ON THE RECORD: Jerome Kern's "The Cabaret Girl" and Sutton Foster's "Wish"

News   ON THE RECORD: Jerome Kern's "The Cabaret Girl" and Sutton Foster's "Wish"
We listen to the first complete recording of the lost-and-forgotten 1922 Jerome Kern-P.G. Wodehouse musical The Cabaret Girl and Sutton Foster's debut solo album, "Wish."


THE CABARET GIRL [Albany TROY 1103/04]
Jerome Kern, who had been writing for Broadway musicals since he was a 19-year-old in 1904, had his biggest hit yet Christmas week of 1920 with Sally. Marilynn Miller starred as a Cinderella-type on the wrong side of the class divide — she is a kitchen sludge, a restaurant dish-washer — who loves a rich boy, masquerades as something better at a big party with the help of her raffish friends, and winds up winning the admiration of society, the boy, and the audience too. The show duly moved on to London, where it opened at the Winter Garden in September of 1921 and made a West End star of Kansas City actress Dorothy Dickson.

The London success of Kern, Dickson and Sally moved the proprietors to create a successor musical for the venerable Winter Garden. Working with P.G. Wodehouse (who had withdrawn as lyricist/librettist for Sally), Kern fashioned The Cabaret Girl around Dickson, as a Cinderella-type on the wrong side of the class divide — she is a chorus girl — who loves a rich boy, masquerades as something better at a big party with the help of her raffish friends, and winds up winning the admiration of society, the boy, and the audience too. Ms. Miller — Broadway's biggest female musical comedy star of the era — had contracted Mary Ellen into Marilynn, which after Sally was further altered to create the name "Marilyn"; Kern and Wodehouse saw fit to honor their former star by naming the leading character of The Cabaret Girl "Marilynn Morgan." In any event, the Sally-sequel opened at the Winter Garden in September of 1922 and was a substantial hit, although the British flavor of the piece ruled against a trans-Atlantic jump. In fact, little future activity for the piece seems to have occurred. Kern, Wodehouse and Dickson, however, returned to London's Winter Garden in September 1923 with yet a third similar show, The Beauty Prize. With considerably lesser returns.

The Ohio Light Opera is a group based at the College of Wooster in Wooster, OH, which has been producing a season of operetta every summer since 1979 or so. Several of their past efforts have been released by Albany Records, including The Red Mill, The Firefly, The Vagabond King and Naughty Marietta. This year's offering turns out to be The Cabaret Girl. While a number of early operettas by American composers have heretofore been restored and recorded in their original form, this recording seems to mark the earliest offering by any of the "modern" musical comedy composers of the Kern-Berlin-Gershwin-Youmans-Rodgers clan. Which makes it of far more interest than The Cabaret Girl might otherwise merit.

The show is minor Kern, certainly; but it should be noted that Kern was in something of an artistic slump at the time. He had written a series of innovative and musically-refreshing scores in the late teens, but this creative spurt had ended in the fall of 1919. (The two superb songs in Sally had been rescued from a 1919 effort which closed during its tryout.) From 1920 through mid-1927 came 14 musicals, with various attributes but — to my ear — only a few songs that compare to the delights being turned out just then by twenty-somethings Gershwin, Youmans and Rodgers. Kern soon adjusted, however, reasserting his prominence with a stunningly creative new style that first appeared the final week of 1927 with Show Boat. If The Cabaret Girl is a decidedly minor score, the Ohio Light Opera's recording turns out to be an important addition to our library of Kern. It is, yes, the earliest (and one of the only) Kern scores to be restored and recorded in its original form. (The orchestrations used on the recording are uncredited, and their provenance is not addressed in the liner notes. I would have to guess that these are the originals, as I don't suppose anyone ever bothered to prepare an alternate orchestration of the show.) While the score is quaint and contains little that you'd want to rush out to the lobby in search of a song sheet for, the overall effect is something of a delight. This is Kern with Wodehouse, which guarantees that at least some of the lyrics are likely to be pretty droll.

