ON THE RECORD: Of Cervantes and Austen

News   ON THE RECORD: Of Cervantes and Austen
A discussion of the new Man of La Mancha cast recording and a musicalized "Pride and Prejudice," First Impressions.

MAN OF LA MANCHA [RCAVictor 09026-64007]
Man of La Mancha, in its original incarnation, was a triumph of spirit — musical comedy-wise — over material. The self-described "musical play by Dale Wasserman," with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, had plenty of holes in it; hokey jokes, contrived song words, and effective-but repetitive rhythms. But the original La Mancha worked, thanks in great part to Albert Marre, the show's director and guiding spirit.

Marre was the only one of the creators with more than incidental Broadway credits at the time. Wasserman wrote the stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which failed in its 1963 Broadway premiere. Darion did the lyrics for the 1957 flop Shinbone Alley. Leigh came from the land of TV commercials, where he had penned "Nobody Doesn't Like Sara Lee." Marre, at least, had one hit to his credit: the not-so-distinguished costume operetta Kismet, which was a moderate success in 1953 despite poor reviews.

If Marre's other shows were memorably poor — ranging from Shangri La to Milk and Honey to Home Sweet HomerLa Mancha was soaring. The unheralded, hopeless-sounding waif-of-a-show was Broadway's biggest sleeper hit ever, battling the windmills until it reached the fourth slot in the long-running Broadway musical sweepstakes (although it's presently at 16, soon to be overtaken by The Lion King). Typically for quixotic musicals, La Mancha had a hard time finding a Broadway berth, resulting in four homes in five years.

La Mancha closed in June 1970. It returned to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre just 51 weeks later for a successful summertime run, headed by four of the five original billed-above-the-title stars. Six years later, Kiley headed a triumphantly successful road tour that broke box-office records around the country, visiting the Palace along the way.

Both of these Marre-directed revivals were carbons of the original, with the spellbinding Kiley re-creating his near-legendary performance. La Mancha has not been the same since Kiley retired his paste-on whiskers in 1979. Marre tried one more Broadway revival in 1992, with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton in the leads, with dire results. La Mancha has received a total overhaul for its fifth Broadway visit, with a more-than-suitable new leading man and staging by a theatrically innovative director. But those holes in the piece, artfully glossed over while Kiley and Marre were riding the plains, are now all too apparent. What, then, is there to said for what is labeled "The New Broadway Cast Recording of Man of La Mancha"? Brian Stokes Mitchell does a fine enough job in the title role, offering a commendable performance. Does he compare to Kiley on the original cast recording [Decca Broadway 012 159 387] or London's Keith Michell [Decca DXSA-7203 (LP)]? No, I regret to say. One can understand why Mitchell chose to undertake the role, and one can understand why director Jonathan Kent chose to do the things he did with the material. But the problems of the revival understandably spill over onto the CD.

If Mitchell is within range of Kiley, the rest of the cast is problematic. While we are not a fan of typecasting, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is way too far away from what her role calls for. Aldonza is a kitchen slut reeking of sweat, who has spent thousands of nights groveling in the dirt with any man who could cross her palm with a coin. Mastrantonio offers all the earthiness of a gal at her sweet sixteen party. (This is a bit of an exaggeration, but just barely.) Numerous people have played this role over the course of time; Kiley must have appeared opposite at least a half-dozen Aldonzas, some of whom were very good. I don't expect that anyone ever had the fire of Joan Diener, though. A problematic performer in other roles, La Mancha was written to order for Diener — Marre's wife — and the role fit her amazing well. Which sends me back to the original recording, quick.

Don Mayo (as the Innkeeper) and Mark Jacoby (as the Padre) have a different sort of problem; they are competing with a pair of bonafide leading men who originally sang the roles. La Mancha was devised as one of three musicals intended to be performed in rep. Innkeeper Ray Middleton (leading man of Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun and Weill's Love Life) and Padre Robert Rounseville (hero of Bernstein's Candide) signed on for La Mancha because they had the leads in Marre and Leigh's adaptation of Sean O'Casey's Purple Dust. (Irving Jacobson was slated to star in Chu Chem, which explains why the original La Mancha featured a Yiddish Sancho Panza.) When La Mancha — and only La Mancha — went to Broadway, Middleton and Rounseville stayed on, bringing remarkable presence (and leading-man voices) to what are otherwise supporting roles.

This new CD is not poor or flawed or in any way deficient, mind you; still, I can't imagine many listeners — other than members of the Stokes Mitchell fan club — straying from Kiley and Diener.

Here is yet another long-lost cast recording, rescued from the Columbia archives some 42 years after it disappeared. This was a Broadwayized take on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"; First Impressions was Austen's original title. From the great Walter Kerr: "Jane Austen is perfectly able to take care of herself, and no feeble, wretched, or otherwise undistinguished version of her work is ever going to matter a hoot to her reputation."

