ON THE RECORD: House of Flowers and Candide

News   ON THE RECORD: House of Flowers and Candide
This week’s “On the Record” column examines the original cast recordings of House of Flowers and Candide.

HOUSE OF FLOWERS [Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy SK 86857]
House of Flowers holds a special place in the annals of failed Broadway musicals. Not, as in so many cases, because of what was bad; but because of what was so very good.

The troubles extended to the roots of the project, and they were compounded almost every step of the way. Arnold Saint Subber — coproducer ofKiss Me, Kate and Out of This World — had the idea of transforming Truman Capote's novella to the stage. Capote's colorful story was high on atmosphere, yes, but, woefully short on narrative. This in itself is not necessarily fatal; Oscar Hammerstein and Josh Logan successfully transformed James Michener'sTales of the South Pacific, while Abe Burrows found the key to turning a few Damon Runyon stories into Guys and Dolls. But Subber placed House of Flowers in the hands of Capote himself, who had neither the craft nor the instinct to take his story from page to stage. Broadway's House of Flowers was quite different from the novella, as it turned out, but the transformation was driven less by character than by the character of the star.

Subber and Capote turned to Harold Arlen for their score, which is what makes House of Flowers imperishable (if stubbornly unworkable, as was evidenced in February at City Center). Arlen's amazing musicality makes us listen to this score again and again. But Arlen was one of those songwriters of the old school, who were all too deferential to their collaborators. Music was his business, and music was what he cared about; otherwise, he stayed out of it. In this he was unlike Kern or Rodgers or Styne or Lerner or Harburg, all of whom made strict demands on their collaborators. This is one reason for Arlen's comparative lack of success on Broadway; his only hits came when he had Harburg by his side, fighting tooth and nail.

Subber combined the neophyte Capote and the laid-back Arlen with director Peter Brook (who had no knowledge of nor interest in the Broadway musical) and choreographer George Balanchine (who had no interest in anything other than his dances). This might not have mattered had Capote hit upon a perfect plot; but he didn't. With nobody in charge — no muscle, as they say — House of Flowers was a nightmare.

Balanchine was quickly axed in Philadelphia; choreographer of more than a dozen musicals (including On Your Toes, The Boys from Syracuse, and Cabin in the Sky), he never again tried a new Broadway musical. Herb Ross, at the beginning of his career, took over. Brook soon left as well, leaving the new choreographer in charge; Ross had never directed anything before, but got along with the leading lady. Pearl Bailey, an accomplished performer who knew how to reach an audience and hold them in her thrall, did what any outsized personality might do in such a case; she recognized the power vacuum and aimed the spotlight at herself. Scene-stealing comedienne Josephine Premice found herself axed; 19-year-old ingénue Diahann Carroll found her material dwindle. This has been somewhat overstated through the years. Bailey was clearly the star, with sole star billing, even before the show went into rehearsal. At one point early in development, it should be added, Carroll's character Ottilie went back to the boy's mountain home in the second act — with the Bailey character doubling as the boy's grandmother.

The results of all this turmoil were twofold. Bailey got more and more material and did wonderfully well with it, providing much of the evening's entertainment. At the same time, though, the emphasis on Bailey's character proved fatal to the rest of the material and the show in general. House of Flowers opened December 30, 1954, at the Alvin, and closed after a mere five-month run of 165 performances.

But it isn't forgotten; not with that score. House of Flowers starts off with a whirlwind of an overture, sparked by Caribbean steel drums. (The cast included three on-stage drummers.) The score includes two of the finest art songs in the Broadway canon, "A Sleepin' Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow," both of which receive sterling performances from Ms. Carroll. There are also three effective pieces of comedy material for Ms. Bailey, "One Man (Ain't Quite Enough)," "What Is a Friend For?" and "Has I Let You Down?"; and two other lovely songs, "House of Flowers" and "Don't Like Goodbyes." (The latter was lassoed from Diahann by Pearlie Mae, leaving a hole in the proceedings. I mean, where is Madam Fleur going???) There is also a pair of joyously exuberant production numbers, "Bamboo Cage" and "Mardi Gras." And then there is one of the sorriest excuses for a plot-wrapping-up climactic number, "The Turtle Song." Things apparently became so desperate that the writers seem to have just given up.

