ON THE RECORD: Two Meandering Musicals, from 1979 | Playbill

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On the Record ON THE RECORD: Two Meandering Musicals, from 1979 I am as pleased as anyone, I suppose, by the recent flurry of CD issues of long-out-of-print original cast albums. Some have remained obscure since the first printing of the LPs, 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. Others have been issued on CD in the interim, but quickly fell back out of the catalogue.

I am as pleased as anyone, I suppose, by the recent flurry of CD issues of long-out-of-print original cast albums. Some have remained obscure since the first printing of the LPs, 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. Others have been issued on CD in the interim, but quickly fell back out of the catalogue.

Yes, I am glad to get my hands on many of these albums, and grateful that a few labels have made a dedicated effort to make this renewed life possible. Yet it goes without saying that many of these CDs — souvenirs of shows that were outright failures in their time — feature scores that are not so good.

An ineffective score does not necessarily make for an unentertaining CD; I have been listening, happily, to shows like Subways Are for Sleeping and Walking Happy and Bravo Giovanni and Oh Captain since long before they were digitized. But many long out-of-print shows were no good — that's why they failed — and their scores were no good, and their cast albums reflected the shows. That is not to say that I'm not glad to have them, finally, back in circulation. Most all of them have elements or performances that make them worth listening to. Some of these reissues are less indispensable than others, but I'm glad to have them — even if I can't find reason to praise them.

This is brought on by the appearance of two big-name musicals from 1979. Both were unnecessary, uninspired shows that were hard to sit through. Both were highly similar in many ways, ways that signified the death of the old-fashioned musical. I remember stating at the time that there was nothing wrong with old-fashioned musicals; the problem was that producers were giving us bad old-fashioned musicals.

The Grand Tour and I Remember Mama were, first and foremost, purposeless. This was a case of top names in the theatre, responsible for some of the most successful Broadway ventures ever, getting together with the sole aim of having another hit. It is one thing to create a show because you believe in it and love it and have to do it; it is another thing to proceed with a show — any show — simply because you are happier sitting in a rehearsal hall than sitting alone in your room. Both musicals were Broadway hits — as plays, that is, back in 1944. Musical comedy is littered with poor musicalizations of popular plays, based on the faulty assumption that something that was a hit back then will surely be successful now. But times change, and in many cases turn relevant material stale.

Jacobowsky and the Colonel was especially relevant in its time, back before D-Day. A Jewish refugee and an anti-Semitic Polish colonel — both fleeing the Nazis — are forced together, their only chance of survival depending upon cooperation. In the end, they learn to appreciate and even like each other. S.N. Behrman adapted it from a play by Franz Werfel, the Theatre Guild produced it, and it was director Elia Kazan's biggest dramatic hit to that time.

Jacobowsky had a lot to say to wartime audiences, but its message quickly dated. In 1958 it became a motion picture — under the title Me and the Colonel — due solely to the willingness of Danny Kaye to play the lead, I suspect. What relevance did this story have to audiences another 20 years later, in 1979? Very little.

The Grand Tour starts off with what might be Jerry Herman's best theatre song ever. He has always prided himself on writing "melodic songs that can have lives of their own outside of their shows." "I'll Be Here Tomorrow," on the other hand, is a dramatic character song, which artfully and charmingly expresses the (serious) theme of the show. The leading character tells of "that knock on the door, in the dead of the night, and that voice saying 'Run your life's in danger, run you've been defeated,' racing through the night I, looked up at the stars as I repeated: I'll be here tomorrow." Powerful stuff, and a perfect way to open this show. Very much unlike Jerry Herman's other work, indicating he possessed a musico dramatic talent which otherwise went undeveloped.

But there is little of interest here other than "I'll Be Here Tomorrow." Herman wrote according to the formula he knew so well, a formula that certainly didn't fit the nature of the material. Take "We're Almost There," for example, a typical Jerry Herman "traveling" song. Dolly and her friends eagerly journeyed to see the sites of New York, in their "Sunday Clothes"; Mame and her ward eagerly journeyed through New York to "Open a New Window" on life; the fledgling movie actors in Mack & Mabel eagerly journeyed from New York to sleepy old Hollywood, in search of the "Big Time."

So here we have Jacobowsky and his Colonel eagerly journeying through France on a train, singing a happy "traveling" song — "a little bread, a little brie, to help forget the trip's too lumpy and too long — as they flee from the Nazis. Yes, a happy "traveling" song as they flee from the Nazis. From the star's comic patter: "That poplar played a noble role in history / Napoleon relieved himself behind that tree. . . See that lovely horse that's grazing there at the gate? / The grandpa of that horse made love to Catherine the Great."

