ON THE RECORD: Oh! Captain and Jerry Herman's Parade | Playbill

On the Record ON THE RECORD: Oh! Captain and Jerry Herman's Parade
Reviewed this week: Oh, Captain! and Jerry Herman's Parade

OH CAPTAIN! [DRG 19030] In 1948 and 1949, two Oscar-winning Hollywood songwriters — Jule Styne and Frank Loesser — decided to storm Broadway, with fantastic results. (While they had collaborated in Hollywood, they worked individually in New York.) This, apparently, encouraged the rest of the boys. Burke and Van Heusen, Harry Warren, and Livingston and Evans — among others — all tried it in the following decade; all went back West, licking their wounds.

Jay Livingston (music and lyrics) and Ray Evans (lyrics) met while at the University of Pennsylvania in 1937. Their first break came in 1941, when they started writing material for Olsen and Johnson; one of their songs, "G'bye Now," was added to the long-running Hellzapoppin'. They hit it big in Hollywood 1945, with the title song for the film "To Each His Own." They won their first Oscar in 1948 for "Buttons and Bows," from "The Paleface." They won again in 1950 for "Mona Lisa," from "Captain Carey, U.S.A." They didn't win in 1951 for that Christmas perennial "Silver Bells," but they won once more in 1956 for "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)". And then they came to Broadway.

Oh Captain! was one of those not-very-good musicals that — oddly enough — left behind a highly enjoyable cast recording. Two duets come off best, perhaps: the swinging "You're So Right for Me" and the gentler "You Don't Know Him." But there are at least eight numbers that I find highly enjoyable. This has to do with Livingston's way with a tune, yes, but I think it has more to do with the tip-top orchestrations. Oh Captain! was unique in that it had eight credited orchestrators: Robert Ginzler, Joe Glover, Ray James, Phil Lang, Walter Eiger, Sy Oliver, Cornel Tanassy and Oscar Kosarin.

Other musicals have had multiple orchestrators, of course; we know that Carousel and The Music Man each had at least five. But these shows only credited one fellow on the title page. Oh Captain! listed them all, and I don't know of any similar case in Broadway history. (For the record: Don Walker did much of Carousel, but parts were by Robert Russell Bennett, Joe Glover, Stephen Jones ["You'll Never Walk Alone"] and Hans Spialek ["When the Children Are Asleep"]. On The Music Man, Walker was assisted by Ginzler, Eiger, Sidney Fine and Irv Kostal ["Trouble"].)

We don't know which of the Oh Captain! orchestrators did what, but there are a lot of good charts to go around. Ginzler presumably did "Surprise" and the "Paree/Hey Madame" number; the woodwind parts are surely by the same person who scored "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "Put on a Happy Face" and "Been a Long Day." "Surprise" is a good example of how an orchestrator can make a difference. It is a mild song, all told, but the orchestration really helps it along; so does the arresting vocal arrangement by Jay Blackton, featuring some unusual but provocative harmonies). I would guess that Lang did the Gilbert & Sullivan-like opening number, "A Very Proper Town." I don't know who did "You're So Right for Me" — with its swinging countermelody — or the joyously raucous "Double Standard." Regardless of who did what, these charts make the cast album soar in places. (This first-time-on-CD release uses the tapes from the stereo version of the show, which remained unheard until it was briefly issued on LP in 1977.) Tony Randall starred in the show, which was based on the 1953 Alec Guinness film The Captain's Paradise (and was one of the earlier cases of a decent film transformed into a lousy musical). Randall does very nicely, making it somewhat surprising that he never did another musical. Jacquelyn McKeever does an attractive job as the captain's wife. Eileen Rodgers sings the mistress in place of Abbe Lane, who was under contract to another label. She was replaced in the show not by Rodgers but by Dorothy Lamour; the show folded, embarrassingly, the week that Lamour arrived. (An old time manager once told me an intriguing story about Oh Captain!, the details of which I unfortunately can't remember in their entirety. It had something to do with the producer raising more money, in actuality, than appeared on the partnership papers, somewhat in the fashion of Max Bialystock.)

High-octane support was offered by the remarkable Susan Johnson, a standout as usual despite a grafted-on role and some strange material. (Johnson left The Most Happy Fella to star in The Carefree Heart, which collapsed in Cleveland just before Oh Captain! went into rehearsal.) Also in the cast was Edward Platt, who is better known to us for his TV role as the Chief on Get Smart. Platt, who had worked extensively with director Jose Ferrer, was called in to replace Xavier Cugat (Abbe Lane's husband); he does a surprisingly good job on "You're So Right for Me."

