ON THE RECORD: Where's Charley?, Walker Sings Gershwin, Sullivan Sings Styne

News   ON THE RECORD: Where's Charley?, Walker Sings Gershwin, Sullivan Sings Styne
We listen to the 1958 West End cast album of Where's Charley?, Nancy Walker's 1952 exploration of Ira Gershwin and a 1987 Styne songbook from jazz singer Maxine Sullivan.


WHERE'S CHARLEY? [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3044]
Back in the glory days of the musical theatre, any number of Hollywood hitwriters trekked east to prove themselves on Broadway. A song is a song after all, they reasoned; so what's the big deal? The big deal, it turned out, is that once you give your song to a character to sing, all bets are off. Harry Warren and Jimmy Van Heusen, for example, could turn out hits by the handful in Hollywood, but back East it was no go. Even the great Johnny Mercer was never quite able to buck the trend, to his everlasting disappointment. There was a major exception to the rule. (Two, actually; but we'll get to the second in a moment.) Nobody expected much when Frank Loesser came along in 1948 with a musicalization of the old English farce, Charley's Aunt. Coming from first-time producers transplanted from Hollywood, the enterprise had a tired look to it. The wise and knowing director George Abbott gave it a suitable sheen, but Where's Charley? was rather poorly reviewed. It managed to find an audience, boosted by the performance of comedic dancer Ray Bolger, and wound up with an impressive run of 792-performances.

The surprise of Where's Charley?, though, was the score. Here was a talented, if perhaps overly clever, lyricist; he had a string of songhits, beginning with the atmospheric "The Moon of Manakoora" (from "The Hurricane") and continuing with such gems as "Heart and Soul" (with Hoagy Carmichael), "The Lady's in Love with You" (with Burton Lane), "Thank Your Lucky Stars" (with Arthur Schwartz), and "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" (with Jule Styne). Which indicated that while the man didn't write tunes, he sure knew how to pick 'em. He started writing music in the Army, when good composers were not easily at hand, and came up with some wartime hits (like "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" and "What Do You Do in the Infantry?"). Before he turned to Where's Charley?, in fact, he wrote an Oscar-winner, "Baby It's Cold Outside"; but when Loesser reached Broadway the song had only been heard at parties, performed by the composer and his then-wife. It wasn't placed in a film until 1949, in "Neptune's Daughter," and Frank didn't pick up the resulting Oscar until the spring of 1950.

So not too much was to be expected when Mr. Bolger and Mr. Abbott ushered Where's Charley? into the St. James on Oct. 11, 1948. As it turned out, the farce musical was that playhouse's main tenant between Oklahoma! and The King and I. The score had one major hit, the felicitous song-and-dance tune "Once in Love with Amy." A second song which got a good deal of play was the contrapuntal duet "Make a Miracle." This one is a great charmer, with the Victorian-era star and his girl looking forward to their future—although he sees domestic bliss while she is talking about the wonders of the 20th century. This sets Frank-the-lyricist slyly rhyming about horseless carriages that fly and breakfast cereals that explode. (Loesser's two-part device gained greater popularity in 1949 with — yes, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." And in 1950, Irving Berlin threw "You're Just in Love" in to pick up the second act of Call Me Madam, possibly at the suggestion of director Abbott who wanted a showstopper and knew how well "Make a Miracle" had played.)

The score is filled with charmers. The opening number, "Better Get Out of Here," is built on a gavotte; not what you'd expect from a hack Hollywood rhymer. There are two warmly sentimental ballads, "Lovelier Than Ever" and "My Darling, My Darling"; two slyly comedic plaints, "Serenade with Asides" and "The Woman in His Room"; and two wittily amusing group numbers, "The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students' Conservatory Band" and "The Gossips" (in which the ladies of the chorus do a breathless recap of the proceedings, giving the practical Frank the chance to plug three songs from the first act). All in all, this is a nifty and impressive score from a first-time visitor to Broadway — which might in part be why Frank personally championed such first-time musicals as The Pajama Game, The Music Man, and 1776. And one which perfectly positioned the composer-lyricist to write his next musical, Guys and Dolls, in 1950. Even so, poor Where's Charley? has always been relatively anonymous among the hit musicals of its time. The reasons were twofold. There was a musicians strike, preventing a cast recording of the score; and the show was so carefully sculpted around the talents of Bolger — whose wife was billed above the title as associate producer — that he seems to have been all but irreplaceable. Bolger brought the touring production back to the Broadway in 1951 for six weeks, but he was pretty much the one and only Charley. A cut-down 1974 version at the Circle in the Square, was pretty dismal (through no fault of leading man Raul Julia), and the show has been otherwise invisible hereabouts.

