ON THE RECORD: Nobody Knows Blitzstein and Lahr

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Nobody Knows Blitzstein and Lahr
THE ME NOBODY KNOWS 150 Music 150Music02
"I loved it. I loved its understanding and compassion, and I loved its pain and yet also its unsentimental determination for hope." So said Clive Barnes of the New York Times, at the time the most powerful critic in town, about the 1970 musical revue The Me Nobody Knows. And I very much agreed with Mr. Barnes. The Me was energetic, tuneful, talent-filled and thought-provoking, and I'm glad the original cast album (on Atlantic Records) has finally been released on CD.

THE ME NOBODY KNOWS 150 Music 150Music02
"I loved it. I loved its understanding and compassion, and I loved its pain and yet also its unsentimental determination for hope." So said Clive Barnes of the New York Times, at the time the most powerful critic in town, about the 1970 musical revue The Me Nobody Knows. And I very much agreed with Mr. Barnes. The Me was energetic, tuneful, talent-filled and thought-provoking, and I'm glad the original cast album (on Atlantic Records) has finally been released on CD.

The Me began as a collection of short pieces and poems written by inner city school-children, edited by teacher Stephen M. Joseph. ("Children's voices from the Ghetto" was the subtitle.) Herb Schapiro, who ran a college theatre company, staged a short program of sketches from the book. Composer Gary William Friedman was then brought into the project. The lyrics came from three sources; some straight from the book, where possible; others by Joseph; and most from Will Holt, a professional lyricist brought in when the show was optioned for off-Broadway. (Friedman and Holt went on to write Platinum, a misguided musical that skipped into the Hellinger with Alexis Smith for four weeks in 1978.) Robert H. Livingston directed, with the show enhanced by high-octane choreography by Pat Birch. Birch was best known for her work on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. (Livingston, the original director of Charlie Brown, was fired prior to rehearsals. He sued the producers and was eventually awarded retroactive royalties.) Birch came to The Me immediately after being fired from her first Broadway show, Minnie's Boys. (When nothing works, goes the old saying, fire the choreographer.) Birch soon hit it big with Grease and A Little Night Music.

The Me opened on May 18, 1970 at the Orpheum Theatre and ran happily along until November 16, when Actors' Equity closed down off Broadway with a month-long strike. The Me was strong enough to transfer to Broadway. It opened December 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre - the real one (across from the Lunt), not the current-day house of the same name - and ran for almost a year, during which it moved to the Longacre. The show played 385 performances, plus 208 off-Broadway. While The Me did only moderate business, it survived on discounts and group sales and holds the distinction of being the second rock musical to make money on Broadway. The cast featured some wonderful voices. Northern J. Calloway had the two "serious" numbers, both of them extremely difficult: "The White Horse," about heroin addiction; and "War Babies," about — well, about War Babies. He does a fine job on them, as well as more upbeat solo sections in group numbers. Calloway, a personable singer-actor with a warm demeanor, went on to replace Ben Vereen in Pippin and spent sixteen years as a regular on "Sesame Street" before his death in 1990. Hattie Winston — currently a regular on the sitcom "Becker," and longtime wife to ace orchestrator Harold Wheeler — had the strongest voice of the bunch, as evidenced by "Sounds" and her solo sections of "Black." "Sounds" was a duet with Beverly Ann Bremers, a long-haired blonde with a plaintive wail in her voice who had a minor pop career in the Seventies. Bremers's other big number was the affecting "How I Feel," a duet with Jose Fernandez, who also sang the poignant "The Tree." Author of the books for El Bravo and the long-in-gestation stage version of Fame, Fernandez died in 1994. Gerri Dean — last on Broadway with Linda Hopkins in Me and Bessie — belts out "Dream Babies" and sings a rather stunning obbligato to "The White Horse." Also of note is Melanie Henderson — daughter to Luther — who displays an attractive voice in "Something Beautiful."

Energizing the evening were two ten-year-olds. Pint-sized Doug Grant charmed his way through the evening — his big number was about "Flying Milk and Runaway Plates" (unrecorded) — and kept the audience laughing. Little Irene Cara, meanwhile, served as an energetic sparkplug. (While not specified in the song listings, they sing the solos in "This World.") Cara went on to fame in "Fame" (the film version) and won an Oscar and two Grammys as co-author and performer of "Flashdance: What a Feeling." Pre teens Grant, Cara, and (standby) Giancarlo Esposito came to The Me as Broadway veterans; they appeared together in the 1968 Shirley Jones Jack Cassidy vehicle Maggie Flynn.
Musical director/keyboardist Eddie Strauss did a fine job with his youthful cast of talented-but-untrained singers. He went on to Pippin, the Jerry Zaks productions of Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls and is presently in residence at Urinetown.

The Me might be a bit dated for some listeners; it was very effective in its time but very much of its time. There's some very lovely stuff here, including the rousing "If I Had a Million Dollars." (The opening refrains are charmingly sung by Calloway, who'd buy a penthouse in Newark, New Jersey, and Grant, who'd buy a tollbridge and turn the million into two; Winston leads the final refrain.) This song closed the first act, sending the audience into the lobby absolutely beaming. What a pleasure to have The Me back in circulation.

