ON THE RECORD: Wright and Forrest's (and Rachmaninoff's) Anya and Forbidden Broadway Goes Rehab

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Wright and Forrest's (and Rachmaninoff's) Anya and Forbidden Broadway Goes Rehab
We listen to the first-time-on-CD release of the Rachmaninoff-flavored operetta Anya, by Wright, Forrest and Abbott, and Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab.


ANYA [Kritzerland KR 20012]
The Robert Wright-George Forrest-George Abbott musical Anya was a veritable Thanksgiving turkey, opening on the Monday after the holiday in 1965 and closing 13 days later after a sound trouncing as an old-fashioned operetta with an emphasis on "old." Witness Walter Kerr of the Herald Tribune, who noted that the show at one point cited Ivan the Terrible — adding that "if I were Anya, I'd watch out who I call terrible." (Note: the Herald Tribune barely outlasted Anya, shuttering within a few months of the show's demise.) Those of us who spend any time listening to original cast albums, however, know full well that a musical which is hopelessly ineffective on stage can result in a highly enjoyable recording; Candide, Mack & Mabel and The Grass Harp are only a few obvious examples. Anya is not in a class with Candide, of course; but I listen to it frequently, and I expect many people who now discover the first-time-on-CD release from Kritzerland will do the same.

Anya is the musicalization of "Anastasia," Guy Bolton's adaptation of a French play by Marcelle Maurette. The Grand Duchess Anastasia was one of the daughters of Tzar Nicholas II of Russia. The royal family was murdered by Bolshevik police in 1918, but it was rumored that the 17-year-old Anastasia managed to escape. That being the case, about a dozen pretenders to the throne turned up during what would have been the natural lifetime of the duchess. Most celebrated of the pseudo-Anastasias was one Anna Anderson, who turned up in 1920 and eventually went to court in a fight for recognition. (The legal proceedings lasted from 1938 to 1970, at which point it was determined that Anderson had not proven her case.) She died in 1984, after which DNA tests showed no relationship to the Romanoffs. The mystery was dredged up again when the mass grave of the Romanoffs was disinterred in 1998, with the corpses of Anastasia and her younger brother (and heir to Nicholas) Alexei missing. The whole affair was resolved in 2007, when two more bodies were found nearby and conclusively identified.

Anastasia was produced in London in 1953 (by Laurence Olivier) and in New York in 1954 (by Elaine Perry); there followed a 1956 film version, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner with a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (with Ms. Bergman winning herself an Oscar). All of this left Anastasia as something of a natural candidate for Broadway musicalization. Music publisher/producer Frank Loesser hatched the plan for his friends Wright and Forrest, although Frank disappeared from the venture before the show went into production. Wright and Forrest, of course, had been wildly successful taking tunes of Grieg and Borodin and adapting them into Song of Norway and Kismet. For the Russian-themed Anya, why not Rachmaninoff?

Rachmaninoffites no doubt recoiled in horror at this pop treatment of their idol; and there you have all the various hits — even that Piano Prelude in C-sharp Minor — dressed up like a "Stranger in Paradise." But, hey, the composer's estate, presumably, approved it all. And people who don't know their Rachmaninoff will find Anya built on some remarkable tunes (although I'd certainly recommend an acquaintance with the Three Symphonies and the Second and Third Piano Concerti). Abbott's preferred music staffers — orchestrator Don Walker and musical director Harold Hastings — do well by old Sergei (1873-1943). Walker, who in his later days chose to feature relevant instruments in his musicals (like the accordion in She Loves Me and the cimbalom in The Gay Life) here chose the concerto-style piano, which is played with thundering command by John Berkman. The original United Artists LP has been transferred intact, with no bonuses, but under the circumstances that's perfectly OK with me. The CD includes some new liner notes by Walter Willison (and wildly enthusiastic ones they are, too), in place of the old. A song list identifying the singers, which would be most helpful, is not included. The Anya score is as flavorful as a bowl of borscht on a cold day, with blintzes on the side. The company booms out these songs in grand fashion. Constance Towers plays the title role, and this duchess is no impostor. She sings like a dream, on "Snowflakes and Sweethearts" and "A Quiet Land," and manages to carry it all off. (Leading lady roles in Anya and — five years later — the "Exodus"-based Ari combined to scuttle her chance at Broadway stardom, alas.) Irra Pettina, of Song of Norway and Candide, provides sass and spice in the feisty old lady role with "Vodka, Vodka," "Lieben Sie Wohl" and the haunting "Homeward." John Michael King, the "On the Street Where You Live" man, has an effective duet with Towers in "Hand in Hand," while George S. Irving delightfully combines schnapps with schmaltz in "On That Day" and "Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?" The weak link is Michael Kermoyan, a satisfactory featured singer who was required to step into the male lead when they fired opera star George London. Also appearing is none other than Lillian Gish, as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (which is to say, Anastasia's aged grandmother). She does not sing for us, perish the thought; rather, Wright and Forrest give her a curious song called "Little Hands" which she speaks while Ms. Towers hums. Mr. Bolton, who in the early days of musical comedy had written librettos for the Messrs. Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter et al, collaborated on the book with Abbott. Neither of them were at their finest, which seemingly pushed Anya over the top (or under the bottom, as it were). Following the opening and closing, Abbott sent a note to orchestrator Walker noting that "the demand for operetta is not as vigorous as I had hoped." I don't know that operetta was the problem; I wager that it was simply bad operetta. The few people who saw Anya during its fortnight at the old Ziegfeld Theatre (where it served as the final tenant) might perhaps turn up their noses at the cast album of a show they remember as a real stinker. For the many of us who never saw Anya, though, the arrival of the cast album — finally on CD — is most welcome. "Homeward," "Vodka," "Snowflakes and Sweethearts," "Hand in Hand," "A Quiet Land" and that entr'acte version of "On That Day" might not be first-class show tunes but they never fail to brighten the spirits.

Another opening, another Forbidden Broadway. Or perhaps not; Gerard Alessandrini recently pulled the plug on the series, for now anyway. The recent edition, Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, went to the rehab from which no Off-Broadway musical returns on March 1. Twenty-seven years it's been since Gerard and a few friends gathered around the piano at Palsson's (later known as McGraw's and Triad) and caused a veritable explosion of laughter with a parade of poison-penned parodies. Forbidden Broadway wandered downtown, cross town, and west again, reflecting the hits and flops of the day and adapting to the times; the Broadway times, that is, even in those meager seasons when there seemed to be no Broadway to parody.

The tenth CD in the series brings us the recent Rehab edition, which was perhaps not Forbidden Broadway at its strongest. Even so, the wild humor of Alessandrini and his collaborator Phillip George shines through. The Tale of Two Cities and Xanadu segments are sharp, and the Young Frankenstein sketch is especially droll. Christina Bianco, James Donegan, Gina Kreiezmar and Michael West are the cutups, with David Caldwell as the one-man band at the keyboard.

So farewell Mr. Alessandrini; adieu, finally and permanently, to Forbidden Broadway. Sure. Until the fall of 2010, I expect.

(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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