Theater Shelf: Drood, Bway to West End, Gilbert & Sullivan

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

By Brad Hathaway

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Broadway Revival Recording

Sadly, you no longer have the option of setting aside an evening to attend the Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in person, even if you could get to New York and plunk down up to $142 for a seat. The limited run closed earlier this season after nearly unanimous enthusiasm from reviewers and contributors to Internet discussion groups.

You do have the option, however, of setting aside an evening to explore the two-CD recording of the score performed by that cast in the new DRG Records release which will set you back about $17.95. It may well become a favorite for its high spirits and spectacular sound – but only after you get past some serious frustrations in order to get to know it intimately.

What’s on this disc is a pure delight. What’s in the disc’s booklet is helpful – to a point. What is missing is crucial. It turns an entertaining and diverting experience into one that is frustrating unless you devote yourself to the task of taking it in with dedication.

In order to understand just how frustrating the packaging can be, you need to understand just how complex a show this is. It is based on the final novel written by the Victorian author of The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist — Charles Dickens.

Dickens, of course, wrote his terribly lengthy novels for serialization in monthly or weekly installments. This encouraged him to write chapters with great cliff-hanging plot points left unresolved until the next episode so that the readers couldn’t wait to purchase the next issue.

The problem is that Mr. Dickens died of a stroke before writing the final episode of his final novel. The public was deprived of  his intended resolution to the mystery of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

That was in 1870. A hundred and fifteen years later a musical version of the mystery opened on Broadway with book, music, lyrics and orchestrations by Rupert Holmes. It walked away with five Tony Awards including those for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score for a Musical. It ran for a year and a half.

I suppose that Holmes could have simply made up an ending for Dickens’ story – the first chapters were, after all, in public domain and he was free to do whatever he wanted with the story. But he struck on an idea that made the evening a bit more special. He left the ending up to the audience.

That meant, of course, that he had to write many different endings so there would be one available for whatever ending the audience voted for on any given night. And the cast needed to learn multiple endings as well.

Who would the audience chose as the guilty party? The choirmaster, John Jasper? The object of his affection, Miss Rosa Bud? The vivacious dispenser of opium, Princess Puffer? The Most Reverend Mr. Crisparkle? One of the twins from Ceylon, Helena or Neville Landless? Or one of the others?

As complex as the multiple-ending feature might be, Holmes adds a whole other layer by having the musical not be about the story of the fate of “Edwin Drood” but, instead, be about a company in an English music hall performing the story – with each character played by a performer who has his or her own distinct personality.

When the Roundabout Theatre Company decided to mount a revival, they took a cue from Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival which produced the original with an all-star cast (Betty Buckley, Cleo Lane, George Rose, Howard McGillin.) They, too, lined up a “to die for” cast: Stephanie J. Block, Will Chase, Gregg Edelman, Jim Norton and none other than Chita Rivera.

Practically every comment I’ve seen about the production involved just how much fun the cast seemed to be having with this over-the-top material and that the feeling of giddy fun was infectious. That feeling is well captured in the recording.

What is more, the recording gives each of the “confessions” that Holmes wrote to accommodate the choice of ending the audience selects on a given night. It also gives us the wonderful instrumental piece “The Opium Den Ballet” which was omitted from the Original Broadway Cast album back in 1985. The two discs for the revival cast recording run a total of almost 72 minutes.

When you do put these discs into your machine (or download the 32 tracks) for the first time, do set aside a good slug of time, for it will take you longer than the listed running time to fully explore the pleasures the score offers. You will want to follow just who is playing which part (remember, the stars play performers who play characters). You will want to follow the lyrics in order to savor such lines as “Sometimes I think sanity is just a passing fad,” “I’ll bathe in Moonfall / And dress myself in dew” or “In time we all taste the lime in the light.”

Therein lies the frustration of this recording. The booklet, includes a very thorough synopsis by Mr. Holmes that is, itself, a fun read, but nowhere is there a cast listing showing who is playing whom and, worse, no lyrics!

There are ways to overcome these problems – but they take a good deal of time.

