ON THE RECORD: Mary and Bob and Maureen O'Hara

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Mary and Bob and Maureen O'Hara
Sammy Fain (1902-1989) was one of those New York composers who found fame and fortune in far-off Hollywood. He provided occasional contributions to Broadway shows in the thirties and early forties, the most significant being "I'll Be Seeing You" and "I Can Dream, Can't I" (with lyrics by Irving Kahal) forRight This Way in 1938. Fain was best known for his film and pop work, which included two Oscar winners in three years, "Secret Love" (from the film musical "Calamity Jane") and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" from the movie of the same name. Paul Francis Webster was lyricist on both.

Sammy Fain (1902-1989) was one of those New York composers who found fame and fortune in far-off Hollywood. He provided occasional contributions to Broadway shows in the thirties and early forties, the most significant being "I'll Be Seeing You" and "I Can Dream, Can't I" (with lyrics by Irving Kahal) forRight This Way in 1938. Fain was best known for his film and pop work, which included two Oscar winners in three years, "Secret Love" (from the film musical "Calamity Jane") and "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" from the movie of the same name. Paul Francis Webster was lyricist on both.

Musical theatre fans might be surprised to learn that during the so-called Golden Age of Musical Comedy (from 1943 through 1964), Fain returned to Broadway with five book musicals. All quick failures, mind you, and only one with any distinction. Toplitzky of Notre Dame (1947) was a football yarn, from which Vivienne Segal bailed during the tryout; Flahooley (1951) was a fascinating idea that didn't pan out, with a set of Harburg lyrics that make it well worth listening to; Ankles Aweigh (1955) was a low-comedy musical with some poor-but-flavorful songs; and Something More (1964) was a true mess, obscuring a couple of extremely tuneful songs that turn out to have been ghosted by Jule Styne. (Styne directedSomething More, which gives you an idea.)

Fain's other musical, and the reason for this discussion, wasThe King and I Goes to India. Wait! That wasn't the title, was it? No, they called it Christine. It opened on April 28, 1960, and closed after 12 performances. Hollywood lovely Maureen O'Hara was the star, while Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck served as librettist.

You might think that O'Hara would be more out of place in a musical, but she did a whole lot better than Buck. The script was right out of Oscar Hammerstein's notebook. (Hammerstein was a friend and neighbor of Buck.) Dignified English lady — Irish lady, actually — travels to exotic India, falls in love with a doctor, but theirs is an impossible romance because they come from different worlds. There are cute kids underfoot, in native garb. (They sing songs about UNICEF, explaining that "As far as we're concerned they can stick us almost anywhere / But the part that sits down on the couch / Not the part that sits down on the couch / Ouch!" There is a Lady Thiang character who explains to the heroine that the doctor loves her and that's something wonderful, even though said native lady herself is in love with this selfsame doctor. There's even a song about lost love that begins with the lyric "When I think of Maryanne, I think of many things."

Buck and her co-librettist Charles K. Peck, Jr. have a trick up their sleeves, though; the flame-haired heroine not only falls in love with the doctor, she's his mother-in-law, too. Talk about forbidden love. This show was so bad, all in all, that it opened on Broadway with no director credited — a sure sign of disaster. (The album cover lists Jerome Chodorov as the guilty party.) But lyricist Webster was the worst culprit. "I have been taught that science is the alpha and omega, and the key that opens many doors," sings the hero. He goes on to ask "Where is that medicine for sorrow? / The pill to still the torment of tomorrow." The fellow is overwrought, I tell you. "Somehow I feel that I'm an ant among giants / With all my science, with all my science / What medicine for melancholy now?" What medicine, indeed? As if that's not enough, he goes on to say that his father said to me, son, "The lute that plays the loveliest of music / Is hollowed out with knives / And so are human lives / The well of happiness that you possess / You learn is watered with your tears." This doesn't rhyme, and I guess we can be glad for that.

