“Regina” – The 1958 NYCO Cast Recording

Long considered a Holy Grail recording by musical theatre enthusiasts, the 1958 NYCO cast album of Marc Blitzstein‘s Regina has been released by Masterworks Broadway for the first time since its LP release. An opera based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949, running  a mere 56 performances. While other Broadway operas, such as Street Scene and The Consul received original cast albums (even if they were highlights), Regina didn’t get recorded for nine years. (Though there is a piano only recording of certain musical numbers recorded after the original closed).

The Little Foxes, one of Hellman’s most famous plays, is a melodramatic study of an avaricious, desperate Southern aristocracy in decline. Tallulah Bankhead played the role of Regina Hubbard Giddens, who finds herself at odds with her brothers and husband, the result of patriarchal societal mores. She fights the gender oppression as best she can, doing what she must to get what she wants but at a considerable cost. Due to its extreme characters and heightened emotions (to say nothing of its malicious cynicism), it’s ideal for operatic consideration. (I won’t go into the plot details here. You’d have more fun seeing the film or a local production than reading a synopsis).

The opera was culled from obscurity by the City Opera in 1958 which made some alterations from the Broadway production. Blitzstein envisioned a three act opera utilizing musical idioms prevalent to the American South at the turn of the 20th century. On Broadway, he was forced to edit the piece to two acts and Hellman was very stringent regarding the dramatic structure. For NYCO, the opera was returned to its three act form, but there were some more revisions and the excision of an onstage Dixie band. The show was first performed in 1953, and revived in 1958 when Columbia stepped in to record. It may not be the complete opera, but it’s a lively 2 disc recording from the first notes of its prologue to its unbelievably breathtaking finale.

Brenda Lewis, who played Birdie in the original Broadway production, graduates to the role of Regina and sings the role with a dramatic intensity worthy of her predecessors in the play. She is especially memorable with the insistent “The Best Thing of All.” Her performance builds to a fever pitch as she does battle with her dying husband with “Do You Wish We Had Wed Years Ago?” and all but explodes with the climactic high C during the “Gallop” as she ominously tells him “I’ll be waiting.”  Regina is fascinating: she’s conniving, ruthless, steely, determined and flirtatious all in one fell swoop. Lewis is nothing short of extraordinary.

And then there’s Birdie, the fading southern belle who receives malicious abuse from her unloving husband and son while dreaming of her childhood. The role is a show stealer, and is pretty much the audience favorite. Patricia Collinge, who originated the role in the original production preserved her performance in the classic 1941 William Wyler screen adaptation, presents a characterization of such startling realism and honesty, that she all but steals the film from star Bette Davis and was Oscar nominated. Here in Regina, the part also walks away with the best of the score, most especially her confessional aria in the third act “Lionnet…Lionnet.” This showstopper sets to music one of the most famous monologues from the play, where Birdie admits her alcoholism to her beloved niece. She also admits that her husband married her for her family’s estate and that she hates her own son. It’s a glorious piece of dramatic writing, and soprano Elizabeth Carron is glorious.

The supporting cast is superb. Loren Driscoll sings the role of Birdie’s disagreeable son Leo (and would go onto sing “One Kind Word” in Blitzstein’s Juno the following year). Joshua Hecht’s bass makes an imperious impression as Regina’s husband Horace. George S. Irving and Emile Renan are excellent as the two conniving and deceitful brothers. Carol Brice (The Grass Harp) lends her supple contralto to the expanded role of Addie, the family’s housekeeper, while I would have much preferred Broadway original William Warfield singing the role of Cal. Helen Strine, as Regina and Ben’s daughter Zan, sings the recitative with a youthfulness that disappears during her one major number.

I’ve heard the score before, on a 1992 recording from the Scottish opera. Most interestingly, I didn’t care for the piece at all. But with this recording, it’s like hearing the work for the first time. The opera comes alive in a way the restored version does not (the only things I really remember from that one is the end of the “Gallop” and Birdie’s aria. Hearing it on this NYCO album leads me to wonder – isn’t it about time we had the chance to see Regina in NY again? If there’s a case to be made for another production at NYCO (or anyone else who might consider it), it’s this riveting cast album. The album is available as a digital download or CD-R via ArkivMusic.

