ON THE RECORD: Annie & Irving, Fosse & Merman

News   ON THE RECORD: Annie & Irving, Fosse & Merman
Irving Berlin wrote his great score for Annie Get Your Gun back in 1946. No fewer than eight cast recordings of Irving Berlin's great score exist, and now we have the highly revised 1999 Broadway version starring Bernadette Peters.

Irving Berlin wrote his great score for Annie Get Your Gun back in 1946. No fewer than eight cast recordings of Irving Berlin's great score exist, and now we have the highly revised 1999 Broadway version starring Bernadette Peters.

Despite Irving Berlin's great score, this is only Annie's second Broadway appearance since the original production closed fifty years ago. (The last major attempt was a full-scale Debbie Reynolds/Gower Champion production, which toured back in 1977 but misfired before reaching its target.) Annie has always done very well on the stock & amateur circuit, but various flaws in the piece have hampered its Broadway afterlife. Of course, nothing can diminish the power of Irving Berlin's great score -- but wait a minute!! What is all this about Irving Berlin's great score? Every article and every interview and nearly every review waxes rhapsodic about Irving Berlin's great score; I hate to sound disrespectful and anti-patriotic, but just how great is Annie's fifteen-song songbook?

Five of the songs I unquestionably and gladly salute, Berlin at his best and well-nigh perfect. But what of the rest? The show's two "big" ballads, "They Say It's Wonderful" and "I Got Lost in His Arms," have always left me lukewarm. They're not bad, certainly, but somewhat generic in their charms, and would fit just as well into any number of other musicals. (Compare them to other, more flavorful Broadway ballads of the period like "If I Loved You," "Old Devil Moon," or "So in Love," and you'll see what I mean.) Three of the other Annie songs are bland and barely functional, so much so that they been cut from this production (namely "I'm a Bad, Bad Man," "I'm an Indian, Too," and the opening number "Colonel Buffalo Bill"). There are also two peppy but ordinary boy/girl duets which Berlin himself saw fit to cut out of the 1966 revival (although they have been reinstated here).

That makes seven less-than-sterling songs right there. Compare this to South Pacific or Guys and Dolls or My Fair Lady, in which there is barely a bar of music you'd want to cut or alter. This is not to say Annie's score is not good; I merely question that semi automatic "Irving Berlin's great score" tag. And I contend this is one of the reasons that the show has never worked so well as it did when Ethel Merman was standing there on stage, belting out the score and overwhelming its warts.

Which leads us back to the current recording. Bernadette Peters, like Ms. Merman, has her own special persona. I suppose that if Berlin -- or Porter or Rodgers -- was here to custom-write a score for her, it would fit her somewhat better than Merman's worn buckskin. Part of what formerly made the Annie character so irrepressible was her plain-spoken, heart on-her-sleeve naivete. Ms. Peter's Annie, though, is tricked up with a hillbilly accent and other "colorful" hoots and honks. Berlin had Merman walk on and establish her character with three extended refrains of "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," brim-filled with innocently-delivered laugh lines. In the new version, Peters doesn't even get through the first refrain before they have her and the kids impersonate a spitterin' and sputterin' jug band. So much for establishing character. They turn what had been a major solo (with minor choral backup) into a responsive reading-type exercise, cutting a whole third of the lyric as well. (Gone is cousin Carrie who "doesn't want to marry, and her children feel the same.") One can't expect the new creative staff to stick slavishly to what was done fifty years ago, but this version seems to undercut Berlin's intentions and doesn't work nearly as well. This album does have its high points, including what must be the best rendition of the bluesy "Moonshine Lullaby" I've ever heard. No funny accent, no jokes, just Peters doing what she does so well. She also does a fine job on Berlin's two so-so ballads, ably supported by Tom Wopat. On the down side, there is an excessively strange rendition of "My Defenses Are Down," and the people in charge have seen fit to scrap Joe Moon's original "I've Got the Sun in the Morning" vocal arrangement -- which tore the roof off the theatre with cyclonic fury -- in place of a Coplandish hoe down dance arrangement filled with hillbilly fiddles and no payoff.

So there's still no clear winner in the Annie cast album sweepstakes. Bernadette's fans will no doubt flock to the stores to buy this new one, but I'll stick to the 1966 revival recording (on BMG). The fifty-seven year old Merman was a bit long-in-the tooth for the role (Broadway wags called it "Granny Get Your Gun") but it is still by far the best reading of Irving Berlin's "great" score. So to speak.


AS THOUSANDS CHEER (Varese Sarabande)

Diehard Berlin fans, who no doubt already own an Annie disc or two, might be a whole lot happier with the first-ever cast recording of As Thousands Cheer.

I don't suppose anyone, not even Irving himself, has ever considered this a "great score." But it is immensely charming, often witty, and infectiously good-natured. The Drama Dept., the accomplished Off-Broadway theatre company, last summer presented a palm-sized version of this formerly lavish 1933 revue. Due to a series of circumstances, it proved impractical to transfer the limited engagement to another venue -- a shame, as it would no doubt be enchanting audiences today. The production has been preserved on disc, though, and it is all-in-all a delight.

Howard McGillin and Judy Kuhn do most of the real singing, Paula Newsome essays the Ethel Waters material, and Mary Beth Peil, B. D. Wong, and Kevin Chamberlin handle the comedy. They are all fine, especially the strong voiced McGillin. Unlike Annie, few songs will be familiar to most listeners. Best known are "Heat Wave," "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," and that old chestnut "Easter Parade." (This last was not contractually available for the Drama Dept. production but has been reinstated here.) The score also contains one of Berlin's finest and most unusual songs, "Supper Time," which is sung by a character whose husband has just been lynched. Musically inspired by Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather," it is the only thing of its kind Berlin ever seems to have attempted, and what a shame!

Credit is due, mostly, to the quartet who reshaped and shepherded the sixty-five year old material (by Berlin and Moss Hart) into workable shape, namely producer Ira Weitzman, director/adapter Christopher Ashley, co-director Kathleen Marshall, and musical director/arranger/ pianist David Evans. The smartest thing they did, perhaps, was cut down the show -- which must have originally lasted nearly three hours -- to seventy minutes of strong material. I might also add that someone wrote a delightful set of liner notes; they are signed, simply, Drama Dept.

Most importantly, everyone seems content to simply perform the songs the way they were written. (Those of you who demand that your music be lushly orchestrated might wish to take a rain check here, as the As Thousands Cheer orchestra consists of a piano and string bass.) Listening to this disc, you get a feeling that Irving Berlin himself was standing in the back of the control room nodding contentedly; whereas he might well have stormed out of the Annie Get Your Gun session screaming for his attorney. Meanwhile, I'm walking around humming "How's Chances" -- a song I never before realized that I especially liked. I would expect As Thousands Cheer might have that effect on you, too.  

While As Thousands Cheer seems almost fresh-as-a-daisy, topical revues run the risk of dating very quickly. Which brings us to Forbidden Broadway Cleans Up Its Act, the umpteenth edition of Gerard Alessandrini's skewed cabaret.

The opening number -- sung by, supposedly, Rudolph Giuliani and Julie Andrews, to the tune of "It's a Jolly Holiday with Mary (Poppins)" -- has New York's mayor cracking down on obscene Broadway language and lyrics in his efforts to improve the so-called quality of life. You listen to this number and you think, boy, is this stuff dated. How old is this material? Rudy and Julie Giuliani cleaning up the streets? In point of fact, the Mayor's obscenity campaign was in the news just this past fall; but now it seems years and years and years ago. Giuliani today is bunkered down, reluctant to talk to civil rights leaders as well as duly elected state officials because of the color of their skin, because "they" -- as he calls them -- don't have anything constructive to say to him. And here, on this newly-recorded, newly-released disc, he is quaintly closing down porn stores and hot dog stands. How Giuliani must wish for the good old days, when he was kidded rather than vilified.

But I digress. This is the fifth disc in the "Forbidden Broadway" series, which implies that somebody is buying the earlier four. I can well understand how Broadway fans who live far away from 42nd Street might welcome the opportunity to experience Alessandrini's often numbingly funny satires. But I found myself getting pretty antsy from time to time; I think there should be a moratorium on Ethel Merman/Mary Martin/Mary Poppins/Judy & Liza jokes. (Merman last appeared on Broadway twenty eight years ago. Maybe they should give her a rest.)

But every time I was about to press the disc skip button, on came something uproarious. The scaldingly funny Beauty Queen of Leenane sketch, for example, is in itself almost enough to make me want to head on over to see this edition. (People who never saw the now- departed Leenane must be baffled by this one!) There are also several laugh-packed extended segments: Titanic rips through five of that soggy operetta's songs in droll fashion. They all head to the radio room to hear the opening night reviews:
"Dit-ta-dit-ta-dit-dit/Pity you're not a hit/Quit you're a piece of -- " well, you get the idea. Ragtime features Coalhouse Walker storming around in a rage because he didn't win the Tony Award, and his Model T is smashed not by a bunch of hooligans but by Ben Brantley of the Times.

Moments like these redeem Forbidden Broadway's rather generic weaker parts: Bernadette Peters singing about how she's so cute, Andrew Lloyd Webber singing (to "Memory") about how Sunset Boulevard closed and he lost all his money. (He lost all his money???) Poor Gerard, he seems to need better material in order to come up with better material. But give Alessandrini something to latch onto, and Forbidden Broadway is very welcome, indeed.


Fosse (the musical) exists solely to memorialize the choreography of Bob Fosse. "Fosse" (the recording) gives us only the music that accompanies the dance steps, which makes for a somewhat less than exhilarating disc.

Fosse (the man) seems to have been ambivalent about the music of the musical theatre. He fought with and barred the composer of Pippin from rehearsals; he somewhat sadistically manipulated the songwriters of his next musical, Chicago; and he compiled his last two Broadway shows from pre-existing songs by mostly dead writers. Thus, the cast album presents 79 minutes of thematically unrelated and not necessarily distinguished music. The best of the Broadway material is already much recorded, with more distinctive performances from the likes of Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Carol Haney, and Jerry Orbach.

However strong Fosse might be in the theatre, one wonders what appeal this album might have. This despite the fact that it is technically excellent and features especially fine orchestral performances. RCA recently issued an album containing the incidental songs used in the drama Side Man, a compilation of enjoyable jazz performances which you might well play while you're whiling around the house on a Sunday morning. I can't say the same for this Fosse collection.

On the bright side, two of the tracks -- both used in Fosse's Dancin' (1978) -- are especially welcome: Johnny Mercer & Harry Warren's "I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man" and an exceptionally exciting version of Louis Prima's "Sing! Sing! Sing!"

These are a not insubstantial asset, as they are extended arrangements which take up a full quarter of the playing time. But most of the music in Fosse merely supports the dance steps; listening to the recording is like looking at a wall full of superbly carved picture frames without any paintings inside.


GYPSY (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
Between now and Tony time, a parade-full of theatre recordings will be released; I have a backlog stacking up already. In a weak moment, though, I cut ahead of myself and put on the Broadway Masterworks reissue of the Ethel Merman Gypsy.

This is unquestionably one of the very best cast recordings ever, of one of the very best Broadway musicals. But the original compact disc release was issued when the remastering process was relatively primitive. Now, forty years after Gypsy opened, Merman & Co. actually sound good!! Modern technology has brought out orchestral tones which you could only barely hear in the past; brass, winds, and rim shots reach out and grab you. You need only listen to Gypsy's dazzling overture -- Broadway's finest? -- to hear the difference. When trumpeter Dick Perry starts grunting and growling through Jule Styne's strip music -- well, you've heard it before, but now it's positively in your lap.

In addition to superbly fresh sound, this Gypsy has a handful of bonuses. Several tracks have been expanded to include sections edited out of the original LP release. Two of these are minor (such as Sandra Church squealing almost orgiastically as Tulsa twirls her around the floor in "All I Need Is the Girl"). Two others, though, are most welcome: in "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," Maria Karnilova's solo section ("Dressy Tessie Tura is so much more demurer...") and the three-part rondo; and the wild climax of the strip section in "Let Me Entertain You," with the horn section once again showing us all how to "bump it with a trumpet."

And that's not all. An old tape of what appears to be an early piano coaching session with Merman has been floating around for years. This has been sonically enhanced and added to the disc, and needless to say it is fascinating. "Some People" and "Mr. Goldstone" both include a considerable amount of cut lyrics; Mr. G. is "Smith and Dale and Nathan Hale rolled into one," and the many stones listed include not only millstones and gallstones but Dorothy and Fred. (Fred Stone, that is, the eccentric dancer who starred in The Red Mill and many other early musicals.) "Goldstone" is performed in its original routining, with "Little Lamb" sandwiched between its two parts. Merman herself sings it here, and I must say this tenderly beautiful song sounds rather odd coming out of Merman's mouth. The disc ends with demo recordings of two cut songs, "Mama's Talkin' Soft" -- a duet for the daughters, which was intended to overlap with the scene in which Rose courted Herbie with "Small World" -- and Herbie's solo "Nice She Ain't." Neither of these appear to have the brilliance of the rest of the score, although this might in some part be due to the "pop" sounding arrangements and performances.

The new Gypsy has a release date of May 2; but if your local record emporium regularly under-orders and immediately runs out of Broadway cast albums, you might want to go in now and pay for yours in advance. Or order it online. Because no matter how many recordings of the score you might already own, you are going to want to have this new reissue of Gypsy, and quick!

-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com

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