All of which serves as a rather lengthy preamble to the CD we here are reviewing. Nine years after Where's Charley? opened on Broadway, the show finally appeared in London. The West End production opened Feb. 20, 1958 at the Palace. Playing the title role was Norman Wisdom, a diminutive movie star with a background in variety and slapstick; not a song-and-dance man by any stretch. Wisdom had a personal following, which allowed the show to achieve a respectable 404-performance run, but he certainly didn't charm the folks in the same manner as Bolger.

Wisdom and company did favor us with a London cast recording, and fortunately so; it does not give us Where's Charley? as performed on Broadway , but at least it is a recording of the score. While the original orchestrations (from Ted Royal, supplemented during the tryout by Hans Spialek and Phil Lang) are lost, the West End group seems to be using a reduced version prepared for stock and amateur release. The charm of the originals come through somewhat, although the recording is not of the highest fidelity. At the same time, the star seems to have his own arrangement and orchestration for "Once in Love with Amy"; certainly, Bolger's crowdpleasing soft-shoe wasn't suitable for Wisdom.

This 45-minute recording has been in and out of print over the years; it was released on CD in America back in 1993, when EMI briefly gave us a series called "West End Angel." Now, Must Close Saturday — which has come to the rescue of dozens of vintage musical theatre recordings — has reissued Where's Charley?, and about time, too. This will allow a whole new generation of musical theatre fans to discover the other hit musical by the brilliant and always-surprising composer of Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

Must Close Saturday has filled out the brief playing time with the cast recording of Chrysanthemum, the 1958 "melodrama in ragtime" with music by Robb Stewart and book and lyrics by Neville Phillips and Robin Chancellor. This musical, built around Pat Kirkwood — star of the original London production of Wonderful Town — and then-husband Hubert Gregg, was totally unknown to me. Turns out it has pep and snap, in the manner of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend and Rick Besoyan's Little Mary Sunshine. It does, unfortunately, devolve into tiring triteness; they totally lose me when they take their heroine to that grand old English pub, The Skull and Chopsticks, and start singing songs about Shanghai Lil. But earlier in the score there are some fun spots, with more entendres than you can shake a chopstick at, and I am especially glad to have discovered a jolly good duet called "Is This Love?" — which I fear I will be singing to myself for weeks.

In 1951, Nancy Walker — the brashly funny Broadway comedienne who could sing her way to your heart — was starring in a big new musical called A Month of Sundays, which didn't last a month of Sundays or even make it to Broadway. It opened Christmas night in Philadelphia, and closed a month and a day later in Boston. Book, lyrics, and direction came from up-and-coming newcomer B.G. Shevelove; this little opus almost served to derail his career altogether. At any rate, for a Philadelphia opening night/Christmas present, Walker went into the recording studio — with her husband, vocal coach David Craig, and the show's dance arranger David Baker — to record a private album for Burt, which they called "Nancy and the Two Davids Sing and Play Gershwin." Eight songs, two of which — "Where Is She," from the George White Scandals of 1921 and "The Simple Life," from Primrose (1924) — are so obscure that I don't suppose many have ever heard them. In 1952, Ed Jablonski — that great friend and biographer to both Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen — started a shoestring record label with the intention of recording great songs by the great American songwriters. Ira encouraged Ed, and the first of the albums from Walden Records was called "lyrics by Ira Gershwin." Ten songs by Ira with six different collaborators; not only George, but Jerome Kern, Vernon Duke, Arthur Schwartz, Kurt Weill, and Aaron Copland. Nancy Walker was the featured singer, accompanied by Louise Carlyle and David Craig, with David Baker and John Morris at the pianos. (Ira had recommended Nancy and the two Davids to Jablonksi, apparently in response to having heard the private album they recorded for Shevelove.)

