Theater Shelf: Show Tunes, Comic Operas and Singers Gordon MacRae & Howard Keel

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature by our reviewer Brad Hathaway, will review recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some will be popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others will be works you’ll be intrigued by but didn’t even know about.

Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows and Careers of Broadway’s Major Composers – Fourth Edition

By Brad Hathaway

I may be excused for presuming that, if you have a theater shelf, it already sports a copy of Steven Suskin’s book. Equal parts reliable reference book and entertainingly written opinionated history, your shelf may have the first edition from 1985 when it instantly became indispensable as the book to check for quick information on any one of 30 of Broadway’s best composers.

Or perhaps you discovered it upon the publication of the second edition in 1991 when Mr. Suskin added information on imports – mostly from London in the Broadway version of the British invasion that had swamped the popular music field thirty years earlier. Broadway had a domestic resurgence of sorts which provided the impetus for the third edition in 1999 when Suskin dropped the foreigners and added six domestic composers to release the volume which has been a well-thumbed staple of my own theater shelf.

But now there is a fourth edition and it is time for all of us to retire whichever earlier volume has been at arms’ reach and replace it with this six hundred page marvel. Four more composers have been added and the format improved. As Suskin says in his introductory “How To Use This Book” essay: “Each chapter begins with extended commentary on the subject’s career. The second part of each chapter concentrates on the productions as before, with data and song information.”

That’s an awfully dry way to introduce these treasures. You might want to skip over this “How To” and get to the meat because it is so very tasty and you’ll figure out quickly enough how the format works. From first entry (Jerome Kern) to the last (Jeanine Tesori) – or, if you prefer, from “An English Daisy [January 18, 1904]” to “Shrek The Musical [December 14, 2008]” – the format is clear. Kern’s 31 pages are divided into a seven page essay detailing the essence of Kern’s career roughly show by show followed by 24 pages of data: an entry for every show he composed with the titles of every published or recorded song from that show.

While one doesn’t often sit and read lists of shows with sub-lists of songs, the tabular material is valuable for a quick check of facts. There are other places (many found quickly online with a Google search) to find these facts, of course. But the fact that they are all right here at your fingertips in an authoritative compilation you can cite with confidence is valuable. What’s more, the book has tables in the back that make it easy to use. There’s a chronological list of productions, a collaborator reference listing and indexes of song titles, people and shows so you can find what you are looking for quickly.

All of that is fine, but it is the essay for each composer that makes the book habit forming. I, for one, wouldn’t think of attending a production of, say, a Gershwin musical without first reading (or re-reading) his five pages on George. I’m to see the new production of Porgy and Bess on Broadway (re-titled for now The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) next month, so I pulled out Suskin and discovered, among other things, that when George Gershwin died in 1937 the value to his estate of the future residuals                               from Porgy and Bess was appraised at $250. Tidbits like this keep me from letting the volume gather too much dust.

Suskin does seem to pay a good deal of attention to the peculiarities of the financial side of the business of show business. It is in this volume that I learned that the debacle of the economic collapse of 1929 and the resulting depression hit Arthur Hammerstein so hard he had to liquidate his holdings which resulted in the auction of the rights to operettas including Naughty Marietta, Wildflower and Rose-Marie which were purchased by the Shubert’s for all of $684!

While Suskin can be unstinting in his praise where he believes it is deserved (who would argue with his view that Richard Rodgers “was arguably Broadway’s greatest – and inarguably Broadway’s most successful – composer”?) he pulls few punches in his assessment of the less than top-drawer efforts of those who have demonstrated the capacity to do better. He concludes his essay on John Kander with “Kander has written a substantial amount of fine theatre music over the years; sometimes superb, most usually interesting, and always professional” but that doesn’t keep him from saying that The Rink was a “dreary and depressing piece with little more than one interesting song (“Colored Lights”) to recommend it” or that for Zorba while Kander broke through with strong writing in spots – “No Boom Boom,” “Life Is,” “Why Can’t I Speak?” – but everything was so utterly depressing.”

The bulk of the book may well be devoted to the 40 major composers he’s chosen to discuss and document, Suskin adds a section on “Notable Scores by Other Composers” arranged chronologically between 1919’s Irene by Harry Tierney (“one of many Tin Pan Alley Composers who made occasional Broadway visits”) and 2008’s In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda which Suskin describes as a “somewhat ragtag piece – kind of an uptown Street Scene without the murder.” In between, he tells us that the songs from Leroy Anderson’s 1958 Goldilocks “might not be great but they sure are a lot of fun” – he’s right about that – and that 1997’s The Lion King was “a rather spectacular spectacle” of which “the score was the weakest link” – right again!

