ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I and Flower Drum Song

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I and Flower Drum Song
We listen to the original cast album of the Richard Rodgers-produced 1964 revival of The King and I plus a reissue of Flower Drum Song.


THE KING AND I [Sony/Arkiv 50134]
Back in the days when the record labels were cleaning out their warehouses for the last time, some interesting LPs began to show up. One afternoon in 1992 I found, in a remainder store on West 26th Street, nine copies of the RCA cast album of the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, starring Rise Stevens and Darren McGavin. Nine copies, at a buck each. Here, I thought, was something I could give to my friends over at the Rodgers & Hammerstein office. Copies of the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of The King and I were in short supply, certainly, and it seemed highly unlikely that the thing would ever make it to CD. So I scooped up all nine copies.

One hearing was more than enough, for sure. Ms. Stevens had just recently retired from her reign as a star mezzo-soprano at the Met, and she could certainly sing; in 1963, she starred in a studio recording of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark, which in my book remains the finest recording of that score. But her Anna, in The King and I, wavers all over the place in an operatic manner which just doesn't work for me. And Mr. McGavin, best known at the time for starring opposite Geraldine Page in the 1954 play The Rainmaker, wasn't a happy choice. One quick listen, and I stacked the eight copies wrapped in plastic with the one opened LP and took them over to R&H. Where they were happily received, and eventually — I presume — used as placemats or doorstops.

Now, suddenly, just about every old cast album you can think of is turning up on CD. (Well, no; there are about ten really good ones that are still missing in action, but that's another story.) Anyway, Sony — which now controls the old RCA Victor archives — has dusted off the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of The King and I and released it digitally, with hard copies available from Arkiv Music.

I dutifully put it on the spindle and gave it another try, and find that it is of far more interest than I thought on that one quick hearing in 1992. Ms. Stevens and Mr. McGavin have not improved, certainly, which does put an understandable crimp in any recording of The King and I. However, this recording gives us (A) a very good Tuptim, in the person of Lee Venora (who had recently appeared opposite Alfred Drake in Kean, and who in 1965 would appear opposite Drake as Marsinah in the Richard Rodgers-produced Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of Kismet; (B) a strong Lun Tha, in the person of Frank Porretta; and a distinguished Madame Thiang, in the person of Patricia Neway, who had won a Tony Award singing "My Favorite Things" and "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music. (Neway can also be heard giving a phenomenal performance in the starring role of Magda in Gian-Carlo Menotti's 1950 Drama Critics' Circle/Pulitzer Prize-winning The Consul. If you can find a copy of this old Decca release, that is.) What's more, we get to hear "Western People Funny." This comedy number for Lady Thiang and the wives was understandably left off the 1951 original cast recording. It has been recorded elsewhere over the years, but this rendition is presumably close to how it was performed in the original (as Mr. Rodgers produced this revival). Of interest because this is arguably the weakest number in any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical; they wrote some that were on the same level, but they were cut before they reach Broadway. Hammerstein stretches for jokes here, giving the gals a standard musical comedy number that just doesn't fit in The King and I. But no matter. It is interesting to hear, certainly, and the small print tells us that among the wives is Dixie Carter.

More to the point, though, is "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." This is Jerome Robbins' "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ballet, which was a high-point of the second act. Here it is in all its splendor, using Russell Bennett's original orchestration, and presumably an exact replica of the what was heard on Broadway. The eight-minute piece contains a full narration, presumably written by Hammerstein, with music by Trude Rittman. For those who wonder what people like Ms. Rittman and her ilk did, this is a fine example (as is the musical underscoring that accompanies the scene leading to "Younger Than Springtime" in South Pacific, so luxuriously on display at present at the Vivian Beaumont). The "Uncle Thomas" music is pretty much the invention of Ms. Rittman, working closely with Robbins. (The piece was here restaged by Yuriko, who had created the leading role of Eliza.) Notice how Rittman weaves in variations on "Hello Young Lovers" as Eliza skates across the frozen ice. An especially nice touch.

So here is an authentic rendition of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," hidden away on this long-disappeared 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of The King and I. Which makes this Sony/Arkiv release of more than passing interest. Five bonus tracks of cover recordings have been added. These include two 1959 recordings by Richard Kiley with lollipop arrangements that you really need to hear to believe.

[EDITORIAL AMENDMENT: Max Preeo, who has been tracking cast albums for 20-odd years or so and contributes so much to this field, e-mailed to point out that this 1964 King and I has indeed already been issued on CD, in 2006 just before Sony took over the BMG/RCA catalogues — a release which I somehow missed or simply forgot. As always, I am grateful to Max for quickly pointing this out; my goal, and his goal, is for all such information to be totally accurate.

As for the reference below to the Sandra Church track included on the Flower Drum Song reissue, the liner notes state that this was recorded just after the opening of the show and prior to Gypsy. This didn't make much sense, as the track seems to reflect on Church's portrayal of Louise (aka, Gypsy Rose Lee), but the liner notes were very clear on this. Clear, but wrong; Max further points out that this track comes from Church's Columbia LP "Let Me Entertain You," which was made following the opening of Gypsy. This is one of 12 songs recorded in "stripper style," with arrangements by the great Luther Henderson (who had done the dance arrangements for Flower Drum Song). Thanks, Max!]

FLOWER DRUM SONG [Sony/Arkiv 50136]
Accompanying the 1964 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of The King and I in Arkiv's Rodgers & Hammerstein lineup is the original 1958 cast album of Flower Drum Song. This score has never ranked high among my favorites, either within the works of R&H or in the overall parade of 1950s musicals. Dick and Oscar, in ill-health and having followed the original King and I with two poor musicals (Me and Juliet in 1953 and Pipe Dream in 1955), seemed content to reach for an adequate musical that would please the nondiscriminating. That's what they got with this San Francisco-based look at a generational culture clash. They brought in no less than Gene Kelly to direct (but not choreograph) the show, which turned out not to be much help. Kelly had gotten his big pre-Hollywood break playing Pal Joey for Rodgers in 1940, and had choreographed the 1941 musical Best Foot Forward (which Rodgers co-produced). This did not exactly equip him to direct a Broadway musical, though. After a fair number of years of personally neglecting Flower Drum Song, I find myself going back to it again and again. A score on the level of Carousel or South Pacific? Of course not. But I do like "You Are Beautiful," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "I Am Going to Like It Here," "I Enjoy Being a Girl," "Sunday," and especially "Love Look Away." So I wouldn't ignore Flower Drum Song if you have done so thus far. (If you know the show only from the rewritten 2002 revival, that doesn't count.) Six bonus tracks are added, including three chirpy ones from Florence Henderson. Also, Sandra Church gives us a "Grant Avenue" that sounds suspiciously like a Gypsy Rose Lee strip and might have been intended as something of an audition — a successful one — for the role of Louise in the upcoming musical Gypsy.

HAZEL FLAGG [RCA/Arkiv 05097]
This Sony/Arkiv batch also includes the original cast album of the 1953 Jule Styne musical Hazel Flagg. This recording was discussed in this column at length and highly recommended when it was released in the U.K. in 2004, linked here for your convenience.

(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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