ON THE RECORD: Victor Herbert, a Smattering of Sondheim, and The Shuberts

News   ON THE RECORD: Victor Herbert, a Smattering of Sondheim, and The Shuberts
THE RED MILL Albany Records TROY 492-493
I have never been much of a fan of old-fashioned Broadway operetta. Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, and Sigmund Romberg have their adherents; but give me a tune by Gershwin or Rodgers.

THE RED MILL Albany Records TROY 492-493
I have never been much of a fan of old-fashioned Broadway operetta. Victor Herbert, Rudolf Friml, and Sigmund Romberg have their adherents; but give me a tune by Gershwin or Rodgers.

It's difficult to judge Herbert fairly, admittedly, as little of his work is readily available. I've sat down at the piano with his more popular scores from time to time, but that isn't quite the same as putting on Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza singing South Pacific. Which is why I was pleased to find that Albany Records — a small label in, well, Albany — has seen fit to release a complete recording of one of Herbert's biggest hits, The Red Mill.

This 1906 blockbuster was a typical star vehicle of its time, the sort of affair that continued to appear on Broadway until the Depression. The plots were fairly straightforward. In this case, the mean old Burgomaster refuses to allow his daughter to marry the clean-cut young lad she loves, promising her hand instead to the Governor of Zeeland. (These shows typically had an exotic locale, this one being set in Holland.)

Grafted into the story for little discernible reason is a pair of Broadway wise guys, "Kid" Conner and "Con" Kidder. They proceed to come to the aid of the lovers; verbally hoodwink the villain; tell lots of bad jokes; and turn up in the second act disguised as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Stranded in Katwyk-Ann-Zee — in Holland, beside the haunted red mill — they are given an Italian dialect number, "Look-a Here, John." (And no, there's-a no character named John.) All of this for no earthly reason, except they were the stars and they sold the tickets. This is followed by an eleven o'clock song called — what else? — "In Old New York," which became one of Herbert's biggest song hits ever.

The show was built around Fred Stone and his partner Dave Montgomery. Stone, a limber-limbed eccentric dancer/comedian, remained a popular Broadway star of family trade musicals for the next quarter century. After Montgomery's death in 1917, Stone's wife and daughters joined him in the act; one of their vehicles was even called The Stepping Stones. (Paula Stone, his younger daughter, became a Broadway producer, with Top Banana, Carnival in Flanders, and the hit 1945 revival of The Red Mill to her credit.) For readers interested in such things, Fred Stone can be seen prominently — albeit non-musical role -— as Katharine Hepburn's father in the 1935 film version of "Alice Adams." The Ohio Light Opera commissioned Quade Winter to reconstruct The Red Mill from the original materials; as best one can tell, he seems to have done a fine job. Herbert's orchestrations were intact, at the Library of Congress, and the libretto by Henry Blossom — well, who cares about the libretto? While I have nothing to compare this to, I suppose the score sounds reasonably as Herbert intended. (The high spot, for me: the Interlude before Act Two, in which Herbert gives us "In Old New York" in what I'd term polite ragtime.) Other songhits of the day include the Governor's self-puncturingly pompous "Every Day Is Ladies' Day" - a comedy turn not unlike what you'd find in Gilbert & Sullivan, only without the lyrical bite — and two love duets, "The Isle of Our Dreams" and "Moonbeams Shining."

This Red Mill doesn't convince me to sweep Jerry Herman off my shelf and replace him with Naughty Marietta (which the Ohio Light Opera and Albany Records apparently recorded last year). However, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to experience Herbert, and — more to the point — I feel sure that I'll listen to this recording again in the future. The songs, anyway; half of this two CD set is taken up with dialogue scenes, which will keep your remote control busy. People who like operetta will presumably be pleased. People who don't especially like operetta but have an open mind will find The Red Mill interesting and not unpleasant.

all is calm, all is bright LML CD-136
It's a little late to start reviewing Christmas albums, especially as they're generally off topic for this column. Include a couple of Sondheim rarities, though, and I'm glad to listen. D.C. Anderson does just that in all is calm, all is bright.

"Three Wishes for Christmas" (music by Jule Styne) was cut from Gypsy; it's rather mild, but hey! it's from Gypsy. Actually, I'd guess that it was not written as a "real" Christmas song but intended as part of the Minsky salute to Christmas in the second act (which culminates in the "Let Me Entertain You" strip). Thus, it's supposed to be a stripper's view of Christmas, in the same way that "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" (in Styne's Funny Girl) is not intended to be a wedding song for real.

The other Sondheim song, "Christmas Island at Christmas Time" (music by Mary Rodgers) is something else again. This is a nifty comedy lyric laced with humbug, set to a gentle calypso rhythm. It seems written in the same vein as that Rodgers/Sondheim gem "The Boy from. . ." (from The Mad Show), and I'm glad to have it on CD.

Anderson also includes something from Kander and Ebb, a moderately pleasant comedy number called "I'm Gonna Be an Angel." The rest of the songs — most of them apparently new — come from a variety of hands. Several have lyrics by Anderson and music by Steven Landau, and they are interesting — if you're interested in interesting Christmas songs. But it's the Sondheim tracks that grab the attention.

Coffee table books come and coffee table books go, but The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater (Abrams) is extremely impressive. Luscious, you could call it, boasting of 430 illustrations, 200 in full color, and 3 gatefolds. The book concentrates on the theatres — the existing Broadway theatres still controlled by the Shubert Organization, that is — covering them in a street-by-street manner. Each house has been resplendently photographed by Whitney Cox, showing off the lavish restorations of recent years. But the accompanying photos are not merely architectural; they are culled from recent hits, ancient hits, archival designs, and documents. Turn a few pages, and you're likely to find something absolutely fascinating. The Shuberts Present covers a hundred years of history and lots of ground, and the authors - Maryann Chach, Reagan Fletcher, Mark E. Swartz and Sylvia Wang of the Shubert Archive - have managed to keep it all eye-popping and to the point. The brief section headed "Former and Out-of-Town Theaters" can't begin to cover the many historic-but-demolished houses that the Boys from Syracuse built; but space constraints being what they are, that's a minor qualm. For people who love the Broadway theatre, The Shuberts Present is a jewel box full of treasures.

Steven Suskin, 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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