Theater Shelf: Merrily, Call Me Madam, Pipe Dream, Gentlemen Prefer & NYTimes On Musicals

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

Ben Brantley’s book Broadway Musicals

How did this one slip by me last year? In October, The New York Times’ Ben Brantley released a beautiful-to-look-at and rewarding-to-read volume titled Broadway Musicals that deserves a spot on either your theater shelf or your coffee table.

Its 350+ big pages present the original New York Times reviews of 116 musicals (some with both the review of the original show and the review of subsequent revivals) illustrated with nearly 300 photos, drawings and program covers.

This is not, however, simply a browser designed to occupy your eye or your mind for a half-hour or so while you sit in a waiting room or wait in a sitting room. There is a great deal to learn from careful consideration of Mr. Brantley’s 12 pages of original text consisting of a general introduction to the book and then one for each chapter.

In that brief span, totaling not much more than 10,000 words, Brantley gives a précis of the evolution of the Broadway musical that could serve as a textbook for anyone who wants to be able to put each of the shows whose reviews are printed here into their historical context. He details the ebb and flow of the progress from 1914’s Watch Your Step with its Irving Berlin score, to either the lamentable Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark or the highly praised (especially by Mr. Brantley in the Times’ pages) The Book of Mormon.

Brantley provides pungent comments on the larger national culture of which these productions are a part. He avoids overstatement in his praise of the giants of the art form from Ziegfeld through Hammerstein to Sondheim while giving them their due and placing their accomplishments in perspective.

He’s not above an occasional glitch. He wrongly credits Guy Bolton with some role in the development of Show Boat, and overstates the credit P.G. Wodehouse should get. His only mention of Bob Fosse’s work as a director/choreographer comes in his discussion of the 1950s, which is quite unfathomable given that his credits in that capacity began only with Redhead in May of 1959 while his big successes were in the 60s and 70s. However, Brantley certainly gets the broad sweep of history about as right as I’ve seen it done in such a brief space, and he even manages to include a discussion of the evolution of the “voice” of the Times reviews (and reviewers) that is interesting.

This isn’t Brantley’s first foray into putting the text of Times reviews between hardback covers. In 2001 St. Martin’s Press published his The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century. For that volume he compiled 125 reviews of which 80 were plays. Of the remaining 45 only 5 were of musicals that didn’t make this latest collection. (The Little Millionaire, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, Animal Crackers, The 3 Penny Opera and Oh! Calcutta!)

Despite how fascinating Brantley’s dozen pages are, don’t ignore the text on the other 350. It is fascinating to read what Alexander Woollcott thought of Sally on its opening night in 1920, what J. Brooks Atkinson (he hadn’t dropped the “J.” from his byline then) thought of Fred and Adele Astaire in 1927’s Funny Face or what just plain Brooks Atkinson saw in Anything Goes in 1934 or in Porgy and Bess a year later. We all well know what he thought of Pal Joey in 1940 when he penned probably the most famous single sentence from a New York Times review: “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Surprisingly, his equally quotable putdown of West Side Story which you will find in this volume hasn’t ended up in the books of essential quotations. (He said: “Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable.”)

The book includes Lewis Nichols’ opening night analysis of Oklahoma!, a slew of Atkinson reviews including Kiss Me, Kate, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, Gypsy and The Sound of Music. Howard Taubman was the Times’ scribe when How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof burst onto the Great White Way in the golden three years between October, 1961 and September, 1964.

Then it was Clive Barnes’ turn. He covered opening nights of Hair, Company, Follies, A Chorus Line, Chicago and Annie. Walter Kerr reviewed Cabaret and Evita, Frank Rich opined on Dreamgirls, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz. Brantley’s own reviews are here as well — Rent, The Lion King and The Producers among them.

While these and all the other reviews act as something of a time machine to take you back to those legendary opening nights, they also make fascinating reading for another aspect. It is frankly astonishing how often the judgments of these men (and, yes they were all men), written within hours of the final curtain of opening night, comports with the general assessment of history, an assessment rendered with the benefit of hindsight.

