ON THE RECORD: Nine X 2 and "Not Since Chaplin"

News   ON THE RECORD: Nine X 2 and "Not Since Chaplin"
This week's column examines both the original and revival cast recordings of Maury Yeston's Nine
Photo by Joan Marcus

NINE: The Musical [Sony Classical S2K 86858]
NINE: The New Broadway Cast Recording [ps classics PS-312]
Maury Yeston first hit the big time when, with no Broadway experience whatsoever, he was signed to write music and lyrics for the most promising sounding blockbuster in years. Director Mike Nichols, choreographer Tommy Tune, librettist Jay Presson Allen and Yeston tackling one of the biggest surprise film hits in memory, La Cage aux Folles. Yeston had already provided incidental musical for Tune's 1981 Off-Broadway hit, Cloud Nine; but if this Yale professor was handed the new Nichols show, one assumed, he must be really good.

Things worked out well for La Cage, in the long run anyway. But not with The Queen of Basin Street, as the Yeston-Allen version was called (as the action was transported from St. Tropez to New Orleans). Nichols withdrew, reportedly due to a dispute over profit participation; Tune soon followed. Producer Allan Carr wasn't about to gamble on a new and untried songwriter without Nichols backing him up, so that was the end of Yeston on Basin Street.

But Yeston had a long-in-gestation project on his piano rack. Nine had been in the works since 1973; a staged reading was given at the O'Neill Music Theater Conference in Waterford, Connecticut in 1979, under the direction of Howard Ashman. With Tune a hot name on Broadway (thanks to Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), Tommy's Cloud Nine producers picked up the unconventional Nine, sneaked it into rehearsal, and opened at the tail end of the 1981-1982 season.

Nine played David to that season's Goliath of a musical. Dreamgirls was expected to be the new Chorus Line, and Michael Bennett gave it a phenomenal production. But the material was not as impressive as the package, and the show was — well, it was no Chorus Line. (In retrospect, Dreamgirls is a better show than it seemed in 1981, at least to me; Henry Kreiger's music was somewhat overwhelmed by the fascinating staging.)

If theatre folk held a slight grudge against Dreamgirls, there hadn't been much of interest on musical Broadway. The other big show of 1981-82 was Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince's widely anticipated Merrily We Roll Along, which staggered through two weeks. Otherwise, it was slim pickings: Pump Boys and Dinettes, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The First and an ineffective rewrite of Little Me. The 1980-81 season had been worse, other than the Tony winner 42nd Street (which utilized an existing score). The new musical crop consisted of Woman of the Year, Copperfield, Charlie and Algernon, One Night Stand and Bring Back Birdie. The preceding seasons had been similarly barren, with the exception of Sweeney Todd. It was a long way back to Chicago and Chorus Line, in 1975.

Yeston's score for Nine might well have sounded refreshing under any circumstances; in light of what we had been hearing in the way of new, written-for-Broadway scores, it seemed miraculous. Yeston also had a good deal of sympathy in his favor, having been visibly forced out of La Cage in favor of a "safer" choice. Thus it was that Nine bushwhacked Dreamgirls, taking Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Director. Dreamgirls did better in the long run, mind you, more than doubling Nine's 729-performance Broadway run and doing infinitely better on the road. But the thumbs-down from the Broadway establishment rankled. Bennett was severely disappointed by the loss to his protégé; Tune had danced for Bennett in How Now, Dow Jones, A Joyful Noise and Seesaw (where the tall Texan got to share the choreographic chores). This was history repeating itself; six years earlier, grand master Fosse had seen his Chicago overrun by young Bennett's Chorus Line.

I am fairly well familiar with Nine, having worked on the national tour (which was beset by various problems, led by a severe conceptual miscalculation). I remember sitting in the theatre, night after night in town after town, hearing them start off singing "Not Since Chaplin" and thinking — this stuff is good. Really good. So what if it is going way over the heads of most of the perplexed ticket buyers? Some time ago, I described Nine as "Broadway's first intelligent score since Sweeney Todd," adding that "Yeston's work was at once vibrant, emotional and lyrical (though suffering from a few embarrassing patches of lyrics)."