"Lyrics by Gershwin" has always held a special spot with me thanks to Walker's renditions of "I Can't Get Started" (with Duke, from Ziegeld Follies of 1936) and "Long Ago and Far Away" (with Kern, from the 1944 movie "Cover Girl"); if anyone ever recorded these two songs so well, I don't want to know. In 1998 Harbinger Records reissued several of the Walden albums on CD, including one they entitled "Gershwin Rarities." I could have sworn that the Nancy Walker-Ira Gershwin songs were reissued at the time, but it appears that I am mistaken. Those two songs are so imprinted on my personal music memory that I guess I never needed to hear them on CD.

Anyway, here they are: the ten 1952 Walden songs, combined with the 1951 private album. Virtually all Ira Gershwin; all Baker and Craig (who served as vocal arranger), most with Walker. Add Walker's renditions of George and Ira's "Where's the Boy? Here's the Girl!" (from Treasure Girl, 1928) and "My Cousin in Milwaukee" (from Pardon My English, 1933) to the two songs in the paragraph above.

I have always treasured my copy of "Lyrics by Ira Gershwin" — the album is hanging framed on the wall, over my right shoulder as I type this — not only for the recording but for the cover. The artwork features a full-color Hirschfeld caricature of Ira, puffing on a cigar (which is reproduced on the CD booklet). My copy also includes a fountain-pen inscription from Ira to a pre-My Fair Lady Herman Levin: "producer of goodies, gentleman and scholar and wizard at practically all (except making that 7 or 11)" with Ira's own self-caricature of a balding, bowing lyricist. That, needless to say, makes "lyrics by Ira Gershwin" very special to me; but so does Nancy singing those songs.

The Nancy Walker/Ira Gershwin recording arrived in the mail from Harbinger Records with "Richard Rodgers: Command Performance," an album of never-before-heard piano rolls and other items performed by the composer, and Maxine Sullivan's 1987 album of Jule Styne songs, "Together." (If you circle back to the first paragraph of this column, Styne is the other Hollywood composer who conquered Broadway, more or less simultaneously with his one-time collaborator Frank Loesser.) Harbinger is just now celebrating their 25th Anniversary; this has impelled them to reissue the Sullivan/Styne title, which was one of their first recordings. I have heard so many Jule Styne albums over the years — haven't we all? — but I never did get around to this one. So I am somewhat stunned to find that it is so very good. Fifteen songs recorded a quarter-century ago by the 76-year-old Sullivan, who died a couple of months after the final session. Fifteen songs that I could have been enjoying all these years. Ah, well. The singer is aged, but the voice is ageless. And spirited, for sure. Keith Ingham and his sextet keep right up with her, and the results are just darlin'.

The self-assured Ms. Sullivan feels no need to stick to the hits. No "Everything's Coming Up Roses," no "Make Someone Happy," no "The Party's Over." Nothing whatsoever from Funny Girl. She does give us five of those WWII hits, namely "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "It's Been a Long, Long, Time," "Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week," "The Things We Did Last Summer," and "I've Heard that Song Before" — each of which sound new, fresh and lovely. And ever young. The rest are mostly show tunes, with some real surprises. Did you ever expect to hear a joyous bossa nova rendition of "Dance Only with Me," from Say Darling? (Did you ever expect to want to repeatedly hear any recording of "Dance Only with Me"?) Or how about a smoky "Talking to Yourself," from Hallelujah, Baby!, very nicely done. Sullivan also breathes life into "Papa, Won't You Dance with Me?" which heretofore seemed to be merely a lively polka from High Button Shoes. Peter Pan's "Distant Melody," too, is enhanced by the singer. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the first recording of "Killing Time," a collaboration between Styne and Carolyn Leigh just before the latter's death in 1983.

"Together: Maxine Sullivan sings the music of Jule Styne" on Harbinger. An unexpected treat, and one that I have unwittingly deprived myself of since 1987.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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