ON THE RECORD: Flaherty and Ahrens’ Dessa Rose and Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Flaherty and Ahrens’ Dessa Rose and Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer
This week’s column discusses the engrossing cast album of last spring’s Dessa Rose and a long-lost British musical, The Buccaneer.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Dessa Rose is an engrossing, adventurous piece of musical theatre. Jay Records has seen fit to give it first-class, two-disc treatment, despite the limited New York run of the show, and I expect most listeners will be not only thrilled by the album but glad that it has been so carefully preserved.

Flaherty and Ahrens have come to specialize in storytelling to music. This talent was developed, perhaps, due to the demands of their last few projects; sections of Ragtime, Seussical and A Man of No Importance called for special and unusual musical scenes, for the purposes of plot propulsion and character development. With Dessa Rose, Flaherty and Ahrens grab us from the very beginning; their music and lyrics are absolutely spellbinding.

Vast sections of masterful storytelling are intermingled with moments of great beauty and six or eight numbers that pierce the emotions. There is little purpose in presenting a step-by-step description. Listen to Ruth’s desperate (and human) soliloquy, “At the Glen”; Nehemiah’s tender “Capture the Girl” (“her skin like pekoe tea. . .”); Dessa’s powerful litany, “Twelve Children”; the stunning quintet “In the Bend of My Arm”; the stirring anthem “White Milk and Red Blood.” The authors have undertaken a difficult task, telling the uncompromising tale of a pregnant 15-year-old slave murderess. The result is a heartfelt and impressive piece of musical theatre.

Dessa Rose is bolstered, every step of the way, by an especially fine cast. LaChanze and Rachel York play the leads; both are perhaps better than they have ever been. Ms. York, who has heretofore impressed us as a comedienne, is surprisingly strong in a highly dramatic (and emotionally moving) role. Norm Lewis proves, yet again, that he is one of the best singer-actors around, and Michael Hayden does a fine job in a tricky part, as he turns from idealistic journalist to obsessed villain. (Ahrens gives him the aforementioned first-act song masterfully describing how “it’s difficult to capture the girl,” a masterful lyric which has special resonance in the second act.) The rest of the 12-person cast is uniformly admirable, although the actors double to the extent that you can’t quite pick them out from the disc (save for Kecia Lewis, who displays a strong voice and rueful humor). The singing and playing is impressive throughout, with credit to musical director David Holcenberg and orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke.

The near brilliance of the original cast recording leaves us with a question which I suppose must be addressed: Why was the show all but overlooked when it was presented last March at the Mitzi Newhouse? Dessa Rose ran a mere ten weeks, with an additional month of previews, in a small, Off-Broadway-sized theatre. The great majority of musical theatre fans never had the opportunity to see this show. I can only imagine that a fair number of listeners will scratch their head and wonder, what happened? The serious nature of the subject matter did not make Dessa Rose an easy sell, of course. But it had the bad fortune to open amongst four hit Broadway musicals. It has been a long while since theatregoers have had more than two good new musicals to contend with, but the spring of 2005 saw a quartet: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Dessa Rose’s upstairs neighbor, The Light in the Piazza. And, these were not the only competition; prior-season hits Avenue Q and Wicked were still going strong, along with a quartet of long-running smashes.

All things being equal, Dessa Rose would need to stand its own against the competition (in the same way that The Light in the Piazza needed to). But all things are not equal. Broadway musicals have any number of advantages over Off-Broadway, beginning with the size of their advertising budget. Even more importantly, press coverage was stretched thin last spring, with story after story on Spamalot in particular. Dessa Rose could have used a little helpful attention, which was not forthcoming.

But it must be added that Dessa Rose — despite an impressive and fully realized production by Lincoln Center Theater, with seemingly no expense spared — did not overwhelm critics or audiences. My hunch, based on a sole viewing, is that the literalness of the staging counter-acted the power of the material. As is evident from the CD, Flaherty and Ahrens skillfully draw you into their story, gradually filling in the lines of what might otherwise have fallen into cliché. At the Newhouse we saw too much, too soon; the visuals, from the very beginning, established that we were back in the slave house, leaving no room for nuance and unintentionally diminishing the emotional impact of the music and lyrics.