Of Frank Wildhorn, in his entry on 1997’s Jekyll & Hyde he writes that with this show, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War “Wildhorn had three shows running (briefly) simultaneously, which he trumpeted loudly in the press. When the final accounting was done, though, the three combined represented a loss in the neighborhood of 15 million dollars, which Wildhorn did not trumpet loudly in the press.” Suskin’s book was published before the subsequent financial failure of Wonderland and Bonnie & Clyde in a single season.

Show Tunes: The Songs, Shows, and Careers of Broadway’s Major Composers
Revised and Expanded Fourth Edition
By Steven Suskin
Oxford University Press
Hard Back 624 Pages
List Price $60
ISBN-10: 0195314077

Gordon MacRae & Howard Keel DVDs

The pickings from the Bell Telephone Hour that Video Artists International delves into must be getting slim. It isn’t that the material on latest releases in VAI’s series isn’t first rate. Indeed, there are some tasty morsels in these collections of musical segments from the ten year run of that television variety show which Donald Voorhees conducted between 1959 and 1968.

One wonders, however, why the people at VAI couldn’t come up with more. Earlier releases have had fewer minutes of program content than the discs could reasonably contain, but as more and more discs have been prepared and released, the duration per disc has constantly shrunk to the point where I think it is time to complain.

Let’s look at the trend. When the segments they chose to release featuring Shirley Jones and Florence Henderson ended up totaling just over an hour, VAI chose to release them as one disc. For the Barbara Cook disc they found some 55 minutes and their Carol Lawrence disc ran over an hour so they released them as two separate discs. More recently, the John Raitt disc included 49 minutes of programming and the Alfred Drake volume was, while not exactly voluminous, a full 48 minutes. Again, they released them separately.

But now two new titles have hit the shelves and each is so short that they could have been combined as one disc with plenty of room to spare. One is listed as 30 minutes but the actual time of the material is just 28 and a half minutes… the rest is a very slow crawl of copyright information on the songs sung. The other is listed as 37 minutes but actually runs 35 plus two minutes of copyright. What is more, they are each at the same price of $29.95 per disc.

To this, I must cry “Foul!”

The shortest disc is devoted to segments aired between 1960 and 1965 featuring Gordon MacRae, often with his wife Sheila MacRae. They sing songs from the 1959/1960 Broadway season as a series of duets from Take Me Along, Fiorello, Destry,  The Sound of Music and Gypsy – hard to imagine all of those shows opening in the same season, isn’t it? As the Bell Telephone Hour show was telecast before the season was half over, they missed Saratoga, Greenwillow, Christine and Bye Bye Birdie.

They also team up for duets from shows of the 1961/1962 season including Subways Are For Sleeping, Sail Away and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Don’t ask me what happened to the 1960/1961 season – there’s no segment on the disc for that season which included, among others, Tenderloin, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Wild Cat, Do Re Me, Carnival and Camelot.”

MacRae, who looks as smooth as his voice sounds, also sings a few numbers from Tin Pan Alley in a 1965 segment, belts “Who Can I Turn To” and joins his wife for a segment titled “Songs for Autumn” from 1961.

The marginally lengthier disc is a compilation of appearances of Howard Keel on the television series. He teams with Ann Blythe for a medley of Broadway songs including a very healthy rendition of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” which features a dance sequence. Keel walks smoothly through the song but stands aside for the dancers. Not all the songs in that sequence are by Richard Rodgers but another segment is devoted to his output with both Hammerstein and Hart. (Keel’s beautiful baritone is a fine match for “Some Enchanted Evening.”)

Theater fans might be somewhat less impressed with a segment of traditional Christmas songs which Keel and Martha Wright sing. It takes up nearly seven and a half of the 35 minutes of entertainment on the disc.

The packaging of both discs does disclose the duration of the material but both also trumpet “bonus” material – 12 minutes in one case and 16 in the other. These, however, turn out to just be clips from the other releases in the series. If you already own them, you already have these supposed bonuses.