That analysis still stands. The current revival, which I greatly looked forward to, elicited a strange combination of reactions from me. Parts of it were considerably better than in 1982; but Tommy's high-concept staging kept us dazzled. Director David Leveaux paid more attention to the material than to the movement, which helped get the intent of the authors across — with the unexpected effect of exposing the flaws to view. The Roundabout Nine is highly deserving of its Tony for Best Revival, being an intriguing and inventive production of what — shorn of its magic — is a somewhat weaker show than formerly appeared.

The original cast album of Nine has long been a favorite; I consider it among the top five American musical scores of the 1980's. Yeston's first and most fully realized work is rich, varied and inventive. Sony has now given us an expanded, two-CD version as part of its Columbia Broadway Masterwork series. (The most recent entries in this series have been especially well-chosen, well-produced and invaluable to musical theatre enthusiasts.) Not only has Sony cleaned up the sound, allowing us to hear even more of the colors of Jonathan Tunick's orchestration; they have brought us approximately 18 more minutes from the original sessions, including the full "Grand Canal." This twelve-and-a-half minute sequence — the centerpiece of the score — was cut down to 3:47 on the original LP. (The full version was hidden away on the cassette, with its longer playing time, but relatively few people got to hear it.)

When Nine was first issued on CD by CBS Masterworks in 1984, they had space for the extended "Grand Canal" but — for reasons unknown — stuck with the abridged version. The new release contains the full sequence, which is one of several reasons to get this CD. Six other tracks have been expanded (by as much as three minutes), and two musical sections — Guido's compilation of proposed "Movie Themes" and Claudia's "A Man Like You" — have been added. Producers Didier C. Deutsch and Darcy M. Propper have filled out the second disc with three tracks of Yeston demonstrating the score. (The composer, courtesy of his home tape recorder, sang all the roles — bringing us what he calls "The Maury Tabernacle Choir.")

These last are especially informative. We learn, in the first, the reason for those "Germans at the Spa." This is a rather grand vocal number that always left me to wonder — yes, but what "Germans at the Spa"?? This thought apparently also occurred to Leveaux, who simply cut the thing in his revival (although the music still is heard in the "Overture Delle Donne" and the finale).

On the demo, Yeston informs us that there is a Romeo and Juliet subplot, between a German girl and an Italian boy. (Herr Weissnicht — the German film producer — has a daughter, who falls in love with the son of the head chambermaid at the spa.) This finally explains the reason for the song; by the time the show reached Broadway, the subplot (and the male German producer) were gone, but I can understand why the composer was loath to cut this tasty number.

The deletion in Leveaux's version leads us to another question, though; why, oh why, is that lady up there singing about the "Folies Bergeres"? I mean, think about it. Here we are in Venice with Contini/Fellini; what does Paris's Folies have to do with anything? The Folies — still thriving in Fellini's day — was eons away from Fellini's world. Yeston answers this question, and more, in his charming and illuminating notes. The other bonus track is "The Grand Canal," in which it becomes explicitly clear that the main section is influenced not so much by the song of the gondoliers but by the sounds of "Penny Lane."

Yeston was abetted and enhanced, at every turn, by Tunick. By 1982, Jonathan was firmly established as the great orchestrator of his time; he was also, arguably, the only great orchestrator working on Broadway just then. But Tunick's reputation was firmly entwined with the music of one composer. He had already orchestrated a handful of scores by others, Promises, Promises, Goodtime Charley, Smith, Ballroom and parts of Chorus Line (and other shows). But his best work — Follies, Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along — had always been attached to the name Sondheim. With Nine, Tunick finally had a non-Sondheim score that was worthy of his best efforts. The results were, and remain, ravishing. The original Nine also had especially strong musical direction, from Wally Harper.

