ON THE RECORD: Encores for Ziegfeld Follies of 1936

News   ON THE RECORD: Encores for Ziegfeld Follies of 1936
ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936 Decca Broadway 440 016 056
If you've always wanted to hear just what one of Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies sounded like, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 will not answer that question. Ziegfeld cared about his girls and his costumes and his scenery and his comics. He left the song selection to assistants, with the result that a single musical like Show Boat had more "good" songs than his twenty-two editions of the Follies combined.

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936 Decca Broadway 440 016 056
If you've always wanted to hear just what one of Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies sounded like, Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 will not answer that question. Ziegfeld cared about his girls and his costumes and his scenery and his comics. He left the song selection to assistants, with the result that a single musical like Show Boat had more "good" songs than his twenty-two editions of the Follies combined.

Ziegfeld died, severely in debt, in 1932. The Brothers Shubert had long produced their own, relatively crass revues; now, they prevailed on Billie Burke Ziegfeld to allow them to use the Ziegfeld name (for a fee). A number of songwriters were enlisted, although by the time the dust settled, the team of Vernon Duke and E. Y. Harburg were the principal contributors. Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 was a hit, although Duke and Harburg had a severe falling out during the tryout.

The Shuberts followed this with a second Harburg revue in 1934. The lyricist chose composer Harold Arlen in place of Duke, as well as enlisting Ira Gershwin as co-lyricist. Life Begins at 8:40 was another hit (and one that demands restoration, by the way). The Shuberts then asked Gershwin for a revue to replace the Follies of 1934 — one for which Gershwin would serve as sketch writer and idea man as well as co lyricist with Harburg. Arlen was unavailable, so Ira chose George's pal Duke as composer. Harburg opted out.

Duke was one of the more remarkable Broadway composers of his time, and one of the few people who was a drop-in-for-the-weekend pal at both the Gershwins and the Prokofievs. A White Russian piano prodigy, he was a fourteen-year-old student at the Kiev Conservatory when the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 sent his family fleeing. He landed in New York in 1921, playing piano in gypsy tearooms for a living. George Gershwin, who was five years older, was impressed by Duke's wild musicality and took him under his wing. (It was George, sometime later, who chose the name Vernon Duke to replace Vladimir Dukelsky.) George got Duke work as an arranger (and sometime ghostwriter); Duke, in fact, arranged the solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue that is still in use. The money earned therefrom sent Duke to Paris in 1925, where the twenty-one year old was discovered by Diaghilev and commissioned to write a ballet for the Ballet Russe. He spent several years in London, interpolating songs to revues and musicals, and by the end of the decade he was back in America. He made his Broadway debut in 1930, collaborating with Ira and Harburg; his first songhit, "April in Paris" (with Harburg), came in 1932.

Ira and Duke set to work on the score for Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 in the summer of 1935. George was busy orchestrating Porgy and Bess; they all took a house together at Ocean Beach on Fire Island. (This was way off the beaten track at the time, but it was the summer home of Fanny Brice, star of the 1934 and 1936 Follies.) The second Shubert-Ziegfeld Follies — starring Brice, Bob Hope, Eve Arden, Gertrude Niesen, and Josephine Baker — was yet another hit. This was to be the only show for the Duke-Gershwin team. Duke helped finish the final Gershwin film score following George's death in 1937, after which he managed to say something that alienated Ira forever. (The publicity photo of Duke and Ira in the liner notes is telling; Duke sits at George's piano in George's penthouse, with a copy of George's Concerto in F on the rack.) But enough of this history. City Center Encores! presented a concert version of the revue in 1999. Is the CD any good? Yes, it sure is. Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 did not work so well on the City Center stage. The musical part of the evening was intriguing, but the dated nature of the topical material resulted in the actors pushing. This resulted in making the material seem even more humorless, which resulted in the actors pushing even more, and you can guess the result. The CD sticks to the score — the only reason to revisit this show — and it makes quite a treat.

Duke was more advanced musically than anyone who has written extensively for Broadway. (Bernstein was a distant second.) The music was complex, but complexity has never counted for much along Broadway. Duke dressed his songs in intriguing harmonies and colors, which gives them their emotional pull, but he knew how to write a strong melody. Think of "Taking a Chance at Love," one of his more popular works; for all Duke's musical complexities, the melody is simply unstoppable.

The Follies overture starts things off handily, making this sound like the happiest musical hit of the thirties. (The show was orchestrated by Hans Spialek, Robert Russell Bennett, Conrad Salinger, and newcomer Don Walker, although archivists are unable to determine who did what. The overture was no doubt a combined job pieced together from the song orchestrations, but the exciting introduction and closing bear a striking similarity to the overture for On Your Toes - the next Broadway musical to follow the Follies, two months later — and thus seems like it's probably by Spialek.)