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Howard Keel
Bell Telephone Hour 1959 – 1965
VAI Catalog 4543
ISBN: B005QIOJ26
Running time 37 minutes

Gordon MacRae
Bell Telephone Hour 1960 – 1965
VAI Catalog 4544
ISBN: B005QIOK9I
Running time 30 minutes
List price $29.99

Comic Opera Guild CDs

Most dedicated theater music fans are well aware that there was a momentous shift in the evolution of what we now think of as a “musical” in 1915 when Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, in the cogent description of Steve Suskin, “concentrated on making comedy and song spring directly from situation and character” with their first hit in the Princess Theatre, Very Good Eddie.

What many of us don’t really understand, however, is just what musicals were like before Kern and Bolton’s innovations took hold. What was the point of departure from which the changes seemed so remarkable?

In the nearly 100 years since Eddie opened, the technology for and the concept of the cast recording has given us the opportunity to follow developments from Eddie to the very latest new musical on Broadway.  (That was Lysistrata Jones. There is word that there might be a recording of that now-closed musical. If one is released, I will review it here.)

It is the shows that pre-date Eddie that are hard to come by. Oh, sure, all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fabulous comic operas are on disc and they certainly conform to the idea of “song spring(ing) directly from situation and character.” Some of the great operettas of the day, which were great hits, have been revised.

But just what was the “run of the mill” like before either Eddie or original cast recordings? How can we come to understand not just what the huge hits of that earlier time were like, but what the entire genre had to offer?

One source that receives less attention than it should and, therefore, isn’t as widely known as its catalog deserves, is the work of the Comic Opera Guild, a semi-professional lyric theater company in Michigan. For nearly 40 years, COG has given voice to a genre that once was ubiquitous, but which has become more and more difficult to find.

COG is under the leadership of Thomas W. Petiet who founded the company in 1973. As a “semi-professional” company, their productions feature both professionals and amateurs.

The amazing thing about this particular semi-professional company is that they record every one of their productions and make them available on CD. That’s 40 years worth  – over 70 shows!

Some of the recordings are music only, while others are the full show including dialogue. Indeed, many of the shows are offered in both versions so you can order the “M” version with music or the complete “C” version.

Most are live recordings, so those shows that had full orchestra have that sound, while those accompanied by piano (or twin pianos) will only have the piano approximation of the orchestration of the original work. Which is which is easy to figure out since they include an “O” or a “P” in the recording’s catalog number.

The sound is closer to an archival recording than a fully professional studio job and the performers, as a mixture of amateurs and professionals almost all of whom must have day jobs, are capable without being distinguished. Still, when you want to hear what the score of Victor Herbert’s 1908 hit show Little Nemo was like, where else can you turn?

What, other than Little Nemo, is in this catalog?

There are 30 shows by Victor Herbert. Yes, you read that number correctly!  Thirty shows by the composer of Babes in Toyland including such familiar titles as Mlle. Modiste and Naughty Marietta but also titles that were new to me such as Her Regiment,  The Idol’s Eye, Old Dutch and The Velvet Lady. There even is a recording of Herbert’s Wonderland which played the Majestic in 1905 for 73 performances, over twice as many as the Wonderland by Frank Wildhorn which played 106 years later just two blocks to the northeast.

The catalog also features 15 shows by Jerome Kern including that genre-changing Very Good, Eddie. Some well known titles include Sally, Oh, Lady, Lady and Leave It To Jane, but there are also lesser known works here like Good Morning Dearie and Stepping Stones. There are song collections as well from The Night Boat and The Bunch and Judy.

There are also shows by Rudolf Friml (High Jinks, Katinka,) Gustav Luders  (The Prince of Pilsen) and Louis A. Hirsch (The Rainbow Girl.) You can even find Karl Hoschna’s 1908 Three Twins which gave him one of his biggest hit songs: “Cuddle Up A Little Closer.”

For the big hits, the choices are wider. For Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, you can buy their 1984, 1990 or 2004 complete two-disc versions, or a 1976 studio recording of just the music, all featuring full orchestra. There are two versions of his Orange Blossoms and two of Sousa’s El Capitan.

The company doesn’t limit itself to the American catalog, although it constitutes the bulk of their offerings. There are European operettas and light operas by Jacques Offenbach, Strauss, Lehar and even Mozart as well as a few gems from England. They have a musical reconstruction of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis as well as a few by Gilbert without Sullivan and Sullivan without Gilbert.

All in all, if you are intrigued by this aspect of musical theater, you may find you need a larger theater shelf.

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Comic Opera Guild Recordings
The full catalog is at http://www.comicoperaguild.org/PAGES/RECORDINGS.html
Single CDs $15 to $20
Double CDs $20 to $25
Also Available through Amazon through a secondary seller

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