ON THE RECORD: Flaherty and Ahrens' The Glorious Ones and the Reconstructed Sound of Cohan

News   ON THE RECORD: Flaherty and Ahrens' The Glorious Ones and the Reconstructed Sound of Cohan
We listen to the original cast recording of the newest Flaherty and Ahrens musical, The Glorious Ones, and a disc that seeks to recreate the style of George M. Cohan using original orchestrations.


The Glorious Ones, the eighth full-scale score from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, provides yet another tuneful and enjoyable CD for our enjoyment. A talented and energetic cast headed by Marc Kudisch make this commedia dell'arte musical delightful listening.

The piece, based on a novel by Francine Prose, predates the Flaherty-Ahrens partnership. Ahrens started work around 1981, making several attempts at tackling it over the decades. An early Flaherty-Ahrens version was workshopped by Lincoln Center Theater back in 1993. A later version was given a workshop in Flaherty's hometown in 2006, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. This led to a full Pittsburgh production in April 2007, with the piece returning to Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse, for an opening that November.

The Glorious Ones retold events in the life of Flaminio Scala, who formed an improvisational troupe of players in Italy in 1570 or so which helped popularize the commedia dell'arte form. Francesco Andreini, who succeeded Scala, actually seems to have gone down in history as a more important actor, as did his wife Isabella Andreini. The meeting of Francesco and Isabella, in fact, figures prominently in the plot of the musical. The others seem to be fictional progenitors of the Pantalone, Columbina and Dottore characters. The point of it all is that Flaminio was real and left his mark, as he describes in the anthem (and the show's strongest song) "I Was Here."

David Holcenberg leads the eight-piece orchestra in effective chamber orchestrations by Michael Starobin; a lovely job, really. Kudisch is his usual, strong self, here seeming like a contemporary version of Alfred Drake. He is ably supported by Natalie Venetia Belcon, as Columbine; Jeremy Webb and Erin Davie as the young lovers; and Julyana Soelistyo and David Patrick Kelly as the supporting clowns of the troupe. In the theatre, Graciela Daniele's production seemed like something of a commedia dell'arte festival, which delighted fans of the genre but was a bit of a detriment for audience members who were not keen on the form. The cast recording from Jay Records demonstrates that the score is considerably more effective than it might have seemed. There is a universal nature to many of the songs; the dreams, flaws and aspirations are not merely those of the 16th century characters but carry over to today. (This aspect did not, alas, make it across the footlights to this viewer last year at the Newhouse.) "The Comedy of Love," "My Body Wasn't Why," "The Glorious Ones," "Improvisation," "Opposite You" and the aforementioned "I Was Here" support a score which is very much up to the high standards of Flaherty and Ahrens. This new CD from Jay Records should enchant the many listeners who were unable to see The Glorious Ones during its brief runs in Pittsburgh and New York, and help propel the piece to numerous productions across the land.

GEORGE M. COHAN: YOU'RE A GRAND OLD RAG [New World Records 80685]
I have never had much interest in the music and lyrics of Geo. M. Cohan (1878-1942), that self-proclaimed "Yankee Doodle Boy." He wrote some snappy melodies, for sure; "Give My Regards to Broadway," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," "H-A-R-R-I-G-A-N" and "Mary Is a Grand Old Name" are grand old tunes, yes; but the others I've come across have always seemed too quaint for my taste. That Cohan was a one-man musical theatre dynamo — writing, acting, directing, producing, and perhaps even folding up the chairs at night — has long been known; that he was egotistical (with good reason?) and found to be distasteful by many has also been part of the picture. His actions publicly protesting the formation of Actors' Equity in 1919 poisoned his reputation in the profession, an episode from which he never quite recovered. Surviving recordings are all but non-existent — he recorded seven songs on one spring day in 1911, disliked the process, and never did so again — which makes it all but impossible to get an idea of his performing style. (James Cagney and Joel Grey, both, portrayed Cohan and helped popularize him for later generations; but these were performances in the styles of Cagney and Grey, not the original.) Cohan's one major film role — in what was a decidedly non-major film — was in a 1932 comedy called "The Phantom President," with songs by Rodgers and Hart and not very good ones. Cohan is unimpressive in this all-but-unwatchable movie, but this is the Yankee Doodle Boy at 54. And that's about as much Cohan as we're likely to see today. The few octogenarians among us might remember his Broadway performances in Eugene O'Neill’s classic Ah, Wilderness! (1933) and the Rodgers-Hart-Kaufman-Hart misfire I'd Rather Be Right (1937); but those gave us Cohan as an old man, not the brash young fellow with the feather in his cap.

There have been any number of recordings featuring Cohan songs, and the prospects of another didn't exactly pique my interest. But Rick Benjamin, a conductor and musicologist specializing in American theatre music of the 1875-1925 era, has devised an interesting and rather fascinating project: "to recreate the sound of George M. Cohan's music as he and his audiences might have heard it in theatres during the early 20th century." Working without much in the way or archival artifacts, he has nevertheless given us what might well be a reasonable facsimile. Benjamin started by amassing the original orchestrations, mostly by Charles J. Gebest (Cohan's conductor and orchestrator for more than 30 years); there are also two charts by the great Frank Saddler, who in his later work with Jerome Kern revolutionized the sound of the Broadway musical. The charts are played by Benjamin's "Paragon Ragtime Orchestra" using the original "eleven plus piano" instrumentation. Benjamin tells us in his extensive and informative liner notes — which give us a fine description of GMC and his times — that he carefully searched for a performer who sounded like Cohan must have sounded (in his educated opinion). Colin Pritchard is the singer; he performs four of the 14 tracks, and we will have to take Benjamin's opinion that this is what it was. Bernadette Boerckel sings three songs; the rest of the tracks feature authentic overtures, song selections, and the like. A bonus track features Cohan himself, at 60, making a speech at a charity dinner in 1938.

"George M. Cohan: You're a Grand Old Rag" doesn't exactly win me over to GMC's side, supplanting Kern, Rodgers, and Gershwin in my favors; the songs, most of them, still sound mighty quaint to me. Mr. Benjamin's recording is most interesting, though, in that it informs us just what the Broadway orchestra sounded like in those days before Mr. Saddler and his successor, Russell Bennett, began to creatively enliven the sound of Broadway music.

(Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) 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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