ON THE RECORD: Hats! and Manhattan Tower

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Hats! and Manhattan Tower
This week's column discusses the original cast recording of Hats!, which is presently gearing up for its third production, as well as Gordon Jenkins' influential and well-loved dramatic song suite Manhattan Tower.


HATS! [Sibling 0710]
The Red Hat Society is, perhaps, off the radar screen of the average theatregoer; or, at least, the average male theatregoer. As I understand it, one day a woman out in California Ñ where else? Ñ gave her friend a red hat for her 50th birthday. She then gave the same gift to another friend and another, they all went out to lunch Ñ wearing their red hats, with purple dresses Ñ and a social phenomenon was born. Along Broadway, the only hats we know about are the ones that Sondheimesque ladies who lunch sing about but don't wear, as well as that "Little Red Hat" that Jimmy Curry gets off of Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Which is a very different type of red hat, I expect.

At any rate, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to make an intimate musical out of that not-so-little red hat. (I don't know how many members there are of The Red Hat Society, but it's a good guess that they make a fair-sized market for selling theatre tickets.) This has resulted in Hats!, subtitled "A new musical for the rest of your life," which premiered in November 2006 at the New Denver Civic Theatre. It has since opened in Chicago, featuring Melissa Manchester (one of the many contributing songwriters) and is scheduled for Las Vegas this winter.

The Denver company has sent forth an original cast album, which is somewhat hard to judge. Perhaps you need to wear a red hat to appreciate it? This is one of those shows that features songs that go "We're fifty, let the good times begin." I personally know many women who are 50 or thereabouts; maybe I'm wrong, but they don't seem nearly so old as the characters that come across in the songs.

That's not meant as a negative criticism of the CD. Some of the songs are quite entertaining, thank you; at present, I can't get "Cinco Pasos de la Vida" out of my head. The music and lyrics come from no less than 18 writers. These include pop people (like Ms. Manchester, who wrote the aforementioned song with Sharon Vaughn), theatre-folk like Henry Krieger, Gretchen Cryer, Doug Besterman, David Freidman, Carol Hall and Susan Birkenhead, plus assorted others like Kathie Lee Gifford. If this begins to sound like the musical Working, which drowned in a sea of high expectations in 1978, there's good reason; Hats!, judging by the cast album, seems to be Working meets 70 Girls, 70. The cast of veteran actresses, perhaps, makes it sound more like 60 or 70-year-olds (rather than 50-somethings). Here's Pamela Myers Ñ the "Another Hundred People" girl from Company Ñ singing about sitting at home alone, watching Oprah. She's joined by another Company original caster, Teri Ralston. (She played Jenny, who sang hymns while the double-talk girl refused to get married). Joy Franz, Nora Mae Lyng, Cheryl Stern, Miche Braden and Leslie Alexander fill out the cast; a talented and personable lot. But somehow, listening to this CD, I feel that they are performing for their very own women's club. I am welcome to attend, and sit at a table on the side, but the jokes really are not meant for me or anyone who doesn't wear a hat.

And I think it's time for humorists the world over to retire that line about 50 being middle age only if you live to be one hundred.

People have been talking about Gordon Jenkins' innovative musico-dramatic song suite Manhattan Tower for years; that is, older people (i.e. older than me) who naturally assume that it is part of the great American public's shared experience (in the same way that people of a later generation might talk about "My Son, the Folk Singer"). I do not question the popularity of Manhattan Tower; back in the days when I used to collect LPs, copies Ñ invariably over-played and scratchy, which is to say well-used Ñ were plentiful. Even so, I never did manage to listen to the thing. This has been rectified by the recent release of Jenkins' suite by U.K.-label Sepia.

First, let us point out that this is the second version of Manhattan Tower. Jenkins, a popular orchestrator and conductor, recorded the piece Ñ an evocative tale told in song, narrative and emotion-swelling underscoring Ñ for Decca in 1946. This was in the days of 78s, with length dictated by the number of sides; the original Manhattan Tower was released on two 12-inch 78s, with its four-sides taking up about 16 minutes. Ten years later, Jenkins Ñ who had become a successful recording executive Ñ expanded his most famous work to LP-length (which is to say, about 48 minutes) with The Complete Manhattan Tower. It is that longer version, initially released by Capitol Records, that has now made its way to CD. As customary, Sepia fills out the CD with a generous assortment of Jenkins recordings, ten additional tracks in all.

From the very opening strain, it is easy to understand how Jenkins' suite had such an outsized influence. An entire generation, sitting in their living rooms across the land, must have heard this and thought Ñ "I've gotta get to New York." Here was big-city sophistication, with style and class that you simply couldn't find in provincial, small-town U.S.A. I suppose you couldn't necessarily find it in New York, either, but that doesn't diminish the picture. Most importantly, Manhattan Tower promised a place where you had the freedom to live the way you wished, without the restraint of hometown bonds of family and community. Here was a place where you could walk into a bar and order a happiness cocktail. (Imagine, a world in which a "happiness cocktail" does not include pharmaceuticals!) "Only in Manhattan Town, can your world turn upside down" indeed.

The suite tells of a fellow who arrives in Manhattan on a rainy night and sees the tower of his dreams, painted against the sky. "As I entered the tower for the first time, I knew that at last I had found Ñ contentment." And so he goes. The fellow (Elliott Lewis) finds himself in a bar, finds a girl (Beverly Mahr) and explores the city. Love, needless, to say, develops sooner than you can say "living strings"; this leads to the best song of the suite, "Never Leave Me." The girl, though, is as cosmopolitan as the city itself; marriage is not for her.

At this point, I'm afraid, my CD started skipping; I received a defective copy, which totally obliterates three tracks. It picks up just in time for the finale, at which point the girl is gone ("Sadness found its way into my tower in Manhattan.") The man leaves his shining city, but vows to return: "My sadness left me, and I began to smile, for I knew that someday I would return Ñ that I must return Ñ for I left my heart behind in that tower, that tower in Manhattan." Music swells, with chorus and strings straining against the midtown sky. Gordon Jenkins' Manhattan Tower must have sold more tickets to New York than Greyhound ever did.

Jenkins is known for his string writing; lush, I think, doesn't begin to describe it. He began his career as an arranger with Isham Jones. An especially successful showing as conductor-arranger of the 1936 Bea Lillie-Bert Lahr revue The Show Is On led to a job as musical director of N.B.C. radio on the West Coast; from there, it was on to the recording field. The success of Manhattan Tower quickly earned Jenkins a return ticket to Broadway, as principal composer of a revue about Ñ guess what town? Ñ Manhattan. The show was ill-fated, alas, with star Willie Howard collapsing during the Philadelphia tryout. (He died the day after the show opened on Broadway, in January 1949). Second-billed Nancy Walker was moved up to the top slot, with a not-especially-well-known low comedian named Jackie Gleason stepping in to replace Howard. Along Fifth Avenue, despite a spate of New York-themed songs like "Skyscraper Blues" and "I Love Love in New York," wasn't another Manhattan Tower. Five months, and that was it. If Manhattan Tower seems tame today, that is a tribute to the passing of time. The very building that apparently served as Jenkins inspiration is still there, on Park Avenue. If you stand across the street and look carefully, the building is still quite striking. But who stops, amid the cars and trucks and busses and throngs crossing 57th Street? The Ritz Tower is obscured and blurred by 60 years of big city noise and construction; and I suppose you could say something similar, figuratively, about Manhattan Tower.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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