ON THE RECORD: The Musical of Musicals and Gay's the Word

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Musical of Musicals and Gay's the Word
This week's column discusses the York Theatre's recent Musical of Musicals and the CD release of Ivor Novello's 1952 West End musical Gay's the Word.

The hero soliloquizes about the pros and cons of life on the farm. "There's chores like milkin' ol Bessie/ A-kickin' and a-squirtin' 'round the place/ I'd sure be lookin' all messy/ With a pound and a half of cream upon my face." To some listeners, myself included, this sort of thing is mighty funny. Those who don't get it, however, might not need to get The Musical of Musicals.

This was the intimate musical presented by the York Theatre last winter, which told one story — five times — in the distinctly recognizable styles of various practitioners of the art. This is not an all-new notion, mind you; Weber and Fields used to do this sort of thing back around the turn of the century. (The century before last, that is, with Lillian Russell amongst their troupe). Rodgers and Hart did it with "Rose of Arizona," a one-act satire included in a 1926 revue; Charles Gaynor did it two decades later with "The Gladiola Girl." These were both generalized spoofs. More to the point, Walter and Jean Kerr gave us "Great Dane a-Comin'" in Touch and Go (1947). "You're a queer one," Hamlet sang to Ophelia.

But that's neither here nor there. Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart do their job extremely well. The Musical of Musicals is virtually interwoven with allusions to this and that and the other, coming at you so quickly that you can barely keep up. Sure, you can see most of the (corny) jokes and (bad) puns coming; but the authors surprise us with familiar old lines and lyrical snatches out of context. Things range from pretty funny to extremely funny, which is good enough for me.

Mr. Rockwell has clearly spent far too many years in stock and amateur orchestra pits; either that, or he is a talented composer. Unlike the folks over at Forbidden Broadway, Rockwell provides all new songs of his own, except for something from Puccini in the playlet entitled "Aspects of Junita." (Girl: You wrote it yourself? Boy: Do you know opera? Girl: No. Boy: Yes, I wrote it myself.) If the music is new, the vamps aren't; Rockwell cleverly tells us precisely where we are, again and again, as each new song approaches.

Ms. Bogart, too, doesn't miss a trick. She does cadge lyrics, in the nicest way possible. Plucky heroine: "I'll wash my socks and comb my hair / And rinse out my long underwear / I'll pluck my brows and nose hairs, too." Or the inspirational anthem in which the alto tells the girl to follow her dream on "that island with the mountain and the rainbow and the stream." And the big R & H production number, "That was delicious clam dip," features a woman singing "I'd like to say a word for guacamole." As I said before, if you don't get it, you might as well not get it.

"Corn" is followed by "A Little Complex" (guess who?), "Dear Abby" (guess who?), the aforementioned "Aspects of Junita" (guess who?) and "Speakeasy" (guess who?). Your enjoyment of each will depend, I suppose, on your fondness for the targets of the satire. The Sondheim piece features a conflicted young songwriter called Billy-baby, Billy-bubi. ('When you have to strain to explain the arcane / It's bound to sound profound.") The villain is a "landlord slash artist slash demon." In Rockwell's musical setting, one slash goes a long way. The ingénue, Jeune, is apparently related to June/April of Company (with a splash of Sweeney's Johanna, with blathering birds in her head). But something in the line reading makes me think of June/John, a chorus member with a short but memorable bit in Anyone Can Whistle. I mention this only to demonstrate how Rockwell and Bogart keep you guessing, as echoes and memories fly in at all times from all sides.

The minimusicals are followed by a grand finale called — what else? — "Done." (Think of a bouncy vamp a la Hamlisch.) The liner notes, happily, include the text. The booklet is illustrated with tongue-in-cheek logos for each of the musicals, keenly realized by York artistic director and resident designer James Morgan.

The four-person cast is headed by the songwriters. Rockwell sings the villains as well as serving as the one-man band. (The Musical of Musicals has its five obvious targets, although the piano accompaniment keeps bringing to mind a sixth composer — Harvey Schmidt.) Lyricist Bogart sings the Aunt Eller/Elaine Stritch characters, Lovette George sings the girls and Craig Fols plays the boys. The characterizations are right on, with all four giving us line reading after line reading cadged from old original cast albums. Pamela Hunt directed.

One wonders how The Musical of Musicals might fare in a larger market. For an audience of musical theatre enthusiasts, though, it is quite tasty.

GAY'S THE WORD [Bayview CS001]
We are beginning to see a stream of releases of early fifties cast albums from the UK, due, in great part, to the technicalities of international copyright law. I'm always glad for a chance to hear something old that's new, especially if it's good as well. Gay's the Word, which opened at the Saville in London in 1951 and played more than 500 performances, has been released by Bayview.

Gay's the Word has two claims on our interest. Gay was played by Ciceley Courtneidge, the Australian-born star who'd been trodding the West End boards for 40 years. Composer-librettist Ivor Novello was British stage royalty, with a string of hit operettas to his credit; lyricist Alan Melville was more accustomed to revues. The show was one of those not-especially-well integrated backstage stories, with 60-year-old musical comedy star Courtneidge playing a 60-year-old musical comedy star of a failing musical. Gay's the Word was a departure for Novello, who provided a somewhat peppier score than usual, with ballads like "If Only He'd Looked My Way" and "Finder, Please Return" balanced by lively turns like "Vitality" and especially "Bees Are Buzzin'" ("It's Spring and the Sap Is Risin'"). Gay's the Word was the last word from Novello, as it turned out; he died three weeks after the show opened.

Pleasant's the word, I suppose, for this score. It is not as arresting as some of the other long-out-of-print British musicals that have recently made it to CD (including The Crooked Mile and Bayview's own Lock Up Your Daughters and Maggie May). Still, Gay's the Word is enjoyably listenable and will grow on you; I've been stuck, for a week, with "The Bees Are Buzzin'" buzzin' around my head. Bonus tracks include a two part orchestral selection (which sounds quite nice) and a rather uneasy performance of "If Only She'd Looked My Way" by Frank Sinatra.

Along with their much-appreciated West End reissues, Bayview has found a niche with its Broadway by the Year CDs. The Broadway Musicals of 1953 [Bayview RNBW026] is the eighth entry from the Town Hall series. Scott Siegel, creator of the series, continues to come up with an impressive array of musical theatre talent. The new disc features Davis Gaines, Andrea Burns, Julia Murney and Debbie Gravitte singing songs from shows remembered (Wonderful Town, Can-Can) and shows forgotten (Maggie and Carnival in Flanders). Broadway by the Year serves as an especially good introduction to these otherwise unheard songs.

—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.

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