This may be because these men were so good at what they did. They may well have been right an inordinate percentage of the time and the evidence here confirms that they were superb writers. But their reviews are more than just “did I like it or not” articles. They are thoughtful analyses of the strengths and weaknesses these judges discerned in the production. Those judgments often withstand the test of time to an amazing degree. Of course, this may also be an indication of the power their platform gave them to influence the final judgment of history. Read the reviews and you can be the judge.

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Broadway Musicals
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0337-9
List price $50

Three – Count ‘Em Three – From Encores!

Not in this century have we musical theater lovers been so lucky as to have all three of the scores of the season’s series of Encores! concerts at New York’s City Center recorded for our listening pleasure and collecting treasure. This is no small thing, for whenever an Encores! presentation is preserved on CD, it instantly becomes an indispensable part of a theater lover’s collection.

This year’s season represented a wide range of material – a Rodgers and Hammerstein score that almost qualifies for the title of a lost musical, a Jule Styne gem and a Stephen Sondheim flop, which despite its initial rejection offered a score as sparkling as any he had delivered.

First, a word about Encores! itself. In his notes to the Rodgers and Hammerstein item in this troika of treasures, the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, explains that “When City Center’s Encores! began in 1994, its mission was to present American musicals of merit that were not part of the standard repertoire, in a 2,000+ seat theater in the middle of New York City in some artistically and economically sensible format, with the orchestra featured prominently on stage, a sense of staging and choreography, and with some scenic embellishments. First rate Broadway musical theater talent would be engaged and put in a pressure cooker – a week and a half of rehearsals, half a week of performances. Scripts in hand were encouraged. In other words, give rarely done or lesser-known shows the best possible presentation by Broadway’s first tier, and let the strengths shine through.”

The 2012 season began with an unusual entry into the Encores! catalogue. Since its inception in 1994, the series has attempted to present scores with their original orchestrations wherever possible. Many required a great deal of research and even detective work to come up with something approximating the original sound heard from the pit of the Broadway house where the show had originated. The charts might simply have been trashed when a show closed unless a tour was in the offing. Sometimes, new orchestrations had to be prepared when it simply wasn’t possible to recreate history.

A radically different approach was taken with the February presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s 16-performance flop from 1981, Merrily We Roll Along. The highly esteemed orchestrator of that show, Jonathan Tunick, was given the unusual opportunity to try a “do over.” Completely new charts were commissioned with an orchestra of a very different character. In his notes in the booklet accompanying the CD, Tunick said that in 1981 he made “the never-to-be-repeated error” of choosing the mix of instruments to have in the pit before he had “actually heard and studied the score.” On the basis of a description of the score, he presumed it would be “some sort of rock musical” and had “ordered a fender bass and electric guitar” and limited strings to just three cellos.

This new recording — a two disc set that captures the entire score with the glorious sound of Tunick’s newly created charts played by an orchestra of 24 under Rob Berman’s solid direction- – is a delight from the energetic overture to the final “button” on “Our Time” one hour and 29 minutes later.

The cast is – as is always the case at Encores! – a strong one. There is a very interesting performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the best friend of the central character, a composer whose battle with the corrupting influence of success is at the core of the show. He’s played by Colin Donnell, taking a break from his duties as the male lead in Anything Goes which was then playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.  Celia Keenan-Bolger and Elizabeth Stanley stand out as the women in his life.

Encores! moved on from a wonderful score for a show that didn’t make it for Stephen Sondheim to a wonderful score for a show that didn’t make it for his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II working with Richard Rodgers. Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein did have some shows that didn’t make it: Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream all failed to live up to the team’s expectations. Pipe Dream – an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday – had a lot longer run than Merrily – 246 performances over seven months in 1955-56. But that was considered a letdown for the team whose four fabulous hits to that date averaged over 1,500 performances each!

Using Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, the concert cast re-introduce us to some marvelous Rodgers and Hammerstein songs such as “The Party That We’re Gonna Have Tomorrow Night,” “The Next Time It Happens,” “All at Once You Love Her” and – a personal favorite from their catalog – “The Man I Used To Be.”