For Kern enthusiasts, let me single out the main songs. "You Want the Best Seats, We Have 'em" is a chorus number about ticket-broker girls, of all things; "Mr. Gravvins — Mr. Gripps" is a rather bald recasting of the Gallagher & Shean song just then popular on our side of the Atlantic. (For people interested in such nonsense, Al Shean —brother to Minnie Marx, uncle to Minnie's boys — went on to introduce "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" in Kern's Music in the Air.) "Journey's End" is a pleasant sentimental ballad for the young lovers; lesser ballads include "The First Rose of Summer" and "Looking All Over for You." "Dancing Time" is, as suggested, a dance tune that builds into an effective number; "Shimmy with Me" and "Oriental Dreams" are more of the same, although not as strong as "Dancing Time." The hit of the show was "Ka-Lu-a," transplanted from Kern's 1921 musical Good Morning Dearie (and the cause of a major plagiarism suit brought against Kern by composer Fred Fisher). Most pleasing, perhaps, is the throwaway second act-opener, "The Pergola Patrol," which is really quite lovely. Kern and Wodehouse presumably thought so too, as they caringly reworked it for inclusion in their 1924 musical Sitting Pretty as "Is This Not a Lovely Spot."

Michael Borowitz conducts and Steven A. Daigle, artistic director of the Ohio Light Opera, oversees the production. Lindsay O'Neil plays the title role, Stefan Gordon is the romantic lead, and Jacob Allen and Anthony Buck fill the star comedian roles. One can praise this operetta company for going to the trouble to bring us an all-but-unknown Kern musical, or one can find minor quibbles. The performances are, understandably, more operetta than musical comedy; little personality comes through, especially from the singers in the comic roles. The lyrics aren't always audible, including some of Wodehouse's wordplay which doesn't sound as funny as it should; and when Kern throws in some occasional syncopation (as in the shimmy song) the orchestra appears to have trouble keeping up. But these are quibbles; if not for the Ohio Light Opera, I suppose we could wait another 80 years before getting to hear The Cabaret Girl. Or more probably forever.


Buy this CD

SUTTON FOSTER: Wish [Ghostlight 8-3316]
Sutton Foster calls her new CD "Wish," taking the title from a phrase in "Up on the Roof" — where you "just have to wish to make it so" — and that word aptly describes the happy, hopeful collection of songs featured in her first solo album. Things start out with "I'm Beginning to See the Light," from Duke Ellington (and collaborators), and the listener will surely begin to feel the light radiating from the singer. Foster and her music man Michael Rafter follow this, unexpectedly, with Frank Loesser's "Warm All Over." When was the last time you heard this sung apart from a cast album of The Most Happy Fella ? But what a fine choice. Ms. Foster is, indeed, "Warm All Over."

This is not a show tune album, however. There are some old pop songs like Carole King's "Up on the Roof" and John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulders," both of which sound exceptionally good. There are some contemporary songs by current-day writers, including Christine Lavin's "Air Conditioner" and Jeff Blumenkrantz's "My Heart Was Set on You." Jeanine Tesori provides "On My Way," from Violet, with which Foster does remarkably well. From Craig Carnelia comes "Flight," a duet with Megan McGinnis which sits near the top of the CD's delights. There is also an offbeat, flatnote version of "Oklahoma!" which is highly amusing. Foster is at her finest, perhaps, with Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' "Once Upon a Time" from All American. Just perfect.

Mr. Rafter provides arrangements, Doug Besterman provides the orchestrations, and the band is hot. Foster sang most of the numbers at a recent Lincoln Center American Songbook concert; readers in New York be advised that Ms. Foster — whose full-time occupation at present is Shrek The Musical — will be again be performing selections from the album on April 6 and April 20 at Feinstein's at the Loews Regency.

(Steven Suskin is author of the new book "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)

* To learn more about Steven Suskin's new book, "The Sound of Broadway Music," click here.

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