Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” on Broadway

The first musical I ever appeared in was my high school’s production of Funny Girl eleven years ago. (I’ll save my first audition experience for another day). The show is something of an unusual choice for that scholastic level, as it requires a multifaceted leading lady who can sing, dance and act her way through ten of the show’s numbers and basically carry the entire evening. I was enthralled by the whole prospect, and ended up playing eight or nine different bit parts throughout the evening. (Every time they needed a body for something, I was always available).

It marked the first time I heard the thrilling Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score and how I acquired both the original Broadway cast album and film soundtrack for reference. (They followed the Westchester Broadway Theater’s lead and interpolated “Roller Skate Rag” and “I’d Rather Be Blue” in place of the “Cornet Man” – in hindsight, a really poor choice). What it taught me, though, is that an original cast album – especially in the Golden Age – didn’t capture every single moment. There were reprises, encores, dances, incidentals and underscoring that were left off the record (including my big solo, as Heckie the cab driver, leading the final section of “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty”). It also gave me the opportunity to examine the difference between a stage score and its adaptation for film. I really don’t like any of the songs added to the film (“My Man” is its own special case) and definitely miss “Who Are You Now” and the stunning “The Music That Makes Me Dance.”

Getting to the original, I have to confess I’m not the biggest Streisand fan. However, I do enjoy the youthfulness and zeal that went into her work up until around 1968. I enjoy “Miss Marmelstein” on the original cast album of I Can Get It For You Wholesale and her work on the Funny Girl cast album, but her singing from the film onward doesn’t really do it for me. The film adaptation of Funny Girl is entertaining if overlong and the less said about Hello, Dolly! and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever the better. (Don’t get me started on the rumored film remake of Gypsy; they’ll need to dust off the Lucy in Mame vaseline-coated lenses for that).

However, here are brief glimpses into the young starlet who created a sensation in NY as Fanny Brice and the production that ran for 13. It looks like someone’s home movies taken at the Winter Garden, the sound snippets sound like they are part of that legendary recording of Barbra’s final Broadway performance (where she sang “My Man” at the curtain call). Unlike other musicals with gargantuan leading lady turns like Gypsy, Funny Girl has had more difficulty getting a major revival as the role is so closely identified with Streisand (who lost the Tony, but won the Oscar). But then again in spite of a shared composer and some good songs, Funny Girl is no Gypsy. A Broadway revival is currently planned for 2012.





Doin’ it for “Sugar”

Lo and behold, Bruce Kimmel has done it again. It seems every few weeks he’s going to push me further and further into the poor house with one of his now-essential limited edition cast album releases. This year has brought forth two different recordings of Promises, Promises and now his label Kritzerland has reissued the long out-of-print Sugar, the 1972 musical adaptation of the all-time classic Some Like It Hot. I first heard the score about six years ago, just as a good friend of mine was preparing to audition for the show at his college.

Some Like It Hot is one of the funniest movies ever made, with three iconic performances from Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and an endearingly blowsy Marilyn Monroe under the superb direction of Billy Wilder. Comedian Joe E. Brown got one of his most famous roles – and one of the most famous last lines in film history – as the ultra wealthy, mother-worshiping Osgood Fielding, Jr. who sets his sights on Lemmon’s character. It ranks #1 on the AFI’s list of all-time comedies and is one of those rare films that only gets funnier and funnier with repeat viewings. A musical version was not much of a surprise; producer David Merrick was already responsible for smash hit Promises, Promises based on Wilder’s The Apartment.

However, the critical response wasn’t as enthusiastic for Sugar. There were troubles out of town and there were constant changes being made. But there was some bad blood between composer Jule Styne, lyricist Bob Merrill and director-choreographer Gower Champion (who were all fresh from the out-of-town failure Prettybelle). The show did, however, play well to audiences and managed a respectable 505 performance run, turning a modest profit. The show made its London premiere in 1992 starring Tommy Steele, revised and reverted back to the film’s title. Most recently, a 2002 national tour went out with Tony Curtis graduating into the Joe E. Brown role.

The score isn’t on par with Gypsy, or even for that matter, Subways Are for Sleeping or Darling of the Day. But even lesser Jule Styne is better than most – it’s ripe with fun, tuneful melodies that speak to old-school musical comedy. Ultimately, I don’t think a musical adaptation was particularly necessary – how can you improve on a popular classic? But that doesn’t mean the album doesn’t make for a fun listen. Things gets off to a marvelous start with a smashing overture, an amusing opener “Penniless Bums” and a rip-roarin’ burlesque showstopper “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad,” in which the duo make their first appearance in their alter ego drag. Robert Morse, from all reports, offered a comic tour de force onstage (in the Lemmon role) that folks still recall fondly. He registers best, particularly his half of the genial “We Could Be Close” (he does get some of the best lyrics).

Tony Roberts (stepping into the Curtis role) had some of the more serious and less memorable musical moments, including the ballad “It’s Always Love,” which to me feels like it was interpolated from another musical entirely. Elaine Joyce is pleasant, but has the unenviable task of trying to live up to Monroe’s legacy and cannot. Cyril Ritchard takes on the Joe E. Brown role of Osgood Fielding, Jr. His duet with Morse is hilarious. Sheila Smith, a reliable standby for Angela Lansbury (Mame), Elaine Stritch (Company) and several principle roles in Follies, has the opportunity to step into the limelight as the female bandleader.