Will Chase is just a tad bland as the male lead, but the same can’t be said for Laura Osnes as the love interest, or of Tom Wopat or Stephen Wallem who bring plenty of personality to their parts. Most interestingly, Leslie Uggams takes the role originally written for Wagnerian opera soprano Helen Traubel. Uggams sounds a bit tentative with the most operatic aspects, but brings a refreshingly popular theater sound to the role that seems to me to work better here than Traubel’s did on the original Broadway cast recording of the score.

Encores! closed out the season with a score by Jule Styne working at the peak of his melodic and rhythmic skills, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Based on a novel by Anita Loos the musical comedy had a book by Loos and Joseph Fields and lyrics by Leo Robin. It was a hit in 1949 (running until 1951 for a total of 740 performances) establishing Carol Channing as a major star. It was made into a movie with Marilyn Monroe in Channing’s role and co-starred Jane Russell.

Megan Hilty and Rachel York shared the spotlight for Encores! and the recording reveals just how their musical competition progressed with York stealing the show from Hilty only to have Hilty steal it back … and back and forth it goes. The thirty players of the orchestra give Styne’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” “It’s High Time,” “I Love What I’m Doing (When I’m Doing It For Love)” and the title tune a jazzy sparkle using Don Walker’s original orchestrations.

Interestingly enough, the three recordings are on three different labels with different approaches to capturing and presenting the scores. PS Classics does its usual superbly classy job of packaging Merrily as a two-disc set delivered in a jewel case with a slick, thick booklet wrapped in a cardboard package. The booklet, lushly illustrated with two dozen color photographs from the concert, includes notes on the show, its score and the orchestrations, a full synopsis (particularly important in this case as the show runs in reverse chronological order and is, thus, confusing without full explanation) and the complete lyrics.

Ghostlight Records’ more slender package for Pipe Dream holds a single CD but, unlike all the recordings of Encores! concerts in the past, this one is a live recording captured in the newly-upgraded City Center. Audience reaction is evident – and it is evident that the audience is reacting with admiration and adoration. Berman’s conducting of the 30 players starts out lacking a bit of the enthusiasm we came to expect from an Encores! performance when Rob Fisher was the musical director and conductor, but they get into it shortly after the overture in great style and the entr’acte is a blast as is the brief but wonderful music played during the bows. The booklet, with its more than a dozen photos from the original production and the concert, does provide notes and synopsis, but saves space by pointing out that the lyrics are available online at the Rodgers and Hammerstein website (www.rnh.com).

Masterworks Broadway prints the full text of Leo Robin’s delightfully witty lyrics for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in its colorful (8 photos) booklet and still has room for a clear synopsis and a note from Rob Berman appreciating the vocal arrangements of Hugh Martin which, along with Don Walker’s orchestrations, give Styne’s brilliant songs the sparkle that they deserve.

A well stocked theater shelf just might benefit from an Encores! section all to itself!

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Merrily We Roll Along
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:29 over 26 tracks on two discs
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos
PS Classics Catalog Number PS-1208
ASIN: B007Q1IT1I
List Price $14.95

Pipe Dream
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:15 over 22 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis and photos
Ghostlight Records Catalog Number 8-4463
ASIN: B008QE9GUM
List Price $14.99

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:12 over 27 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos
Masterworks Broadway Catalog Number 88725 44451 2
ASIN: B008BCHADE
List Price $11.98

Call Me Madam – with Dinah Shore

Masterworks Broadway has filled a long-empty slot on the groaning shelves of show recording completists. They have dug into the vault of the old RCA Victor Green Label Series and given us what was called in 1950 “The Original Show Album” of Irving Berlin’s delightful romp, Call Me Madam. What is more, they have remastered the original tapes so the mono sound is about as clean and clear as we are ever likely to have from this 62-year-old delight.

