ON THE RECORD: A Class Act and a Class Tiffany's

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: A Class Act and a Class Tiffany's
A CLASS ACT RCAVictor 09026-63757
After hearing the Ed Kleban character in A Class Act sing "Paris Through the Window," his first submission to the BMI Workshop, one of his classmates says "It's. . . interesting." That's pretty much how I feel about the CD of A Class Act. (This recording reflects the version of the show presented last November at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The recently opened Broadway production has a slightly different song list, with half of the MTC cast.)

A CLASS ACT RCAVictor 09026-63757
After hearing the Ed Kleban character in A Class Act sing "Paris Through the Window," his first submission to the BMI Workshop, one of his classmates says "It's. . . interesting." That's pretty much how I feel about the CD of A Class Act. (This recording reflects the version of the show presented last November at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The recently opened Broadway production has a slightly different song list, with half of the MTC cast.)

Kleban wrote the lyrics to A Chorus Line, which according to A Class Act was his great achievement and his great downfall. (To quote the opening number, "After Chorus Line something happened 'cause after Chorus Line nothing happened.") Like Stephen Sondheim before him, he saw himself as a composer and chafed at lyric writing assignments. (Sheldon Harnick also started out writing his own music, although he was soon persuaded to stick with lyrics.)

Despite the success of Chorus Line, Kleban was unable to get any of his projects off the ground (he died in 1987). Now we hear nineteen of the songs Kleban considered his treasures, and — well, they're interesting. There are some nice things here; Kleban was clearly competent as a composer. But Sondheim he wasn't, although in several songs he tries to be. (This was a common failing of many of aspiring composers of the seventies and eighties.) In other places Kleban seems to try to be Billy Finn, whose March of the Falsettos burst upon the scene in 1981. Composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, too, came along with Nine in 1982. Compare Kleban's work to Sondheim, Finn, or Yeston; A Class Act is clearly not in their class.

None of the songs really grabs me, at least after a half-dozen-or-so listenings; there's always something that pulls me back. "Paris Through the Window," "Under Separate Cover," "Next Best Thing to Love" have already found enthusiastic fans; while I find elements to admire in them, they fail to reach me emotionally. I find them more effective on the stage of the Ambassador than on the CD. (The disc sounds good, though. Most of the singing falls to Lonny Price, Randy Graff, and Carolee Carmello, who are supported by a proficient cast and good work from music director Todd Ellison and orchestrator Larry Hochman.) "Better" works best, I suppose. For all the talk in the show about Kleban's supposedly brilliant lyrics, I find some of his word images stilted. And some of the songs simply seem shoehorned in. "Gauguin's Shoes," for example, is jaunty enough; but what, pray tell, does Gauguin have to do with Kleban and his love life and BMI and the Broadway musical? Van Gogh, yes; Kleban was similarly bedeviled and institutionalized. ("Fountain in the Garden" specifically brings to mind Vincent's painting of the fountain in the courtyard of the mental hospital in Arles. Kleban, like Vincent, had himself admitted.) But Gauguin, the banker, in Tahiti? (Kleban sneaks in an allusion to Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, which will no doubt fly right over the heads of most listeners.)

Must a new musical have a brilliant score to be effective? Of course not. But the book of A Class Act keeps claiming, very loudly, that Ed Kleban was a great composer. I'm not convinced. I enjoyed the show itself, now at the Ambassador Theatre, but you kind of get the feeling that the creators demand that you love Kleban's music as well. Not me, sorry. But "interesting" — yes, A Class Act is certainly very interesting, in a way that many recent musicals are decidedly not. [I feel compelled to add that I've come across more than a few devoted theatrefolk who love this show, especially the Broadway version. I did enjoy it, though not so much as others have, so please don't let me dissuade you from giving it a chance, either on CD or at the Ambassador.]

Since the advent of the long-playing record in 1949, there has been a steady stream of studio cast recordings of Broadway musicals. That is, albums containing the main songs in a score, performed by singers assembled specifically for the studio (as opposed to cast albums of actors who have performed the show together on the stage). Musicals selected for such treatment were invariably popular hits — otherwise, who would want to buy them? — and most of them were already recorded as popular original cast albums. Somewhat astonishingly, there is now a movement underway to create studio albums of 1960s shows that were outright failures, using full casts and the original orchestrations. Three have now been released, and there are at least two more on their way.

Drat the Cat, the 1965 Musical that scuttled the Broadway careers of both Elliot Gould and Lesley Ann Warren, was recorded in 1997 (with Susan Egan and Jason Graae giving entertaining performances). Her First Roman, the 1968 disaster based on Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, was recorded in 1993. Not only did they use the original orchestrations, but original stars Richard Kiley and Leslie Uggams recreated their roles. (The Roman recording did not use the full Broadway score, as composer/lyricist Ervin Drake refused to allow inclusion of the songs written during the tryout by ghostwriters Bock and Harnick.) Both scores are mediocre but tuneful, but the CDs are decidedly enjoyable.

And now we have one of Broadway's most fabled failures, Bob Merrill's Breakfast at Tiffany's. Numerous big-budget shows have closed within a week; many more simply closed during pre-Broadway tryouts. Tiffany's is an outstanding case, in that it closed after four previews (and before facing the New York critics). This despite an enormous advance sale of presold tickets, thanks in large part to stars Mary Tyler Moore (just off "The Dick Van Dyke Show") and Richard Chamberlain (just off "Doctor Kildare"). Producer David Merrick simply pulled the plug, saying "rather than subject the drama critics and the theatre-going public — who invested one million dollars in advance ticket sales — to an excruciatingly boring evening, I have decided to close the show."

Tiffany's had two incarnations. The show opened its tryout in Philadelphia under the title "Holly Golightly," with book and direction by Abe Burrows (who had replaced Nunnally Johnson). The show clearly called for a drastic overhaul, and after critical maulings (and sold-out houses) in Philly and Boston, Merrick enlisted Edward Albee to write a new version. With numerous musical additions and deletions, and rechristened Breakfast at Tiffanys, the show moved into the Majestic for its brief Broadway visit.

Thirty-five years later, Tiffany's has finally turned up in all its glory on a handsomely-produced 2 CD set. Yes, this album reveals Tiffany's weaknesses; even so, it is one of those discs that musical comedy fans will want to rush out and get. Merrill (1920-1998) was a strange bird of a songwriter. His best-known songs, perhaps, were "People" (for which he wrote lyrics only) and the deathless "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window." He could write wonderfully tender, innocently childlike songs like "Love Makes the World Go Round" from Carnival and "Here I Am" from Henry, Sweet Henry. But he could just as easily turn around and write crassly vulgar stuff, as in parts of the latter score and Prettybelle. Merrill participated in the restoration of his score for this recording, which was made in 1995. It took six years to get Tiffany's released — nothing with this show was ever simple — but it was well worth the wait. The two title songs are both first-rate: "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is a lullaby-like waltz (comparable to "Love Makes the World Go Round"), while the jazzy "Holly Golightly" has an infectious swing to it. Merrill also provided two superb comedy songs, slightly on the seamy side. "Home for Wayward Girls" is a wickedly nifty duet for Holly and her fellow call-girl Mag, while the aptly-titled "Lament for Ten Men (Dirty Old Men)" is a gem of a concerted number. (The latter was recycled into the London production of Sugar, replacing the similarly-themed but nowhere near as good "Even Dirty Old Men Need Love.") The rest of the score ranges from okay to mediocre, with ballads like "You Never Kissed Her" and "Ciao Compare" which you may well enjoy (but sound synthetic to me).

Faith Prince sings the lion's share of the score. Songs from the significantly different Burrows and Albee versions are mixed together, making it impossible for Prince to project a sense of performance. Still, she's very good (and a far better singer than Mary Tyler Moore, needless to say). John Schneider has considerably less to do as the Capote surrogate, and Hal Linden — in good voice — sings Art Lund's role of Holly's elderly husband from back home. Sally Kellerman recreates the call girl she played in 1966, and she does astoundingly well. Jonathan Freeman, Ron Raines, and Patrick Cassidy perform various small roles with style. For many listeners, the great treat of this album will be the opportunity to hear Ralph Burns' orchestrations. (Imagine these parts still existing thirty years after the debacle at the Majestic, including all that cut material! The album producers went to the Library of Congress looking for leadsheets of missing songs -- and discovered that the entire orchestration was sitting in the Library's David Merrick Collection, donated by the producer.) Burns was one of Broadway's most exciting orchestrators of the sixties and seventies; Tiffany's followed his work on Funny Girland Sweet Charity, if that gives you an idea of his sound. In the hands of Burns, the tarnished score of Tiffany's sounds silver-plated. No, Merrill's score is not as good as Ed Kleban's A Class Act. I suspect I'll play Tiffany's more often, though.

So count this as a definite recommendation. Let me add, too, that the production values — in singing, playing, and packaging — are all highly impressive. This must have been an incredibly difficult (and expensive) album for producer Robert Sher and Bruce Yeko to get recorded and released. Happily, the results are first-rate, and I only hope Breakfast at Tiffany's sells enough copies to fund similar adventures in musical comedy.

-- Steven Suskin is the author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" (due in April from Oxford University Press), "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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