First, you can check the track listing. It details which performers sing which song. Cross referencing that to the synopsis that details which character sings which song, you can piece together a cast listing.

It is somewhat more difficult to overcome the absence of lyrics in the booklet. You can access the lyrics by visiting the website of the record label at www.drgrecords.com. There you will find a pdf file of the complete lyrics. You can view it online or print it, but it runs to some 29 pages some of which seem to be missing a line or two of text at the bottom.

This is the latest example of the developing trend of using websites to deliver what might otherwise be printed in the booklet of a CD. It is a bit less convenient, but the real concern is just how long the record companies will continue to make these things available online. Or, for that matter, just how long the companies will survive. When the company or the website disappear, so too will the document.

After a frustrating first encounter, if you figured out who is singing what and had the pleasure of exploring the entire score, including the alternative “confessions,” you may well have found that it was all worth the effort.

But it needn’t have been quite that much trouble.

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Broadway Revival Recording
DRG Records Catalog DRG 19883
Running time 72 minutes over 32 on 2 discs
Packaged with synopsis, credits and 10 color photos

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West End Broadway: The Golden Age of the American Musical in London (Book)

British author and record producer Adrian Wright closes a gap in the available material on musical theater with an interesting and easily read book on just what its title promises – “West End Broadway: The Golden Age of the American Musical in London.”

The flow between New York’s Broadway and London’s West End was predominantly a one-way street for the bulk of the Twentieth Century. It is that west-to-east flow that concerns Wright here. He documents and comments on 103 musicals that made the trip east between the World War II years of (in British eyes) 1939-1945 and then 1972 when the flow slowed to a trickle.

Wright isn’t doctrinaire in restricting his coverage to actual transfers of Broadway productions. As is typical of the strange business called “show,” there are so many ways that producers find to try to entice ticket buyers into choosing their wares that absolute boundaries are difficult to discern, let alone enforce. Thus, the earliest production that gets Wright’s treatment is Wild Rose. You can look long and hard at Broadway records for such a show but there never was a Broadway Wild Rose. Instead, the 1942 London Show of that title was an old Jerome Kern show, Sally. Wright reports that the program for Wild Rose promised “A New Treatment of an Old Story” which was devised and staged by London-born Robert Nesbit. Sally, of course, was the 1920 Kern, Bolton and Grey show that made a book-musical star of Ziegfeld Follies star Marilynn Miller (who then spelled her name with two “n”s).

Wild Rose may have been a re-staging (without the by-then-deceased Miller) of a two-decade old show, but Wright includes it along with the only three-year old Du Barry Was A Lady in which British performers delivered versions of Cole Porter’s numbers introduced on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr and a solidly American cast. How did London’s Frances Day compare with New York’s biggest female star of her day? Wright refuses judgment. He appears to be much too young to have witnessed either performance, so he contents himself with “Merman and Day? We might as well compare the moon with the sun” – he didn’t specify which was which.

After his brief sketch of the roots of popular musical theater, and a somewhat more detailed recitation of the few transfers during the war years, Wright launches a year-by-year description of the traffic which includes a fairly detailed (and apparently fair) discussion of the strengths and/or weaknesses of each show.

For example, 1946’s four pages are devoted to Wright and Forrest’s bio-musical of composer Edvard Grieg, Song of Norway. He tells a bit of the kind of show it was on Broadway and its success there to set the stage for discussing the transfer. He then lets us know that, in this case, the West End production was “not a replica of the New York original” as it had a different director and George Balanchine’s choreography was “newly invented for London.”

At the end of each year’s discussion, Wright provides a brief annotated listing of the musicals that opened on Broadway that year which later had transfers and those which never did make the leap across “the pond.”

Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. That is why it is good that Wright includes in his discussions the economic and social background of life in London at different times over the course of his 1939-1972 survey. The most interesting of these digressions in his narrative are those that portray the dangers and deprivations of World War II and the austerity period that followed the victory which had cost that country and its population so much of its treasure, human and financial.