Musical values are generally good, similar in sound to other Jerry Herman musicals. Orchestrator Philip J. Lang, who had been with Herman since Hello, Dolly!, contributed a typically professional-but-uninspired job. Lang was near the end of his productivity; he was to be replaced on the final Herman musical, La Cage aux Folles (1983). Don Pippin provided some strong vocals, as in "We're Almost There"; and Peter Howard came up with impressive dance arrangements for "Mazel Tov" and "You I Like" that outclassed the songs and the choreography. Conducting was Wally Harper, moving up to the podium after a decade as an arranger.

There might well have be a viable musical in Jacobowsky and the Colonel — a Kander & Ebb musical, perhaps — but not a Jerry Herman musical. Herman apparently knew this; he seems to have accepted the assignment with grave misgivings, out of friendship (with librettist Michael Stewart) and a desire to be working. But the results were dire. The Grand Tour opened on January 11, 1979, and closed March 4, after 61 performances. Unused theatre parties and group sales were switched to the next big-budget star vehicle, I Remember Mama.

As if to magnify the show's problems, The Grand Tour was crippled by casting. Jacobowsky need be a quietly charming nebbish, someone who blends into the crowd so well that he is virtually invisible. What the material did not need was a showstopping personality who naturally and instinctively thrusts himself into the spotlight. And I don't mean to say that Joel Grey should be blamed for this; that's what he does, naturally and instinctively, as a performer. For Grey, it was a starring vehicle; for the producers, he was a box-office "name" who made the show viable and guaranteed financing. But Joel Grey was a drastically bad choice for the role. Compounding this was a lack of chemistry. Here you had a love triangle with three actors who never connected on stage at all, the other two being Ron Holgate and Florence Lacey. The three of them were — well, boring, alone and together. Which made for a strangely uninvolving musical.

I Remember Mama — the play — opened seven months after Jacobowsky, and did even better (running 713 performances, compared to 417). John van Druten's dramatization of Kathryn Forbes stories was one of those heartwarming tales of family life, the granddaddy of which was the record-breaking Life with Father. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, flush with fame and money and power from Oklahoma!, began their conquest of the producing field with the (non musical) I Remember Mama. For the next decade, they were Broadway's most successful producers, with Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific and The King and I among their multi-company moneymakers.

Audiences liked tales of big, happy families; they also liked tales of struggling families and immigrant families. The family in this play was Norwegian, too, at a time when there was great public sympathy in America for downtrodden Norway. I Remember Mama became a popular 1948 film, and the following year began a phenomenally successful seven-year run as a sitcom.

The property was far more popular and far more widely known than Jacobowsky, with a title that in 1979 was still familiar to older theatregoers. But what was there in Mama or Jacobowsky to make them relevant to audiences in the age of A Chorus Line, Chicago and Sweeney Todd?

I Remember Mama was a typical Alexander H. Cohen musical, all hype and no content. Sign up the director/lyricist and librettist of Broadway's biggest recent hit; sign up Broadway's greatest composer, a living legend; sign up a top international film star; arrange the financing, with a couple of well-placed phone calls; sell those tickets. What matter if all these award winning geniuses never do get around to writing a stage-worthy show? You can always fix it out of town, right?

Thus it was that Martin Charnin and Tom Meehan from Annie (1977) joined with the great Richard Rodgers for what was sure to be the biggest family-musical hit of the eighties. Why I Remember Mama? Possibly because Cohen had Liv Ullman up his sleeve; she had done a creditable job for him on Jose Quintero's 1977 revival of Anna Christie. No, she didn't sing. (And how!) But she was sure to sell tickets. And she was Norwegian, anyway.

Mama underwent your typical tryout turmoil, of the most serious variety; not only did they fire the choreographer and the ingenue, they fired the director/lyricist as well. (While directors have been fired from shows time and again, it is highly unusual to see a lyricist axed on the road.) Cohen saw fit to bring in a lyricist who had written only one musical (an earlier Cohen flop) and a director who had directed four musicals, all flops (which the director had himself coproduced). Cohen's purpose seemed all too clear: Patch the thing up enough to get it to town, so you don't have to return the advance sale money. That is precisely what happened. Mama opened May 31, 1979 — a month before Rodgers's 78th birthday — and was gone by Labor Day, after a mere 108 performances. Rodgers himself died the day before New Year's Eve. The show, and the CD in question, are of interest mainly for the work of the composer. He was old and ailing, yes, but this was still Richard Rodgers. There are random strains of that unmistakable Rodgers sound scattered through the score, but only in very small fragments. These fragments, usually, sound like they come from Pipe Dream. This is not a bad thing, mind you; Rodgers' failed 1955 contained some of his most adventurous (and underappreciated) work.