All of which takes us to the revival cast album. It, too, is very good; Kevin Stites (of Yeston's Titanic) is in charge, with Tunick doing a remarkable job of maintaining his musical colors despite an economically mandated reduction in players. Still, you can't help but miss those extra reeds and horns and strings.

I could spend a fair amount of space comparing the performers, but to what avail? I prefer some of the performances on the original disc, but at least three of the important 2003 cast members are stronger, and I'll leave it at that. The new cast album is handsomely produced, with a lavish set of liner notes (including the lyrics) and an essay by Leveaux.

So what is the potential Nine purchaser to do? That's a hard call. Anyone who loves the score, of course, will want both. And yes, I would definitely recommend that fans of the show upgrade their first generation Nine CD as well as purchase the revival cast album. People who see and like the revival will understandably want to have the revival album first. As for those who don't know the show (and aren't especially wedded to Antonio Banderas), I would steer them to the newly expanded 1982 album. It gives a better picture of the show as created, it sounds extraordinary — benefiting from that larger orchestra — and it is one of the most exciting cast albums of the last quarter-century.

It is astounding to contemplate that in the 22 years since Nine opened, Yeston has managed to return to Broadway with only one complete score (though not for lack of trying). Even so, Nine — by itself — clearly established him as one of the most inventive and capable musical theatre composers to come along since Sondheim. If, for whatever reason, you don't know Nine, it is certainly past time to put it on your CD player.

"Not since Charlie Chaplin" goes the opening lyric of Nine. Yes, Mr. Yeston, Chaplin — actor, writer, director, composer, producer — was and remains incomparable. For 25 years or more, roughly from the beginning of World War I to the beginning of World War II, Chaplin might well have been the most famous man in the world. Or let us say, Chaplin's image as the Tramp was the most famous, rivaled only by that mouse named Mickey.

Chaplin was less surefire with many in the postwar generation. There was a reason for this, mind you, starting with the day in 1952 when the Great Chaplin was unceremoniously tossed out of the United States. Without getting into politics, let's just say that he disagreed philosophically with Mr. McCarthy. Chaplin — who had worked almost exclusively in America since 1910 — retained his British citizenship. When he went to England for the opening of his film "Limelight," the State Dept. withdrew his visa and Charlie was stranded. What greater show of power than to eject Charlie Chaplin from our shores? So Chaplin was gone — and he took his films with him. His later films, that is, the great ones.

The earlier ones — primitive two-reelers, mostly — were somewhat relentlessly exploited by their owners, and not unreasonably so. These were shown again and again on TV, in scratchy and patchy form, with indiscriminate music tracks scotch-taped on in endless loops. When Chaplin made these films, audiences were still amazed by the notion of pictures that moved. To the postwar generation, they were too fragmented and too antique-looking to capture the imagination. Quaint and intermittently humorous, perhaps, but offering no reason to stand up and proclaim greatness. Chaplin appeared in an astounding 60 films during his first four years on the screen (1914-1917); he made another eight between 1918 and 1922. No wonder many of them seem sketchy and improvised; they were sketchy and improvised.

In 1923, Chaplin finally took total control of his work. He had united with fellow artists Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith and Chaplin to form their own distribution company, United Artists. Over the next 30 years, until he was sent into exile, he made a mere eight films. At least three of them stand high among the greatest films of all time, and not just because they are on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 American films.

But few members of the postwar generation got to see the good movies. They were off in Switzerland with Charlie. He owned them, and carefully protected them. From time to time you might be able to catch "City Lights" or "Modern Times," but Chaplin remained an enemy of America through the Cold War. As the mid-sixties era of protest arrived, Chaplin began to appear more regularly on movie screens. In 1972, he was invited back to Hollywood to receive an honorary Oscar. ("Limelight," the 1952 film that occasioned Chaplin's banishment from the United States, was pulled from U.S. theatres so quickly that it didn't open in Los Angeles for two decades. At which point it finally became eligible for the Academy Awards, winning Chaplin a Best Composer Oscar in 1973.)