First Impressions made it through 84 performances at the Alvin and was quickly relegated to the dust. The CD, though, possesses a lilting charm. It begins with a glorious overture, brim-filled with crispy trumpets and an interweaving of spritely woodwinds. (The action takes place in England in 1813, during the Regency Era.) Don Walker, who arrived on Broadway 24 years earlier with Sigmund Romberg's May Wine, knew all the tricks of the orchestrator's trade. With First Impressions, though, he entered a new phase; simply put, he seemed to select period-appropriate instruments and feature them prominently. In the case at hand, it was a harpsichord (which is only occasionally present). Think of The Gay Life, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Anya, Cabaret, Zorba; all have an atmospheric overlay in the instrumentation that worked to clothe the score as colorfully as the costume designer.

After the overture, though, First Impressions fails to impress. There is one sprightly tune, "I Feel Sorry for the Girl (Who Hasn't Got a Beau)," but that's about it. The rest is generally enjoyable, thanks to the orchestrations and the arrangements (dance by John Morris, vocals by Buster Davis). The most interesting tracks, other than "Sorry for the Girl," are the Polka in the first act ballroom scene, the Dance (developed from "Sorry for the Girl") near the end of the second act, and that Overture. When the instrumentals are more fun than the songs, watch out.

But First Impressions was that type of show. The idea, apparently, stemmed from Jule Styne. Styne was a top Hollywood tunesmith when he arrived on Broadway in the late forties with two hits, High Button Shoes and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He apparently decided that he should be the next Richard Rodgers, who was only three years older than Styne but had written 30 shows to Styne's two. Styne thus started writing as many musicals as he could and producing as well (beginning in 1951 with Hugh Martin's Make a Wish). But Styne's prodigious output was haphazard; he could effortlessly write melodies by the dozens, ranging from wonderful to merely professional. He was most successful when he had a tyrannical overseer — like Jerry Robbins — standing over his piano bench, rejecting the ordinary and forcing him to try again.

Styne produced about a dozen shows. Two were successful, a 1952 revival of Rodgers's Pal Joey and the comedy hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; the rest were poor and poorly produced. For his Jane Austen musical, Styne selected a pair of first-time songwriters from the Princeton Triangle Club, Robert Goldman and Glenn Paxton. (Robert Goldman was not related to, and is not to be confused with, the brothers James and William.) Styne supplemented the boys with Tin Pan Alley pro George David Weiss ("Wheel of Fortune"); Weiss served the same purpose on three other poor musicals, the Styne-produced Mr. Wonderful and the non-Styne Maggie Flynn and Comedy. Goldman, Paxton and Weiss came up nearly empty handed.

So did director-librettist Abe Burrows, one of Broadway's top comedy men at the time. (He had just collaborated with Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green on Styne's production Say, Darling.) Abe set his casting sights on Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison, who were just then playing My Fair Lady in London. Andrews and Harrison, that's who he wanted; look who he got. Polly Bergen was a recording star, with a recent Emmy for her performance in "The Helen Morgan Story." (Giselle MacKenzie, who had been announced for the role, withdrew when she became pregnant.) Bergen was an unlikely choice for Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennett; it's as if they wrote it for Mary Martin but wound up with Rosalind Russell. I'd guess that Bergen didn't work especially well onstage; still, I quite like her dark-but-friendly voice on the CD. The handsome-but-conflicted movie star Farley Granger was way out of place in musical comedy. As for Hermione Gingold, she was an acquired taste that I was never able to acquire. She makes a ludicrous Mrs. Bennett, destroying any semblance of Pride and Prejudice whenever she opens her mouth. Rounding out the cast was the fourth-billed James Mitchell, as the wicked Captain Wickham (a dance role), and Christopher Hewitt as the comic foil Collins. Styne and Burrows gave the ingénue role of Elizabeth's pretty sister Jane to Phyllis Newman, Adolph Green's happily soon-to-be wife. She got to sing "Sorry for the Girl" (with Donald Madden), and did very well with it.

Having listened to First Impressions numerous times over the years, I was recently surprised to see a back-of-the-Playbill credit for Red Ginzler as assistant orchestrator. Sure, Ginzler had ghosted for Walker on many fifties musicals, including the brassy Tony winners Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and The Music Man. But First Impressions was anything but brassy; not the sort of work you'd associate with Ginzler, who helped reconfigure the sound of Broadway during his brief career. (He received his first important Broadway credit two months after First Impressions opened, on Styne's Gypsy, and his last upon his death in 1962.) Listening to the First Impressions CD, though, you can almost put your finger on Ginzler's contributions. Starting with — yes — "Sorry for the Girl," and those flutes piping away ("especially in the Springtime"). Do I like this song because of the music, or because of the arrangement?

But enough of this. First Impressions was a hopeless musical with a weak score. The First Impressions CD is pleasantly listenable and recommended to people like me who enjoy this sort of thing. Let's leave it at that.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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