ON THE RECORD: Flahooley and Maureen McGovern Sings Arlen

News   ON THE RECORD: Flahooley and Maureen McGovern Sings Arlen
This week's column discusses Yip Harburg's unconventional Flahooley and Maureen McGovern's Arlen collection, "Out of This World."

The musical theatre has seen a spate of new-style musicals since 1990 or so; unconventional, modernish and, to some, inaccessible. But there have always been unlikely musicals on and around Broadway. One of them, Flahooley, was not the earliest, nor the oddest. But it opened with a pedigree, from top-name talents, and thus received much attention and an invaluable cast album.

Flahooley was, for almost 40 years, one of the very rarest and most sought after out-of-print show records. It went back into circulation in 1993, when Angel released it on CD. That issue, too, was quickly deleted, and DRG has now — happily — brought back Flahooley. (This new remastering is an improvement over the last, giving us at least some of the colors of Ted Royal's orchestrations.) A strange musical, that's for sure, but one that fans of serious musical theatre ought to be familiar with.

Flahooley was a fantastical tale about a laughing doll (called Flahooley), the big "toycoon" B.G. Bigelow of B.G. Bigelow, Inc. (played by top billed Ernest Truex, who back in 1915 created the title role in the legendary Princess Theatre Show Very Good Eddie), and a genie named Abou. Abou, sprung from a broken magic lantern, rubs his lamp and arranges for the over-production of Flahooley (the doll). When the warehouses collapse, the streets are flooded with free dolls, causing panic in the markets. ("One thing is certain / The market's rotten / The price of cotton / Is down to nottin.'") Which is where E.Y. ("Yip") Harburg, something of a genie himself, comes in.

In collaboration with composers Vernon Duke, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane, Harburg had turned out such gilt-edged songs as "April in Paris," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "Over the Rainbow" (along with the rest of the score for "The Wizard of Oz"), and "Old Devil Moon." On a more personal and ideological note, Harburg also wrote the 1932 Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" for a not-so-patriotic revue entitled Americana. With the fantastical 1947 musical Finian's Rainbow — Harburg's fifth Broadway hit — Yip was at the top of his game. But along came Mr. McCarthy, which meant trouble for Harburg. (A major story line in Finian's Rainbow dealt with the racist Senator Billboard Rawkins, who — courtesy of Og the Leprechaun — was turned into a Gospel singer.)

The blacklist closed those Hollywooden gates to Harburg; he was unable to get studio acceptance for the musical version of "A Star Is Born" (starring his "Wizard of Oz" star, Judy Garland), so the assignment went to his college classmate and biggest booster, Ira Gershwin. Harburg could still work on Broadway, though, and — blacklist or no — Harburg crammed Flahooley with social significance. (And mind you, Yip not only wrote the lyrics but served as co-lyricist, co-director and co-producer.) If this alienated some audience members, Harburg seemed to be saying, that's their problem. As it turned out, it was Harburg's problem, too, with poor Flahooley overwhelmed by social commentary. Here was a toy-filled show, complete with laughing dolls and genies and the Bil Baird puppets; but was Flahooley a kid's show? The result was less of an entertainment and more of a puzzlement, to borrow a word from that spring's hot-ticket competition. "Show me a land where a fella can't laugh / And I'll sell you that land for a buck and a half," they sing in the finale. "Show me a land where they gag every gag / And they choke every joke with chains / And I'll show you a land without Donald Ducks / And a land without Mark Twains." Harburg seemed to go out of his way to prove he wasn't intimidated by the doings in D.C.: "Do you mean there's a country so small-potater / They won't let Flahooley in the the-ayter?"

Harburg's usual composer pals were understandably skittish about the project, and perhaps cautious about working with the outspoken Harburg wearing four hats. For Flahooley, he entered into collaboration with Hollywood tunesmith Sammy Fain. Fain started as a Tin Pan Alley plugger. He was swept away to Hollywood in the early rush of movie musicals, with countless songhits to his credit. He continually returned to Broadway, though, in search of that elusive hit. (His one successful show was the hodgepodge 1938 revue, Hellzapoppin'.) Between Hollywood hits and two Oscars (for "Secret Love" and "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing"), Fain attempted a half-dozen book musicals, all of which were quick failures.

Flahooley, though, displays an intelligent composer at work. Despite unwieldy material from his lyricist, an over-burdened storyline, and despite the interpolation of three of the most unusual numbers ever to appear in a Broadway musical. Yma Sumac was an Incan princess from Peru; or maybe she was just a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus. Whatever. Her voice has been described, by her fans, as that of the birds and the earthquake combined. Her three solos in Flahooley, written by her husband Moises Vivanco, are quite something.

Fain provides some very nice work. "Who Says There Ain't No Santa Claus" is buoyant and charming, a fine companion to other Broadway-Jewish Christmas songs like "We Need a Little Christmas" and "Be a Santa" (to say nothing of Irving's "White Christmas" and Jule & Sammy's "Let It Snow"). "Here's to Your Illusions" is a lovely ballad, while "The Springtime Cometh" (sung by "Professor" Irwin Corey, who is slated to return Broadway in April at the age of 89) is an admirable counterpoint to Finian's "Something Sort of Grandish." The ensemble numbers — the sparkling opening "You, Too, Can Be a Puppet," "B.G. Bigelow, Inc.", "Flahooley," and "Jump Little Chillun'" are each and every one fascinating.

One of the most striking elements of the Flahooley CD is the arresting, bell-like voice of the 23-year-old ingenue. Now, there's a singer, you might well think. Barbara Cook was, and is, her name, and she brightens up the proceedings considerably.

Strange, this Flahooley; but unique among the annals of Broadway, and well worth your acquaintance.

Maureen McGovern Sings Arlen: Out of This World [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 196 2]
Fynsworth Alley has reissued Maureen McGovern's 1996 collection of songs by Harold Arlen. This might seem rather soon to reissue an album of this sort, even with the addition of two so-called bonus tracks. But the collection is new to me, anyway, and the newly recorded bonus tracks are wonderful. So count this as a definite recommendation.

This despite a couple of arrangements — on the first two tracks, no less — that were almost enough to make me shut the thing off. I suppose they were trying to help make Arlen sound contemporary, but Harold don't need no help. The rest of the album is so good that I'll give them a pass.

"Ac-cent-u-ate the Positive," "Get Happy," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "A Sleepin' Bee," "Right as the Rain," "The Man That Got Away," "Stormy Weather," "Blues in the Night." I suppose there are some people out there who are unfamiliar with Arlen — not the songs, but the man. This collection, which with 15 tracks can only touch on his catalogue, will give you an idea. (And why oh why doesn't someone reissue that amazing late-'50s Capitol LP of Harold singing Arlen?)

The new tracks referred to are "Optimistic Voices" — you know, "We're out of the woods, we're out of the dark, we're out of the night" — in a moving rendition, and the title tune from the 1934 film "Let's Fall in Love." This little-known, early song is one of many half-remembered Arlen gems. McGovern and arranger-pianist Jeff Harris slow the tempo, giving the song more resonance than expected (helped along by cellist Trevor Handy). Very nice. Also from that era is the ever-so-breezy "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block," which teamed Harold with two of his most important lyricists, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg.

This Arlen writeup is as good a place as any to mark the death of Edward Jablonski on February 10. Jablonski's importance to those of us who care about America's great songwriters stems not from his place as close friend of Harold and Ira and Irving, or as their biographer, but from his place as the trusted confidant of these masters (each of whom withdrew into decades long silence). In a field filled with people who wrote (and write) at length about what these folks did and meant and etc. and etc, Ed could always be looked to for the correct and true answers.

As one of those people who write about Harold and Ira and Irving, Ed graciously answered my questions, shared his insights (and his archives), and took time to appraise my work. Arlen was too ill to be interviewed when I wrote my first book, but Ed filled in for him. And Ed went out of his way to tell me that when Arlen died in 1986, he found the then-new first edition of "Show Tunes" — open to the Arlen section — on Harold's night table. Ed was one of our last links to Gershwin and Arlen, and I'll miss him. AND IN RESPONSE TO OUR LAST COLUMN
I wondered in my review of the new two-CD set studio recording of Sherry! [Angel 7243 5 33787 0 6] just why — given that the original "lost" orchestrations were miraculously discovered intact at the Library of Congress — the recording featured charts from nine different orchestrators, with well more than half of them newly written for the recording.

The answer is complicated — obviously — but stems back to 1967. Sherry! had many major problems during its tryout. One of them, which was relatively minor, was the temporary indisposition of orchestrator Larry Wilcox. Temporary, yes, but when new songs are being added to a show in trouble, an orchestrator needs to be in attendance. Clare Grundman, Jack Andrews and, apparently, composer Laurence Rosenthal filled in during the Boston tryout, after which Phil Lang was rushed in to redo most of the show.

This left authors Rosenthal and James Lipton and producer Robert Sher with a jumble of charts, including different versions of some numbers. Hence, the inclusion of four from Lang, three from Rosenthal and single charts from Wilcox, Grundman and Andrews. The other songs, for various reasons, were newly orchestrated mostly by Allyn Ferguson. As is not uncommon with enterprises of this sort, the authors — apparently still smarting over enforced rewrites — chose to revert to some of their original pre-Broadway material, which was cut from the score before Lang came along.

Whatever the case, we should all be glad to have this incredibly interesting if-flawed musical. Producer Sher is working on two more lost musicals from this period, Michael Leonard and Herbert Martin's The Yearling (1965) and Richard Adler's A Mother's Kisses (1968). The latter score I am mostly unfamiliar with, but the poor forlorn Yearling has a moving, serious score containing at least two of the best theatre songs of its period (namely "I'm All Smiles" and "Ev'rything in the World"). Which makes me look forward to finally hearing a full recording of The Yearling.

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

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