The most stunning spot is "Words without Music," a stormy torch song. Ruthie Henshall sings it in a smoke-tinged voice, and she is absolutely marvelous. She has made a couple of Broadway visits since this stint — most visibly in Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together — but we have yet to see her tear up the stage like she did at Encores! "Five A.M." is another striking number, one that had been lost for sixty years before this restoration. Stephanie Pope does a fine job on the song, which was introduced by Josephine Baker. The CD preserves the ballet music for both these songs; and these are not mere Broadway dance arrangements, but the real stuff. (Duke convinced the Shuberts to hire fellow émigré and Ballet Russe pal George Balanchine to choreograph the show's ballets. This was Balanchine's first important job in the States, and the first of four Duke/Balanchine Broadway collaborations.)

The only still-familiar song from the show was "I Can't Get Started," as felicitous a melody as you'd want to hear (set to an endlessly entertaining Gershwin lyric). It skips along effortlessly, sounding like some chromaticisized songbird made it up while hopping around looking for lazy worms. Bob Hope introduced the song in 1936; Peter Scolari sings it here, with just the right light-hearted touch. "Island in the West Indies" is another winner, a wild rumba for Josephine Baker that seems to pay homage to George's Cuban Overture. Christine Ebersole delivers it with flair, making way for a torrid dance from the Coffee Club Orchestra.

The score is filled out with pop tunes, but what infectiously entertaining ones they are. "That Moment of Moments" is one of those boy-and-girl-in love duets, but Duke's off-beat emphasis — and the ascending scale in the bridge that gives way to a falling octave — keep our interest. It's especially well performed by Ms. Henshall — in a happier mood than in her other solo — and Howard McGillin, who sparks the recording throughout with his enthusiastic take on the typical tenor who brings on the girls. "My Red-Letter Day" is similarly a joy, light-as-air and practically tipsy. Karen Ziemba and the Walton brothers — Bob and Jim — give close harmony renditions of this and their other spot, with highly appealing results. Mary Testa has a harder time of it, and through no fault of her own; the Fanny Brice material, mostly, seems pretty mirthless. Would Brice, herself, be funny today? Maybe if you had Barbra Streisand. . . .

There is also a nonsense song called "The Gazooka," a take off on all those dance-craze songs of the time (like "The Continental," "The Carioca," and "The Piccolino"). The instructions, from Mr. Gershwin: "First you take a step, and then you take another, and then you take another, and then you take" etc. Ira also informs us that "sweet and sloppy, it's thirty cents a copy." This is set to as incessantly perky a tune as you could ask for, something you might find yourself whistling as you walk down the street despite the fact that it is meant to be innocuous.

The score shows Ira Gershwin at his most playful, with a far droller touch than in the more familiar song-hits written with George. This is a fellow who likes nothing more than to structure sentences like "A pox on girls who are merely pulchritudinus / Who keep arousing only the animal and the lewd in us." There is also a Fanny Brice spot for one of those modernistic dancers of the time, who complains "I'm interpreting the rhythm of the masses / I crawl around the stage / Interpreting the age / But the masses they won't even come on passes."

The music department does an exceptional job, with Rob Fisher whipping up excitement at the podium. Fisher also wrote the nifty vocal arrangements, as well as co-producing the recording with John McClure and Mark Trent Goldberg. Goldberg did the reconstruction, Steven D. Bowen restored the orchestrations, and Russell Warner did additional orchestrations as necessary. There's also some notable piano playing on this disc, although with two pianists listed — Leslie Stifelman and Joseph Thalken — it's hard to credit the responsible party.

Gershwin and Duke, and Rob Fisher and the orchestrators, and Ruthie Henshall and McGillin and the rest, combine to make Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 well worth the 65-year wait.


For those of you who need complete song information at your fingertips and damn the expense, Ken Bloom's American Song: The Complete Companion to Tin Pan Alley Song is indispensable. Bloom has selected 164 songwriters — both composers and lyricists — and presents "complete" song information; everything they wrote, be it for stage, screen, or the pop field. If you've ever tried to find a complete list of the works of Johnny Mercer or Jule Styne or Frank Loesser or Hoagy Carmichael, you know how impossible it has been heretofore to get this information.

Many Broadway composers are included, though a few very familiar names are missing; Bloom has restricted his work to people with at least five standards to their credit, and since 1964 the number of standards from Broadway has dwindled down to a precious few. (This set weighs twelve pounds as it is.) It is invaluable for serious fans of theatre composers, though, as it guides you not only to their show tunes but to their non theatre work as well.

The material is as complete and accurate as possible; the vast majority of this information has never before been catalogued. As someone who has done "complete" catalogues of five of these songwriters, I am well aware that "new" old things inevitably (and happily) continue to turn up. There is an alphabetical song index which is probably the finest key to who-wrote that that you will find. The songs are also indexed chronologically and by collaborator.

This two-volume, 2,023-page compendium is officially labeled Volumes 3 and 4 of the American Song series; volumes 1 and 2, The Complete Musical Theatre Companion, was published in 1996. The new publication stands alone, though; the vast majority of the songs here are not theatre-related, and thus don't appear in the earlier books. It is for a limited market, certainly; it will set you back more than the cost of two orchestra seats to Mamma Mia, but you might well find it far more flavorful.

Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "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.

Today’s Most Popular News: