ON THE RECORD: Seventh Heaven, Barbara Cook and Kander & Ebb

News   ON THE RECORD: Seventh Heaven, Barbara Cook and Kander & Ebb
This week's column examines a recording of the 1955 musical Seventh Heaven, Barbara Cook's first Christmas disc and a new tome featuring in-depth interviews with John Kander and Fred Ebb.

(From Top:) Barbara Cook, John Kander, Fred Ebb
(From Top:) Barbara Cook, John Kander, Fred Ebb

SEVENTH HEAVEN [Decca Broadway B0001252]
Back in the good old days, bad old musicals used to appear like clockwork every spring. The 1955 entry was Seventh Heaven, musicalized from Austin Strong's 1922 tearjerker. Street waif meets sewer cleaner, love ensues. Chico marches off to World War I, returning — blind and shell-shocked — to Diane's arms. This was, more or less, the "Love Story" of the decade. The long-running play spawned a blockbuster silent film hit in 1927, taking three Oscars at the first awards ceremony (including one for star Janet Gaynor) and providing one of those all-time song hits that you might well recognize if you heard it. "I'm in heaven when I see you smile, Diane" it goes.

By 1955, Seventh Heaven was old and tired. From today's vantage point, the show seems to have been a vanity production. The producers never produced a musical, before or since. Lyricist-librettist Stella Unger and co-librettist Victor Wolfson never wrote a musical, before or since. The leading lovers, Gloria De Haven and Ricardo Montalban, were Broadway first-timers from Hollywood. The producers hired a first-time choreographer, too. Peter Gennaro turned out all right, though.

The star of the show, for all intents and purposes, was composer Victor Young. A native of Chicago, Young (1900-1956) took a roundabout route to Broadway. Following the death of his mother, Young was abandoned by his father — an opera tenor — and sent to live with his grandfather, a tailor in Warsaw. The ten-year-old was enrolled in the Warsaw Conservatory, speedily becoming a world-class violin prodigy. (Upon his debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic, a rich benefactor presented him with a 1730 violin by Guarneri. Said violin disappeared the day after Young's death in Desert Hot Springs.)

Young returned to America during World War I, moving from the concert hall to the pop field. A stint as a conductor at a hotel ballroom in Chicago led to radio, which led to Hollywood. Young was musical director of Paramount's 1936 film version of Anything Goes, and immediately found a home. As head of Paramount's music department, Young served as composer, musical director and/or arranger on almost 350 movies over 20 years.

Quantity, not quality, you might admonish, and not without reason. Young picked up an astounding 20 Oscar nominations during his life, losing them all. (He was posthumously nominated for an additional two Oscars, finally winning in 1958 for the score for "Around the World in Eighty Days.") Young received four Oscar nominations in 1940 alone. He received another four in 1941, and three in 1943. Has anyone ever set such a torrid pace? Yes, it's an honor to be nominated, but Young seemed to automatically lose. Most of his music was of the non-song variety, but several of his themes were converted to pop songs, including "My Foolish Heart," "Golden Earrings," "Written in the Wind" and "Around the World." While writing hundreds upon hundreds of hours worth of film music, Young made a couple of tentative stabs at Broadway. A La Carte, a revue with lyrics by Edward Heyman, opened in Hollywood in 1949. The show quickly closed, but remnants were folded into the Olsen and Johnson revue Pardon Our French, which stumbled into the Broadhurst in 1950 for three months.

How and why Young came to write Seventh Heaven is lost to history, as is the reason he was matched with musical theatre amateurs. Lyricist/colibrettist Stella Unger wrote a handful of songs over the years, although I can't find much information about her. Co-librettist Victor Wolfson at least had some Broadway experience, with six plays to his credit. One of them, Excursion, was something of a hit in 1937; it was musicalized for Broadway by Burt Shevelove and Al Selden in 1951, although it capsized in Philadelphia. Month of Sundays they called it, starring Nancy Walker (with Dick Kiley in a small role).