The CD was original released by Rykodisc around the same time of the first CD release of Promise, Promises with similar aural deficiencies. The new release is another 2-disc special edition. The first disc is for purists, a cleaned up release of the original album mix. The second disc offers a remixed edition, bringing greater clarity to the performances, bringing out undiscovered colors in Phil Lang’s superb orchestration and bringing down the excessive reverb that was one of album producer Mitch Miller’s trademarks. (Speaking of Miller, don’t stop playing the second disc after the finale…there’s a surprise). The result is stunning. While I’ve known the score for five years, in a way it was like hearing it for the first time. Kimmel has written the accompanying liner notes, which delve into the show’s transition from screen to stage.

I’m always curious to hear Kimmel will bring out next. Almost all of the recent cast albums he has issued were originally United Artists record releases (now owned by MGM Records) and most are on CD for the first time. The original cast recording seems to become more and more of a niche market with each passing day. The sales of cast albums and the expense to produce them these days make it a risky endeavor. Some shows will recoup the costs, many don’t. Interest in many of the lost shows seems to be waning as avid collectors and show music enthusiasts seem to be disappearing. As someone who collects every show album I can get my hands on, I am always grateful when a new show gets recorded, but now I’m even more grateful when someone like Kimmel takes the initiative to bring out a show that has fallen into obscurity. (I do hope that he is able to release A Time for Singing).

Thinking About "Carnival"

Earlier in the week it was announced that Leslie Caron would be joining Kristin Scott Thomas in the upcoming Paris production of A Little Night Music. If this is at all indicative of my thought processes, I was describing Caron’s career to a friend who had never heard of her and it had me thinking about the musical Carnival.

Caron’s film career got off to an auspicious start as Gene Kelly’s love interest in the 1951 Oscar winning Best Picture, An American in Paris (which has had a musical version in the works for years). She also starred in another Best Picture winner Gigi (later adapted for Broadway), the film version of the musical Fanny (which dropped the songs and adapted Harold Rome’s music for underscoring) and also a little gem of a film called Lili.

Lili, which premiered in 1953, was a hit for MGM garnering an Oscar nomination for Caron and co-starring Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kurt Kaznar. Based on a short story by Paul Gallico, it’s about an incredibly naive French orphan who is pretty much adopted by a traveling circus troupe. She’s in love with a slick magician who dismisses her as a child, all the while finding herself in a tempestuous relationship with a puppeteer who is embittered because war injuries permanently halted his career as a dancer. The film won an Oscar for its musical scoring (by Bronislau Kaper) and featured a hit song “Hi Lili, Hi Lo.”

In what was then a rare occurence, Lili was adapted from the screen as a Broadway musical, retitled Carnival (according to some sources it was Carnival!) The stage musical featured an entirely original score by Bob Merrill, quite easily his greatest achievement as a composer, with a book by Michael Stewart. (In lieu of using the hit film song, Merrill wrote an original song, the haunting “Love Makes the World Go Round” to take its place). Gower Champion made his Broadway directing debut under the guidance of producer David Merrick. Anna Maria Alberghetti in her only Broadway appearance played Lili, Jerry Orbach made his Main Stem bow as the puppeteer. Kaye Ballard took on the Zsa Zsa Gabor role.

The show opened at the Imperial Theatre on April 13, 1961 to rave reviews, winning a Tony for Alberghetti (in a tie with Diahann Carroll in No Strings) and its scenic design. It lost out on the big prize to the Pulitzer Prize winning satire How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. An original London production opened in 1963 and failed after 34 performances. But aside from regional productions and a popular Encores! mounting starring Anne Hathaway and Brian Stokes Mitchell in 2002, the musical has not seen a major revival on Broadway or in London, though there was talk of an Encores! transfer (as is usually the case when one of their mountings is considered an artistic success).

The original production had its share of backstage lore. The most famous was the all out feud between Merrick and Alberghetti. One time when she called out for illness, Merrick believed her to be faking it and sent her a dozen dead (or depending on the source, plastic) roses and demanded she take a lie detector test. She hung his picture over the toilet in her bathroom. Merrick later claimed one his greatest achievements was “Making sure that Anna Maria Alberghetti never worked on Broadway again.”

Also, Alberghetti was apparently the first actress in a Broadway musical to use a body mike during a performance. During one performance, the actress exited on cue and had two minutes until she reappeared, bee-lining for the ladies room. However, this particular time the actress forgot to turn off her microphone, so during the middle of the show the audience heard the sound of streaming water followed by an unceremonious flush (which in itself was followed by Algerghetti’s re-entry). The audience was beside itself with laughter, but that’s the beauty of live theatre…

In spite of all this, Alberghetti was the toast of Broadway. Susan Watson, Anita Gillette and Carla Alberghetti (you guessed it, her sister) all played Lili during the Broadway run while Ed Ames replaced Jerry Orbach. Another amusing anecdote, this time from Ms. Gillette, was relayed in the dishy Making it on Broadway. When she took over the role of Lili, she was asked if she wanted her name put above the title. She said yes (I mean, who wouldn’t?). A few weeks later she received a bill from the company manager for the cost of the sign. It wasn’t in her contract. She took it to Equity and lost.

I think it’s high time someone revived the show on Broadway, it has such a beautiful score that deserves to be better known than it is. But until we reach that day, here she is, the Tony-winning original assisted by the company performing the spirited “Yes My Heart” followed by Jerry Orbach’s devastating ballad “Her Face” from an appearance on Ed Sullivan: