ON THE RECORD: The Crooked Mile and others from the West End

News   ON THE RECORD: The Crooked Mile and others from the West End
You have got to like, on principle, any showbiz operation that calls itself Must Close Saturday Records. This new English label describes itself as "a small, independent record label specialising in neglected, often forgotten and previously unrecorded, music from British musical theatre."

Fans of obscure Broadway musicals have been fortunate, of late, with several labels happily plundering through the archives. Not so in the UK, where there are quite a number of long-out-of-print titles languishing. (Some important British musicals, oddly enough, have been issued on CD in America but not in England.) Must Close Saturday has opened shop with four vintage original cast albums and one new recording of a previously unrecorded flop.

THE CROOKED MILE [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3002]
Imagine for a moment that you have just started to listen to Anyone Can Whistle for the very first time. "What?" you might say; "just hold on there," as you press the replay button. This gives you an idea of what you're in store for with The Crooked Mile. The Overture is astounding; you rarely hear anything like it in the musical theatre, outside of The Threepenny Opera. Some of the score might not translate well to American ears, at least at first; but this CD has numerous other things to recommend it, not the least of which is a truly remarkable song called "If I Ever Fall in Love Again."

This show was hailed by some as the beginning of a new age in the British musical, with frequent comparison to West Side Story (which had recently opened on the West End). But business quickly fell off, and The Crooked Mile was gone after a four-month run of 164 performances. The cast album (on His Master's Voice) quickly disappeared, and so — apparently — did the show. I, for one, never heard of it. The Crooked Mile is so obscure that it is not even included in Kurt Ganzl's three-volume, 2,000 page Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre. Yet, midway through the fourth track it is apparent that The Crooked Mile is unique. Compare it to West Side, yes; but also Guys and Dolls and Threepenny. Not in terms of overall excellence; as best one can tell, the libretto is problematic (especially when Lysistrata turns up in the second act).

But this is a fresh and startling musical voice. I've never before heard of composer Peter Greenwell, although I now very much want to hear his other musicals. A bit of research tells me that he wrote something called Twenty Minutes South and something else called House of Cards; he also won a 1971 Oscar nomination for the scoring and adaptation of The Boy Friend. He is apparently retired and living in Spain. The book and lyrics came from another writer unknown to me, one Peter Wildeblood. Unknown to me, in America, today, but notorious at the time. Wildeblood — then the diplomatic correspondent for the Daily Mail — was front-page fodder in 1953 for his part in the scandalous Montagu Case. (Kenneth Tynan, who had collaborated with Wildeblood on a stage adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm, posted bail.)

Following his release from prison, Wildeblood wrote an outspoken book, "Against the Law." "The right which I claim for myself, and for all those like me," he wrote, "is the right to choose the person whom I love." Was Wildeblood his given name? Did he purposely take on the Wilde connection? And more to the point — did Wildeblood's name on the title page scare off prospective ticket buyers from The Crooked Mile? At any rate, Wildeblood's lyrics are intelligent and interesting (if at times overblown). The Crooked Mile takes place in Soho. The first one, near Greenwich, not the one below Greenwich Village. The characters are on the seamy side; an ironmonger called Sweet Ginger (Elisabeth Welch), an ex con called Jug Ears (Jack Magowran), and a streetwalker named Cora (Millicent Martin). Welch, who died July 15 at the age of 99, was a New York chorine who introduced the Charleston (with the song of that title) in the 1922 musical Runnin' Wild. She moved to London in 1933 and remained there, with a few return visits stateside (including a 1986 Tony nomination for Jerome Kern in Hollywood).

Welch gets to sing "If I Ever Fall in Love Again," and it's a wonder. One of those songs that continually surprises, but with such melodic pureness that the result sounds inevitable. Welch also has a fine comic duet with Martin, "Meet the Family." This is one of those working-girl songs (like our "Baby, Dream Your Dream"), but with a sardonic edge and a marvelously frisky tune. Martin, in a featured role, did best by Crooked Mile, with her knockout solo "Horticultural" propelling her toward stardom.

Macgowran, just back from the two-week Broadway run of Marc Blitzstein's Juno, was not much of a singer. He does a good job, though, with the odd but effective "Free." John Larsen has two similarly strange but arresting numbers, "Going Up" and "Down to Earth." Larsen played an American businessman named Mortiss Garrity — Mortiss Garrity??? — and sings the role with an English accent that is almost laughably non-American.