In fact, Wright opens his narrative on September 3, 1939 when Prime Minister Chamberlain announced the declaration of war against Germany. The very next day, the government decreed that all theaters must close. The closure only lasted a dozen days (and nights) but it certainly demonstrated just where the performing arts stood in the list of public priorities.

The discussion of Sunny River, the Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II 1941 flop (36 performances at Broadway’s St. James Theater) which had an 86-performance run in 1943 at London’s Piccadilly Theatre, provides a fascinating look at what theatergoing was like during the war. Wright prints the text of this notice from the program of that show:

“Warning of Air Raid will be given by a RED electric sign over the Orchestra Pit. ALL CLEAR will be similarly shown in GREEN. Patrons are advised to remain in the Theatre, but those wishing to leave will be directed to the nearest official air raid shelter, after which the performance will be continuing for as long as is practicable. Should any news of particular interest be received during the performance it will be announced from the stage at the end of the succeeding scene or act of the play.”

It must have taken quite a spirit to enter into the magic of a show under those circumstances.

The post-war era of privation gets its descriptive due as well. Rationing didn’t end promptly with the end of the war. Wright reports that “clothes were rationed until 1949; in June 1947 newspapers were restricted to a maximum of four pages; in September that year the taking of foreign holidays became illegal; and in an effort to save coal, the government cut train services by 10%.”  He speaks of “diets made up of dried egg, cream concocted from margarine and vanilla and Woolton Pie” (a meatless meat pie) and tells us that “Winston Churchill pronounced (the food ration) quite adequate for a day” – but he was looking at the weekly and not the daily ration.

He also ties dramatic domestic events to post-war/post-recovery periods. He discusses the impact of the April 20, 1964 power outage that crippled the Underground and deprived the television channel BBC2 of the use of its studio on its inaugural night, which was to have featured Howard Keel and Patricia Morison in a special performance of Kiss Me, Kate which had to be replaced by playing a recording of a song from Flower Drum Song followed by one from West Side Story and one from Mr. Wonderful. Notice that all four of the shows involved were Broadway musicals, not musicals written for the West End.

While Wright’s narrative is the main attraction of this slick-papered volume, an appendix with an alphabetical listing of the musicals covered by the book with details of both the Broadway and London productions makes the book one that can be on your research shelf.

His countrymen should not feel slighted by the fact that Wright concentrates here on the American musical theater product and not their home grown variety. His treatment is only the flip side of a coin he explored in his 2010 book with a British colloquialism for a title – A Tanner’s Worth of Tune: Rediscovering the Post-War British Musical. (Note to American readers – a “tanner” is British slang for a sixpence.)

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West End Broadway
The Golden Age of the American Musical in London
by Adrian Wright
Boydell Press
364 Pages
40 Illustrations – most in color
ISBN 978-1-84383-791-6
List Price $45

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Gilbert & Sullivan’s Greatest Hits (DVD)

A DVD that should have been titled Gilbert and Sullivan and Ford has been released on Video Artists International under the title Gilbert and Sullivan’s Greatest Hits. Fewer than 50 of the 96 minutes of the material on the disc are from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s television show, but they are the delights of the disc.

In 1959 Ford was hosting what was then one of the most watched half-hour variety shows on television. It was called The Ford Show because it not only starred a personality named Ford, it was sponsored by a car company by that name as well.

On April 16 of that year, instead of a guest star, a comedy bit and a couple of songs, the show presented one 26-minute abridged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous comic opera, The Mikado. Ford acted as a folksy narrator as well as taking on the role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titti Poo.

As a narrator, he retained his personality of the friendly, southern country boy with a pronounced drawl and a host of small town or farm allusions. His description of the plight of Ko-Ko as an executioner who has no experience executing anyone, and hopes he never will have to, includes the observation “if you take a job as a poop scooper, there’s going to come a time when you have got to get in there and scoop a little poop.”

That’s not exactly the precision of the King’s English for which William Schwenck Gilbert was known, but it gets the point across.

Later he refers to Ko-Ko giving the lover, Nanki- Poo, “a haircut from the neck up.” Y’up. We know what he means.

Not all of what passed as politically correct in 1959 would be acceptable today – I don’t think any television host would describe the marital life dreamed of by Nanki-Poo and the lovely Yum-Yum as “getting themselves a few acres of swamp land and raising a couple of fat, pink-cheeked rice pickers.”

But such insensitivities aside, the program was colorful, tuneful, funny and thoroughly enjoyable. In addition to Ford, there are two notable performances. One, a lovely Yum-Yum in the person of Detra Kamsler. The other, a clear-voiced Ken Remo as Nanki-Poo. Ford’s back up group, The Top Twenty, handle “We Are Gentlemen of Japan” nicely and the rest of the supporting cast is acceptable.

The adaptation by Howard Leeds and Norman Paul takes Gilbert’s script seriously, even though it is cut down to fit the half-hour time slot. The decision to use Ford as narrator makes it possible to communicate enough of the plot to make the songs sensible – and the Tennessee humor is confined to Tennessee Ernie’s narration.

Thus, Gilbert’s tone as well as his convoluted plot are given their due and the music of Arthur Sullivan is treated with equal respect.

The episode was so well received that nine months later the team took on Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, again with Ford acting as a down-home narrator who briefly takes a role. This time he fills in as Sir Joseph Porter, the desk clerk elevated to the First Lord of the Admiralty. He adopts a bit of an over-blown upper-crust British accent while in the character of Porter, and as a result, his singing isn’t quite as impressive as it had been in The Mikado. However, he holds his own with guest singers Donna Cooke and Dick Wessler. Susan Lovell is particularly good in her abbreviated rendition of “I’m Called Little Buttercup.”

When narrating, Ford’s unique way of getting his point across comes back into play. He sets up the story of love blocked by class distinctions by explaining that in Queen Victoria’s day “there were the aristocrats and the commoners and there were no holes in the fence for the rooster to get into the wrong henhouse.” He tells us that comic villain Dick Deadeye’s idea of fun is “to steal the pea out of a little boy’s whistle.”

Again the adaptation by Leeds and Paul succeeds in encapsulating the convoluted comedy in a short time without belittling it, and again the production was tuneful, funny and enjoyable. Unfortunately, unlike The Mikado, no color copy of this Pinafore is known to exist and the black and white kinescope used for this disc isn’t of the best quality. But it has been cleaned up to an acceptable level and we’re lucky to have it available on DVD.

Video Artists International has filled the rest of the disc with material that either is already available on other discs they have issued or is of less interest than some of the things one would have hoped they would have tried to obtain. Among the things I’d have loved to see on the disc would be the one other opera that The Ford Show did in this half hour adaptation format, Bizet’s Carmen. Other theatrically themed episodes of The Ford Show would also have been of interest such as one or both of Carol Channing’s appearances, the episode featuring Gordon MacRae or the one with the star of L’il Abner, Peter Palmer. The 1957 episode when Steve Allen attempted to get Ford to replace his live audience with a laugh track must have been prescient and those of us who grew up with the television of the time might enjoy seeing the episodes with Jon Provost and his co-star Lassie or Lee Aaker and his co-star Rin Tin Tin.

Instead, we have here selections from another Mikado telecast, the Bell Telephone Hours’ 1960 version that starred Grouch Marx (but none of Groucho’s moments are on these clips), three numbers from the Alfred Drake/Barbara Cook The Yeomen of the Guard from 1957 and five from the Bell Telephone Hour’s 1963 version of H. M. S. Pinafore that starred Martyn Green. All of these are available on recently released discs.

The one segment that is new to disc is a 1962 medley of Gilbert and Sullivan songs by Martyn Green and Cyril Richard. It is a charmer and Green seems to be enjoying himself more than he had in the Pinafore segment.

One more item of note: The disc includes the original commercial for the 1960 Ford Fairlane 500 and Ford Falcon which was done “in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  Now, that was worth including on the disc of The Ford Show items!

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Gilbert & Sullivan: Greatest Hits
Video Artists International DVD 4558
Running time: 96 minutes
ASIN: B00B58FVJQ
List Price $19.95

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