ON THE RECORD: Hair and Tom Brown's Schooldays

News   ON THE RECORD: Hair and Tom Brown's Schooldays
This week's column examines the recent two-disc Hair set and the little-known musical Tom Brown's Schooldays.

HAIR [Victor 82876-56085-2]
Victor's Broadway Deluxe Collector's Edition series continues with its fifth offering from the 1960's: Hair, which was quite possibly the biggest selling Broadway cast album of the decade. It is hard to overestimate the impact of the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical at this late date. Hair brought a new, contemporary sound to Broadway, delivering to the Biltmore a whole new crowd of first-time-on-47th Street ticket buyers. It also brought a string of copycat musicals, most of them pretty dire. (Dude, anyone?) But Hair was an original and a smash. Off the top of my head, I'd say that it was the biggest hit, and the hottest ticket, between Dolly! and Fiddler in 1964 and Chorus Line in 1975.

The secret of Hair, as far as I'm concerned, was not its anti Establishment thrust nor its headline-grabbing on-stage nudity (which, truth be told, was not all that flagrant); it was the music. The song packed show contained "Aquarius," "Easy to Be Hard," "Frank Mills," "Where Do I Go?" "Walking in Space," "Good Morning Starshine" and "The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)." I list these titles not because they were the best of the songs, but because of the startlingly good melodies. Listen to these seven songs — perhaps you can hum a few to yourself — and then compare them to your favorite musicals, then or now. I am not suggesting for a moment that Hair is better than, or comparable to, such-and-such or so-and so. But how many musicals can you name with seven songs so singable? South Pacific and My Fair Lady, for a start. If theatregoers were first attracted to Hair by its novelty, it was the score that brought in the overlapping audiences that made it a cultural phenomenon.

Hair was transferred to CD in 1988, at which time six previously unreleased tracks from the original sessions were added to the mix (including some I especially like, including "Going Down" and "Electric Blues"). With no further material sitting in the archives, Victor has decided to give us the 1967 Off-Broadway cast album as well, transforming the Broadway Deluxe Collector's Edition of Hair into a two-disc package.

The Off-Broadway Hair, directed by Gerald Freedman, was a considerably different show, mind you; the Broadway edition was electrified and sensationalized by the addition of director Tom O'Horgan. The first Hair, the premiere attraction at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, was a ragtag affair. "Off-Broadway we had just a pretty small inexperienced group of people," says composer Galt MacDermot in one of the 14 brief interview tracks included on the new release; "on Broadway we had really a hot band." MacDermot was at the keyboard for both; he was also musical director of the Broadway version. (The NYSF musical director was John Morris, Freedman's collaborator on the short-lived 1966 musical A Time for Singing. Freedman brought along that show's set and costume designers as well, although none of them made Hair's Broadway transfer.)

The songs, mostly, are the same; but the performances surely aren't. The Off-Broadway cast is headed by co-author Gerry Ragni, as Berger; co-author James Rado, who took over the role of Claude for Broadway, does not appear. (During the period of Hair's gestation, Rado — who had appeared on Broadway in The Lion in Winter — was briefly cast in the roles ultimately played by Clifford David in A Joyful Noise and Allan Case in Hallelujah, Baby!) Shelley Plimpton, Sally Eaton and Paul Jabara are the only other actors who made the move. "What changed the show a lot on Broadway," says Galt, "was the type of people we hired. They were very creative, vocally very creative, and they added a great amount to the energy of the show." The Off-Broadway Claude is Walker Daniels. Other notable names in the first version are Jill O'Hara (as Sheila), who made it to Broadway six months after Hair as the heroine of Promises, Promises; Jonelle Allen (in the parts played on Broadway by Melba Moore), who starred in MacDermot and John Guare's 1971 Tony Award-winning Two Gentlemen of Verona, which also originated at the Shakespeare Festival; and character actors Arnold Soboloff (of Anyone Can Whistle and Sweet Charity) and Marijane Maricle (of Paint Your Wagon and Bye, Bye Birdie).