The quality of the score — and the excitement that I expect this CD will generate — suggests that Dessa Rose will soon get a second chance, presumably at a top regional theatre. I only hope that the production team lets the score speak (sing) for itself, at the same time hoping that Dessa Rose has as powerful a cast at its disposal.

Jay Records has given Dessa Rose the classiest and most handsome packaging I’ve seen for a cast album. Not a mere booklet, but a veritable hard-cover book with individual sleeves for the two CDs. All this is beside the point, as it doesn’t matter what it looks like if the score is lousy; still, somebody has clearly poured a small fortune into this release. A labor of love, but warranted; and we — the listeners — are the beneficiaries.

After hearing the Dessa Rose CD a few times, I wanted nothing more than to hear it again. And I suspect that you will, too.

THE BUCCANEER [Sepia 1059]
British composer-lyricist Sandy Wilson burst upon the scene in April 1953 with The Boy Friend. First performed at a fringe theatre as a one-act trifle, the show was soon expanded to its familiar form and launched on both the West End (with Anne Rogers) and Broadway (with Julie Andrews) in 1954.

Back between the short and full versions of The Boy Friend, Wilson wrote another mini-musical. The Buccaneer opened at the Watergate in September 1953. After the successful relaunch of The Boy Friend, it was inevitable that a West End producer would commission a full-length edition of The Buccaneer. It opened at the Apollo on February 22, 1956, played there for a scant 29 performances and disappeared without a trace.

After 50 years, The Buccaneer is back, with its long-vanished original cast album surprisingly transferred to CD. Or not so surprisingly; due to British copyright law (which differs from the U.S. variety), cast albums of this vintage, under certain circumstances, become public domain. The recordings become public domain, that is; the songs themselves continue be protected. Readers of this column are aware that any number of rarities have shown up in the last few years. I know of at least two composer-lyricists who are thrilled to find their long-lost works back in circulation.

The Buccaneer was not a pirate show, mind you. As Wilson tells us in a charming liner note, the show was written in response to “the invasion from America of the so-called ‘Horror Comics’ which was threatening to corrupt our innocent children and led to questions being asked in the House of Commons.” The Buccaneer of the title was a traditional boys’ magazine, featuring “Good Clean Fun”; the plot centers on the battle to keep The Buccaneer in business.

Fans of Wilson’s work are aware that the man had an uncanny ability to come up with exuberantly tuneful melody after exuberantly tuneful melody. While none of his shows lived up to the success of The Boy Friend, his several cast albums (including the highly enjoyable Divorce Me Darling and Valmouth) are full of high spirits and good cheer. Such is the case with The Buccaneer. This is not high-powered musical comedy nor innovative musical theatre; but if you want some cheerfully chipper songs, delivered in pert style by a friendly cast, The Buccaneer might well charm you. Kenneth Williams, playing a precocious 12-year-old, was the center of attention; not unnaturally so, as he turned 30 the day of the London opening. Three years later he starred in Carry On Nurse, the first of his 25 films in that popular series.

As is the style with these British imports, The Buccaneer is stocked with additional material (some of which is only tangentially related). Fans of Sally Ann Howes will be glad to hear her on two tracks from Romance in Candlelight, a quick 1955 fizzle. This musical shared source material with the 1939 American musical flop, You Never Know. The British producer ignored the score by Cole Porter, which was pretty weak (other than “At Long Last Love”), and used songs by American tunesmith Sam Coslow. There are also, for very obscure reasons, two tracks from the 1943 Lisbon Story, which enjoyed a wartime run of more than a year at the Hippodrome. Most interesting of the extras, perhaps, are two medley selections from the original 1957 Johannesburg production of The Boy Friend. Cast in the lead, believe it or not, is Hepburn. Not Audrey or Kate (who would have made quite a Polly, don’t you think?), but Shirley. . . .

Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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