“Promises, Promises” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

When I received the new Broadway cast recording of Promises, Promises from Sony Masterworks last week, I have to confess I didn’t have high expectations. The reviews for the show were far from raves, and had been led to believe the show was a huge bomb. Much to my surprise, the cast album for this production is quite enjoyable. In fact it is one of the more spirited cast albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the revival so I cannot comment on the quality of the production as it plays onstage, but am aware of instances where the cast album can make a production sound better on disc than it played in the theatre.

From start to finish there is much to enjoy. Sean Hayes isn’t as distinctive as either Jerry Orbach or Tony Roberts and while his vibrato is a bit on the reedy side, he is certainly up for the inherent challenge and gives a welcome comic turn. He especially shines in “She Likes Basketball” and the title song. Kristin Chenoweth is somewhat more problematic as Fran. First off – interpolating Bacharach’s pop hits “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” make absolutely no sense for her character to be singing. Period. Chenoweth is famed for that seemingly endless coloratura range, and her voice doesn’t translate as well to belt/mix like other sopranos. Also, making “A House is Not a Home” an emotional focal center of the production shows genuine mistrust of the material by the creative team, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Tony-winner Katie Finneran gives it her all as drunken Marge and she makes an interesting impression on “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful,” which has a fantastic dance break. Dick Latessa does well in his duet “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You.” On the other hand, “Turkey Lurkey Time” is a complete dud. You’d be better off with the original Broadway cast recording or that glorious youtube clip. Tony Goldwyn has very little to do on record as the cad boss who leads Fran on, singing “Wanting Things” and duetting with Hayes on “It’s Our Little Secret,” which features its verse on record for the first time).

The sound is crisp, there is extra music as well as the show’s finale with the famed last line  and really makes the rideouts of the songs just really hit home (it’s also easier to hear the pit singers here, too). The set is also blessed with ample liner notes, complete with the lyrics but lacking a thorough plot synopsis. Oh, and naturally there are plenty of photographs from the production.

Another thing about the score and show Promises, Promises. It’s based on the 1960 film The Apartment, but composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and librettist Neil Simon created a contemporary musical in 1968 and the music is so much of that era that it genuinely strikes me as odd that the show has been pushed back to 1962. The syncopations, the rhythms and orchestrations are all evocative of the late 60s and it ‘s absurd to try and make it otherwise. The nature of the decade was so turbulent that 1962 is a million light years removed from 1968. It makes absolutely no sense to do that, especially if it’s to capitalize on Mad Men (which is referenced in advertising for the show. Mad Men the Musical is about the last thing I would ever care to see).

So it’s not the perfect reading of the show, but it’s still quite an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The real surprise about this particular album is the way it’s recorded. I’ve felt that a lot of recent revival albums have failed to capture the vibrancy of the onstage experience (Patti’s Gypsy and South Pacific come readily to mind) or the energy of earlier counterparts. This album, warts and all, pops from the overture to finish. Almost everything about this recording is alive and quite engaging (with the exceptions noted above); so much so that though I was wary of seeing the actual show, I’m now quite interesting in going. What can I say? The power of the cast album compels me.

Masterworks Broadway

April Fool’s Day annoys me. Mostly it’s because everyone thinks they’re suddenly writing for The Onion and inundate the interwebs and my email box with attempts to “get me.” As a result, I tend to skip out new on this particular day – both real and faux, just because I prefer the facts (and not to be sallied with countless fake information, etc). However, that said, there is something wonderful happening today – Sony Masterworks is celebrating the launch of the Masterworks Broadway website. I first got wind of the new site a couple months ago and being the musical theatre geek, I immediately signed up for an account. (Come join me!)

The website has been dubbed “Where Show Tunes Take Center Stage” and they are not wrong. A few years ago, due to some corporate blah blah blah, Sony founds itself with both its own Columbia Masterworks catalogue as well as RCA’s. The consolidation brought about the new Masterworks Broadway label in 2006. The new catalogue will eventually feature 400 cast albums (about 275 are already available) and the productions represented have acquired 265 Tony awards, 450 Tony nominations and 27 Grammy Awards. Not too shabby.