If you are at all familiar with Irving Berlin’s book shows, you know that Call Me Madam was written specifically for one huge Broadway star – the lady who four years earlier made Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun a box office champ. That was, of course, Ethel Merman. But this new re-release of “The Original Show Album” doesn’t feature her. Instead, it is Dinah Shore in the role of Mrs. Sally Adams, the socialite party giver appointed to be the Ambassador of the United States to the tiny European nation of Lichtenburg, which Berlin’s lyric informs the audience is “Too small to be a city, too big to be a town.” Therein lies a tale as fantastic as the plot of the show.

It seems that RCA, the corporation that owned among other things, RCA Victor Records, was the sole investor in the new Irving Berlin/Ethel Merman show, plowing about a quarter of a million into the project with the obvious intention of not only making a profit but of doing the original Broadway cast album which was sure to be a hit. The problem was that Merman was under contract to rival label Decca, and Decca wasn’t about to release Merman to let their competition have the hit. What to do? RCA decided to go ahead and record the Broadway cast minus Merman with most of the original orchestrations by Don Walker (assisted by Joe Glover). To fill in as “The Hostess with the Mostess,” they used one of their own contracted stars, Dinah Shore.

Decca might have had Merman under contract, but they couldn’t break RCA Victor’s hold on the show’s cast and original charts, so they had well known arranger and orchestra leader Gordon Jenkins support Merman and popular vocalist Dick Haymes for what it called 12 Songs from Call Me Madam which has long been available on CD. It certainly serves to let us hear Merman in the role, but we can do that by watching the movie version of the show which followed the original script fairly closely and retained most of Berlin’s songs — something that cannot be said for many of Hollywood’s versions of Broadway musicals.

Call Me Madam was, like Annie Get Your Gun, a musical that was conceived around the simple central idea of “Merman as … (fill in the blank)!” Dorothy Fields filled it in with “Annie Oakley” and, voila!, a huge hit. Howard Lindsay of the team of Lindsay and Crouse filled it in with “Perle Mesta!” Mesta was the real-life hostess with the mostess who threw legendary big-wig parties in Washington to which anyone who was anyone wanted to be invited. She was also an early and vocal supporter of Harry Truman who, when he rose to the Presidency, appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg – a European country just a bit larger than a city. She served nearly four years in that post.

Now, with the release of the RCA Victor version by Masterworks Broadway, we can again hear Russell Nype in the role that earned him a Tony Award and made him a star. He sings his solo “Once Upon A Time Today,” his duet with Galina Talva “Its a Lovely Day Today” and his duet, one of Berlin’s counterpoint masterpieces “I Wonder Why? / You’re Just In Love,” with Merman’s part sung by Shore. We can also now hear co-star Paul Lukas on “Marrying for Love” and the comic “Welcome to Lichtenburg.”

The corporate battle over the “Original Show Album” or the “12 Songs from ‘Call Me Madam’ which is now out on a CD that has the misleading banner “A Decca Broadway Original Cast Album,” left room for one more important recording, the one that is my favorite way to enjoy this sparkling score. That is the DRG Records CD of the 1995 Encores! concert presentation of the show with Tyne Daly in the starring role. She’s absolutely fabulous as Ambassadress Adams and is supported by a tremendous cast (including Lewis Cleale, Walter Charles, Melissa Errico and Ken Page) and the Coffee Club Orchestra under Rob Fisher who is always at his best when the score calls for a feel for swing, which this one definitely does.

Whether you chose Ethel Merman without her original cast, that cast with Dinah Shore or the more modern concert version with the full score in stereo, the songs of Berlin guarantee a smile. And all three albums include the not-to-be-missed piece of 1950 current events commentary “They Like Ike.”

Masterworks Broadway Re-Release (Mono)
Featuring Dinah Shore and the Original Broadway Cast
Available through ArkivMusic.Com
Catalog #42773
Running time 46 minutes over 13 tracks
List price $17.99
On sale for $12.99

Decca’s 12 Songs From “Call Me Madam”
Featuring Ethel Merman
Running time 54 minutes over 12 tracks
(Including four tracks from “Panama Hattie”)
ASIN: B000002OJO
List price $14.99

Encores! Concert Performance
starring Tyne Daly
DRG Records
Running time 55 minutes over 19 tracks
ASIN: B000000PKX
Price $11.69

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