ON THE RECORD: Romberg and Beatniks from DRG

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Romberg and Beatniks from DRG
I've never been able to muster much excitement for the work of Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951). The Hungarian-born composer came to America in 1909, getting a job as house composer for the Shubert brothers. He turned out hackwork by the yard for the Passing Show series and other Shubert revues. (These included four shows in which Al Jolson established himself as the era's number one star, although the famous song-hits were interpolated by other composers.)

I've never been able to muster much excitement for the work of Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951). The Hungarian-born composer came to America in 1909, getting a job as house composer for the Shubert brothers. He turned out hackwork by the yard for the Passing Show series and other Shubert revues. (These included four shows in which Al Jolson established himself as the era's number one star, although the famous song-hits were interpolated by other composers.)

All the while, Romberg was pleading for a chance to write "real" music. His bosses gave him the opportunity in 1921. Blossom Time, adapted from themes by Schubert — Franz, not Lee — was an enormous hit, with four touring companies mounted during the original Broadway run. Romberg moved out of the stable — the Winter Garden, home of the Shubert revues, was indeed on the site of a former stable — and became Broadway's new king of operetta. Three more superhits followed: The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928). And then Romberg was passe; his five Depression operettas all failed, as did two of his final three efforts.

He left behind a fragmentary score for what became the 1954 musical The Girl in Pink Tights. Romberg's sketches were "developed" by orchestrator Don Walker, who had made his Broadway debut on Romberg's May Wine (1935). Lyrics came from Leo Robin, who spent most of his career in Hollywood (with an Oscar for "Thanks for the Memory"), but whose Broadway credits included Vincent Youmans's Hit the Deck (1927) and Jule Styne's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949).

Pink Tights was an old-fashioned throwback, which limped through three months at the Mark Hellinger. Star Renee Jeanmaire — billed merely as Jeanmaire, later known as Zizi — received spectacular reviews. She was familiar to audiences for her role opposite Danny Kaye in the 1952 Frank Loesser movie musical Hans Christian Andersen, and she enchanted the critics. But the lavish production was leaden, and the libretto by Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields was about 25 years out of date. Brooks Atkinson found the thing "clumsy and witless," although he called Jeanmaire "a Gallic edition of Mary Martin, which is intended to be handsomely complimentary all the way round."

Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for Romberg, I've always enjoyed the Pink Tights cast album. It is friendly, tuneful and in spots quite enchanting; while there is nothing great here, it is highly enjoyable in its own, quaint fashion. "Lost in Loveliness," the closest the score came to a song hit, is a melodic ballad in a gentle walking tempo. It is saved from sounding old fashioned (by 1954 standards) by an unexpectedly blue note in the third measure of the A section; this is countered by a rangy, almost rhapsodic bridge. David Atkinson, who replaced David Brooks during the tryout, is the singer. The cast also included the Hines Brothers, Maurice (age ten) and Gregory (age eight). "In Paris and in Love" is another atmospheric ballad, enhanced by Jeanmaire's performance (opposite Atkinson). "Up in the Elevated Railway" is a marvelous concerted number, which must have been quite something in the theatre. It features an elaborate vocal arrangement, with the chorus going clickety clack and what have you. Quaint, but delightful. (The arrangement is uncredited; I'd have to guess it was by Trude Rittman, who did the ballet music.) My favorite part of the score is a backstage novelty quartet called "You've Got to Be a Little Crazy (to Want to Produce a Play)." The lyric is filled with fun stuff. Bass Kalem Kermoyan (later Michael Kermoyan): "There's a charm in the smell of greasepaint / That is stronger than all magic spells." Producer Brenda Lewis: "You're not Edwin Booth and you won't face the truth / That it isn't the greasepaint that smells."

This last song has a particularly lively orchestration, which appears to be by Robert Ginzler (who also participated in Walker's second show of the spring of 1954, The Pajama Game). The overall orchestration is credited solely to Walker, although Robert Farnon did a significant amount of work on it. But Walker's hand is very much in evidence elsewhere. Is it his presence that makes Pink Tights so much more enjoyable (for me) than other Romberg musicals? Did Walker develop the themes to give them a less antiquated sound? Quite possibly. For whatever reason, the ballads don't have that stodgy, "Deep in My Heart, Dear" feeling; and the bright numbers are amusing, even when tripped up by the lyricist.

So The Girl in Pink Tights — which has never before been issued on CD, and is one of the first releases of DRG's new Broadway Collector series — is quite welcome. Not a great score, or an important one, but I expect that many listeners will find it enjoyable. Those of you who are allergic to anything old fashioned, though, are excused.

