ON THE RECORD: Jim Dale and Glenn Close in Busker Alley and a Newly-Recorded Vernon Duke

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Jim Dale and Glenn Close in Busker Alley and a Newly-Recorded Vernon Duke
This week's column discusses the York Theatre's benefit concert recording of Busker Alley, with Jim Dale and Glenn Close, and a premiere recording of two concertos by Vernon Duke.


There's an old story about a fellow pacing impatiently in the box office lobby at a flop musical. A lady on ticket line, seeing how upset the fellow was, said, "If you're so unhappy, why don't you just try to get your money back?" And the fellow, who it turns out was the producer of said flop musical, said, "Lady, I wish I could!"

There are any number of times during a tryout when the producers or investors would like nothing more than to get their money back, wash their hands, and jump on the milk train back to Grand Central. Rarely do they have the option, needless to say. Once in a very great while there is an escape clause, which leaves you with another conundrum: do you continue to roll the dice, hoping that your Away We Go! will transform itself into Oklahoma!; or do you just take the money and send the actors home?

Oh it's great to have a big deal, ticket-sellin' star, sure, and an expensive proposition too. One of the many related costs is that extra insurance policy you need to take. This helps cover costs when the star is out sick and everybody demands a refund. But you also have the case where the star is unable to return to the show for an extended period, or never. If you are properly covered, you have an abandonment clause that will cover the initial investment. Close the show, get your money back.

The best example of this, perhaps, is a dire and mirthless 1974 musical called Miss Moffat. Bette Davis sold plenty of tickets, and no wonder. But they opened in Philly and it was lousy. I mean, you felt like you were watching two-and-a-half hours of mud. After a week of performances, Ms. Davis wrenched her back and was unable to continue (or at least, her doctors so certified). The insurance man said, in effect: a) you can put on the understudy until Bette is able to return, and we'll cover losses; b) you can replace Bette with someone else — maybe Joan Crawford is available? — and we'll foot the bill for rehearsals, new costumes, and everything else in between; or, c) you can close right now and we'll write a check covering the entire loss. If you think the show is so good, even without that star, you plunge on and go ahead. Which is more or less what happened when Bob Fosse suffered a heart attack during the rehearsals of Chicago. They put everything in mothballs until he was sufficiently recovered, and then went ahead. With Miss Moffat, the producers were wise to collect the insurance money and pay back the investors. This didn't help the actors, who were banking on a Broadway credit and enough work weeks to qualify for unemployment insurance, but then — that's show business. So the investors of Miss Moffat came out whole, while the investors of some such concurrent show as Mack & Mabel — which was flawed but easily 30 times better — lost it all.

Which brings us to Busker Alley. Back in 1938, Charles Laughton starred as a busker — one of those street entertainers who used to perform outside West End musicals — in the film "St. Martin's Lane." Charles Laughton = Tommy Tune, you might naturally think. Tommy Tune took Busker Alley on the road for an extended tryout tour, the sort where they expect to coin money by the bucketful before braving the lions of Broadway. The show started in Louisville in April 1995, receiving a mixed reception; in some towns it was hot, and in some towns not. (Along the way, they changed the title to Stage Door Charley and Buskers — as if that was the root of the problem!) They reached Tampa in early October, at which point Mr. Tune broke his ankle. Have him play the show hobbling around in a cast? Replace him with some suitable star replacement? Nathan Lane, maybe? Or just send everyone home and take the insurance money? Bingo!

That was the end of Busker Alley until November 2006, when the York Theatre presented it for a one-night fundraiser directed by Tony Walton (who knew quite a bit about the world of buskers from his London days, and who also designed the Tommy Tune tour). The resulting CD reveals a score that is a whole lot more interesting than one might have expected. Credit, to an enormous extent, rests in the hands of Jim Dale; he simply charms his way through the score (13 songs, he has), and makes you want to see him do it in person. That Dale is good is no surprise; he arrived stateside at the Circle in the Square in 1974 playing a zany version of Moliere's Scapin, under the title Scapino, and I confess that I am still laughing from that performance.

Busker Alley might make a stage vehicle for Dale if only it was stronger, but there's the rub. The songs, by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman of "Mary Poppins" fame, are rather charming, and offers the listener an entertaining hour's worth. But the Busker score is full of music hall-type turns, and after a while they do seem to be interchangeable. This was a problem, to an even greater extent, with the Sherman's first Broadway musical, Over Here!: it all sounded the same. (Mind you, I was so unenamored, sitting at the Shubert, that I still have never had the desire to break the wrapper on my Over Here! LP.) Busker has a good deal of lilt to it, but after listening three or four times, few of the songs stand out. The musical arrangements, from Aaron Gandy and Mark York, sound especially good considering they are working with only five pieces. But the Sherman brothers give us too much sameness.