While the other creators were presumably trying to come up with something that would work, one gets the impression that Rodgers was merely trying to come up with something. Anything. Mama was one musical too many for him. Three musicals too many, actually; his prior two efforts, Two by Two and Rex, were the work of a man who couldn't do it anymore. But Broadway was Rodgers' life, and he was driven to keep at it. With Mama, inspiration was long gone; in song after song, he seems to be struggling. Several of the 14 songs are simply unworkable.

But even so, this is Richard Rodgers. Listen to "Ev'ry Day (Comes Something Beautiful)." Yes, it is an unsuccessful attempt to recreate "Do-Re-Mi." The star sings a "happy" song to a stageful of kids; the A section opens and ends, in fact, with the syllables "ev-ry day" sung to the tones do-re-mi. (The lyric, meanwhile, struggles to approximate "My Favorite Things" or "A Hundred Million Miracles" — but Charnin is no Hammerstein.) The structure, though, is noteworthy and succeeds in generating excitement (albeit mechanically).

The form — and you can skip this paragraph if this sort of talk makes your ears glaze over — is A(4)-B(4) A(4)-B(4) C(8) A(4)-C(4) Tag (8). The C is a surprise, a step-wise figure very much unlike the A and the B. Even more surprising is the way Rodgers skips what should be the third statement of the B, going right into the final C. This provides a surge of energy, pushing the song on towards the finish. It would all be quite lovely, if only the A and the B weren't so ordinary. Still, "Ev'ry Day" gives you an example of how Rodgers built a song, mixing traditional forms with flavorful surprises.

We can't ask for much from the Mama CD, given the score they had to work from. The album was recorded in 1985, six years after the show opened and closed. Sally Ann Howes heads the studio cast, and it goes without saying that she sings far more effectively than Ms. Ullman. Original cast members George Hearn and George S. Irving were brought in to re create their roles; the rest of the company seems to have been assembled in England (as this album was recorded by That's Entertainment Records, a UK company). An added bonus, it turns out, as geography allowed Tony winners Elizabeth Seal and Pat Routledge to turn up as two of the character ladies.

Phil Lang's original orchestrations, which I remember as being pretty ordinary, were replaced for the recording with new ones by Bruce Pomahac. These charts are much stronger, as can be heard right off the bat in the first big number. "A Little Bit More" is scored with lovely little fills, in the best Russell Bennett tradition (and fittingly so). The overture — not included on the earlier CD release of this recording — is impressive, and Pomahac seems to have consciously paid homage in the entr'acte to Pipe Dream, which after all was set just down the California coast from Mama.

As part of the Rodgers Centennial, Jay Records has also released a "new digital remaster" of the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes [CDJAY 1361]. This show's 1983 revival was one of the first cases where the original orchestrations — in this case by Hans Spialek (with David Raksin) — were painstakingly reconstructed. We're used to this sort of treatment nowadays, thanks to the parade of cast albums from City Center Encores!, but On Your Toes was revelatory at the time. John Mauceri was the music man in charge, and he did a marvelous job with one of Broadway's finest scores of the pre-World War II era.

Lara Teeter is likably proficient in Ray Bolger's role; he is supported by Christine Andreas (as the girl) and George Irving and Dina Merrill (as the comedy couple). Natalia Makarova, who danced the non-singing female lead, is not present on the disc. The star attraction, of course, is the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet restored to original condition. This and the amusing but-lesser "La Princesse Zenobia Ballet" take up 29 of the disc's 73 minutes. Not counting ballets, the overture and a reprise, there are merely nine songs in this score. But what an assortment! The unrequited lament "Glad to Be Unhappy" and the up-tempo "It's Got to Be Love" are two of my favorite Rodgers and Hart tunes, "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye" is delightfully pert, and "The Three B's" is a sterling concerted number. And then "There's a Small Hotel," too.

On Your Toes remains one of the finest reconstructions of an early musical comedy, and a CD that fans of this period will want to have.

— 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 [email protected]

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