"Green am I / Betwixt and between am I," sings the heroine. Once lovestruck, she changes her tune to "Ding, dong, ding-dong the merry-o / When will those bells really start?" The hero, meanwhile, counters with "Love has planted a seed / That soon will bloom into a flower" (all, seemingly, on one breath). Still, he is euphoric. "When I am holding you / Anyplace is / Like a cool oasis," goes the title song, which is not the title song forHigh Noon but starts out like it's gonna be. A baritone called Morley Meredith sings the male lead. He introduced "Joey, Joey, Joey" in The Most Happy Fella until he was fired in Boston. I suppose he wished he was fired in Philadelphia from Christine. Oh, and there's a song called "The Lovely Girls of Akbarabad" that is seemingly set in a harem full of belly dancers, overfilled with the sounds of chorus boys grunting. I could go on like this for pages, because the lyricist goes on like this for 51 minutes. But I won't.

There are a few — very few — things that aren't totally awful. That ballad about seeds and flowers has a rich melody that will make you think you're in a far better musical. "I Never Meant to Fall in Love" is the title, and it has a lush "Song of India" sound to it. So does "He Loves Her," the "Something Wonderful"-"Love Look Away" song. Nancy Andrews adds pep to the comedy numbers, playing a role very much like the one she played in Plain and Fancy. (I dread to imagine what Andrews must have looked like in make up.) Finally, the music itself sounds wonderfully crisp and clear. Jay Blackton is at the podium, with Philip J. Lang doing an uncharacteristically colorful job of orchestration. The style here might be described as Hollywood on the Ganges; pure Broadway, enlivened with fluttering flutes and rasping brass and finger cymbals galore. The comedy songs are especially well handled. For example, listen to the fills in "How to Pick a Man a Wife"; if you bother to get this CD, that is.

TheChristine LP quickly went out of print upon its original release in 1960, and is now suddenly — and surprisingly — available on CD. You might ask, who on earth would possibly want an album like this? Me. I would. Definitely. It's fun. Not so much fun asWhoop-Up, say, or Donnybrook or Fain's Ankles Aweigh; but Christine is unique in its own inane way. That's a qualified recommendation or a dire warning, take your pick.

DRG has also reissued the 1964 Robert Preston vehicle Ben Franklin in Paris (which unlike Christine has previously appeared on CD). Some "bad" scores are interesting to listen to, likeChristine; Ben Franklin is neither as bad nor as interesting. The score, from Mark Sandrich Jr. — son of the fellow who directed all those Fred Astaire musicals at RKO — and Sidney Michaels, is on the dreary side of pedestrian.

There is one fine song, "To Be Alone with You." This accompanied a scene in which Preston and his co-star Ulla Sallert were riding in a hot air balloon over the rooftops of Paris, and the lilting melody feels like it's being blown along on the breeze. The song was written during the troubled pre-Broadway tryout by Jerry Herman, one of two from his hand; the other, for the record, was "Too Charming." "To Be Alone with You" is one of Herman's loveliest ballads. (Ben Franklin was one of three major musicals within a 13 month period to have multiple uncredited contributions from top Broadway songwriters.) Herman was properly credited in the extensive liner notes for Ben Franklin's 1993 CD (on Angel), but his name is nowhere to be found on the new release. This is presumably because DRG reprinted lyricist librettist Sidney Michaels's notes from the original Capitol LP — and Michaels wasn't about to raise the issue.

In discussing Christine, I mentioned Phil Lang's uncharacteristically colorful orchestrations. Ben Franklin is more characteristic of his usual style; professional, functional, but without the aural excitement of other failed musicals of the year (likeGolden Boy,Do I Hear a Waltz? or Flora the Red Menace).

When Goddard Lieberson set about establishing Columbia Records as a force in the musical theatre in the late 1940's, the old Decca label had a seemingly insurmountable advantage: A catalogue that included just about every important original cast album since they had gambled on Oklahoma! in 1943. Lieberson quickly signed up three important shows — Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty (which turned out to be a turkey), and Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific — and set to work.