The York seems to have gone all out for this reading of the show, which seems to some extent to have been propelled by the energetic Mr. Walton. Lending a hand to the fundraising effort, Glenn Close — whose career was given a boost when she played Dale's wife in Barnum — contributed her participation. She is present on the CD delivering an opening and closing speech (within the context of the show), and sings the closing ballad (a reprise of "He Had a Way"). Jessica Grové plays the girl — this is the one about the middle-aged veteran who takes the youngster under his wing, only to watch her scale the heights and leave him behind — but without the impact of Dale; in fairness, her material seems considerably weaker. George S. Irving and Anne Rogers serve as a couple of folksy oldtimers, with plenty of relish and a slather of marmite. Mr. Irving is well-known hereabouts; he might even rank number one on our local longest-active list, having first trod the boards on the opening night of Oklahoma! in 1943. Ms. Rogers is a surprise. This is apparently the same Anne Rogers who created the role of Polly in the initial production of The Boy Friend, in 1954, and went on to star as Amalia ten years later in the London production of She Loves Me (which was co-produced by Walton). Stateside, she charmed the customers as Eliza Doolittle, heading the first national tour.

So chalk Busker up as a pleasant and tuneful surprise. Were the 1995 producers wise, once Mr. Tune buskered his ankle, to pull the plug? Probably so. The same producers faced the same situation in 2005, with Christina Applegate and Sweet Charity. That time, after a great deal of turbulence, they decided to go ahead and roll the dice. Providing a great opportunity for Charlotte d'Amboise and numerous workweeks for actors, musicians, stagehands, dressers, ushers and even concessionaires. No payday for the investors, though.

Vernon Duke: Piano Concerto & Cello Concerto [Naxos 8.559286]
It has long been known, by people who know such things, that the 23-year-old George Gershwin was duly impressed — and no doubt amused — when in 1922 he met Vernon Duke, an 18-year-old, conservatory-trained, modernist composer just off the boat from Russia (via Constantinople).

(Duke, of course, was the highbrow composer who would write a dozen Broadway musicals, most of them over the head of the general audience, including Cabin in the Sky and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and songs such as "April in Paris," "Taking a Chance on Love" and "I Can't Get Started.")

Gershwin, who had already achieved fame with "Swanee," was amazed by the extent of Duke's precocity and his musical knowledge. What we have just learned is that in the summer of 1923, Duke — at the behest of pianist Artur Rubinstein — wrote a piano concerto. Gershwin, who at this point didn't know a concerto from a cornpipe, thought it was super and would invite Duke to play one of the themes at parties (to a baffled response, presumably). Duke's concerto seems to have prodded Gershwin when, in early 1924, he dashed off his own initial symphonic attempt, "Rhapsody in Blue."

Duke, meanwhile, went back across the Atlantic to jumpstart his career in Paris. (His trip was funded, to a great extent, by some arranging jobs arranged by Gershwin; these included a full $100 fee for arranging the solo piano version of George's "Rhapsody" for publication.) In Paris, Duke played his still-unperformed and unorchestrated Concerto for Sergei Diaghilev, who immediately commissioned Vernon — or Vladimir Dukelsky, as he was known in serious music circles — to write "Zephyr et Flore" for the Ballets Russes.

The Concerto got lost in the shuffle, though a two-piano version was published in Paris in 1926. Seventy-odd years later, American pianist Scott Dunn found a copy, orchestrated it with the permission of Kay Duke Ingalls, and played the world premiere in January 1999 at Carnegie Hall. The piece has now made it to CD, where it is revealed to be — well, modernist, circa 1923. What can I say? George liked it, and that's good enough for me. Duke's Cello Concerto was commissioned during World War II and premiered in January 1947 with Sergei Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony, with Gregor Piatigorsky as soloist. It similarly makes its CD debut, with Sam Magill on cello. The concerti are rounded out by "Homage to Boston," a seven-part piano composition Duke wrote in 1945. This Naxos CD is only for diehard Duke fans, I suppose; but as a diehard Duke fan, I find it a fascinating addition to the available catalogue.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Past On the Record columns are archived in the Features section of Playbill.com. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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