ON THE RECORD: “The Producers” from Hollywood and the Songs of Gus Kahn

News   ON THE RECORD: “The Producers” from Hollywood and the Songs of Gus Kahn
This week’s column discusses the soundtrack CD of “The Producers” and the unexpectedly tuneful anthology album “William Bolcom, Joan Morris, Max Morath & Robert White sing Gus Kahn.”

THE PRODUCERS [Sony 82876-74691]
How the motion picture version of the Mel Brooks musical The Producers (starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, directed by Susan Stroman) compares to the Broadway musical itself (starring and directed by same) is not the point of this column. How is the CD (on Sony) is the question, and how does it compare to the earlier one (also on Sony)?

This is a somewhat tricky question, as the score of The Producers is not, exactly, A Little Night Music. The songs of Mel Brooks speak for themselves, or — I suppose — hum for themselves. The Brookssongs work perfectly well onstage, as is evidenced by the Tony Award the composer-lyricist took home that June night in 2001. But these are songs that you might not necessarily want to listen to again and again; you do not walk away from the third viewing, or the fourth hearing, marveling at the hidden richness of the music or the layered nuance of the rhyme. That being the case, additional exposure to the songs (courtesy of the new film or the new CD) provides some but not many surprises.

With the Messrs. Lane, Broderick, Beach and Bart repeating their duties, and resinging their oft-sung songs, the performances on the new CD sound pretty much more like those on the old. Of the newcomers, Uma Thurman — with a dearth of musical comedy experience — doesn’t quite measure up to the Ulla of Cady Huffman. At the same time, Will Ferrell — despite the very same dearth — makes a totally winning Franz Liebkind. Should anybody want to turn Promises! Promises! into a big-budget cinema extravaganza, here’s your boy.

If the film “Producers” soundtrack gives us pretty much the same songs and the same performances as the Producers cast album, the sound itself is very different. The music department is held over from Broadway. Mr. Brooks has often thanked Glen Kelly — “who took my rude, simple 32-bar songs and made them sound like glorious and memorable show tunes” — so I suppose I should cite him here. (Kelly is credited as merely the dance and incidental music arranger, but I trust he has been paid accordingly.)

If Brooks’ songs and Kelly’s arrangements are the same as Broadway, orchestrators Doug Besterman and Larry Blank have gone back to the bandbox. The Producers, the show, lovingly lacerated the pit orchestra sound of the 1950s. “The Producers,” the movie, turns instead to good old M-G-M. If you want 16 violins on Broadway, you use the five you have and support them with oboe, flute, and — so help us — synthesizer. If you want 16 violins on screen, you simply hire 16 violins. In film you can vary your instrumentation song by song, as musicians are paid by the session; at the St. James, every song is played by the same musicians, and the third trumpet can’t pick up a cello when you need it. The Broadway pit has 24 players (including five violins, one cello and one bass); the film orchestra, in it grandest musical moments, starts with 25 strings.

In many aspects of “The Producers” film, they seemed to have chosen to replicate the stage show. In the musical department, at least, the thinking seemed to be: This is a big Hollywood musical now, so let’s make it sound like one. This gives the score new life, with the songs swelled by amplification of the best kind. Every once in a while you check the liner notes looking for Conrad Salinger, or at least Ray Heindorf; instead, the name on the label is merely Bialystock and Bloom. . . . err, Besterman and Blank. The orchestrations make this a different, and delightful “Producers” than the one we hear on the Broadway cast album. If “The Producers” has had its bumps on the road to Hollywood, the music men at least have made a sterling adaptation to the new medium.

And let us add that the end credits include a new song, “There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway.” This is followed on the CD by “The Hop Clop Goes On,” which is “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” sung as a power ballad by Mr. Ferrell, and which is among the most delicious things on the disc.

It is a long, long way from Mel Brooks to Gus Kahn. They both lived (at least partially) in the same century, and both wrote song lyrics in English. Their vocabulary, though, seems to have been a little different.

Kahn (1886-1941) was one of those semi-anonymous Tin Pan Alley wordsmiths. As is typical with these guys, he has some enormous hits to his credit but is all but forgotten today — and I don’t suppose he was ever as well-known as Johnny Mercer or Sammy Cahn. (Kahn did, though, rate one of those Hollywood biopics. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” starred Danny Thomas and Doris Day, as Gus and his wife Grace).

Readers of this column are forgiven if they can’t name a single Kahn song other than, perhaps, “Makin’ Whoopee” from the Ziegfeld-Eddie Cantor hit Whoopee. When discussing standards of this era, one tends to give most of the credit to the composers; when you wrote with people like Walter Donaldson, Jerome Kern, Richard Whiting and George Gershwin, sure you had some hits. But a quarter of the way through William Bolcom, Joan Morris, Max Morath & Robert White sing Gus Kahn you realize that this guy was not merely lucky, walking into the room when inspiration struck; Gus Kahn was quite a lyricist. Who knew?

Before we proceed, the CD-with-the-unwieldy-title is — well, the four named singers sitting at a piano, running through 26 songs in a brisk 61 minutes. Bolcom, Morris, Morath and White all have their fans, and the first three — at least — have long specialized in performing songs of this era. This program was assembled as a four-performance event at the Lortel Theatre in 2004, produced by The White Barn Theatre (Donald Saddler, artistic director). As a celebratory reunion, I suppose it was perfectly fine. As a recording, one must point out that the CD sounds like a group of old friends sitting around the piano, impromptu style. Old is the operative word; Morath, Bolcom and Morris sound 30-odd years older than they did when they first delighted us, and they clearly didn’t have the advantage of multiple takes in a recording studio. So let it be said that this recording is decidedly not polished, and let’s leave it at that. Except to add that the singers are not identified on a track-by-track basis. I can tell you when Ms. Morris is singing, and I suppose I could easily differentiate Mr. Morath and Mr. Bolcom 20 years ago. But don’t ask me which of the men sing what.

Now, back to Gus Kahn. These are not simply words that fit catchy tunes; time and again, he provides the turn of phrase that makes the song (or at least must have inspired it). Consider, for example, the phrase “yes, sir, that’s my baby/no, sir, don’t mean maybe.” It positively sings out to you. “Nothin’ can be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.” “Toot, toot, tootsie, goo’bye.” “Love me or leave me, and let me be lonely.” “Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening, ain’t we got fun?” “Ev’rybody loves a baby, that’s why I’m in love with you, pretty baby.” These are not just words that fit; they are phrases that listeners instantly remember. And, of course, there’s Kahn’s incisive paean to matrimony, “Makin’ Whoopee,” a title phrase that went right into the contemporary phrasebook.

As an added bonus, Gershwin fans will find an extreme rarity that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard recorded. “I Must Be Home by 12 O’Clock” is not a great song, but the music sure is interesting. Following the success of Whoopee, Ziegfeld hired George and Ira and assigned them to work with Kahn on the 1929 musical Show Girl, which also brought forth the more familiar “Liza” (“All the Clouds’ll Roll Away”). Other long-ago standards on the Kahn CD include “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “San Francisco,” “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “Memories,” “I’m Through with Love,” “My Buddy” and “It Had to Be You.” Not bad for some guy that few of us remember.

-- Steven Suskin, author of “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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