Now, to celebrate and to bring it into the era of social media, they’ve decided to create a place for showtune lovers to gather. The aim of the website is to “document the history of the cast album from Finian’s Rainbow (even if Columbia’s first cast album was the 1946 revival of Show Boat, but that’s neither here nor there) to last year’s revival of West Side Story.

The site allows the individual to establish an account, friend other album enthusiasts as well as browse through the catalog. Masterworks has planned that every single cast album under its label will eventually be released digitally. Some of the more famous titles: Annie, My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, Mame, Hello Dolly!, The Producers, A Little Night Music, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, among many many others. But now, many albums that are long out of print or have been hitherto now only available on LP will now be introduced to an entirely new generation of theatregoers (and as one who has collected many obscure LP cast albums, and has had many of them ripped to mp3 use I approve wholeheartedly).

They are continuing to build the site, with more albums to be added. A streaming radio of continuous Broadway musical is up and running. My pal Peter Filichia, who writes for Theatremania, is now hosting a new blog every Tuesday. There are also podcasts, including one recorded for the release of Stephen Sondheim collection The Story So Far and another on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music last year. Each recording has its own page and readers can rate, review, and purchase the albums through amazon or itunes. There is of course the obligatory message board forum for folks to rehash the perennial “Merman or Lansbury” debate.

In celebration of the site’s official launch, there will be a giveaway every day in the “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” sweepstakes. Some of the prizes include: A trip for two to NYC to see a Broadway show, the entire Masterworks Broadway catalog (over 275 CDs!), signed copies of Kristin Chenoweth’s memoir A Little Bit Wicked as well as her latest CD A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas, and a rare framed pigment print of Gwen Verdon from the Sony Music archives/ICON Collectibles. Every Tuesday and Friday the site will feature a prize related to the work of Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim respectively, including an autographed CD collection of their works. New prizes will continue to be announced throughout the month. Visitors can enter the daily drawing by visiting the site and signing up for free membership.

"Kitty’s Kisses"

There was this musical about three years ago that came to Broadway by way of Canada. It was about a middle age recluse who listened to his favorite cast album as it came to life in his own living room. It won a few Tonys, was a decent hit and endeared co-librettist/star Bob Martin to the theatre world. The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, which glibly spoofed 20s musicals of a certain ilk, namely the light romantic musical comedy.

The first time I popped on the cast album of Kitty’s Kisses from PS Classics, I was immediately reminded of Chaperone, seeing the character archetypes and plot contrivances popular in the pre-Show Boat musical that are reflected on and spoofed in the later show. Kitty’s Kisses ran for 170 performances, not bad for a show of the era, back when it took a couple of months if not weeks to recoup. Though a success, it wasn’t a blockbuster like No No Nanette or Good News, and like many other likable period shows, fell by the wayside. Some of the songs by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn became hits (the liner notes mention that Queen Marie of Romania was particularly fond of the title song), but the show has been mostly forgotten, except as a footnote in musical theatre history books.

One of my biggest issues with The Drowsy Chaperone was its initial conceit, a point exemplified by the obscurity of Kitty’s Kisses. There was no such thing as an original Broadway cast album during the decade. It wasn’t until the 1930s that record producers started to experiment in preserving musical theatre scores. It seems a minor sticking issue, but it’s what’s kept Chaperone at bay for me. Though, I took less issue with the London production which adapted the show for the West End (the original London cast album predates the original Broadway cast album by quite a few years). My main beef – the Chaperone is pastiche. It’s sometimes amusing, but it’s mostly mediocre, coming off as a rehash of a rehash of a rehash (and truth be told, I hope and pray there is a moratorium on new 20s musical comedy spoofs).

