ON THE RECORD: The Vagabond King and "Arlen Plays Arlen"

News   ON THE RECORD: The Vagabond King and "Arlen Plays Arlen"
This week's column discusses a new, first complete recording of Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King and a centennial salute to the great Harold Arlen.

The 2003 City Center Encores! concert production of The New Moon surprised more than a few of us. There's life (theatrically speaking) in operetta, those "Stout-Hearted Men" seemed to shout out, as long as you go about your work with a grand sense of style and a not-less-important sense of humor. Romberg's 1928 historical melodrama could still work in the 21st century, and very nicely too; so why not Friml's 1925 historical melodrama The Vagabond King?

Rudolf Friml (1879-1972) came first, certainly, in many ways. A student of Dvorak, he emigrated to America from Bohemia in 1904, embarking on a career as a classical composer and concert pianist. Eight years later came an enormous break. Operetta king Victor Herbert, of Naughty Marietta, had a falling out with star Emma Trentini. With Trentini signed for a new operetta and Herbert refusing to comply, producer Arthur Hammerstein needed a new composer and fast. Rather than enlisting a Broadway hack, he decided to gamble on an unknown, serious composer. Friml hurriedly wrote The Firefly, and — in his first musical theatre attempt — was seen as the natural successor to Herbert. A parade of hits — the biggest being Rose-Marie — followed through 1928, at which point Friml fell out of favor. After two flops early in the Depression, Friml left for California and lived a long and happy retirement.

Rose-Marie was followed by The Vagabond King, a tale of 12th century France. The Burgundians are preparing to storm Paris; King Louis XI is ineffectual; where is the hero who will defend the crown? Francois Villon, a thief and poet (naturally), is just the man. He becomes Grand Marshall for a day, rallies the lowlife vagabonds to protect their France with his rallying cry "to hell with Burgundy," and carries the day. And gets the Lady Katherine de Vauxcelles as well, naturellement.

The Ohio Light Opera (Steven Daigle, artistic director), at the College of Wooster, specializes in operetta. They have already given us, on Albany Records, complete CDs of Naughty Marietta, The Red Mill and other titles. Their 2004 production, The Vagabond King, gives us a chance to hear an authentic and complete rendition of one of Friml's operettas. Seeing as how many of us have recently had The New Moon on our disc player, one might well wonder how the two compare.

To begin with, let me say that this Vagabond King is well worth the time for anyone interested in this sub-field of musical theatre. It presents the piece in what, I suppose, is an approximation of what it sounded like in 1925. Thus, it is an interesting curiosity, with full educational value; and the material is earnestly presented under the baton of Steven Byess. For theatre fans (as opposed to operetta fans), though, it doesn't have the entertainment value of The New Moon. There are several reasons for this (going beyond the fact that this production was presented by an educational institution, as opposed to the Broadway professionals who inhabit City Center every spring). The biggest difference, I suppose, can be spelled H-A-M-M-E-R-S-T-E-I-N. Arthur Hammerstein discovered and launched Friml; Arthur's nephew Oscar served as assistant stage manager on Friml's 1917 You're in Love. By 1924, Oscar was co-lyricist and co-librettist of Rose-Marie (produced by Arthur). But The Vagabond King had no Hammerstein aboard; Oscar was opening another show the next evening, writing with the great Kern. (The Vagabond King, Sunny and No, No, Nanette all opened within the week.) The name of the lyricist of The Vagabond King is all but omitted from the CD; Brian Hooker is listed as librettist, if you look closely. (For the record, The Vagabond King originally labeled itself "A New Spectacular Musical Play" with book and lyrics by W.H. Post and Brian Hooker.)

The lyrics are, shall we say, less than sterling. (Example: "Lay me to snooze / In the mud and the ooze / With plenty of booze to warm me.") The music is somewhat more formal than Romberg; colder, you might say, or less schmaltzy. Friml provided one of those irrepressible rafter-raisers in "The Song of the Vagabonds" ("to hell with Burgundy!" indeed); there were also a couple of durable ballads, including the standard "Only a Rose." The end result is that The New Moon, as presented at Encores, was an antique, but a fun antique. The Vagabond King, as on this new two-CD set, has more of the air of a museum piece.