Let it be added that Gordon Langford's exceptional orchestrations fall somewhere between Weill and Tunick, with a bit of Johnny Green in the mix. Langford starts off with a striking brass choir, and takes off from there. The original cast album is joined on the CD by a 12-minute orchestral medley of songs from the show (originally released as an E.P.), with Greenwell at the piano accompanied by the pit orchestra. No typical song medley, this. It is as special as the cast recording itself, with a few songs — especially the haunting "Lolly-bye" — sounding far better without the lyrics (and accents).

The Crooked Mile, all told, might sound strange to American ears. But this is a musical not to be ignored.

TRELAWNY [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3007]
Julian Slade's 1972 Trelawny — from Arthur Wing Pinero's Trelawny of the Wells — is something else again. It was commissioned for the reopening of the Bristol Old Vic; Slade's musical Salad Days — one of the most successful British musicals of the pre-Cameron Mackintosh era — had been written for the same venue. (Mackintosh, who confesses deep admiration for Salad Days, produced the unsuccessful London production of Trelawny.)

Gemma Craven made her West End debut in the lead, replacing Hayley Mills (who played the role in Bristol). Also starred were Ian Richardson and Max Adrian, the nominal star of the original Broadway production of Candide. Lending a hand is song-and-dance man Teddy Green, remembered along Broadway for his energetic efforts to bolster three sixties flops, Baker Street, Pickwick and Darling of the Day.

Trelawny was a bit old-fashioned for its time, veering toward operetta in the age of Superstar and Hair. But it is a sweet score, somewhat in the vein of Robert and Elizabeth (which is substantially superior).

While Trelawny is not an all-time great, or a CD you must have, it is pleasantly listenable and should please fans of Slade and the genre in general.

Must Close Saturday's other releases include Pieces of Eight [MCSR 3006] and The Amazons [MCSR 3003]. The former, Peter Cook's pre-Beyond the Fringe revue, starred Kenneth Williams and Fenella Fielding. Some of the targets of this topical 1959 piece are far afield at this point, but there are delights along the way. Three of the songs come from Laurie Johnson, just off Lock Up Your Daughters. Two others, for Fielding, come from The Boy Friend's Sandy Wilson. (Wilson put Fielding on the theatrical map with a knockout solo in his 1958 musical Valmouth.) Fielding is a delight, and Myra de Groot sparks several numbers, two of them with lyrics by — so help me — one of the authors of Broadway's Molly. The disc includes four sketches from Cook — amusing, although not necessarily tracks that you'll want to hear over and over. But funny. "Not many people out there tonight," complains an actor another about that evening's audience in a skit called "The Laughing Grains." "Just a lot of riffraff," she says. "Not even a lot of riffraff. Just riffraff." There is also "The Last to Go," an enigmatic sketch about a cup of tea from, yes, Harold Pinter.

The Amazons is an oddity, a 1971 collaboration between composer John Addison, lyricist David Heneker and librettist Michael Stewart.Like Trelawny, it was an adaptation from Pinero. Unlike Trelawny, it closed after its Nottingham tryout without transferring to London. The Amazons — "a charming Edwardian musical" — was unearthed by Heneker archivist Stewart Nicholls, who brushed it off for the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden in May 2002. That production — which included original cast members Elizabeth Counsell and Myra Sands — was recorded by Must Close Saturday. Yes, it is old-fashioned, and must have seemed hopelessly outdated in 1971; the thought of a one-piano accompaniment almost scared me away from listening to it. But the show, about three upper-class girls who have been raised as boys, has some interesting ideas in song and plot. I have not had time to listen to it extensively — I'm still playing Crooked Mile, thank you very much — but I've heard enough of The Amazons to want to get back to it in the future.

As for Must Close Saturday, let us hope that they can generate enough sales to enable them to bring us more vintage British musicals. (These CDs can be ordered from footlight.com or direct from www.must-close Saturday-records.co.uk.) I can think of at least a dozen West End cast musicals that I'd like to have on CD, and I'm sure there are other titles out there that — like The Crooked Mile — I've yet to discover.

Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

Today’s Most Popular News: