us that Merman recorded fourteen, which leaves us to wonder just what the tracks they deemed unusable sounded like. The notes also imply that Merman pre-recorded her vocals; one can only guess her reaction when, and if, she ever listened to The Ethel Merman Disco Album.

I can't imagine that this LP got much play when it was released in 1979; it certainly didn't put Ethel back on the charts. But there is clearly a place for this CD today. Say what you will, "The Ethel Merman Disco Album" is quite something.

ST. LOUIS WOMAN [Decca Broadway 314 538 148]
St. Louis Woman was one of those sure-fire winners that ended in catastrophe. M-G-M, producer of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," was earning a tidy sum from their 50% share of Arlen and Harburg's 1944 Broadway musical Bloomer Girl. Metro execs Arthur Freed and Sam Katz decided to back Arlen's next musical, St. Louis Woman. As insurance, Freed sent along M-G-M's Lena Horne to star. (Horne started her career dancing to Arlen tunes at the Cotton Club; Harold had written additional songs for her in the 1943 M-G-M version of Cabin in the Sky.) Direction was entrusted to Lem Ayers, the set designer of Broadway's Oklahoma! and M-G-M's "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Ziegfeld Follies." Ayers had directed a segment of the latter.

Trouble arose before they even got out of the gate. The NAACP denounced the show for "offering roles that detract from the dignity of our race." Horne withdrew, announcing that St. Louis Woman "sets the Negro back one hundred years." Co-librettist Countee Cullen died two days before rehearsals began. Ayers was soon axed, replaced by Rouben Mamoulian (of Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, Sadie Thompson and Carousel.) Choreographer Anthony Tudor was also fired, replaced by Charles Walters (of Meet Me in St. Louis). So was leading lady Ruby Hill, although she was reinstated for opening night when the rest of the cast threatened to walk out.

St. Louis Woman was unable to withstand all this extracurricular activity. It opened on March 30, 1946, at the Martin Beck and closed there after struggling through three months. Fortunately for the world, lyricist John Mercer — who had started his own record label, Capitol — saw fit to release an abbreviated ten-track original cast album (on a set of five 78s). This album — transferred to CD in 1992 [Angel ZDM 7 64662 2 4] — kept St. Louis Woman alive long after the show disappeared in the dust.

Fortunately, because St. Louis Woman contained some especially glorious work from Arlen and Mercer. "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "Ridin' on the Moon" lead the pack, along with two knockout comedy numbers, "It's a Woman's Prerogative" and "Legalize My Name" (introduced by Pearl Bailey). The score also contained two of Arlen's most exquisite songs, "I Had Myself a True Love" and the cut "I Wonder What Became of Me?"

Arlen and Mercer tried to rework St. Louis Woman in 1959 as the "blues opera" Free and Easy, with unfortunate results; interpolating classics like "Blues in the Night" and "One for My Baby" did not help matters. The songwriters were working long distance, as the show was mounted in Amsterdam — in conjunction with the international tour of Porgy and Bess — while Arlen and Mercer were in Philadelphia, struggling through the tryout of the ill-fated Saratoga.

St. Louis Woman remained a Broadway footnote until City Center Encores! resuscitated it in 1998. This was not an easy restoration, mind you; the materials had all but disappeared. The original orchestrations by Ted Royal (and others) were missing, although 30-minutes worth were audible — barely — on the primitively recorded 1946 album. Thanks to some extremely generous grants, Encores! was able to commission new orchestrations (with vestiges of what could be heard on the cast album). Ralph Burns, one of Broadway's most celebrated orchestrators of the latter part of the twentieth century, did a smashing job. So did Luther Henderson, one of Broadway's more overlooked musical experts, as arranger and orchestrator of the dance numbers. (Burns and Henderson last met on the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette, which included some of Broadway's most ecstatic dance music ever.) Music director Rob Fisher painstakingly reassembled the material, with director Jack O'Brien writing the adaptation. O'Brien and choreographer George Faison came up with one of the most smashing Encores! offerings ever, centered around Vanessa L. Williams. Williams was dazzling, despite a relatively small role (which was whittled extensively when Lena Horne left the project). With "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," Williams handily displayed her star power — which, alas, was not all that apparent in the recent revival of Into the Woods. Williams is expected to return to Encores! in May with No Strings (and eight songs), and I imagine she'll set the house afire.

Also prominent on Encores!' St. Louis Woman are Yvette Cason (on the comedy numbers) and Helen Goldsby (on the art songs). Stanley Wayne Mathis and Victor Trent Cook played the roles originated by Fayard and Harold Nicholas. Principals, chorus and band do a fine job under Fisher's direction, but it's the score — and the arrangements — that stand out. This CD was originally released on the Mercury label in 1998; it has now been re released by Decca Broadway, and remains highly recommended.

It should be noted that Encores! is presently engaged in a similar rescue job on Arlen's 1954 musical House of Flowers (at City Center, February 13-16). In this case, the lost orchestrations are being replaced with new ones by Jonathan Tunick. Due to unfortunate complications, the last seven Encores! offerings have gone unrecorded. Let us hope they can break this spell, as Arlen and Tunick and House of Flowers are too important a combination to disappear after a weekend.

Here's a rare chance for New Yorkers to hear Galt MacDermot's musicalization of William Saroyan's The Human Comedy. This 1984 musical was a quick failure when Joe Papp transferred it from the Shakespeare Festival to the Royale, where it closed after 13 performances. The cast album [Kilmarnock KIL 9702], though, demonstrates a highly impressive score from MacDermot (saddled by some less-than-impressive lyrics by William Dumaresq).

The Human Comedy is being presented at Marymount Manhattan College's Theresa Lang Theatre on March 5-8 (info: 212 774-0760) with a special benefit on March 9 (info: 212 774-0714). The cast of 35 is directed by Patricia Hoag Simon and choreographed by Ed Kresley. A student production, yes; but MacDermot is sending in his own band. (Galt himself is scheduled to conduct the benefit performance.) Since music is the heart of this piece, and MacDermot's orchestration calls for some phenomenal playing (especially from the trumpet and saxes), this is a great opportunity to hear the score live.

—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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