GUYS AND DOLLS (Decca Broadway 012 159 112-2)
There are certain cast albums that seem to define the Broadway musical of their time and place. Gypsy is one; Company is another; and the granddaddy of them all, perhaps, is Guys and Dolls. There's a brash excitement that pours forth from the opening notes of "Runyonland Music" -- actually an abbreviated section of the dance prologue -- and it never lets down. This is made clear by the sterling "50th Anniversary NEW reissue," and the results are simply smashing. Frank Loesser's great score has undergone state-of the-art 24-bit digital remastering -- whatever that means, exactly -- and this 1950 recording now sounds as fresh and crisp as the smell of the rainwashed pavement. (The release is nicely packaged with old photos, although the "new CD booklet" is pretty much a reprint of the fine notes by Max O. Preeo from the 1991 MCA/Broadway Gold release.)
You can now hear the snare drummer beating out the rhythm for the "Fugue for Tinhorns" on his hi-hat cymbal; the celeste solo floating atop "If I Were a Bell"; the timbre of the harmon-muted trumpet in the bluesy "My Time of Day." And we now learn that Stubby Kaye did not sing "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat." "Siddown," he enunciates quite clearly, "siddown, siddown, siddown, siddown."
How welcome is this disc! Guys and Dolls no longer sounds like an antique. The original cast is far and away the most authentic of the several recorded versions, with Runyonesque types (like crusty Sam Levene and the unique Stubby Kaye) and a set of brashly tinny orchestrations-for-tinhorns by George Bassman and Ted Royal. Loesser was best known as a clever Hollywood lyricist at the time. Rodgers and Hammerstein were the lords of musical theatre; Cole Porter and Irving Berlin were still around, too, and capable of turning out hit-filled crowd pleasers. But Loesser knocked Broadway on its ear with his paean to Times Square riff-raff, and his score -- although now overly familiar -- still packs a wallop. This is a disc to get for the sheer enjoyment of it. Four tracks from the 1955 motion picture version have been added as a bonus; but who needs Marlon Brando when they can hear Robert Alda? Thank you again, Mr. Loesser. And where's that new Most Happy Fella CD we've long been promised?
TENDERLOIN (DRG 94770)
Back in the days before CDs, cast albums of failed shows would quickly go out-of-print and become difficult to find, causing each new generation of musical theatre fans to pay higher and higher prices for these LPs. (LP is what they called 'em back then, for "long-playing.") High atop the list of most sought-after items were two musically-intriguing 1960 musicals, Frank Loesser's Greenwillow (presently available on CD from DRG) and Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick's Tenderloin. Tenderloin was finally issued on CD in 1993 by Broadway Angel, but that in turn was allowed to go out-of-print. Not to worry. Last spring's Encores! production of Tenderloin has now been released, and it in some ways surpasses the 1960 album.
To begin with, let us admit and acknowledge that Tenderloin is not a very good show. This story of a late-19th century morality campaign to clean up "Little Old New York" attempted to give equal time to both the wicked denizens of vice from the Tenderloin and the religious moralists from Madison Square. Life in the bordellos was far more interesting than "Good Clean Fun," causing the show to lag whenever the churchmen intervened. Imagine what would have become of Guys and Dolls if Loesser had excised the gambling song ("Luck Be a Lady") and the drinking song ("Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat") in favor of some morally uplifting songs for the Mission workers. That's what happened to Tenderloin.
The thing is, the churchgoer's songs aren't bad; Bock and Harnick were at the height of their skills, and they couldn't write "bad." (They went on directly to Fiddler on the Roof, stopping halfway through for She Loves Me.) But the songs of Tenderloin's gentlefolk couldn't compete with the raffish songs for the underworld denizens. What presumably was intended to be an evenhanded approach was so weighted towards the scalawags that the main story -- of the intrepid young man caught between the two sides -- collapsed. The churchgoing ingenue who falls in love with the errant Tommy was so bland and unsympathetic that the love story was nil; how could she possibly compete with good-time gals belting rollicking songs in their underwear??
But this is neither here nor there. The score, even with its admittedly weaker spots, is a delight. (It includes two of my more favorite show tunes of 1960 and the 1960s, "The Picture of Happiness" and "My Gentle Young Johnny.") Lyricist Harnick was in his customarily witty, pun-filled stride; and composer Bock matched him every step of the way with his music. That was the hidden strength of the team. Bock didn't work in a vacuum; Harnick's typically flavorful lyrics were enhanced -- or, conversely, consciously counterbalanced -- by Bock's music, making their best songs doubly flavorful.
The Encores! performances range from good to very good. The same could be said for the original cast album, too, so there's no fall-off in quality (although I miss Margery Gray's delicious 1960 performance). This new disc has the advantage, though, due to the increased audibility of Irwin Kostal's great orchestrations. Kostal was one of three dynamic orchestrators who briefly invaded Broadway in the late fifties. Sid Ramin and Kostal worked with Bernstein on West Side Story in 1957; Ramin and Robert Ginzler did Gypsy in 1959. Over the next few seasons, the trio scored numerous shows -- individually or in pairs -- including top hits (like How to Succeed and A Funny Thing) and numerous failures, which sounded far better than the music warranted (like Wildcat, Kwamina, and Donnybrook!). Irv Kostal went to the coast for West Side, won an Oscar for The Sound of Music, and thereafter remained mostly in Hollywood.
His work on Tenderloin is sharp and clear. Listen to the previously unrecorded "Entr'acte": While the band plays the ingenue's "Tommy, Tommy" -- in a snappy, up-tempo rendition -- Kostal has salvationist trumpets intrude. He then segues into the Reverend's well-mannered "Good Clean Fun," played directly against the rambunctious "Picture of Happiness" from the bordello; he even throws in some strings atop them all playing "My Miss Mary," a gentle love song for the romantic leads. Here you have the three main threads of the plot -- the immoral vice-mongers, the self righteous moralists, and the sincere lovers -- all presented simultaneously. This type of overview was presumably the aim of all the creators of the show, but nowhere else was it achieved. Kostal creates magic throughout; he knows that the same man with the same trumpet can play clear-toned hymns and raucous bawdy music with only a mere pause for breath. (The Tenderloin overture climaxes with a bravura trumpet solo -- played by John Frosk -- approaching the level of those in Gypsy and Funny Girl.)
Why does the score sound so good? Credit Kostal (who died in 1994), of course, but also music director Rob Fisher. This is a score that calls for the instrumentalists to "act," if you will; the woodwind parts range from sacredly sedate to drunkenly ribald, the trumpets and sobbing trombones from squeaky clean to burlesque. Fisher's Coffee Club Orchestra has talented musicians who know how to do -- and enjoy doing -- these things; there is also the feeling of an ensemble, which helps enormously. As I've noted in previous reviews, Fisher has an uncanny ability to almost always make the best musical choice. He has a perfect sense of how to express the music, and the ability to get his musicians and vocalists to follow through. All this, under severely limited time constraints.
Most of the failed shows of yesteryear failed for good reasons; but Tenderloin points up the fact that some of them are well worth discovery. And fun, too.
-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer Trade Books).