Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO [Sony Masterworks/TCM]
What is it about Fred Astaire that transcends the decades — and by this point, the century — since the five-year-old dancer and his eight-year-old sister stormed vaudeville in 1905? Unlike other international stage stars of the time, Fred found himself transplanted to Hollywood in 1933, at the age of 34, where he was transformed into the iconic screen legend who retains his celluloid glimmer a quarter century after his death in 1987.
The man was best known for his dancing, of course, but we have only to listen to his recordings to catch the magic. While busily engaged in a string of Astaire-Rogers movie musicals at RKO for six years, the punctilious perfectionist found time to make studio recordings of the songs he introduced in the movies. These have been collected into a new two-CD collection, "Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO," and song after song retains its sparkle. The voice does not quite approach that of contemporaries like Jolson, Vallee, Chevalier and Crosby, but the recordings of those guys sound hopelessly old fashioned, and they have to many listeners since the 1960s. Astaire's recordings remain as bright and fresh as ever, floating along as if on a cloud of melody. Well, they are on a cloud of melody.
And I'm not just saying that. I know most of these songs well, as many readers of this column presumably do. I expected to just put the thing on as a refresher, give it a spin, and that would be that. But no; listening to "The Early Years at RKO," I find myself marveling once again at recordings I've heard over and over. Marveling at the ease with which Astaire breezes through the material; marveling at how good it all sounds; and marveling that within a short span of time, Broadway's top composers — transplanted west due to the economics of the Depression — turned out so many gilt-edged songs to order for that voice. The 31 songs (not counting duplicate tracks) include at least 16 that belong on anybody's list of bests. And that, all said, is an astounding ratio. The songs mostly come from the Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin and Kern. Berlin wrote three of the films, with "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek" from "Top Hat;" "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from "Follow the Fleet;" and "Change Partners" from "Carefree."
George and Ira wrote the Astaire-Rogers film, "Shall We Dance" (with "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me"). Kern and Dorothy Fields' "Swing Time," meanwhile, gave us "Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance" and "The Way You Look Tonight."
There are a few songs from the first Astaire/Rogers films — two by Vincent Youmans (including the snappy "Music Makes Me") and Cole Porter's "Night and Day," which was written for Fred on Broadway. But it's the Astaire-songs by Berlin, Gershwin and Kern that take the crown. Half of the tracks come from conductor Johnny Green, with others from Leo Reisman and Ray Noble. The album — a joint project of Masterworks and Turner Classic Movies — was assembled by Michael Feinstein, who also contributed the liner note.
Composer Jule Styne was known for the stream of melody that positively poured out of him. Let other piano-pounders struggle and fret over their wares; Jule had tunes to spare. So much so that if this one or that one didn't please his collaborators (or his audience), no matter; he just pounded out another.
This takes us, in a roundabout manner, to "Lost Broadway and More Volume 5: Comden/Green/Styne." I, for one, am always glad to hear lost showtunes. We know how the scores in question ended up, in most cases. How fascinating it can be to hear the songs that got away!
You would think. But looking through the cut songs of Jule Styne, you find that there was perhaps a reason that he was quick to discard the ones that didn't immediately find favor. Easy come easy go, perhaps, in this case applies. Styne was a remarkable music man, but it seems he needed an editor. (The score of Funny Girl, Styne's longest-running musical and the only one to hit the 1,000 performance mark, contains 15 songs. There are another 18 — at least — in the discard pile; and take it from me, there's not one in the bunch that you need to hear twice.)
So what happens when you put together an album of "lost" Jule Styne tunes? You get plenty to listen to, but not much to set the pulse racing. This edition of "Lost Broadway" is not entirely Styne; four of the two-dozen tracks come from other composers. Conversely, there are seven non-Comden & Green items. (The liner note, oddly enough, mentions the other lyricists but prominently specifies that "all lyrics are by Betty Comden and Adolph Green." But then, they also refer to "the smash hit show Fade Out - Fade In.") There are a few songs that stand out, yes. Most striking of the lot is "You Interest Me," a smoky and haunting piece from A Doll's Life (with music by Larry Grossman). "Alone in the World" from Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (with lyrics by Bob Merrill) is a pleasingly gentle ballad, and "I'm Laying Away a Buck" from Glad to See You (with lyrics by Sammy Cahn) is a novelty that's new to me. Also present is the lively "When the Weather's Better," which was intended to be the theme song of Hallelujah, Baby! So much so that the overture starts and ends with a fragment of it, even though the song was cut. (The weather they were referring to, in this enjoyable but muddled race relations musical from 1967, was the civil rights temperature of the times.)
"When the Weather's Better" might also launch a discussion of Broadway logos informed by discarded songs: The predominant feature of Hilary Knight's upbeat artwork is a "weather's better" umbrella. Another such case is also present on the album: if you ever wondered why the heroine is on roller skates in the logo for Funny Girl, you'll find the answer here. The artwork is usually designed and printed long before the tryout, of course, hence the vestigial traces.
"Lost Broadway" features musical direction by Michael Lavine, who has dedicated many years to comprehensively collecting and carefully preserving a vast quantity of showtunes lost (and showtunes in danger of vanishing). He has assembled a cast of 24 for the CD, far too many to mention. It's easy, though, to single out Marc Kudisch's performance of "You Interest Me" and a few clutch contributions from Brooke Moriber.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)