ON THE RECORD: Arlen, Harburg & Gershwin's Life Begins at 8:40 and New A Little Night Music

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Arlen, Harburg & Gershwin's Life Begins at 8:40 and New A Little Night Music
We listen to the first-ever recording of the 1934 Arlen-Harburg-Gershwin revue Life Begins at 8:40 and the Broadway cast recording of the Trevor Nunn revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.


LIFE BEGINS AT 8:40 [PS Classics PS-1090]
And the winner of the Best Musical is . . . . ?

One of the first-night Broadway critics — the musically perceptive Norman Nadel of the World-Telegram & Sun — dismissed Noel Coward's 1961 musical Sail Away by noting that "it easily could have qualified as the musical of the year if it had opened in 1936." This is brought to mind by the arrival of the studio recording of Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg's Life Begins at 8:40, a 1934 affair that could easily have qualified as the musical of the season if it had opened in 2009-2010. Or 2008, 2007, 2006, and several more.

True, it hardly seems congruous to stack people like Bryan, DiPietro and Lippa against Arlen, Gershwin and Harburg. I won't stand here and say that every song the great Harold wrote was brilliant; I've got most of them sitting here on the shelf, and sure there are a few that don't quite make it. The same can be said for Ira and Yip, yes; nobody, especially in the early days of non-stop Broadway musicals, expected every song to be a gem. But Life Begins at 8:40 brims with melody, wit and good-natured fun.

One of the foundations of the career of the Brothers Shubert was the musical revue. Sam, the "good" brother, died early on, as the boys were just building their organization. Lee became the brother in charge of plays, while J.J. (Jake) took on the musicals. And there were plenty of musicals, split between crass musical comedies; syrupy and at times phenomenally lucrative operettas; and crass revues. (The Winter Garden was built as a home for Shubert revues, with young Shubert discovery Al Jolson becoming a mainstay in those entertainments.) All through this time, competitors — led by Flo Ziegfeld — were producing relatively classy revues. The Shubert revues, typified by their annual Passing Shows, were on the lame side.

Show business — and all business — was disrupted by the onset of the Depression, at which time the Shuberts were forced to regroup. One of their business decisions was to cease the constant parade of mindless revues and concentrate on the more sophisticated species that had cropped up with Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues and the several offerings of songwriters Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz (typified by The Little Show and The Bandwagon). With Ziegfeld having died in 1932, the Shuberts did the logical thing and licensed the title "Ziegfeld Follies" from the debt-ridden Billie Burke Ziegfeld. Hence, two new-style Shubert revues, Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. These were several steps above the earlier Shubert revues, and — arguably — could well have been better shows than Ziegfeld's own Follies. Flo had an unmatchable galaxy of stars in his revues, of course, including Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and more. But Flo was never much of a song-picker, preferring to spend his creative energies on dressing (and undressing) the American Girl while allowing his comedians to convulse the audiences. For the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, the Shuberts hired songwriters Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg, whose not-quite-successful 1932 revue Walk a Little Faster had been built around two major Broadway clowns — Bea Lillie and Bobby Clark — and included a tuneful score (including "April in Paris"). Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, which was nominally presented by "Mrs. Billie Burke Ziegfeld," starred one of Flo's great clowns — Ms. Brice, that funny girl — and was quite a success. But the tryout was a bloodbath, with Duke and Harburg becoming violently estranged. As the Shuberts couldn't get a follow-up show from the pair, they hired each to prepare his own show.

Harburg enlisted Arlen as his composer. With a quick deadline — the Follies opened in January, Life Begins in August — Harburg asked his high school and college buddy Ira Gershwin to collaborate on the lyrics. Ira had been writing exclusively with brother George since their successful 1924 Astaire show Lady Be Good; but in 1934, George was busy writing an opera while Ira was sitting around the house playing cards and smoking cigars. (George and his opera collaborator eventually called on Ira to provide lyrics for their fast-talking, street-smart villain, Sportin' Life, resulting in "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York.") Ira, at liberty, was glad to join his pal Yip and Arlen, the brilliant young blues writer from Buffalo.

As for Duke — George's friend and protégé (and something of a permanent house visitor) — it made perfect sense for him to enlist Ira to write lyrics for his Shubert revue, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. After which Ira also became estranged from the fiery Duke, but not until they wrote "I Can't Get Started."

We seem to have bogged down in the history, when what we are assigned to do is review the CD of Life Begins at 8:40. Let's start with the title: "Life Begins at Forty" was a 1932 best-seller by psychologist Walter Pitkin, an early example of the self-help category. (In those days, 40 was considered to be really old!) 8:40 was the standard curtain time for Broadway attractions, which allowed playgoers to drink and dine in style before going to the play (and arrive fashionably late). Harburg assembled a strong quartet of up-and-coming stars: song-and-dance man Ray Bolger, Arlen's former roommate; singer Frances Williams, a former girlfriend of Arlen's who had introduced "As Time Goes By" in a negligible 1931 revue; comedienne Luella Gear, who had recently played the comedic fall opposite Fred Astaire in Cole Porter's The Gay Divorce; and the rambunctious comedian Bert Lahr. Bolger and Lahr took top honors, grandly entertaining audiences and the songwriters as well; when Harburg and Arlen took up "The Wizard of Oz" five years later, they created starring roles for Ray and Bert.

To hear some samples from the new CD, click here.

Life Begins at 8:40 was a hit in its deep-Depression year, enjoying a respectable run of 237 performances at the Winter Garden. After which, it disappeared; not much of an afterlife for topical revues, especially in those days. The show languished in oblivion, known to aficionados for its several stand-out songs. But the musical materials survived, carefully shelved away — some in the Shubert Archives, others at the Music Division of the Library of Congress. The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust, which takes a large chunk of Ira's still-bountiful royalties and pours them back into worthy musical theatre activities, saw fit to lavish resources on the restoration and recording of Life Begins. Which turns out to be as delightfully delicious as one would hope from the Messrs. Arlen, Harburg and Gershwin.

Yes, the score sounds wonderful. The music isn't especially Arlenesque — I don't expect that many first-time listeners would be able to identify the composer — but Harold did have a happily jaunty side, and that's what is displayed here. "Fun to Be Fooled," "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block," and "You're a Builder-Upper" remain the highest of the high spots; I dare newcomers to listen to these songs twice and not be stuck whistling them for weeks to come. The delights continue with "What Can You Say in a Love Song," "Shoein' the Mare," and the risque "Quartet Erotica." In the latter, ghosts of the formerly ribald Rabelais, de Maupassant, Boccaccio and Balzac find themselves dismissed as old-fashioned "alter kockers," yearning for the more innocent day "when a Lesbian was an islander [from Lesbos] and not your wife's best friend." That's Ira and Yipper for you; they also provide a song and sketch — they wrote some of the sketches as well — called "C'est La Vie," which starts with two lovelorn Frenchmen about to throw themselves into the Seine. All is resolved happily, with the pair and their lady taking a cue from Noel Coward's then-current Design for Living and winding up with a happy menage a trois. For those interested in such things, you will find that Ira borrowed the notion of "long ago and far away" from "It Was Long Ago," while Yip found "it's that old devil moon" sparking the bridge of "Fun to Be Fooled."

PS Classics has assembled their little stock company of contemporary musical theatre talents; Tommy Krasker and Phillip Chaffin's tiny independent label seems to be able to simply send out an e-mail or two and people just show up. In this case, they have Kate Baldwin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Montego Glover, Rebecca Luker, Brad Oscar, Faith Prince, Graham Rowat and Jessica Stone joined by Chaffin (who has proven himself a fine singer of Broadway ballads). Life Begins at 8:40 was performed in concert at the Library of Congress one night in March, following which they repaired to the recording studio to make the CD. Larry Moore had done a fine job with the restoration, cleaning up and dusting off the orchestrations (mostly by Hans Spialek, with help from Russell Bennett and then-newcomer Don Walker). Much of the praise for the way things have turned out, I suspect, belongs to musical director Aaron Gandy. In his hands, Life Begins at 8:40 sounds like — well, I suppose you could say the musical of the season. 2009-2010, that is.

Buy this CD

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC [Nonesuch/PS Classics 523488]
Are there limits on the potential of a cast album recording of a problematic production? How good can the CD be judged to be when they go into the studio with certain liabilities built in? These questions arise in contemplation of the new recording of the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music. Let us not debate the merits of the show in the theatre; let's just start with the original 1973 Broadway cast album [Sony Classical SK 65284], starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, Hermione Gingold, and featuring an orchestra of 25 (presumably augmented with extra strings for the recording). We now have Trevor Nunn's revival, which for various reasons — starting with the economics of its initial mounting at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory in London — gives us eight players (augmented to 13). Orchestrations are a mere figment of the orchestrator's imagination, and not part and parcel of the composer's art. When the orchestrations are superb, though — and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for A Little Night Music (and Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd and Merrily We Roll Along among others) are supremely superb — replacement orchestrations are likely to feel like, well, mere replacements. Jason Carr did the job that was asked of him, and the music works adequately well in the theatre. People who are intimately familiar with the original Broadway cast album (and/or the original 1975 London cast album) are likely to miss Tunick's work, though, when they put on this new Broadway cast album. Even if the current revival was a dynamically illuminating rendition of the material, Tunick's charts would be missed.

However, this new two-CD release — a coproduction of Nonesuch and PS Classics — does offer something new. The record producers have seen fit to lace snippets of dialogue throughout. This has two advantages. First, it offers us the opportunity to hear just about every one of Madame Armfeldt's jokes. Since that grande dame has but one solo during the evening (along with one verse of a group number), and since that grande dame is here limned by the grandest dame currently trodding the boards, this is a not-inconsequential asset. Angela Lansbury's line readings are worth the price of admission, as they say, and they are here on CD for the listener to luxuriate in. The second advantage is less for those of us who have seen countless Night Musics and more for those who are relatively new to the piece. We now get a sense, a very good sense, of precisely what is going on amidst those 16 musical tracks on the 1973 cast album. Which helps color in the lines, as it were, and also demonstrates just how admirable a job was done by first-time librettist Hugh Wheeler.

So here is a new cast recording of A Little Night Music, starring the not-to-be-underestimated Catherine Zeta-Jones along with the estimable Ms. Lansbury, which proves to bring something new to the table. New and worthwhile — although to me A Little Night Music without Tunick's full orchestra is, musically, A Little Night Music too little.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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