With the advent of the videotape recorder, anyone could see the great Chaplin films anytime they wanted to pop them into their machine. But it wasn't always so easy. Walter Kerr, in his impressive 1980 book "The Silent Clowns," describes how he had to travel across the country and to England to find many of these old movies. He had to watch them where he found them, using borrowed projectors on blank walls, taking notes as he went, with no assurance that the prints were in decent condition or complete. The home video industry has rescued hundreds and hundreds of these old films, with potential profits offsetting restoration costs. Now, mk2 (a French film distribution company) and Warner Home Video have joined to bring us state-of-the-art DVDs of Chaplin's great, later films. The initial titles in what they are calling "The Chaplin Collection" are available, individually or as a set. "The Gold Rush," "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator" and "Limelight" are the first four releases, with six more to come. Each is presented in a lavish two-CD package, with new and glorious digital transfers using materials from the Chaplin Estate. The soundtracks have been remastered, as well as being included in their original, mono format.

Each film is accompanied by a slew of special features, including specially commissioned documentaries on each film. "The Gold Rush," for example, features Chaplin's 1942 revised version of the film, with a newly recorded score and a voice-over by himself; but they also give us the original 1925 silent version. There are contributions from biographer David Robinson and film-restorer Kevin Brownlow, both of whom have done so much to enhance our enjoyment and knowledge of their subject. For Chaplin fans, these bonuses are incredibly rich; but the treasures here are the films themselves. I highly recommend them, all of them, to everyone; Chaplin was not only a brilliant comedic actor, he was a visionary and a cinematic pioneer as well. For those of you who wish to get a taste of Chaplin before plunging on the set, start with "Modern Times."

Chaplin is not musical theatre, technically speaking, and thus somewhat outside the scope of this column. (There is at least one direct musical theatre link: Charlie's son Sydney, who co-stars in "Limelight," became an unlikely musical comedy star, romancing Judy Holliday and Barbra Streisand in Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl.)

If Charlie never appeared on the Broadway stage, he began in the theatre. Starting in 1903 at the age of fourteen, he toured the U.K. playing the pageboy Billy in Sherlock Holmes. (This included a West End stint with William Gillette, the American stage star who wrote the play.) Chaplin then moved onto English music hall, where he joined (and eventually headlined) Fred Karno's troupe of "speechless comedians." Chaplin spent ten years on stage before moving onto the screen, and key sequences of the films display a keen theatricality.

The precisely-routined dance of the dinner rolls from "The Gold Rush"; the nervous breakdown in "Modern Times," in which Charlie dances like a mad faun at lunch hour while throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery; "The Great Dictator"'s insane dance of glory, built around a spectacularly conceived prop (a balloon in the shape of the globe); the bravura pairing of Charlie and Buster Keaton as hapless musicians in "Limelight." (Happily, these scenes are excerpted in the coming attractions section of each individual release.)

But one only has to turn to the café number near the end of "Modern Times" to see Chaplin's stage roots. Watch his shuffle march as he prepares to sing. (He keenly milked the moment; after 22 years of superstardom, this was the first time that Chaplin talked on screen.) He expertly works the impatient crowd; he does a remarkable crouch walk, with his trouser seat suspended as if he was a marionette worked from above. He plays with his hat, twisting it aside his head. He finally delivers the song — Leo Daniderff's "Titina (Je Cherche Apres Titine)," to a lyric of gibberish — with a wide range of facial gestures matched by the most delicate hand movements.

Watch how he bounces to the beat, while waiting for the band to get through the accompaniment. Watch how he nonchalantly flicks his pocketful of francs, watch his fox trot from the rear in the arms of a gold-digging cocotte. This is a brilliant stage performance, folks, by a performer who instinctively knows how to work the musical beat and is absolutely assured of what he is doing. And besides acting it and dancing it, he wrote it and directed it and produced it, too.

"Not since Charlie Chaplin" indeed.

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

Antonio Banderas and ensemble members perform “Not Since Chaplin”
Antonio Banderas and ensemble members perform “Not Since Chaplin”
Today’s Most Popular News: