ON THE RECORD: Wish You Were Here and Love from Judy

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Wish You Were Here and Love from Judy
This week's column discusses three British cast albums from the early 1950's

A big, bouncy new musical from the director, co-librettist and co-producers of Broadway's biggest hit bounds into the Imperial with a novel gimmick — an onstage swimming pool, surrounded by a skimpily dressed chorus — and little else. The critics all but massacre the show; but thanks in part to an endlessly-plugged title song that takes the airwaves by storm, it quickly finds an audience and builds into Broadway's biggest musical hit of the year. A very bad year for musicals, needless to say; but still. Wish You Were Here was the only successful book musical of 1952, and the only one (by far) to make it past the one-year mark.

Wish You Were Here has gone down in history as an extremely lucky hit, with little to recommend it. South Pacific, Josh Logan and Leland Hayward's other musical around the corner, it wasn't. But Harold Rome provided an enjoyably entertaining score, balancing his top-of-the-chart title tune with a light-heartedly amusing song assortment. As the show ended its 598-performance run, a British edition opened at the London Casino on October 10, 1953. With the original Broadway cast album of Wish You Were Here — briefly issued on CD in 1996 — once more out of print, Sepia has seen fit to bring us the London album. Which makes for a happy surprise.

Sepia is one of those relatively new labels that has been transferring out-of print cast albums to CDs. This is a boon to musical theatre fans, who can now look forward to hearing long-lost titles they might never have heard before. The long-term prospects of these labels, of course, depends on public support. Sepia, which I have only just discovered, already has a dozen theatre-related discs on the market. (While they are unlikely to turn up in your neighborhood store, they are available at Footlight, and on the Internet from www.footlight.com or www.worldsrecords.com.)

I'm quite satisfied with the Broadway album of Wish You Were Here, mind you, but the London disc gives us the score with significantly clearer sound. The Broadway album was one of those early RCA Victor releases, which tend to sound like they were recorded in a tunnel. The London disc was pressed only 16 months later, but in the present restoration sounds much cleaner. I'm sitting here listening to orchestral colors that I don't recall hearing before on the RCA disc.

And the orchestrations are a lot of fun. Don Walker was the supervising orchestrator, but in those days he regularly farmed out a considerable amount of work (as discussed in our last column, in connection with Wonderful Town). And no wonder; Walker was credited with six musicals in 1952. Pending examination of the charts — if they still exist — I would guess that Red Ginzler did "Shopping Around" and "Flattery." The gypsy violins, Borscht Belt-style of "Social Director" and "Don Jose" seem to come from Irv Kostal (whom Walker assigned the not-dissimilar "Hernando's Hideaway"). Walker surely did the big ballads, including the swoopingly grand orchestration for the title song. The London actors are a far cry from the Catskills; Camp Karefree, the setting of the show, was transplanted for London to one of the Butlins holiday camps. The cast contains two surprises. Shani Wallis plays the comic soubrette Fay (the role with which Sheila Bond stole the show on Broadway). Wallis, who had played the Princess in the 1952 West End Call Me Madam, made a less-than-impressive Broadway debut in the 1966 musical A Time for Singing. She catapulted to (short-lived) fame in 1968, as Nancy in the film version of Oliver! Playing the romantic rake, singing his heart out in "Summer Afternoon" and seducing the heroine in "Relax," is (of all people) Christopher Hewett. His next stop would be Broadway, as Zoltan Karpathy in the original production of My Fair Lady, although he is best known (at least in some circles) as Roger de Bris to Zero Mostel in The Producers.

The British cast is generally fine once you accept the accents, and the singers happily give us Jay Blackton's deep-voiced vocals (under the baton of Cyril Ornadel). The one major weakness is Bruce Trent as the romantic lead. The Broadway album features the young Jack Cassidy, a standout for his distinctive and strongly attractive voice. Trent sings well enough, but sounds like just another leading young man; the title song sounds significantly paler without the urgency that Cassidy brought to it.

The London Wish You Were Here dispenses with the Overture and Finale but includes "There's Nothing Nicer Than People," an introductory number for the two leading ladies. Rome and Logan added this to the show shortly after the Broadway opening. I must say I prefer "Goodbye Love," which was axed. But "Goodbye Love" was a solo for Teddy Stern (Patricia Marand), the romantic lead; with Sheila Bond attracting all the critical and audience attention, I suppose they felt they needed to bring her into the spotlight earlier on.

The spare Broadway album clocks in at only 49 minutes. Sepia gives us a full 72, filling out the disc with selections from two other West End transfers from that period. (Many of these American shows in London have already appeared on small-label CDs, with varying audibility.) Lerner and Loewe's Paint Your Wagon, too, makes for interesting listening; again, we can hear colors that we don't get from the Broadway cast album (also on RCA). The recording, unfortunately, is highly abridged, even more so than the Broadway cast album. Here, we get four tracks, combining two or three songs each. Paint Your Wagon remains one of those shows that calls for a complete cast recording. (There is apparently one on the shelf at Jay Records, awaiting release.)

The London Paint Your Wagon features Bobby Howes, a musical comedy star back in the 1920's. By 1953, though, he had trouble sustaining the notes. Even so, his big solo — "I Still See Eliza" — comes across as the fine song it is. ("I Still See Eliza," "Another Autumn," "They Call the Wind Maria," "I Talk to the Trees" — an impressive lineup of songs for an all-but forgotten show!) Howes is joined by his 22-year-old daughter Sally Ann, who soon wafted across the ocean to replace Julie Andrews in Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.

The Wish You Were Here disc is rounded out by six songs from Guys and Dolls, featuring London's Sister Sarah (Lizbeth Webb) and Sky Masterson (Jerry Wayne). These are not very impressive pop versions, I'm afraid, arranged and conducted by Wally Stott (Angela Thornton).

LOVE FROM JUDY [Sepia 1026]
Hugh Martin is a uniquely original American songwriter whose name is little known nowadays, although "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "The Boy Next Door" have attained well-deserved standard status, and other Martin songs remain evergreen.

Martin came to town as a Kay Thompson singer. An exceptionally talented vocal arranger, he almost singlehandedly brought the swing sound to Broadway, in swift but clear-cut steps. Swing music was big at the time, certainly, and some strains had no doubt reached the sacred precincts of Times Square. But Martin's arrangement of two numbers in two hit Rodgers Hart-Abbott musicals — "Sing for Your Supper" in The Boys from Syracuse (1938) and "I Like to Recognize the Tune" in Too Many Girls (1939) — made a distinct impression. Martin did not orchestrate these songs, but the orchestrators had no recourse but to follow Hugh's "swing'' arrangement. It is telling that Martin was quickly assigned Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Berlin's Louisiana Purchase (1941) and Duke's Cabin in the Sky (1940).

If Martin's arrangements were suddenly being heard across Broadway, he was quickly handed an even bigger opportunity. Abbott wanted to produce another "youth" musical in the Babes in Arms/Too Many Girls vein, but with a team of new songwriters (as opposed to Rodgers and Hart). Martin wrote a stunning ballad called "Ev'ry Time" on spec, while his partner Ralph Blane wrote the rhythmic novelty "Shady Lady Bird." Rodgers, who was serving as Abbott's silent co-producer, recognized the fresh new voices, and the boys were hired. Best Foot Forward (1941) brought a refreshing new sound — and a swing band instrumentation — to Broadway. The success of the show sent Martin and Blane to Hollywood, where they wrote the score for the 1944 Judy Garland vehicle Meet Me in St. Louis. After serving in the war, Martin — sans Blane — returned to Broadway in 1948 with the first of three musicals in five years.

Look Ma, I'm Dancin' was a cousin to On the Town, conceived and choreographed by that show's Jerome Robbins, directed by that show's George Abbott, and devised as a vehicle for On the Town's star, comedienne Nancy Walker (who had first stolen the spotlight as the unlikeliest of coeds in Best Foot Forward). This tale of a brewer's daughter who backs a ballet company as a way to get on her toes didn't quite come together. It was a near miss, or a minor hit rather; it apparently paid off its investment, thanks to a movie sale (although the movie was never filmed). The truncated cast album, which we might one day see from Decca Broadway, is a joy thanks to Walker, Harold Lang and Martin himself who — although he was not in the show — sings one of his most delicious songs, "The Little Boy Blues." (There is also another exquisite ballad, "Tiny Room," built upon fascinating sliding tonalities worthy of the great George.)

Make a Wish (1951) was more problematic. This tale of a perky orphan in Paris who finds love and happiness had a spotty book, from Preston Sturges no less, and it never pulled together. Even so, the cast album is a delight, with Nanette Fabray and Stephen Douglass as the lovers and the soubrette-juvenile pairing of Helen Gallagher and Harold Lang making one of the most smashing comedy-dance couples since the Astaires. Martin gave the group an assortment of exuberant numbers, mixing robust paeans to Paris — "Who Gives a Sou?" they sing — with three dazzlers for Helen and Harold. This RCA cast album, too, is long out-of-print, though less likely to reappear (at least from an American label).

If Make a Wish was disappointing, Martin quickly found himself center stage at Broadway's most exciting event of 1951, accompanying Judy Garland at the Palace for a record-breaking 19 weeks. Martin was then off to London, were he wrote Love from Judy, which would be his last musical for another dozen years. (He returned to Broadway twice more, with High Spirits in 1964 and a stage version of the film Meet Me in St. Louis in 1989.) Love from Judy — with lyrics written in collaboration with Timothy Gray — was a musicalization of Jean Webster's 1912 novel "Daddy-Long Legs." This tale of a perky orphan in New Orleans who finds love and happiness (with her guardian!) opened on September 25, 1952, and turned out to be a substantial hit, running almost 600 performances. Judy never made it to New York, and understandably so as there was a simultaneous movie musical version in the works. ("Daddy Long Legs" fizzled when it was released, with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron singing songs by Johnny Mercer.) None of Martin's musicals were well made, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein fashion; they were more in line with Rodgers and Hart. The songs in these shows work somewhat independently of the book; in Make a Wish they simply seem to ignore it. But the scores are stocked with charmers, along with crackerjack comedy songs and — every so often — an absolute beauty-of-a-ballad.

Martin believed — first and foremost — in entertaining the audience, and the best of his songs are buoyantly irrepressible. He has no qualms whatsoever about sending out his leading lady to importune the ensemble (and the audience) to "Go and Get Your Old Banjo"; he does this in Love from Judy, as well as giving the old family retainer Butterfly a little ditty called "A Touch of Voodoo." This is not the sort of writing style I'd recommend to modern practitioners of the form. When Martin does it, though, he ends up with showstoppers. These songs soar, so you'll get no complaints from this quarter.

Martin enhances his music in two directions. His lyrics are the sort that put a smile on your face. Judy starts at the Mardi Gras, "an hysterical, historical, phantasmagorical event" that "fills each New Orleans street with Deviltry and revil-try and dishevel-try." (The action was set in 1903, mind you.) Martin and Gray's orphans are somewhat more feisty than those of Annie. ("Mary had a little lamb," they complain, "all we have is fish.") The other facet of Martin's writing comes from his arranging skills. He knew better than anyone how to build a number to a fever pitch of excitement, and beyond. If you don't have recordings of any Martin musicals, you can get an idea by putting on Jule Styne's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is chock-full of Martin vocals. Styne repaid the favor, as it were, by producing Make a Wish.

The original cast album of Love from Judy gives us 14 songs, in part at least; like Paint Your Wagon, the songs were arranged in mini medleys and crammed to fit on four 78s. We get less than 20 minutes of the show, which at least gives us a sense of the score. But Martin's best numbers build and build and build, which is impossible to indicate in a mere chorus or two.

Jean Carson made quite a splash as the heroine Judy; June Whitfield, ditto, as her not-so-dumb blonde roommate. Bill O'Connor plays the guardian-turned lover, while Johnny Brandon serves as one of those spirited-young-friends to-the-heroine with featured spots. Adelaide Hall — the Brooklyn-born star of Blackbirds of 1928 and a veteran of Harlem's Cotton Club, where she introduced Harold Arlen's "Ill Wind" — played Butterfly, with a couple of "hot" specialties.

Sepia has compensated for the abbreviated Love from Judy with 20 related bonus tracks featuring the stars. These include two-part mini medleys from Frank Loesser's Hans Christian Andersen and Disney's Peter Pan (both with Carson, joined by Hermione Gingold on the latter); and Whitfield doing a couple of songs from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and nicely, too). These tracks, like the Guys and Dolls numbers on the Wish You Were Here disc, are backed by Wally Stott and his Orchestra.

If this recording of Love from Judy is incomplete, it is nevertheless the cast album of Martin's longest-running hit. Here's hoping that we get Look Ma, I'm Dancin' and Make a Wish on CD too, sooner rather than later.

—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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