The only theatre veteran connected with Seventh Heaven was its director, John C. Wilson. Jack Wilson had some hits in his past; longtime partner of Noel Coward, he became business manager and producer for Coward as well as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Wilson turned director in the 1940s, with his credits including back-to-back hits Kiss Me, Kate and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But Wilson's alcohol problem was already out of control. His 11 post-Blondes shows all failed, including two especially haphazard musicals, Make a Wish and Seventh Heaven. Back in his more successful days, Wilson produced Wolfson's Excursion — which seems to explain his presence on Seventh Heaven.

With a bunch of novices and an ineffective director, Seventh Heaven was a total loss; Jerry Robbins came in to try to fix the show, but the patient was beyond help. Surprisingly enough, the album is quite listenable, almost in spite of the material. The songs for the stars are rather dreary; think ersatz Parisian soap opera music, Hollywood style. (Montalban does exceedingly well under the circumstances, displaying immense charm.) The comedy numbers, however, are exceedingly peppy. I suppose they seemed out of place in the context of the show, but they are sure enjoyable. Sparking the action is Robert Clary, the diminutive sprite who made a splash in New Faces of 1952 and would later find fame on TV's "Hogan's Heroes."

Clary has three spots, and he makes the most of them. This fellow stands in the spotlight and sings a song called "Happy Little Crook," in which he calls himself "a sly merchant of menace, with a shy shy Shylock look." "Pick a pocket / Lift a locket / What a thrill to hock it / I'm a hap- hap- happy crook," he sings. (Crew-ook is how he pronounces it, in two syllables.) Lines like "I'm just a five and ten klepto / With a lepra-corny look" and "When my hand is in your pocket / There's no cop alive to block a / Happy little crook" make you wonder whether Sheldon Harnick was seen slinking along down Tremont Street. (Harnick, composer-lyricist of "The Boston Beguine" from New Faces, made under-the-table contributions to at least two similarly dire musicals of the period.) This lyric is almost criminally out of place for Paris, 1915, and way out of key with the rest of the score, but no matter; entertainment takes the day. Clary seems to think he's Sammy Davis at the Mocambo, and it's impossible not to be swayed.

Clary also has an inordinately cheery duet with Patricia Hammerlee, another veteran of New Faces. "Love Sneaks Up on You" is no great shakes, but it floats along on infectious harmonic underpinnings. Besides, the singers are having so much fun that it's impossible not to crack a smile. Clary even throws in his Eartha Kitt impersonation.

There are also two trios for the show's resident hookers, Hammerlee, Gerrianne Raphael, and 22-year-old Chita Rivera. (The authors tried to spice things up by making Diane a prostitute. Bring on the girls.) The songs are only so-so, but the performances leap out at you. ("If sex is bad," asks Chita, "how can it be so good?") Playing the resident madam was Beatrice Arthur, without a song to sing. She was rushed in during the tryout to replace Fifi D'Orsay (who serves as comic relief in Ted Chapin's Everything Was Possible). The CD also includes a five-minute abridgement of the dream ballet "Chico's Reverie," which sounds pretty impressive under the circumstances. This is, presumably, what movie composer Young did best.

David Terry, a record arranger with no theatre experience before or since, is credited with the orchestrations. Irv Kostal, a friend of Young's from Chicago days, is known to have come in and done extensive fixing; you can hear his touch in the livelier numbers. There is also some strong choral work from the little-known Crane Calder, who also made memorable contributions to Allegro and Plain and Fancy.

The all-but-forgotten Seventh Heaven does rate a small footnote in Broadway history. If Robbins couldn't do much to fix the show, he did draft some key players for his 1957 musical West Side Story. Peter Gennaro was invited along as co-choreographer; Chita Rivera gained stardom as Anita; and Lee Becker, Gennaro's assistant and Rivera's understudy, played the tomboy Anybodys. (Gennaro and Becker both became full-fledged choreographers in their own right, working for West Side producer Hal Prince.) Orchestrator Kostal did West Side too, although not necessarily with Robbins's involvement.

The half-dozen lively numbers help make the Seventh Heaven CD considerably more interesting than you might expect. Not a musical for the ages, this disc is fun despite itself; the outstandingly poor lyrics, oddly enough, add to our enjoyment. Unger keeps handing us rhymes like "I'm richer than Midas / I'm high as a kite is" and "for even beginners / soon find out that sin is." She also finds a quadruple rhyme in "bois," "bar," "gras de foie" and "au revoir." Montalban does especially well, using his accent to help cover the lyricist's transgressions. "So long, sweet song of Debussy," he sings. A sewer cleaner, circa 1915, who whistles Debussy? Hmmm.

Christmas albums are generally out of my field of interest. If Barbara Cook wants to make one, though, I am sure to listen. This season's offering from Ms. Cook is "Count Your Blessings," her eighth CD on the DRG label. It offers what we have grown to expect from the singer: A carefully assembled selection of songs perfectly performed, with Cook making it all sound deceptively easy and mighty comfortable. What's not to like?

It is beside the point to note that Cook sings well; of course she sings well! And it doesn't matter how many years she has been singing, either. These songs — at least some of them — are presumably what she was singing back as a Depression-era kid in Atlanta, before she ever heard of Gershwin or Arlen or Bernstein or Sondheim. Sweet music, charming and affectionate. The disc alternates between olde time traditional Christmas songs and holiday tunes of the Tin Pan Alley variety.

Cook is joined by her longtime musical director Wally Harper, who provided the arrangements as well. Larry Blank did the warmly cozy orchestrations. We've heard these songs before, yes, but Harper and Blank give them a new face without jarring them. The livelier numbers, especially, mix a sense of the occasion with a glint of humor. They take a lot of those old chestnuts roasting over the open fire and made them sound like — well, new chestnuts. (Is it only me, or is the main phrase of "The Christmas Song" — well sung here, by the way — lifted from the final movements of Mahler's Ninth?)

The second track of the album is typical of the arrangements. It begins, deceptively, with Leroy Anderson sleigh bells — ah, you think, here come the cliches — but instead delivers a brisk holiday jaunt of a "Winter Wonderland." "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" is great fun; the song itself is sprightly, but people don't always capture the spirit (which is not of the Yuletide, exactly, coming from Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn.) The arrangement starts with a touch of those chestnuts on the open fire and bump into a bluesy sax solo before letting us catch on to the tune. The orchestration contrasts flutes (on the "let it snow" eighth notes) with the bluesy sax, mixing in a lazy trombone as well.

While I'm not big on old time traditional Christmas songs, Cook makes something thrilling of "O Holy Night." "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is also notable, with a very nice harp accompaniment (played by Susan Jolles). Cook also gives us an intimate but rousing "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands." Barbara starts off a cappella, and who can do it better?; in comes a harmonica (William Galison), and they are soon joined by the banjo (Jay Berliner). The song is traditional, yes, but the performance is fresh and new. Harper also contributes a very nice piano-only accompaniment on "Breath of Heaven." A group called The Broadway Inspirational Voices lives up to their billing; inspirational, but with Broadway savvy. It is unreasonable to list all 11 names here, but they include Norm Lewis, Billy Porter and Darius de Hass.

The disc ends with — what else? — Barbara Cook singing Hugh Martin's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." This combination of very special song and very special singer, in itself, is enough to make you want to "Count Your Blessings." AND OFF THE RECORD
John Kander and Fred Ebb have been collaborating since 1962, making them what they call "the longest-running composer-lyricist partnership in Broadway history." (Comden and Green were a Broadway songwriting team for considerably longer, although neither wrote music. Schmidt and Jones have been collaborating since 1953, although with a considerably smaller output.)

Kander and Ebb have now collaborated on "Colored Lights: Forty Years of Words and Music, Show Biz, Collaboration, and All That Jazz" [Faber and Faber]. Greg Lawrence, biographer of Jerome Robbins, is given "as told to credit," although the book is written in the form of a dialogue (with occasional song lyrics). It is bright and breezily engaging, with a number of highly flavorful passages along the way. The overall effect is of sitting with the boys in the den of Ebb's Central Park West apartment. When I finished the book — I got through it in one day — I wanted to head cross town for more.

Unlike so many of these "and then I wrote" books, Kander and Ebb are candid and remarkably unbiased about their work. They seem to have always, mostly, enjoyed themselves. While writing the shows, at least; once the songs reached the hands of producers and directors and performers, things sometimes went astray, as entertainingly related. Not surprisingly, disasters make more interesting anecdotes than successes.

Walking among their yesterdays, one stumbles upon what might be a surprising fact. Kander has written 12 produced Broadway musicals, Ebb 11. Of these, only one — Cabaret -- was a commercial hit. (I have always thought that the original Chicago was marginally successful, but Kander tells us that it never paid back.) All the others posted deficits, mostly of the enormous variety; two of the shows broke then-existing all-time red ink records.

Kander and Ebb are remarkably non-defensive about this. Some of their shows they remember lovingly, others they seem not to have especially liked. (On Woman of the Year. Kander: "That was another show where I don't think our work was so great. It's been a lesson to me that there are shows we have done which I think were really good but received no attention at all — I mean, major flops — and then suddenly we get a Tony Award for a show that is just professional." Ebb: "We were up against a couple of shows that year that I had never even heard of.")

This, I must say, is a pretty accurate reading of the situation. But I wonder how many of Kander and Ebb's contemporaries would make such a statement? The boys are similarly underenthused about Zorba, while they are sincere in their admiration for the 35-performance flop 70, Girls, 70. Kander tells us that it is one of the few shows he went to night after night, and I know exactly what he means; I myself went in "every night at seven plus the two matinees" to watch "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," "Broadway, My Street" and "Yes." (I was a teenager selling orange drink next door at the Shubert, and thus able to slip into the Broadhurst.) 70, Girls was clunky and unworkable, yes, but lovably endearing.

The fact of commercial success or failure is somewhat beside the point, in terms of quality. But it made an enormous difference at the time, especially to those involved. The phenomenally successful revival of Chicago made Kander and Ebb wealthy beyond bounds, and good for them; but that was 30-odd years after they started writing musicals. While money is only obliquely addressed, Ebb makes a number of comments along the way about how little they earned from this or that. And even with the success of the revivals of Chicago and Cabaret, they currently have three unproduced musicals sitting around for the lack of 25 million.

Kander and Ebb are philosophical up to a point, that is; they are clearly still hurting from the fate of The Rink and Steel Pier. (They consider "Don't 'Ah, Ma' Me," from the former, one of their best songs, and devote more than five of the book's 230 pages to it. I can't say that I agree with their appraisal of the show or the song.) They are also angry and annoyed by their treatment on the film of Chicago, not only by the lack of respect for their work — they were originally billed in twenty-eighth position on the end credit — but by the dollars. Ebb: "We scarcely have any money participation in the movie." Kander: "They have to pay us for the new song, though practically nothing." In the same breath, they point out that Janet Jackson was paid $300,000 to write a new song for the film — a song that they, personally, don't value too highly.

There is also an enlightening discussion of the song "New York, New York." "The Theme from New York, New York," that is; they changed the title due to a threatened lawsuit from the authors of that other song called "New York, New York." (Surprising, no?) After attracting little attention in the film for which it was written, the greatest star of them all recorded "The Theme from New York, New York" and turned it into an all-time chart topper. Messing up the melody, making up his own words when he couldn't remember the lyricist's. How do songwriters feel when their song becomes so famous (and so personally lucrative) that everyone sings it, only they don't sing it the way it was written? Kander and Ebb tell you.

These pages are filled with a whole lot of marvelous stuff, only some of it related to the musicals of Kander and Ebb. Kander talks about his pit musician days, relating a story about a summer stock Kismet with a blacklisted Zero Mostel chewing the scenery as the Wazir. A gag of Zero's was so funny that over the course of a week it grew from fifteen seconds into a ten minute ad-lib, at which point star Bill Johnson (as Hajj) literally knocked Zero thudding to the stage floor. End of ad-lib. Ebb has his own Zero story, about the time he signed up for doorman duty during an elevator strike. Zero circled Ebb's name and wrote, "when he works, I'll work." My favorite quote of the book, from Onna White to dance arranger Kander when they were working on what turned out to be the Devil's Island ballet in Irma La Douce: "John, can you give us a little penguin music?"

"Colored Lights" contains an introduction by Liza Minnelli and a foreword by Harold Prince, both of whom play large parts in the proceedings. What it doesn't contain is an index, which is unforgivable. But I'll forgive them. This is one swell book.

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com(mailto:Ssuskin@aol.com).

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