But, then, I suppose The Vagabond King is — by Broadway standards — a museum piece. Even so, The Ohio Light Opera (and Albany Records) have served us well by giving us this piece of vintage Friml. Operetta fans will presumably be thrilled by it, while Broadway enthusiasts might well appreciate the opportunity to hear a complete recording of one of the biggest hits of 1925.

"Arlen Plays Arlen" is subtitled "a timeless tribute to Harold Arlen." Arlen's music is timeless, that's for sure. The composer, who would have turned 100 on Feb. 15, was a modest and self-effacing man, who hid from the spotlight as eagerly as his peer and pal George Gershwin sought it. With "Blues in the Night," "One for the Road," "Over the Rainbow," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Get Happy" and more to his name — and those titles, my friends, don't even scratch the surface — Arlen ranks near the top of the list among American composers of the twentieth century. If his name is barely known nowadays, his music is still sung and played and cherished. Which, I suppose, is the way Arlen would have wanted it.

Centennials being a natural launching pad, Sam Arlen (the composer's heir) has sought to "bring attention to Harold's enormous catalog of music" and "connect the Arlen name with the standards everyone knows so well and the rich body of music he contributed to the 20th century." I'm all for spreading the Arlen music around; not only is said catalog packed with tip-top standards, it also has a fair share of wonderful songs that are all but unheard today.

While engaging in other centennial arrangements, Sam Arlen took his tenor sax into the recording studio, surrounded himself with fellow jazz musicians, and recorded "Arlen Plays Arlen." This sort of thing can backfire, depending on the talent of the family member in question. Fortunately, the younger Arlen knows he's doing. He can play the sax, all right, and he combines with arranger/conductor/pianist Richie Iacona to come up with a most welcome album of Arlen jazz. While the lyrics are absent, Sam has reprinted them in the booklet "to give praise to the words that have added much to Harold's wonderful melodies."

Harold himself was a remarkable musician; the recordings of Harold singing Arlen are in many cases unbeatable. (Note to the Arlen Estate: why don't you get "Harold Arlen and His Songs" — that sterling Capitol LP [T 635], with arrangements by the up-and-coming Peter Matz — on CD already? My copy is scratched beyond listening.) Sam Arlen's recording of Arlen songs is, for obvious reasons, quite different from Harold's. But I expect that Harold, who had music in his veins, would have approved enthusiastically of this new "Arlen Plays Arlen." My first reaction to the CD — a purely personal one — was to reach for the phone to get a reaction from Ed Jablonski, Harold's friend and biographer and protector. But then I remembered that Jablonski, our first-person-link to Harold and Ira and Irving, passed away last March.

Seeing as how this is Harold Arlen, there are any number of candidates for the 13 tracks on this disc. Yes, "Over the Rainbow" and "Stormy Weather" claim their inevitable space; but Sam Arlen has spread the choices around, seeing fit to include two later, little-known songs. As a long-time Arlen enthusiast, I take almost personal pride when I hear a good new recording of some of these old, forgotten favorites In that category I'm glad to find "Ill Wind" and "Let's Fall in Love"; someone is bound to hear these now, for the first time, and think — what amazing songs, double exclamation point.

So here's a new album of Arlen, which is as fine a place as any to pick up your acquaintance with Harold, who remains among the best of the best. AND ANOTHER NOTE
In my recent discussion of Arthur Schwartz's The Gay Life [DRG 19069], I went on at great length about the history of the piece and (especially) the orchestrations. I omitted, however, to mention the differences between this and the 1993 CD [Angel ZDM 07777 7 64763] of the cast album. The song list is the same, with no alternate material or bonus tracks. The DRG release lists a new credit for mastering, but to my ears the two sound pretty much alike.

DRG eschews the Angel booklet, though, reprinting Jonathan Schwartz's notes and the librettists' synopsis from the original LP, while adding an informative new reminiscence from Barbara Cook. Among her anecdotes is producer Kermit Bloomgarden coming into her dressing room on closing night. "My God, Barbara," he kept saying to her, "half a million dollars!" That being the loss, one of the biggest to that time, which today wouldn't begin to pay for the Tony Award-winning costumes of The Gay Life.

Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], 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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