ON THE RECORD: Lerner and Loewe's "The Little Prince" and Belle

News   ON THE RECORD: Lerner and Loewe's "The Little Prince" and Belle
This week's column discusses Lerner and Loewe's soundtrack for "The Little Prince" and the intriguing, long-lost West End musical Belle.

THE LITTLE PRINCE [Decca Broadway B00002997]
The big budget motion picture "The Little Prince" — with the first score in more than a decade from the fabled team of Lerner and Loewe, a starring turn from that Man of La Mancha Dick Kiley, and the unexpected presence of the great Bob Fosse coming off his triple-crown year — raised great expectations, as you might well imagine. It was released in November 1974, after a long while on the shelf, and emitted a colossal thud. "The Little Prince" didn't kill movie musicals, but it was right there at the funeral.

Lerner and Loewe (who were terminally estranged by their experience on Camelot) and Kiley and Fosse (who shared a mutual admiration stemming from their days on the Gwen Verdon-starrer, Redhead) all displayed minimal impact. I can't tell you, at this point, what went wrong; the film was instantly forgettable, and I remember little about it except all that sand. A search of my dusty LP shelf revealed that I do, indeed, possess the recording; but the plastic wrapper was unsplit. Having heard the score once in the movie house, I never felt the need to hear it again. And this is Lerner and Loewe! (You're talking to someone who has listened dozens of times to The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood.)

So I put on the new CD of "The Little Prince" with little enthusiasm. And what I found was a (virtually) new Lerner & Loewe score that is a pleasure to hear. Add, too, the welcome voice of Kiley — Broadway's finest leading man of the period — floating along with complete assurance. A surprise, perhaps, but there you have it.

Loewe's music is rich, by today's standards or yesterdays. The melodies enchant or soar, as the occasion warrants. Ultimately, you are disappointed mostly by the limited quantity; there are only eight songs to be heard. But I'd say that all but two are well crafted and most enjoyable. Loewe is perfectly matched by Lerner. The latter's post-Camelot work was marked by inconsistencies, but his "The Little Prince" lyrics are just right. Loewe's often luscious score is given a lavish setting by orchestrator Angela Morley. A bit too rich for the theatre, perhaps — but, then, The Little Prince was not theatre.

Kiley had a distinctive voice. Not the sweetest sound ever, perhaps, as there was something reedy, almost mentholated in the timbre. Alfred Drake and John Raitt, the reigning kings when Kiley came along, had voices that can be considered far more romantic. But Kiley just about always sounded perfect, as he does here; this is a voice with character and assurance. Kiley always gave performances that you could rely on, and happily listen to again and again. In this, "The Little Prince" is a special treat; we get to hear that voice once more, almost as a present. Fosse does a cameo as a snake in the grass, with his big number called "A Snake in the Grass." This was the Fosse of Pippin, Cabaret and Liza with a Z. The song is perhaps the most unusual entry in the Loewe songbook; you could consider it a stylistic combination of two early Fosse numbers, "Whatever Lola Wants" and "Hernando's Hideaway." To people familiar with Fosse, of the black clothes and the scraggly beard, with the slinky stance and the cigarette a-danglin', the voice is almost astonishingly friendly. I wonder how many sophisticated listeners, with an iPod-sized cast album catalogue emblazoned in their memory, would ever identify this singer.

The title role was played by six-year-old Steven Warner, who looked the part but doesn't resonate. (Hey, he was only six years old.) British musical comedy names Clive Revill and Joss Ackland make small and overlookable contributions, but there are two other performances worthy of note. Donna McKechnie plays a rose, with one big song. This is the pre-Chorus Line McKechnie, a dancer raised out of the chorus, thanks to featured spots in Promises! Promises! and Company (both in company with her longtime colleague and future husband, Michael Bennett). But like the character she played in Chorus Line, this McKechnie seems to be lost in a major role. She sings in a decidedly weak voice, displaying no charm, power or assurance. As with Fosse, I don't suppose you would recognize the performer; but I also don't suppose you'd bother to look up who was singing.

Gene Wilder, just then off "Willy Wonka," demonstrates the opposite. His voice is thin and tentative, but his ability to hit the notes is enhanced by good-natured charm. He floats along as light as a feather in his duet with the prince, "Step at a Time" ("Closer and Closer and Closer"). Certainly, he gives the CD a lift — although with Lerner and Loewe and Kiley in evidence, it doesn't need one.

So "The Little Prince" comes along, 30 years later, as a surprise. It was never intended for the stage, but you may chalk it up as a "lost" musical comedy score, and one you might well enjoy.

BELLE, or The Ballad of Dr. Crippen [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3016]
Last year, an outfit called Must Close Saturday Records brought us the long out-of-print cast album of the 1959 West End musical The Crooked Mile [MCSR 3002]. This musical was highly unusual for its time, and quickly disappeared; the CD, though, showed us how very relevant to our ears a long-lost West End score can be. This lesson is displayed, once again, with Must Close Saturday's release of Belle, or The Ballad of Dr. Crippen.

There are distinct differences between the two, mind you. The Crooked Mile was well received, in some quarters; business was quite strong, initially; and the score contained at least one smashingly good song. Belle, which opened in May 1961 at the Strand, was critically excoriated. "A sick joke with music," said the Daily Mail, more or less expressing the popular view. The show quickly shuttered and went down in the annals of British flops.

But Belle, on CD, reveals itself as something else again: a cunning and somewhat wicked satire. The show relates the tale of Dr. Crippen, a dentist who apparently poisoned his wife Belle for the love of his secretary Ethel le Neve. This triangle provided front-page fodder back in 1910. The notoriety of the case was enhanced by the use of modern technology in the apprehension of the murderer. The couple fled to Canada, with Ethel disguised as a boy. The Captain of the ocean liner became suspicious and used the brand-new Marconi wire to radio Scotland Yard. Crippen and Le Neve were arrested as they disembarked.

The episode has had somewhat surprising resonance; in their 1943 hit Broadway musical One Touch of Venus, Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash included an extended production number called "Dr. Crippen." (This in an apparent hope to capitalize on the popularity of "The Saga of Jenny," from Weill's prior musical Lady in the Dark.) Crippen got hung, with Ethel winning an acquittal. When Belle opened in 1961, an intrepid journalist managed to track down the 78-year-old gal, bringing unwanted publicity.

Belle was the work of librettist Wolf Mankowitz and composer-lyricist Monty Norman. With various collaborators, the pair had written two influential new-style British musicals, Expresso Bongo (1957) and Make Me an Offer (1959). Norman had also served as one of the adaptor-lyricists of the musical hit Irma La Douce. What Mankowitz and Norman came up with was a "music-hall musical" with attitude. The form is not unlike what Fosse, Kander and Ebb came up with for Chicago; but I suppose that a musical morality tale in which the murderer and murderess got all the sympathy, was not likely to find favor in 1961.

The CD might well take a few listenings for proper appreciation; but this is a meat-and-potatoes score. (Is there such a thing as a shepherd's pie score?) The pleasures include "The Ballad of Dr. Crippen," laced through the proceedings like the "Moritat" ("Mack the Knife"); three highly interesting songs for the heroine, with "Don't Ever Leave Me" the standout; a rouser about "Coldwater, Michigan," which takes its place alongside "Wilkes-Barre, Pa."; and "Bird of Paradise," what well might be the funniest musical comedy number featuring a singer who can't hit the notes that I've heard. So if you delight in unusual, macabre, pocket musicals, you most certainly might want to make the acquaintance of Dr. Crippen and his Belle.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], 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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