But now we get a sample of the real thing, and what a superb treat it is. Kitty’s Kisses was a success in NY, then it went to London where it was merged with the Rodgers and Hart musical The Girl Friend (that’s something you don’t hear every day…). It was a charmer that got lost in the shuffle, and was eventually shelved in a New Jersey warehouse where it would have continued to languish were it not for Tommy Krasker. He stumbled upon the material while cataloging the Warner Bros music archive in the mid-80s and it is through his persistence that the restoration was done, with painstaking research and commitment as well as the blessing of Donald Kahn, Gus’ son (to whom the album is posthumously dedicated). Now after 23 years of hard work, he has given us an unexpected surprise this fall: an official cast recording of Kitty’s Kisses, billed as “The Bright New Summer Musical Delight.”

Rebecca Luker lends her shimming soprano to the title role, the innocent ingenue who finds herself at the center of the ridiculous period farce going on around her. The big scandal – Kitty poses as a married woman to get a hotel room and is mistaken for another married woman. Hijinks, mistaken identities and your usual machinations propel the plot (of which there is admittedly very little). But as was often the case, the script was an excuse for gags and light musical entertainment. The score is light, engaging and often delightfully clever with Kahn’s lyrics beautifully complemented by Conrad’s period sound. There are many studio recordings of scores that feel like a textbook document of a musical, rather than a vibrant cast album. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt such joy and warmth from hearing a “lost” score.

The effervescent Kate Baldwin is the free-spirited Lulu, getting things off to a fresh start with the opener “Walking the Track.” Victoria Clark is an absolute riot as grand dame opera singing dowager Mrs. Dennison, who shares the duet “I Don’t Want Him” with Luker. The “Him” in that number happens to be played by Danny Burstein, while Malcolm Gets plays his brother. Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald take on the specialty material, originally created for vaudeville duo Ruth Warren and William Wayne. Phil Chaffin is Robert Mason, Kitty’s stoic love interest. Jim Stanek makes a brief appearance as the train conductor leading “Choo Choo Love.”

The album was not only produced by Mr. Krasker, but he has supplied a concise, informative essay on the show, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and resurrection. The show’s synopsis is provided by Robert Edridge-Waks. Orchestration was provided by Sam Davis, who also conducted the recording. The CD booklet also contains various production photos and images of newspaper clippings as well as the program from the Newark tryout.

According to the Krasker, the material for the finale ultimo was never recovered. The show ended on Broadway with a song called “Steppin’ on the Blues,” (with additional music by Will Davidson) and I can only assume that the song itself is also lost. The powers behind the album have created a brand new finale ultimo for the show using the composing duo’s Oscar-winning song “The Continental” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the score, but it’s a cute way of wrapping things up.

This is the third in a line of score restorations for the label; they released Vincent Youman’s Through the Years in 2001 and Kay Swift’s Fine and Dandy in 2004. I cannot stress how wonderful it is that the folks at PS Classics have taken the time to painstaking refurbish a show like Kitty’s Kisses. In the late 1980s and 1990s, John McGlinn was pretty much the go-to archivist with an emphasis on the works of Jerome Kern, while John Mauceri took care of the Gershwin canon. Those albums, however, were intent on restoring the works of major composers. However, the audience for show music sadly appears to be shrinking and shrinking, so less recordings like these are less likely to be made. John Yap make a series of full studio cast albums of entire vocal scores, but given the economy has left them sitting on the shelf (including the full album of One Touch of Venus made with Melissa Errico). It’s unfortunate, as each of these recording provides musical theatre fans with a further link to the history of the genre. I only hope it’s not another five years until PS Classics releases its fourth restoration.

Mama’s Got the Stuff

There are certainly a variety of recordings of Gypsy on the market for discerning cast album collectors. Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose in 1959, Roz Russell scored the 1962 film adaptation. Angela Lansbury breathed life into the original London and first Broadway revival in 1973 & 74, respectively. Tyne Daly starred in the 1989 revival; Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival and of course Patti LuPone in the recent 2008 production. Oh, and Bette Midler made the 1993 made for television adaptation. So even if you don’t count the horrendous Kay Medford studio cast album, that’s a lot of Gypsy.