It was an industrious choice for Victor to include the 1967 cast album in this reissue, and I am glad to have it on CD (and happy to hear "Dead End" once again). But I wonder how many listeners out there really need the earlier version. I definitely recommend Hair to anyone who doesn't have it, but the 1988 one-disc version still seems to be available, at a one-disc price. Your choice.

TOM BROWN'S SCHOOLDAYS [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3010]
The liner notes for the British musical Tom Brown's Schooldays make it pretty clear that this 1972 attempt at catching Oliver!'s golden ring was laughably inept. The venture began as an amateur show in Croydon, but local acclaim led to a full-scale West End mounting (under the direction of Oliver!-director Peter Coe). Reviews were harsh, and Tom Brown went back on the dusty old bookshelf after 76 performances.

Who was Tom Brown, anyway, and why should we care for him? Oliver Twist he wasn't. Thomas Hughes wrote Tom Brown's School Days back in 1857. Excuse me for living, to quote Mrs. Paroo, but I never read it. And I don't intend to.

The CD starts with some villainous-sounding fellow haranguing his wife about the perils of raising their son at home. ("He's too old for tidying and primping by women. School will make a man of him.") So young Tom is sent packing off to Rugby School: "Petticoat government makes men sickly, plenty of flogging will make him tough." Oh, my. The boys at school tell Tom to get "In the Swim," which is to say that he must muss his hair and mustn't tell on the bully. There is a sort of tortured language at play; at least, it sounds tortured in 2004 and presumably sounded tortured in 1972 (if not 1857). Joan Maitland — co-librettist of Lionel Bart's Blitz! — wrote the book and lyrics with her husband Jack, to music from pop songwriter Chris Andrews.

The Nancy character, played by Judith Bruce — a star replacement in both Oliver! (West End and Broadway) and Maggie May — has a song called not "As Long As He Needs Me" nor "Where Is Love?" but "Where Is He?" Roy Dotrice, the nominal star, has two bombastic songs as the resident headmaster. "What Is a Man?" he asks — well, these song titles certainly tell us a lot about the authorial ingenuity. The song cue to this one, by the way, is "it's as plain as the band on an undertaker's hat." Another song begins "Young Tom is my name," while another — from the school's matron, is called "If I Had a Son." This one is about . . . well, you get the picture.

There's an exceedingly ridiculous trio for three teachers about corporeal punishment, "Six of the Best" (complete with the sound of a whip). The whole thing culminates in a paean to "The Great White Horse of Uffington," complete with tambourine and rutting horn and just about ready for Mel Brooks. The Great White Horse of Uffington, apparently, is a prehistoric 350 foot-long horse carved out of a mountaintop in Berkshire. We don't have anything like this back home in Little Old New York.

Why, one wonders, would anyone bother to unearth this original cast album? The folks at Must Close Saturday Records have a reason, it turns out. Tom Brown's Schooldays is fun, despite or perhaps because of its ineptness; I have already, in a fortnight, listened to it more than The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall, Is There Life After High School? and Jane Eyre combined. Along with the ineptness, let it be said, are a couple of especially flavorful numbers for the hired help. One of those eminently-likable working class blokes called Obadiah (Ray Davis) sings a song in which he quests for — what else? — "Three Acres and a Cow." Laughable, yes, but the song is so rambunctiously charming (and over-arranged) that it is hard to resist. The same fellow, with his girlfriend (played by Trudy Van Doorn), has another unlikely but immensely charming song called "One for Your Nose," a counting song for the young 'uns.

Never having seen Tom Brown's Schooldays, I can only imagine that it was a trial to sit through. But it makes catchy listening, in the same manner as — say — Anne of Green Gables. Tuneful and cheery, with the large cast singing their lungs out despite the knowledge that they were sure to be back on the dole quicker than you could say John Brown. Or Tom Brown, rather.

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

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