ON THE RECORD: Ethel Merman's "Balloon" and Bashville | Playbill

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On the Record ON THE RECORD: Ethel Merman's "Balloon" and Bashville This week's column discusses "Ethel Merman: The World Is Your Balloon" and an obscure British musical derived from a Shavian obscurity, Bashville.

We have become so used to CD releases of latter-day Merman — recordings made in the "Granny Get Your Gun" days, when Ethel was in her sixties and seventies — that one can't help but being hesitant at the arrival of yet another. And here comes "Ethel Merman: The World Is Your Balloon."

But wait! The subtitle, in small print, tells us these are "The Decca Singles 1950-1951." That phrase might not mean much at a glance, but in practical terms it means a whole lot. Here is Ethel in her prime, or at least at the far end of her prime; 12 of the 20 tracks were recorded by the 42-year old Merman before she undertook Call Me Madam, with the rest recorded during that show's run. So we have Merman sounding more or less like Merman, as opposed to the caricature preserved on those later albums. (Ethel Merman Goes Disco, anyone?)

"The World Is Your Balloon" is not a quite so brilliant that you'll want to replace your Gypsy cast album, but it will do. The CD collects 20 78 RPM singles, mostly novelty numbers. Ethel is joined by Jimmy (Durante) on three and Ray (Bolger) on eight; these are comedy turns by minor songwriters. The recordings, most of them, have probably gone unheard for more than 50 years; I think it safe to say that without the presence of Merman, they would remain buried in the archives for at least another 50. They give us a sense, though, of the friendly-rivalry duets that Merman used to sing in the thirties opposite the likes of Billy Gaxton, Bob Hope and this very same Durante. They also demonstrate that a little Bolger goes a long way. ("Ha-ha-ha-ha" he ad-libs, again and again and again.)

Mixed in with the novelties are Ethel's versions of five show tunes of the day. Merman was not in contention for the title role of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but she gives suitable renditions of Lorelei's two song hits, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "A Little Girl from Little Rock." Yes, folks, Ethel knows how to deliver a comedy lyric. "The World Is Your Balloon," from Flahooley, seems a rather odd choice; you never know what show will be a hit, I suppose. As it turns out, it's a perfectly nice rendition of the Sammy Fain-Yip Harburg song, which proves to be far stronger than the rendition on that show's original cast album. Merman also gives us two songs from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (Merman had starred in the earlier collaboration of songwriters Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields, Stars in Your Eyes, as well as two hits with librettos by Fields.) Not surprisingly, she is quite at home with "Love is the Reason"; her "Make the Man Love Me" is far less delicate than the show version, but it works fairly well as a Mermanesque ballad.

Almost half the tracks are conducted by Sy Oliver, with Jay Blackton on the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tracks and an assortment of others on the others. Fans of obscure pop songs by Broadway composers will be happy to find one such item hidden away, Jule Styne's happy little paean to "Hawaii," with a lyric by Sol Meyer (published in 1950, although presumably written earlier).

Bashville, a British musicalization of Shaw's play The Admirable Bashville (from his novel, "Cashel Byron's Profession"), was produced for a month at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in August 1983. A cast album was made but with relatively little fanfare; while British cast albums tended to cross the Atlantic with regularity, Bashville passed me by at the time. The score has now been released on CD. Putting it on for a spin, I find that it is charmingly entertaining, lively (in a turn-of-the-century way) and stocked with cheerful tunes.

Shaw's little-produced play was revived by the New Shakespeare Company at Regent's Park in 1982. Something about the enterprise cried out for songs, so Denis King (composer of Privates on Parade) and lyricist-librettist Benny Green were commissioned to make the adaptation. Bashville returned the following summer for a four-week run. What happened to the musical after Regent's Park is unknown to me. It appears to be available on the stock and amateur circuit, although I don't know that it has seen much in the way of productions. It's impossible to tell, solely from the CD, whether the show worked onstage; one supposes that if things had turned out well, the show would have had more of a future. At any event, Bashville makes an entertaining CD, and I'm glad to finally get to hear the score.

Cashel Byron is a pugilist, and also (it turns out) a gentleman. Bashville is a footman who loves the lady of the house. Byron gets the girl, Bashville becomes a boxer. (He does so, what's more, to a grand title song in the tradition of "Dolly" and "Mame.") There is also a Zulu king (which might in some ways have worked against future productions). At any rate, with catchy tunes like "One Pair of Hands," "A Gentleman's True to His Code," "Take the Road to the Ring" and the title song, the original cast album of Bashville is well worth the effort of tracking down. There are two pretty ballads as well, "Lydia" and "Because I Love Her." (The latter is very much tongue-in-cheek; "I black her boots," sings the lovelorn and outclassed valet, "because I love her.")

Now that we have Bashville, maybe someone will give us that earlier J.M. Barrie musical, Our Man Crichton. Surely, listeners would be interested in hearing Millicent Martin's Tweeny.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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