ON THE RECORD: Leigh's Witch Craft and Flaherty's Voices

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Leigh's Witch Craft and Flaherty's Voices
WITCH CRAFT: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh (Harbinger HCD 1702)
"Witch Craft" might well have been just another one of those pleasant-but-expendable cabaret acts captured on disc. Sara Zahn very cleverly built the act around the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, which makes this song collection unlike other song collections.

WITCH CRAFT: The Songs of Carolyn Leigh (Harbinger HCD 1702)
"Witch Craft" might well have been just another one of those pleasant-but-expendable cabaret acts captured on disc. Sara Zahn very cleverly built the act around the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, which makes this song collection unlike other song collections.

The highly accomplished but underappreciated Leigh (1926-1983) is best known as Cy Coleman's collaborator on his early shows and a handful of pop hits. But Coleman is represented on only half the songs; the others, intriguingly, come from the likes of Jule Styne, Marvin Hamlisch, Morton Gould, and even Harold Arlen. Thus, "Witch Craft" is of more than passing interest to musical theatre fans. Who, you might well ask, was Carolyn Leigh? Her 1953 juke box hit "Young at Heart" (music by Johnny Richards) -- which begins with that glorious phrase "Fairy tales can come true, it could happen to you" -- so impressed Mary Martin that she hired Leigh to write the lyrics for the 1954 Peter Pan. Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins eventually called in Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne to fix the score, but half of the original songs (by Leigh and composer Mark Charlap) were good enough to retain. Peter Pan was to be Leigh's only successful show -- it's on Broadway once again, at the moment -- and Leigh's work is remembered every time some little kid somewhere sings "Tender Shepherd," "I've Gotta Crow," "I'm Flying," or "I Won't Grow Up" (none of which are on this recording).

Leigh and jazz composer Cy Coleman paired in 1957 to turn out pop hits like "Witchcraft" and the musically remarkable "The Best Is Yet to Come" (which I consider Coleman's finest song, with its sinuous melody and shifting keys). Coleman and Leigh were commissioned by Lucille Ball in 1960 to write the score for her first, and last, Broadway musical, the unfortunate Wildcat (featuring the rousing "Hey, Look Me Over!", which is also not on this recording). This led to a far more important assignment, on a first-class, seemingly surefire hit. The 1962 Little Me had a lot going for it, including an hysterically slapdash book by the not-yet-renowned TV writer Neil Simon. (Unlikely as it may seem, Simon and Leigh had collaborated on a 1955 television musicalization of "Heidi," starring Natalie Wood.) Leigh came up with one of Broadway's funniest sets of comedy lyrics for Little Me, joke-filled and wildly inventive. The show was problematic, though, as was demonstrated by last season's mediocre revival; and Leigh's nonpersonable personality quickly caused her career to self-destruct.

Specifically, Little Me's Bob Fosse invited Coleman to write the next Gwen Verdon vehicle, the 1966 Sweet Charity -- but without Leigh. Dorothy Fields (from the 1958 Fosse/Verdon Redhead) became Coleman's new collaborator, and Leigh was pretty much washed up on Broadway. Only one of her post-Coleman shows made it to town, the gimmicky 1967 musical How Now, Dow Jones (which, to be sure, contained some deft lyrics). Leigh kept working until her death in 1983 with no success -- but the inclusion of songs from these projects, as well as a number of intriguing cut songs, make the "Witch Craft" album worth your while.

There are two interesting Little Me songs: "Smart People Stay Single" (cut from the original) and "I Wanna Be Yours" (used in the unsuccessful 1982 revival). The Arlen piece is entitled "Bad for Each Other" (which might well describe Leigh's collaborative process); the Styne opus is the fairly nice "Killing Time." "Bouncing Back for More" was heard, briefly, in the Jerry Lewis Hellzapoppin which closed out of town in 1976. (Leigh collaborated with Styne on this show. The song was written with Coleman, though, cut from Wildcat in favor of "Hey, Look Me Over.") There are three rather nice songs composed by Lee Pockriss: "What Is Love?" (which is unfortunately split apart in a medley), the touching "When Jeremiah Can Be with Me," and "Sooner or Later," a Daisy Buchanan song from an unproduced "Great Gatsby." (Pockriss had even worse luck than Leigh, reaching Broadway only once, in 1963, with the Vivien Leigh vehicle, Tovarich.)

Most interesting of all, perhaps, are "Nightlife in Santa Rosa" and especially the yearning "Six O'Clock News" from Smile. The Hamlisch/Leigh version of this show, with staging by Graciela Daniele, died after a 1983 workshop production. Hamlisch later rewrote the score with lyricist Howard Ashman, who also provided a new book and directed; this latter version made it to Broadway in 1986, but only for six weeks.

Cabaret singer Sara Zahn smoothly manages to follow lyricist Leigh as the songs go from tender to comic to downright racy. She is supported by Lewis Cleale, dueting on two tracks.

I've reviewed several "new" musicals in the last few columns, and let me tell you: it's a pleasure to listen to a skilled and professional lyricist at work. Leigh wasn't one of the greats, certainly, her self-sabotaged career was far too curtailed for such consideration; but she had a fine facility with words, a sharp sense of humor, and the ability to be tender as well -- as demonstrated by this album, which ends with the words "and here is the best part, you have a head start, if you are among the very young at heart."

A SPLASH OF POPS (RCA 09026-63516)
Having considerable respect for the work of composer Stephen Flaherty (of Ragtime), I looked forward to hearing "With Voices Raised." This "composition for orchestra, mixed chorus, and speakers" has lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, incorporating "freedom" quotes from politicians, abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights protesters, and even Walt Whitman. It was given its premiere this past May by the Boston Pops, which commissioned it.

"With Voices Raised" turns out to be a ten-minute oratorio of sorts, and I'm afraid it is more functional than inspired. Jason Danieley sings the lead, supported by an octet of Flaherty-Ahrens veterans including Judy Kaye and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart once tried one of these hybrid concert pieces, too. "All Points West," a so-called "symphonic narrative," was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 (with Ray Middleton as soloist) and quickly forgotten. Which might well be the fate of "With Voices Raised."

Rodgers springs to mind because this Boston Pops disc also contains a fine reading of the Overture to State Fair, well orchestrated by the great Sid Ramin (and previously recorded on John Mauceri's 1992 disc "Rodgers & Hammerstein: Complete Overtures"). The album is capped by a stirring rendition of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," complete with clanging church bells and bombarding cannons. (Did you ever wonder how this work -- which celebrates Russia's military rout of the French Army - was able to retain its American popularity during the Cold War?) The booklet is also amusingly designed, with a young fellow in a tux -- presumably conductor Keith Lockhart -- appearing to do a jumping jack as he splashes into a pool on the front, and, garbed in a flowered shirt, being kissed by a plastic fish on the back.

THIS JUST IN: At long last, the long-promised Promises, Promises and Sugar have finally arrived. (The official release date is August 3, from Rykodisc/MGM.) I'll discuss them in the next column.

-- 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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