Capping it all off, for me, is a concerted number called "Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree." This track I can listen to over and over again, and do. It starts with a raucous horn fanfare, then goes into a lazy and hazy refrain by Ada Moore, spiked with brass and backed by the guttural chorus boys. Then comes a speeded-up refrain from Enid Mosier. This is followed by a grand duet in spicy harmony; in come the boys, and the thing really flies. The number culminates in a wild dance arrangement, featuring the trumpets. Peter Matz, in his first Broadway gig, did the vocal and dance arrangements; this one is truly wild.

Matz, some years later, helped rescue Arlen from approaching near oblivion. Serving as arranger and conductor for the budding star Barbra Streisand, he had her sing "A Sleepin' Bee" on her 1963 solo album — and invited Arlen to write the liner notes. This was followed by five more Arlen songs (out of eleven tracks) on “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” later that year.

House of Flowers is fabled for its orchestrations, which were discovered to be lost when Encores! tried to find them. (Jonathan Tunick did an expert job with a new orchestration, carefully and respectfully in the style of the original.) The 1955 show was orchestrated by Ted Royal, with help — apparently — from Marion Evans, Robert Ginzler, Matz, and others. Ted Royal (1904-??) is an enigma for those of us looking back at the orchestrators of the forties and fifties. An arranger for Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Dorsey, he entered the theatre contributing charts to such musicals as Too Many Girls, Du Barry Was a Lady, Pal Joey, On the Town and the Arlen musicals Bloomer Girl and St. Louis Woman.

Royal shared credit on Frank Loesser's Where's Charley? and Guys and Dolls, and has sole credit on Fritz Loewe's Brigadoon (which is exceptionally well scored, in my opinion) and Paint Your Wagon. But Royal apparently had enormous difficulty — fueled by alcohol? — on his later shows. House of Flowers was followed by Mr. Wonderful, Happy Hunting, Rumple, and The Body Beautiful — after which Royal seems to have gone back to ghosting. Whatever the case, House of Flowers — with Arlen's brother Jerry at the podium — makes exciting listening.

Unlike many other flop recordings from the 1950s, theHouse of Flowers LP remained relatively available over the years. The 1955 recording was “electronically re-channeled for stereo” in 1963, and reissued a decade later. A limited edition CD version — with haphazard sound reproduction — was released by CBS Special Products in 1990, but quickly disappeared.

Sony's Columbia Broadway Masterworks has now gotten around to House of Flowers, and producers Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Propper have done a masterful job on it. Not only does it sound far clearer and cleaner than we might have hoped, based on numerous hearings of the earlier LPs and CD; they have added important bonuses (and some 14 minutes to the playing time). The "Mardi Gras" sequence has been vastly expanded, from five minutes to almost seven; included is the interior waltz that was omitted from this track on the earlier versions. There is also a second track of the waltz, by Percy Faith and his orchestra; a second cut of Enid Mosier (alone) singing "Two Ladies in De Shade," from a 1956 personality album; and a section of Capote himself reading from the novella.

Most interesting of all is an invaluable recording of Arlen demonstrating a proposed song for Capote. (They were working together a continent apart, on phone and tape recorder.) This is an absolutely fascinating six minutes. "I will give you what I think may be workable. I'm sure the tune has enough quality and captures the mood. I hope the dummy few lines mean something to you, to clarify what I'm stumbling about." Arlen plays a lovely melody, and then starts to sing: "When a bee lies sleepin' in the palm of your hand," in that amazing voice of his. "If this works out," he adds modestly, "I'd be very pleased."

