ON THE RECORD: “The Maury Yeston Songbook” and Plain and Fancy

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: “The Maury Yeston Songbook” and Plain and Fancy
A discussion of a new CD spotlighting the works of Maury Yeston and the cast recording of Plain and Fancy, starring Barbara Cook.
CD cover for
CD cover for

The trouble with anthologies of songs by composers of Broadway musicals is that fans of said composers are forced to compare the anthologized performances with those of beloved original cast albums. What can one expect from “The Maury Yeston Songbook” anyway, besides a handful of songs from Nine (the superb original cast recording of which is being enhanced and reissued in May)? Why do we need, or why would we want, a “Maury Yeston Songbook”?

That was my reaction, at least until midway through the third track of the recording. From there on in, and throughout a half -dozen additional listenings, such unhappy ruminations have vanished. “The Maury Yeston Songbook” is most welcome, with almost every one of its 20 entries making us lift our ears in appreciation.

We have by this point come to expect this type of listening experience from Tommy Krasker, who produced this album with John McDaniel. Krasker has a special link with the material; a student of Yeston's at Yale, Krasker's first Broadway job was as rehearsal pianist and assistant-to Maury on Nine. As is usual on Krasker's albums for Nonesuch and ps classics, the material is carefully selected; the songs are assigned to some of the best-acting singers of the day; and the band is stocked with expert Broadway musicians.

Yes, the original cast interpretations of those five songs from Nine are impossible to get out of your ears. But Nine — the musical, on stage — had different performing needs. As much as I like Brent Barrett on stage, I don't know that he would be an asset to a production of Nine. But let him sing "Only with You" and you've heard the song sung, in a way that the memorable Raul Julia couldn't. Alice Ripley, too, gives us a very different, and highly effective "Call from the Vatican"; sexy and funny, without having to deal with the acrobatics of Anita Morris's original stage interpretation. Liz Callaway can stand before the microphone and give us a clear and unembellished "Simple," while Brian d'Arcy James gives us a different interpretation of "Unusual Way" that gets to the heart of the song.

Yeston has written more than Nine, of course, but much of the material on this disc will presumably be unfamiliar to many listeners. There are lone songs from both Titanic and Grand Hotel, both of which come across splendidly. Howard McGillin sings the haunting waltz "No Moon," the simple presentation of which accentuates its severe beauty. Sutton Foster, on the other hand, gives a dynamite rendition of "I Want to Go to Hollywood." (And no, I was not one of those people who waxed exuberant about her performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie — although I suspect that after a few months in the role, she was able to replace gritty determination with smooth assurance.) There are three songs from the overlooked and unrecorded musical In the Beginning, including the stunning father-to-child song "New Words" (which rightfully made it to Stephen Sondheim's little list). There are also two songs from Yeston's version of Phantom, including the rhapsodic "Home." Laura Benanti and Robert Cuccioli do a splendid job; this number — with Tunick's original orchestration — absolutely soars, managing to drive "Stout Hearted Men" out of my ears. "New Words" and "Home" are both show tunes, and not new ones; but they are relatively unknown, and handily illustrate the emotional heights Yeston is capable of hitting. Which is why we want and need “The Maury Yeston Songbook.”

Also included are five powerful numbers from December Songs, a song-cycle commissioned for the Carnegie Hall centennial. "By the River" is the most stunning, perhaps, and powerfully delivered by Christine Andreas; but all five are notable. Thus, “The Maury Yeston Songbook” presents us with arresting presentations of songs we know, interspersed with remarkable songs we've never heard. Which makes for quite a listening experience.

This songbook uses five of Tunick's original orchestrations, supplemented with two by Larry Hochman and a Grand Hotel chart by the late Peter Matz; but Krasker and McDaniel are canny enough to keep it small on other tracks that call for simple treatment. Like "Simple" and "No Moon," with McDaniel at the piano; "Unusual Way," with McDaniel accompanied by Clay Ruede on the cello; "I Am Longing" (from December Songs), sung by Philip Chaffin with Krasker at the piano; and the trunk song "Now and Then," in which Benanti is accompanied by Yeston.

I have neither the space nor the inclination to single out all the tracks and the performers, but the others are too good to overlook: Christopher Fitzgerald, Eden Espinosa, Christine Ebersole (on "My Grandmother's Love Letters" from December Songs), Michael Holland, Johnny Rodgers, and Betty Buckley. We can all look forward this spring to Nine, both on stage at the Eugene O'Neill and on disc from Sony Masterworks. But don't overlook “The Maury Yeston Songbook,” which just might raise your appreciation of Mr. Yeston by three or four pegs.

How can a new composer arrive on Broadway one blustery winter night with an immensely pleasing musical comedy, then follow it up with one poor score after another after another after another. It wonders me, to quote a song title from the show in question. But there you are, and here is Plain and Fancy.