I've never been able to muster much excitement for the work of Sigmund Romberg. Wait, I said that before. A prime example is The Student Prince. It has a handful of old-time song hits, but none of them does anything for me. However, fans of Romberg will be glad to get this 1952 recording. It is one of the early entries in the series of studio recordings that Goddard Lieberson and Lehman Engel made for Columbia in the early days of the long-playing record. Opera star Dorothy Kirsten led the cast opposite Robert Rounseville, who in 1956 played the title role in Leonard Bernstein's Candide.

The score's several song hits are very much in evidence: "Deep in My Heart, Dear," "Serenade," "Golden Days" and all those choristers-with-tankards standing around in Old Heidelberg singing the "Drinking Song" ("Drink, Drink, Drink"). The recording seems to be authentic; at least, the routining follows the original vocal score. The orchestrations aren't credited, but the orchestral cues indicated in the score appear to be followed; thus, I'd guess that they used the original charts by Emil Gerstenberger.

The Student Prince — and Romberg, and olden golden operetta — breathed its last gasp on Broadway back in 1973. A shoestring producer simultaneously mounted touring revivals of The Student Prince — with George Rose as star comedian — and The Desert Song. The latter staggered into the Uris Theatre to nothing but yawns for 15 performances, losing enough money to cancel the proposed Broadway stand of The Student Prince.

So here it is on CD, for those of you who want it. It was all the rage in 1924, but I think that even then I would have found it outdated by the "Fascinatin' Rhythm" of George and Ira Gershwin's Lady Be Good,which opened on Broadway the night before The Student Prince.

The third of the new DRG releases — which was also quickly deleted from the Columbia catalogue and has never been on CD — raises an interesting question. Is one wonderful song reason enough to buy something you might not otherwise want to bother with? How good is the song? Extremely; I'd easily rank it on my list of the best 25 show tunes by people you've never heard of. "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" it's called, a poignant, ineffably lonely plaint. Composer Tommy Wolf works in stepwise progressions, with each two-measure phrase skirting the key tone. Is this what gives the song its unsettling quality? For whatever reason, it is memorably haunting, with an insightful lyric by Fran Landesman. The song has achieved something of a following in jazz and cabaret circles. Here it is sung with great simplicity by Tani Seitz, with composer-arranger pianist Wolf leading his jazz quartet. So this is presumably how he wanted the thing to sound. And it sounds wonderful.

The Nervous Set originated in St. Louis, where it apparently was quite the thing. It opened on May 12, 1959, at Henry Miller's Theatre and was hooted off the stage. "Weird," "nerve-wracking" said the critics. Walter Kerr, commenting on the mixture of Shubert Alley and Greenwich Village, said "I'm afraid The Nervous Set has made the worst of both worlds." The show lasted 23 performances.

Aside from "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men," there are a couple of jazzy songs that please, "What's to Lose" and "Fun Life." The latter has a wonderful piano accompaniment; it also has an unfortunate lyric, rhyming "serious" with "cheery us" and "fling with it" with "ding-a-ling with it." Oh, and "Shakespeare was a hack /So we read Ke-rou-ac."

(A reader e-mailed me about another Wolf-Landesman song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most." This jazz standard — inspired by T. S. Eliot's "April is the cruellest month" — has been listed as part of The Nervous Set score, but it was written several years earlier. While it might well have been used in an early version of the show, it was not heard on Broadway and is not included on this album.)

The rest of the score ranges from mediocre to painful. Wolf was a jazz guy, and I can see how he was out of his element on Broadway. This was a show about beatniks — the first song is called "Man, We're Beat" — and it was apparently meant to satirize the Broadway sound. Thus, they have a terribly innocuous party song, called "Party Song" (which we hear three times, for our sins); an undernourished New York City song, called "New York"; and a couple of excessively mirthless comic numbers, "How Do You Like Your Love?" and "Max the Millionaire."

There's also a supposedly satiric but pretty awful cowboy song called "Travel the Road of Love," sung by a writer named Bummy, played by the young Texan son of Mary Martin, Larry Hagman. Also on hand was another interesting Broadway newcomer, Thomas Aldredge, playing a poet. If you scour the credits, you'll find a costume designer named Theoni Vachlioti Aldredge. And that's about as interesting as The Nervous Set gets.

Except for that song. I've been digging out my Nervous Set LP for years to listen to "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men"; it will be much easier now that the score is on CD.

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

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