ON THE RECORD: Best Foot Forward, Good News and The Girl Most Likely

News   ON THE RECORD: Best Foot Forward, Good News and The Girl Most Likely
Three Hugh Martin CDs are featured in this week’s recordings column.

"I'm alive and kicking" goes one of the songs from Best Foot Forward, and I'm glad to say that at the age of 88 composer-lyricist Hugh Martin remains alive and kicking and represented on three new CDs (with a fourth to come this spring). Martin, who is roughly 15 years older than the Bock-Kander-Coleman-Sondheim generation of Broadway songwriters, is by far the least known of them all. He wrote only a handful of shows over 23 years. His output was supplemented by a half-dozen film scores; as far as I can tell, he has considerably less than 200 songs to his credit. But some of those songs are so very good — colorful melodies with surprising harmonics — that he has a surprisingly large following. Most famous among the songs, and representative of Martin's remarkable colorings, are "The Boy Next Door" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Martin also worked extensively as a vocal arranger. He can be credited with creating the Broadway vocal sound of the forties and fifties. A small-time singer from Birmingham, Alabama, he came to town backing up Kay Thompson in the 1937 Arlen-Harburg musical Hooray for What! (Thompson was fired and so was Martin.) He somehow garnered the nerve to offer his services on the new Rodgers & Hart & Abbott musical. Rodgers handed over "Sing for your Supper"; Martin's whirlwind arrangement lifted ears along Broadway and became the showstopping hit of The Boys from Syracuse (1938).

This one, startlingly good arrangement earned Martin similar assignments on the next Rodgers & Hart & Abbott musical, Too Many Girls; Vernon Duke's Cabin in the Sky, styling for Ethel Waters; and Irving Berlin's Louisiana Purchase. Martin then began his career as a composer but returned with some regularity to do vocal arrangements for shows like High Button Shoes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Two's Company and Hazel Flagg. (After Martin left Broadway, his mantle was taken up by protégé Buster Davis.) The Martin vocal sound, developed from the style of his mentor Thompson, is distinctive and deliciously rich. They don't write 'em like that any more, not in an age where a large Broadway chorus consists of 16 dancer/singers instead of 14 singers who didn't have to dance. Which is one reason why the 2001 revival of Bells Are Ringing didn't sound anywhere near as rich as Buster's originals.

In 1941, Abbott decided to produce another college-themed musical like Too Many Girls; Rodgers, who was having trouble working with Hart, joined as silent partner. Abbott and Rodgers chose Martin and his collaborator Ralph Blane to write Best Foot Forward, which was a significantly bigger hit than Too Many Girls. Martin and Blane went to Hollywood for the 1943 M-G-M version, where they were immediately assigned to write original songs for the 1944 Judy Garland vehicle Meet Me in St. Louis.

Between M-G-M and Garland and other activities, Martin found little time for Broadway. Look, Ma, I'm Dancin', a 1948 Nancy Walker vehicle for George Abbott and Jerome Robbins, was moderately successful. (As best I can tell, income from the film sale allowed the show to turn a profit, although the film was never made.) Neither of Martin's other musicals were successful; Make a Wish (1951) and High Spirits (1964, with Timothy Gray) both have problems despite some impossible-to-overlook songs. Martin also wrote one West End musical, a 1952 adaptation of Daddy Longlegs called Love from Judy (with Gray). This one ran an impressive 594 performances, but was never imported stateside. Martin and Blane also made two tries at a stage adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, a summer stock attempt in 1960 and an ill-fated Broadway extravaganza in 1989. Now, 60-odd years after he came to town, we have a sudden flurry of Martin on CD. Rhino Handmade has now brought us, finally, the initial release of the Best Foot Forward soundtrack. One listen, and you could become a Martin fan, too. "Wish I May," "Three Men on a Date," "Alive and Kickin'" are all frisky. "The Three B's" is a sly response to Rodgers and Hart's song of the same title from On Your Toes, presumably written at the suggestion of Rodgers and Abbott. Martin and Blane are not talking about Bach, Beethoven and Brahms; rather, the Barrelhouse, the Boogie Woogie and the Blues. "Buckle Down, Winsocki," a football fight song, was the hit of the show. (While Martin and Blane are equally credited on all the songs, this one was by Blane with a rousing arrangement from Martin.) Best of all is "Ev'ry Time," a wonderfully melancholic ballad that holds a permanent place on my list of favorite show tunes.

M-G-M imported most of the youthful Broadway cast for the film. June Allyson and Nancy Walker stayed on in Hollywood; the former became a major star, while the latter — an extremely funny clown in the Bert Lahr tradition — proved too eccentric for the screen. The two of them come across well on the CD, especially in their solos on "The Three B's." (June is on the Barrelhouse, Nancy on the Boogie Woogie, Gloria DeHaven on the Blues.) Harry James and His Music Makers perform half the tracks, including the hot "Three B's" and Walker's "Alive and Kicking"). M-G-M's resident expert Lennie Hayton conducts the rest.

Top-billed on the film — and staring out at us from the CD album cover — is Lucille Ball, who does not sing on the album. (Her solo was dubbed by Gloria Grafton.) Also present, with second billing, is William Gaxton — but in a nonsinging role. Gaxton was perhaps the most important musical comedy leading man of his time; star of three Porter musicals (including Anything Goes), two Gershwin musicals (including Of Thee I Sing), and others by Berlin and Rodgers. Yet it is almost impossible to find any trace of his singing voice.