This is not one of the all-time Broadway greats, mind you. But the score is good-natured and friendly and cheerful, placing it near the top of the B musical range. The original cast album, which has been remastered and reissued by DRG, is warmly recommended to all but the most modern eared listeners.

The music ranges from pleasant to pleasing to excessively charming. There are two lovely romantic ballads, "Young and Foolish" and "Follow Your Heart." There are two charming young-girl-a-blossoming songs, "This Is All Very New to Me" and the aforementioned "It Wonders Me." There is a functional opening number, "You Can't Miss It"; a slyly smart comedy number, "It's a Helluva Way to Run a Love Affair"; an amusing and exuberant concerted number, "Plenty of Pennsylvania"; and a sturdy hymn-like anthem, "Plain We Live." (The action mixes two fancy city slickers with the devout farmers of Amish country, placing the show somewhere between Brigadoon and Bye, Bye Birdie.)

A reader e-mailed me recently asking when they started having the actors make scenic moves in place of the stagehands. I don't know, for sure, but the practice got an enormous boost in the second act opening of Plain and Fancy. "How Do You Raise a Barn?" featured the company constructing a pre-fab barn to choreography, garnering a nightly round of applause.

David Daniels makes a strong-voiced hero; Shirl Conway gets the good comedy number; Nancy Andrews provides local color; and a little girl named Elaine Lynn does an alphabet specialty in "Plenty of Pennsylvania." ("Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower," it goes, until she gets tripped up on "x plant.") Phil Lang's orchestrations are pleasing, in an old-fashioned but excessively comforting. "It Wonders Me" is especially well done, with a gentle horse hoof clip-clopping out the rhythm. This song has a lovely vocal arrangement, one of several contributed by Crane Calder. Franz Allers, Fritz Loewe's conductor, was on the podium.

The biggest asset of the enterprise, though, was the girl playing the heroine's best friend. Barbara Cook was her name; she sounds altogether remarkable on this album, and from the looks of the original reviews seems to have all but stolen the show. "Barbara Cook, right off a blue and white Dutch plate, is delicious all the time, but especially when she perches on a trunk, savors her first worthwhile kiss, and melts into the melody of 'This Is All Very New to Me,'" said Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune. William Hawkins of the World-Telegram said "outstanding credit goes to Barbara Cook, who flings her own heart over the footlights with whatever she does, and sings and dances her way into the hearts of the audience." This is especially apparent not only in the cited solo but in the big second act ballad "Follow Your Heart," as strangely-routined a love duet as you're likely to come across. The juvenile sings it through to his girl. The ingénue does not sing it back; she turns to her girlfriend and says, what should I do, Hilda; and Hilda — the friend — sings the rest of the song! Midway through Barbara's refrain, Gloria Marlowe gets to sing seven measures; then comes an uncanny moment when they switch back from the ingénue to the friend. You hear Cook's clear, bell-shaped tones and think — well, there's the star. Plain and Fancy closed in March, Cook was singing "Glitter and Be Gay" in November. Plain and Fancy was a waif of a musical, with no stars, no star creators, and coming from unimportant, unconnected producers. It was lucky to get an interim booking at the Hellinger, but it was forced to move after only a month to make way for Ankles Aweigh (produced by the Hellinger's owner). It moved across the street to the Winter Garden — replacing Mary Martin's Peter Pan — until the Shuberts ejected it in favor of Carol Channing in The Vamp. Back across the street to the Hellinger for another four months, when it was bounced for good by yet another hoped-for-hit. (A musical about an English teacher and a Cockney flower girl. Where do they come up with these ideas?) Plain and Fancy was able to turn a profit in its thirteen-month run, but it might well have been a bigger hit under more favorable conditions.

Lyricist Arnold B. Horwitt was best known as a sketchwriter, with Call Me Mister and Make Mine Manhattan to his credit; I gladly salute anyone who can write a lyric like "One enchanted evening in my quiet living room / Candle-lit and heavy with perfume / Love songs I played him that sent shivers down his spine / And he fell in love — with Oscar Hammerstein!" Horwitt also serves as a musical comedy footnote; the score he wrote with Leroy Anderson for Wonderful Town was rejected by Rosalind Russell shortly before rehearsals, resulting in the last-minute drafting of Bernsein, Comden and Green.

Which takes us back to where we started, with Plain and Fancy's composer Albert Hague. Redhead was a hit, thanks to Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse and despite one of the worst scores ever to win a Tony Award. Cafe Crown, The Fig Leaves Are Falling and Miss Moffat were all pretty awful, without — as far as I recall — a single decent song. Yet I am charmed again and again by Plain and Fancy, which I've listened to over the years far more than Can Can and Silk Stockings and The Unsinkable Molly Brown combined. It wonders me.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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