Ferrer was an entertainment powerhouse in the 1950's. After winning an Oscar for "Cyrano de Bergerac" (which he'd first played on Broadway), he directed and produced Stalag 17; directed The Fourposter; and directed, produced and starred in The Shrike — winning five Tonys in the first six years of the Awards. But he had never written or directed a musical. The songwriters, the producer, none of them had done a musical; the only one of the creators with any musical comedy experience was choreographer James Starbuck — and he had been fired from his only show, Fanny. Is it any wonder Oh Captain! went rudderless?

But I love those orchestrations.

PARADE [Decca Broadway 440 064 738]
Devoted musical comedy fans no doubt recall something called Frankly Frank, a 1960 intimate revue. Not just songs but stories, scenes, piano pieces. Frankly Frank went unrecorded, except for its clever Kennedy parody "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" (Shepard-Kringas).

Now wait a minute — there was no Frankly Frank; it, and the Kennedy song, was spun out of Stephen Sondheim's recollections of the Off-Broadway revues of the late fifties for his 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along. This sort of revue — three or four actors, some barstools and a piano player — was commonplace in small theatres and nightclubs at the time.

Most notable, perhaps, were the shows put on by Julius Monk at his Downstairs at the Upstairs (and, later, Upstairs at the Downstairs). Many of Monk's revues — with titles like Pieces of Eight and Dressed to the Nines — were recorded, although they remain difficult to find. These revues include some startlingly good material, although some of its topicality has withered. Sondheim himself contributed a song — "Pour le Sport," written for an unfinished musical — to Take Five, which opened two weeks after West Side Story.

Which brings us, oddly enough, to Jerry Herman. In 1954, at the age of 21, the Jersey City native appeared in the Village with a show full of college material called I Feel Wonderful, which played six weeks at the Theatre de Lys. (This was the show that interrupted the run of The Threepenny Opera, which played a ten-week engagement and then returned for six years after Herman's revue closed.)

Four years later, Herman was playing piano at a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Showplace. Like Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, he convinced the owner to put on an intimate revue written by himself. Nightcap opened for an extended run, eventually attracting a big-time producer from uptown. Well, not big-time, exactly; Larry Kasha was an assistant stage manager from L'il Abner and Whoop-Up. He asked Herman to expand the show and brought the newly-titled Parade to the Players Theatre on January 20, 1960.

Parade — not to be confused with the Jason Robert Brown-Alfred Uhry musical of the same title — didn't cause much of a stir over the course of its 95-performance run. A cast album was made by Kapp Records. Dave Kapp had pioneered the original cast album in 1943 with Oklahoma! for Decca. Kapp's own label had limited success outside of two cast recordings none of the majors wanted: Once upon a Mattress and a little item that turned into a blockbuster, Man of La Mancha. Parade was in the class of neither and quickly hit the cut-out bins. One song, "Jolly Theatrical Season," stands out, although it is understandably dated. Dated in that it refers to the then-current shows on Broadway, circa 1959. ("It may not have run long but Juno's great charm was / That Shirley Booth's son had a hook where his arm was.") This is Herman at his most pointed, lyrically; other than "Bosom Buddies" and "Gooch's Song," I don't know where that he ever again approached this level. The music is a delightful, slightly-syrupy waltz that perfectly fits the macabre subject. (Echoes of the melody can be found in "There's No Reason in the World," a ballad in Herman's 1961 Broadway musical Milk and Honey.) The duet is sung by Parade's nominal star, Dody Goodman, and Charles Nelson Reilly. Reilly — a holdover from Nightcap — is the most interesting presence on the Parade album. He left the show soon after the opening to take a small role in Bye Bye Birdie, followed by important roles in How to Succeed (as Bud Frump) and Herman's Hello, Dolly! (as Cornelius Hackl).

The score's other perky show tune is called "Show Tune." "There is no tune as exciting as a show tune in two-four," it goes. The song is hampered by a bland B section (of ABAC). Herman was canny enough, several years later, to salvage "Show Tune"; with a new lyric and an infinitely stronger B section, it sparked Mame as "It's Today." Parade's Overture includes parts of two songs — not otherwise heard on the cast album — that were recycled into Mack and Mabel, as the refrain of "I Wanna Make the World Laugh" and the verse of "Wherever He Ain't." The cast of five is accompanied by four musicians, led by the composer and Jack Elliott at the pianos. The CD is accompanied by a refreshingly breezy set of liner notes by Peter Filichia.

Herman's cast recordings have now all been transferred to CD. (Two of his shows remain unrecorded, I Feel Wonderful and the 1961 Off Broadway flop Madame Aphrodite.) All told, Parade is a find for Herman fans and a mere curiosity for the rest of us. No, the material has little of the bite or originality of those unlikely-to-appear-on-CD Julius Monk revues. But that, perhaps, is part of the reason that Herman achieved Broadway success while writers of more specialized revue material didn't.

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

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