Many of us have been waiting forever for a "good" copy of House of Flowers, and we have now been amply rewarded. This CD is superb, although I must regretfully point out a grievous error in the booklet. The lyrics for House of Flowers were written jointly by Capote and Arlen. It has been clearly labeled as such from day one, on theatre programs, sheet music and recordings; it is even so stated on the surviving musical manuscripts. Yet this CD credits Capote as sole lyricist, both on the reconfigured billing page and on the credit page — where it says, all too distinctly, "all lyrics written by Truman Capote." I know how pesky typographical errors can mysteriously slip in, but this is major; this CD will serve as the official public guide to the work. I can already hear the arguments; "What do you mean?" someone will insist, waving a copy of the CD, "Harold Arlen didn't write the lyrics for House of Flowers." I don't suppose more than a few of us care, but is an unfortunate slip on what is nevertheless, in every aspect, an excellent and praiseworthy undertaking.

CANDIDE [Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy SK 86859]
So very much has been written about Candide over the years, including by me, that there remains little to be said. The 1956 musical, which the composer allowed to be continually changed and revised and rewritten over the years, was written as a satirical comic operetta. Numerous problems arose, exacerbated by the presence of Tyrone Guthrie in the director's chair. Guthrie had a pedigree, to be sure, but he was not known for comedy or operetta (or satire). Neither was the librettist, that jolly old musical comedy gal Lillian Hellman.

The lyrics came from an unlikely quintet. John Latouche, of The Golden Apple, started the job, but inconveniently died early in the process. ("The Best of All Possible Worlds" and "You Were Dead, You Know" are his main contributions.) A lyric or two was contributed by Hellman ("Eldorado") and Bernstein ("I Am Easily Assimilated"), and somehow Dorothy Parker got into the act (with the "Venice Gavotte"). Poet Richard Wilbur — an unlikely choice — finally took over the job; he had just written a much-praised collection of poems called “Things of This World” for which he would receive the Pulitzer. Wilbur wrote about two-thirds of the show. Candide has quite an amazing set of lyrics; an impressive feat, given the several hands at work.

The 1956 Candide, as we know, was a quick failure of near disastrous proportions. (Let me add that everyone I've ever come across who actually saw the original production professes to have loved it, whatever that may mean.) If the original version was impossibly flawed, the cast album of the original production remains — for me — the best of all possibleCandides.

The original Columbia LP was previously released on CD in 1988 and 1991, which — given the march of technology — was in the dark ages. Thus this newly remastered release, of this indispensable Broadway score, is indispensable. Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Propper produced, as they did House of Flowers; everything is as you would want it. (For those interested in such things: The new liner notes tell us that the original album, heretofore credited to Goddard Lieberson, was actually produced by Lieberson and David Oppenheim. The latter was a clarinetist and longtime friend of Bernstein; he was husband at the time to Betty and Adolph's pal Judy Holliday, a match made by Lenny.)

Those of us returning to this recording after a spell of listening to other Candides — I can find evidence of seven different cast recordings on CD — might be surprised at how fresh and sprightly it sounds. Bernstein allowed Candide to grow slightly older and sedater over the years, matching — perhaps — his own personal growth. A comparison with Bernstein's 1989 "final revised version" of Candide shows that the overture is a half-minute longer than the original. Looking down the track lists, most of the numbers carried over from the 1956 version run 30 to 75 seconds longer; "Glitter and Be Gay" is stretched from 5:43 to 6:48.

And this is a telling difference. Candide was intended as a satiric romp, not an opera-house classic; a soufflé, not a blackforest torte. Candide has always been a glittering score in search of a suitable production. The music and lyrics, unfortunately, seem not to be conducive to a libretto. Whatever else happened in 1956, the songwriters and arrangers sculpted a perfect satirical comic operetta score. Subsequent Candides have come across as overly grand, but what — oh what? — of the humor. We need look no further than "Glitter and Be Gay" to make our point. Has anyone ever done it so well as Barbara Cook? Acclaimed opera singers with brilliant voices have sung it, yes; but this is not an aria. It is a musical comedy satire of an aria. The song is sprinkled with jokes — "If I'm not pure," the ravaged heroine exclaims, "at least my jewels are!" — to say nothing of over-the-top vocalizing. Yes, Barbara Cook was (and is) quite a singer, but that's not what makes this performance unsurpassable. Prior to Candide, Cook spent a year barnstorming the country as Ado Annie, laying 'em dead with "I Cain't Say No." ("Whut you goin' to do when he talks thet way — spit in his eye?") Cook was a comic actress who knew how to land jokes; and subtly, too, without pounding them. That's what makes her the incomparable Cunegonde.

I needn't go into Candide in detail, here; you're no doubt familiar with it — and if not, get thee to a CD store. Let us just say that I hopelessly cherish 14 of the 16 tracks on this album. Cook and Robert Rounseville are supported by Max Adrian, Irra Petina and William Olvis (the latter on four amusing tracks). Bernstein did the orchestrations with Hershy Kay, and this score is absolutely delicious. My favorite touches, at the moment, are all those double reeds in "Paris Waltz," "Bon Voyage" and "What's the Use"; on the latter track, you can actually hear the pads of the bassoon. Samuel Krachmalnick conducted; he and Kay were just off Marc Blitzstein's glorious failure Reuben, Reuben.

"I was not born in Buenos Aires," the Old Lady sings in the toothsome tango "I Am Easily Assimilated." My wife was, though; she points out that when the chorus boys sing "Me muero, me sale una hernia!" they are actually saying "I'm dying, I'm getting a hernia" — presumably from lifting Irra Petina. As that Old Lady would say, I thought I just have to pass it along.

Two Bernstein DVDs have come our way. A special edition collector's set of the multiple Oscar-winning screen adaptation of West Side Story [MGM Home Entertainment 1004353] is — well, special. The DVD format lets you watch Robbins' choreography again and again at will, fast and slow and backwards if you so desire. The bonus material, on a second CD, includes a fascinating documentary called West Side Memories. This features interviews with surviving members of the enterprise, most notably Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Harold Prince, Rita Moreno and Robert Wise. Robbins' methods of filming the dances are described at length, as is his firing from the film. So is the dubbing of most of the principals; we get to hear sections of Natalie Wood singing her role before Marni Nixon stepped in, and Moreno explains how her dubber doesn't match the performance on the screen. (Chita Rivera, who created the role on stage, goes unmentioned; but one of the most incisive interviewees is Chita's husband Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab on stage and Action on screen.) Listeners who have always admired the way Bernstein and Sondheim developed "Tonight" into that amazing "Quintet" will be surprised to learn that it was the other way around. When they decided to remove "One Hand, One Heart" from the balcony scene, Sondheim tells us, they took Tony and Maria's section of the "Quintet" and expanded it into a full number.

A less-touted DVD is “Trouble in Tahiti” [BBC Opus Arte OA 0838D]. Bernstein's one-act opera is musically astounding; we can only imagine what it must have sounded like back in 1952, before Lenny wrote Wonderful Town, Candide andWest Side Story. This is a 2001 "cinematic film," whatever that means, directed by Tom Cairns. Stephanie Novacek and Karl Daymond perform Dinah and Sam, with Paul Daniel leading the City of London Sinfonia. The score is well performed, and the film — cram-packed with fifties-influenced sets and costumes mixed with authentic fifties footage — is visually arresting (although some might find that the constant barrage of images detracts from the words and music). But “Trouble in Tahiti” is an obscure gem that. I can imagine listeners stumbling upon it on the radio and thinking — in rapt fascination — what in the world is this? Bernstein fans, take heed.

Steven Suskin, author of the newly released "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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