Conductor Lehman Engel was an old friend; Lieberson had lived in Engel's living room when he first arrived in New York. The pair came up with a plan to establish Columbia as the label of Broadway: Make a series of recordings of hit musicals from the pre-Oklahoma! era. The original plan included the participation ofSouth Pacific star Mary Martin, who did four of the first albums. Lieberson and Engel realized soon enough that using one star to sing all of the hit songs was a problem, resulting in non-theatrical presentations of the scores. They quickly shifted focus, and theirPal Joey — featuring original cast star Vivienne Segal and Kiss, Me Kate's Harold Lang — directly resulted in that show's successful 1952 revival. The studio cast album series encompassed 14 titles made from 1950-1957, by which point Decca's Broadway presence was drastically diminished and Columbia was the leader in the field.

The series started with twin albums of Martin singing songs from Porter's 1934 musical comedyAnything Goes and the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz 1931 revueThe Bandwagon. The two have been released for the first time on CD, combined on one disc. Anything Goes is problematic. While this was the first extensive recording of the score (six songs plus overture and finale), by now we have heard this score in fuller and far more satisfying versions. The Bandwagon, though, is a different matter. Many readers are no doubt familiar with the 1953 motion picture, which shares one of the show's original stars Fred Astaire, three songs, and the title (rephrased as The Band Wagon). The original score, though, is little known nowadays — and it's quite wonderful. The haunting "Dancing in the Dark" is the only still familiar classic, and it should be; it's one of the finest show tunes ever. "High and Low" is a nice ballad, and one that I didn't realize I like as much as I do; I've been singing it since I put on this CD. (The severely underappreciated Schwartz built the melody on tones that are — well —high and low, while Dietz constructed a fine lyric of opposites.) "New Sun in the Sky" is sprightly, while two dandy tunes have a strong Continental feeling to them. "Hoops" has the feel of an oom-pah band in a Munich beer garden, while "I Love Louisa" places you beside a hurdy-gurdy in the Jardin du Luxembourg. There was a reason for this: Both numbers built into dance specialties for stars Adele and Fred Astaire, designed to allow them to do their trademarked "run-around" step on The Bandwagon's innovative revolving stage.

I have always been fond of the show's opening number. In "It Better Be Good" the chorus warns: "I haven't liked a show since Lord knows when / And even if it's good, I might not like it then." There's also a delightful naughty-but nice number called "Confession," in which the singer confesses that "I never had a taste for wine / Oh, isn't that a sin? / I never had a taste for wine / For wine can't compare with gin." (Pianist John Lesko does an especially nice job here.) Seeing as how we quoted all those Christine lyrics above, let's give Mr. Dietz the last word: "I always go to bed at ten / Oh, isn't that a bore? / I always go to bed at ten / But I go home at four." This is a nifty choice for cabaret or audition purposes, by the way.

With one voice — Martin's — singing most of the songs, it was impractical to use original orchestrations. Anything Goes andThe Bandwagon were newly arranged and orchestrated by Ted Royal, who was hot at the time with Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon andWhere's Charley?. (He had also been an uncredited ghost on shows like Pal Joey andBloomer Girl.) Royal was third in prominence in the field at the time, with Russell Bennett and Don Walker in the top slots, but his career ground to a halt after problems on The Boy Friend and House of Flowers. Given the non-theatrical trappings, his work here is quite enjoyable. Not mere hackwork, but filled with nice touches and deftly intricate passages.

There's little to get excited about in the eight Anything Goes tracks for anyone other than the most devoted Mary Martin fans. The ten tracks from The Bandwagon, though, make this CD of keen interest to people looking for good show tunes. Revues are understandably problematic for concert version presentation, but The Bandwagon features sketches from George S. Kaufman at the height of his art. So it might be worth a look.

The liner notes include a wonderful photo of Mary backed by a trellis, looking out on the rooftops of midtown. (Taken from her apartment at River House, I'd guess.) There is also a bonus track that really is quite amusing: Martin performing "You're Just in Love" fromCall Me Madam. The male part is sung by 19-year-old Larry Hagman. ("That's mah boy!" she crows.) Hagman does all right, although he's no John Raitt. When he cuts off the final phrase of his refrain ("I wonder why") after one brief beat instead of holding it for eight as written, Mary chirps "Take a bigger breath next time, sonny."

—Steven Suskin is the author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.

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