ON THE RECORD: Maggie May, Roadside and 'Musicality'

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Maggie May, Roadside and 'Musicality'
MAGGIE MAY [Bayview RNBW020]
Lionel Bart is back in circulation, and I'm glad for that. Bart is remembered today, mostly, for his international bonanza Oliver!. He completed only six musicals, including one for which he wrote lyrics but not music. Four of them are presently available on CD, a fifth has already gone out of print, while a sixth has yet to make the transfer.

MAGGIE MAY [Bayview RNBW020]
Lionel Bart is back in circulation, and I'm glad for that. Bart is remembered today, mostly, for his international bonanza Oliver!. He completed only six musicals, including one for which he wrote lyrics but not music. Four of them are presently available on CD, a fifth has already gone out of print, while a sixth has yet to make the transfer.

Bart (1930-1999) sprung to prominence in the late fifties writing pop songs for singers Cliff Richard (for whom he wrote the hit "Living Doll") and Tommy Steele. He is also known, in non-theatrical circles, for the theme song for the James Bond film "From Russia with Love."

Bart entered the theatre world in 1959 with two musicals. The first, the experimental Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, opened in February at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. (The innovative Littlewood died September 20, 2002, at the age of 87.) Fings [Bayview RNBW011] shook up the somewhat sleepy British musical, transferring to the West End for 897 performances and bringing with it a new "contempery" sound. The rollicking Lock Up Your Daughters [Bayview RNBW010], on which Bart collaborated with composer Laurie Johnson, opened in May 1959. Bart followed these two in June 1960 with Oliver!, his third hit within 16 months. Oliver! set records as the West End's longest-running musical ever and as Broadway's longest-running non-American musical. These records are long gone, of course, held now and forever by Cats.

Oliver! was a hard act to beat. Bart's next two musicals were London hits, although nowhere near as successful as Oliver! and — due to their subject matter — deemed unsuitable for export. Blitz! [EMI CDP 7 97470, out of print] came first, in 1962; it took place in London's East End during the Blitz of World War II and ran for 562 performances. This was followed in 1964 by Maggie May, which has now finally appeared on CD.

Bart's final musical was a mammoth disaster. Twang!! (1965) was what might be described as a pop-music version of the Robin Hood legend. (Think Mel Brooks in Sherwood Forest.) Bart financed it himself, trading away his rights to Oliver!. Not a good idea, and one from which he never recovered. Bart tried one more show, but by the time La Strada reached the stage — for a single performance at the Lunt, on December 4, 1969 — Bart was indisposed and institutionalized, and all but three of his songs replaced. He lived on, fighting alcohol and other excesses, until April 3, 1999. His active career lasted less than a decade, but Oliver! — at least — lives on. But let's get back to Maggie May. This is in some ways Bart's most complex work. Suggested by the old folk song "Maggie May," Bart set his story in Liverpool. "I got the idea in late 1961, which was pre-Beatles, when most actors and singers who hailed from that manor were doing their best to disguise their accents. . . After doing some research, I found that most of Liverpool's folk music had Irish-Celtic roots. Now, it is common knowledge, or should be, that the Irish are actually the lost tribe of Israel, so it is a good job that I remembered my Bar mitzvah music." So said Bart, nee Begleiter, the son of an East End tailor.

Maggie May is an overstuffed bag of mostly goodies, with 20 songs. (The CD includes four tracks not on the original cast album, but added when it was reissued in 1983.) The score begins with a rather weird folk-ballad ("The Ballad of the 'Liver' Bird"), sung by a rather weird balladeer (Barry Humphries, an original cast member of the London and New York companies of Oliver! who went on to play Fagin and Dame Edna.) But don't let this scare you. Among the highlights are a couple of gentle lullaby-like ballads, "The Land of Promises" and "I Love a Man," as well as the tuneful duet for prostitutes "I Told You So." (This song slot seems to have been borrowed the following year for "Baby, Dream Your Dream" in Sweet Charity).

But it is Bart's raucous production numbers that bring me back to this score again and again. "Casey" takes off like a bat out of Liverpool, as does "Dey Don't Do Dat T'Day." This one's a tongue-twister, set to an almost violent waltz. "We Don't All Wear D'Same Size Boots," too, builds to near-fury, while my favorite of them all is "Maggie, Maggie May" which mixes a sailor's chanty with — what, Dixieland?

These numbers, by the way, have invigorating arrangements. There are joyous, extended dance sections in both "Casey" and "Maggie, Maggie May," with especially impressive playing from the flute and trumpets in "Dey Don't Do Dat T'Day." Orchestrations are by Ray Jones; Marcus Dods (of Oliver! and Blitz!) conducted.

Rachel Roberts and Kenneth Haigh — two substantial star names at the time, neither with musical theatre experience — do exceptionally well with the difficult material. Hidden in the large cast was 23-year-old chorus girl Julia McKenzie, who understudied Ms. Roberts.

Bayview Recording Company seems to be singlehandedly determined to rescue Bart's work (other than the much-recorded Oliver!). They have now given us three of his six London cast albums. Oliver! needs no help, certainly; but Blitz!, which is especially enjoyable, is already out of print. And let me confess — I even enjoy Twang!!. This was certainly the wrong show at the wrong time, but it makes jolly good listening. There are also a couple of stunning songs on the long-lost concept album of Bart's version of La Strada. Let us hope that enough people buy Maggie May and Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be and Lock Up Your Daughters to enable Bayview to continue their Bart fest.

Who was it who once said, in proper British tones, "Please, sir, I want some more?"

Roadside, which reached New York last November under the auspices of the York Theatre Company, was a new musical that was old. Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones began work on an adaptation of Lynn Riggs's 1930 play 40-odd years earlier, back when they were young Texan songwriters looking for a break. Which is to say, before they moved on to The Fantasticks. The rights proved to be unavailable; Riggs was presumably still raking in big bucks from Oklahoma!, based on his 1931 play. Why give away Roadside to a couple of unknowns?

According to the liner notes for this new CD, the authors came across their abandoned Roadside worksheets a few years ago. Harvey and Tom liked what they read and the few songs they had completed, so they set to work anew after four decades. Thus, a 2001 musical that harks back, somewhat uncomfortably, to the mid-50's.

Yes, the results are somewhat mild; I suppose that if Schmidt and Jones wrote The Fantasticks today, people would call that mild, too. But I make it a rule never to overlook a Harvey Schmidt musical. Just about every score of his contains one or two special songs — evocative, moody and melodic — that make me look forward to hearing everything he comes up with. "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain" are the obvious examples; other not-as-familiar songs include "Sweet River," "Thousands of Flowers," "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want," "The Room Is Filled with You," "I Miss You," "Time Goes By" and "Sometimes You Just Need Someone." "Roadside," the title song of Roadside, is another. The score also features a second melody that lingers in the mind, "Another Drunken Cowboy."

So I'm glad to have Roadside, even though it was — shall we say — excessively modest at the York.

I generally avoid albums with titles like The Musicality of so and so or such and such, figuring that ten or twelve songs recycled from existing albums do not musicality make. Being of open mind, I slipped The Musicality of Rodgers & Hammerstein (one of ten announced entries in this series) into my CD player — and found several tracks of great interest.

Yes, we have heard it all before. But mixed in with yet more recordings of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "If I Loved You" are some relatively rare items given superb treatment. Like "Ev'rybody's Got a Home but Me," that stunning lament from Pipe Dream. We have always had to make do with the interesting but unusual interpretation by Judy Tyler on the original cast album. But the 1955 recording is primitive, sonically. Now we have Judy Blazer singing it, and she does a wonderful job (as Blazer typically does). And here are Russell Bennett's original, wonderfully understated orchestrations, which — now that we can hear them clearly — make for pristine Rodgers. The same can be said for "The Gentleman Is a Dope," from Allegro. Here we have Debbie Gravitte — again, the perfect singer to handle it — with some unexpectedly crisp orchestrations, no longer muddied by 1947 technology. While this disc doesn't tell us much about the musicality of R & H, it gives us performances that musical theatre fans will want to hear.

There is also a selection from their other forgotten musical, Me and Juliet. "No Other Love" benefits from the performance of Brent Barrett, who does full justice to it. (His partner doesn't, being way wrong for the song.) The liner notes credit this orchestration to Russell Bennett, which as far as I know was by Don Walker. But maybe the folks at Jay know something I don't. Walker occasionally ghosted for Bennett — he did "Carefully Taught" and "Shall We Dance," among others — so it is not impossible that Bennett did some work on Me and Juliet.

"Waltz for a Ball," an instrumental from Cinderella, is interesting to hear; it incorporates "Ten Minutes Ago" with two original musical themes. "Love Look Away," from Flower Drum Song, is given a fine performance by Sally Burgess (despite a bit too much at the end). Most surprising of all, perhaps, is Susan Egan's performance of "The Sound of Music." I've always found the original cast performance of this song a bit coy, what with a 46-year-old legend pretending to be 19. (Go ahead and sue me, shoot bullets through me.) Here we have Ms. Egan sounding considerably younger, with Bennett's charts (highlighted by that flute echoing the sound of the hills). A lovely performance.

The songs I cite above come from conductors (and singers) who clearly understand the songs and the orchestrations, which is not necessarily the case on studio recordings. There's nothing worse than finally finding a song you want to hear, only to have it interpreted at an inappropriate tempo. Checking the fine print, I discover that "Ev'rybody's Got a Home but Me" and "The Gentlemen Is a Dope" were both conducted by Craig Barna, with "No Other Love" and "The Sound of Music" by Martin Yates.

So The Musicality of Rodgers & Hammerstein brings us some performances that I, for one, want to listen to. Especially those tracks of "The Gentlemen Is a Dope" and "Ev'rybody's Got a Home but Me."

Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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