A MARC BLITZSTEIN SONGBOOK Original Cast Records OC-4441
As all good Blitzstein fans know, recordings and performances of his work — other than The Cradle Will Rock and his adaptation of the Weill/Brecht Threepenny Opera — are hard to come by. This was the case, actually, even when Blitzstein was alive; he wrote masterful musical theatre scores for what his protégé Leonard Bernstein called "falling angels." Composer/lyricist Leonard Lehrman has championed Blitzstein's work for years. His 1990 CD "A Blitzstein Cabaret" [Premier PRCD 1005] preserved twenty songs, most of which were previously unrecorded and unpublished. Lehrman has now released "A Marc Blitzstein Songbook." This one contains nineteen songs, thirteen of which are receiving their initial recordings. For Blitzstein fans, this is the first chance to hear some extra special material. Between the two discs, we have now heard seven songs from the fascinating Reuben, Reuben, which shuttered after a dire Boston tryout in 1955; three songs from the unfinished Idiot's First; and five songs from the opera Sacco and Vanzetti, which Blitzstein was writing for the Metropolitan when he was murdered in 1964.Lehrman not only pounds the piano — a la Blitzstein, and sings in the style composer; he has also reconstructed, arranged, and in some cases "completed" unfinished work. He is joined by three singers, including his wife Helene Williams. Williams is a fine interpreter of Blitzstein; she sings the sometimes difficult material like a good soprano, but she also understands the frustration and bitterness behind the songs. "Nickel under the Foot" is especially strong, with Williams picking up on every last nuance; and she really lets fly with "The Best Thing of All," the lacerating soliloquy from Regina. (The Columbia recording of Blitzstein's musicalization of The Little Foxes is one of the most important American musical theatre scores yet to be transferred to CD, by the way.) Williams also mines comedy from "Few Little English." Other highlights include a trio arrangement of the exceedingly lovely "Hills of Amalfi" from Reuben, Reuben.

Granted, "A Marc Blitzstein Songbook" is probably too intense for the casual listener. For those already indoctrinated in the composer's work, though, it makes an intriguing supplement.

TWO ON THE AISLE Decca Broadway 440 014 583
For those of you in need of a bit of amusement, Decca Broadway's fall crop of releases includes the new-to-CD original cast recording of Two on the Aisle. This was one of those ragtag, old-fashioned revues that proliferated before television variety shows sent them to pasture. It was produced on a shoestring and probably not very good. This is the show, though, in which Styne met Comden and Green. Jule was a Hollywood hitmaker, favored by Frank Sinatra; Betty and Adolph were highbrow guys, collaborators and buddies with Bernstein and Robbins. Strangely enough, the trio perfectly complemented each other. More importantly, this is the great Bert Lahr's only original cast album. Lahr had a dozen Broadway shows written for him, but this is his only musical stage performance with a cast album. (He recorded some of his show songs over the years, but this was his only musical recorded with the original cast and arrangements.) Lahr appears on only two tracks (with six words on a third), but two tracks are better than none. And Lahr is in rare form, although I suppose he was always in rare form. We get to hear him rrring like a telephone, utter his famous "gnong, gnong, gnong," and impersonate Rudy Valentino and Helen Hayes (as Queen Victoria). He also manages to turn "win" into a seven-syllable word.

Co-starred — in type slightly smaller than Lahr — is Dolores Gray. This was the Chicago girl who went to London to play Merman's role in Annie Get Your Gun. Show and star were enormously successful, outlasting the Broadway production. The plan was for Two on the Aisle to launch Gray as the next Mary Martin, but bad shows and a difficult temperament intervened. She sounds wonderful here, though. Lahr and Gray got along as well as corned beef and hollandaise, battling their way through 276 performances.

Two on the Aisle has only one memorable song, but seven of eleven on the short (36-minute) CD are of more than passing interest. "If You Hadn't But You Did" is a perfect song of its kind, a rapid-fire rant in which a woman explains why she has just knocked off her philandering man. Gray delivers the song with stiletto-point sharpness, and you can understand every word. These are good lyrics, by the way; Comden and Green set themselves the task of finding endless rhymes for "if," and they did so inventively. (As in, "If you had not left me home, when you had two seats for South Pacif.") Phil Lang's arrangements, here and elsewhere on the album, are sassy and full of brass. "Show Train" is a deft opening number, with Comden and Green providing capsule descriptions of the shows of the day. (Guys and Dolls: "Robert Alda bets Levine/He can date a mission queen/Winds up with a tambourine/The end.") "You Can Always Catch Our Act at the Met" is ridiculously corny and a joy, with Lahr and Gray as two vaudevillians. ("Look at what a smash they made of Fledermaus/Variety says, "Mouse Packs House!") Lahr gets Donizetti mixed up with Don Ameche. Most remarkable, perhaps, is that Styne, Comden and Green provided four nontheatrical pop songs for Gray - and they are each and every one of them delightful. "Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me (Hold Me Tight)" and "How Will He Know?" both develop with intriguing bridges; "There Never was a Baby Like My Baby" is highly endearing; and "Give a Little — Get a Little" really swings along on its way. All of this makes Two on the Aisle a lightweight but highly enjoyable fifty-year-old.

Urinetown, the uproariously inventive and musically impressive new musical, has happily transferred to Henry Miller's Theatre. This is a good time to catch a Broadway show, certainly, so go see it now. Just tell the cabby: Take me to Urinetown! -- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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