The folks at Rhino have supplemented Best Foot Forward with four Martin and Blane songs from Abbott & Costello in Hollywood. Here I am, a big Martin fan, and I'd never even heard of these 1945 songs. These are mostly incidental, but "Fun on the Wonderful Midway" — with a Kay Thompson arrangement — is wild.

GOOD NEWS [Rhino RHMT 7763]
Best Foot Forward was one in a long line of Broadway musicals filled with young (and low-paid) performers making believe they were in college. These went back as far as Leave It to Jane in 1917, and maybe further. One of the most famous of these was DeSylva, Brown and Henderson's 1927 smash Good News. The show was quickly filmed as an early M-G-M movie musical, in 1930; so it was only a matter of time before Arthur Freed got around to making a full-color, pull-out-the-all-the stops version in 1947.

Only five of the original songs survived the transfer, although you'll find no complaint in this quarter. Two of them are tops, the ballad "The Best Things in Life Are Free" and one of the dancingest made-up-dance songs ever, "The Varsity Drag." M-G-M supplemented the score with another winner, "Pass That Peace Pipe" — from our friend Hugh Martin, with Roger Edens and Ralph Blane. (This was written in 1946 for Gene Kelly to sing in M-G-M's Ziegfeld Follies, where it went unused.) Edens contributed another amusing number, "The French Lesson," with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

The cast of Good News was headed by June Allyson — who had been launched to stardom by Best Foot Forward — and Peter Lawford. A young Mel Tormé was featured and is very much in evidence on the CD. Like Best Foot Forward, Good News on film (and CD) bears an additional dividend for Broadway fans by giving us glimpses of two once-prominent stage performers who have otherwise all but disappeared from view.

Comedic dancer Joan McCracken catapulted out of the dance corps as The Girl Who Falls Down in the dream ballet of Oklahoma! (1943). Agnes de Mille moved her into the comic lead in Bloomer Girl (1944); George Abbott and Jerome Robbins made her their Billion Dollar Baby (1945). After going to Hollywood for Good News (1947), her career came to a somewhat screeching halt. She did an odd dance revue in 1950 called Dance Me a Song, which lasted a mere 35 performances. One of the other performers in the cast left his wife-and dance-partner to marry McCracken. McCracken got one more Broadway chance, in Abbott and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Me and Juliet (1953). McCracken, famously, recommended her husband for the choreography job in Abbott's upcoming The Pajama Game (1954). Bob Fosse got the job and soon left McCracken, for Gwen Verdon of Damn Yankees (1955). McCracken died in 1961 at the age of 38, but you can get a good idea of what she was about in the Good News film, as she tears up the floor in "Pass That Peace Pipe."

Patricia Marshall had a happier time of it. She was featured in Lerner and Loewe's first two musicals, What's Up (1943) and The Day Before Spring (1945); she got the best song in the latter, "A Jug of Wine." (The discerning George Jean Nathan, in spite of himself, called her "a shapely saucebox who can render a naughty ditty without grinning it gratuitously into any further double meaning.") I can't tell you what Marshall's impact in Day Before Spring was, as it was long before my time; but the cover of the 1945-1946 edition of Theatre World features Marshall along with Barbara Bel Geddes, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster. I would guess that Lerner and Loewe had her in mind for Meg Brockie in Brigadoon, but by that point she was off to Hollywood for Good News. After which she left the business. Marshall turned down the lead in The Pajama Game, although she eventually went in to replace Janis Paige. Her last Broadway appearance was in Mr. Wonderful (1956), after which she left for good to raise a family with husband Larry Gelbart.

DRG has brought us another Hugh Martin score, the new-to-CD soundtrack from the 1957 film The Girl Most Likely. Never heard of it? Me neither, yet here it is. This was a musicalization of the 1941 Garson Kanin film Tom, Dick and Harry (which is a pretty good film, by the way). Girl Most Likely, from the looks of it, is merely odd. Jane Powell and Cliff Robertson starred, with Kaye Ballard and Keith Andes in support. No, none of the songs — mostly novelty numbers — will make you think, ah-ha, what a find; and the one ballad is not so good. But the rest of these songs are fun! "We Gotta Keep up with the Joneses"; "Balboa"; "All the Colors of the Rainbow"; bright, lively, and chipper, with those trademark vocal arrangements that can't help but perk you up. I suppose that this Girl Most Likely CD is only for Hugh Martin fans (and Jane Powell fans). But as a Hugh Martin fan, that's fine with me.

And there is yet another Hugh Martin CD on the way. Grandma Moses was a 1950, Oscar-nominated documentary narrated by Archibald MacLeish. What Hugh Martin was doing on such a project beats me; yet here it comes, in April. DRG has paired Grandma Moses Suite with Blues Opera Suite, compiled from Harold Arlen's 1959 attempt at resuscitating the 1946 musical St. Louis Woman. Martin and Arlen, together again. I can't imagine what Martin's Grandma Moses Suite sounds like, but I — for one — can't wait to hear it.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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