If there is any one argument to be had, it’s over which actress is the definitive Rose. Every one of these leading ladies has had their share of vociferous champions as well as detractors. It’s just the nature of the beast. When it comes down to it, there are two recordings of Gypsy I listen to repeatedly: the original Broadway and original London albums.

Tyne Daly’s album is marred by the powers that be who insisted she record the score while suffering from laryngitis (don’t let the album – which Tyne herself has disowned – fool you: a trip to youtube shows you what a marvel she was in the part). I don’t feel that the most two recent albums fully captured what made Bernadette and Patti’s performances indelible (and the tempo and energy on the latter is surprisingly lacking). The two soundtrack albums offer very little in terms of musical enjoyment, unless you’re a fan of Lisa Kirk or Bette Midler.

While I love the London cast album for Angela Lansbury’s truly stunning turn as Rose, the recording of Gypsy to end all Gypsy‘s is the original Broadway cast recording with Miss Ethel Merman. The album was recorded May 24, 1959. As was the tradition for most musicals at the time, it was recorded on the first Sunday after opening. It was released a mere two weeks later and has been a must have for Broadway fans ever since.

The original album is definitive for three reasons: Ethel Merman, Milton Rosenstock and Dick Perry. Merman was a force of nature in the part, and though people have looked back on her performance as lacking, she is electrifying on the album. Rosenstock was the musical director and I’ve yet to hear a better Gypsy orchestra. Dick Perry was the second trumpet player on the show who became an in demand player for many musicals as a result of the showstopping improvisation during the overture. Styne insisted on Perry for the pits of many of his subsequent musicals and can be heard on the cast albums of Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping and most prominently in Funny Girl where he was the Cornet Man. Gypsy is widely considered to have the greatest overture in musical theatre, and its first recording has never been bettered.

There is also something about the way Goddard Lieberson recorded these big scores for Columbia records in the late 50s and 60s that is just so satisfying. While Lieberson took liberties with false lead-ins and endings and rarely recording dialogue, his albums are some of the best ever produced. He had a knack for producing and helped make Columbia the leader in original cast recordings, when show music was at the height of popular culture. Once he retired in the 70s, Thomas Shepard, who produced the remastering of this recording, became the leader over at RCA. But in terms of how it was recorded – everyone was in a large room and the performances were big and theatrical, truly capturing what it was like to hear the score in the theatre. There was a kineticism that is lacking on most contemporary cast albums. This energy is especially evident on Lieberson’s recordings such as Gypsy and for my money, the greatest cast album of a musical ever made, Mame.

In honor of the show’s 50th anniversary, Sony Masterworks has reissued the album in a brand new edition (its third CD release). The new release is pretty much the same as the ’99 release, with the noted addition of three tracks: a publisher’s demo of “Who Needs Him?” from 1959, Michael Feinstein’s brief interview with composer Jule Styne about working on the show and “Gypsy Rose Lee Recalls Burlesque.” The latter is one of those novelty items that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. The liner notes are reprinted verbatim from ’99, with the addition of a few new paragraphs that comment on the continuing popularity of the show, mentioning Bernadette and Patti in the process.

In lieu of a jewel case, the new release is in one of those trifold cardboard slimline cases, with an insert for the liner note booklet and another for the CD itself. The case itself recreates the original LP artwork, the liner notes recreates the collage of photos used for the LP reissue and first CD release. One in particular that I’ve never seen before but is a rather fun shot of Paul Wallace recording “All I Need is the Girl” with Sandra Church.

If you already have the ’99 Gypsy, the new release isn’t really necessary unless you’re a purist, such as myself. To those who don’t have it, I resist the urge to ask you what you’re waiting for and instead offer you links from which you can purchase it.

One Performance Wonders on Record

A news item twittered via our good friend Steve alerted me to the fact that the failed musical Glory Days will be recording an original cast album. The show, an export of the Signature Theatre in Virginia, opened and closed on the same night in May 2008. Out of town reviews were encouraging (if constructive) and a transfer to NY, especially without any revision was a wholly haphazard thing to do. The original cast will reunite in a recording studio next month to lay down the tracks. Incidentally, Glory Days was the first musical to fold after one performance since the 1985 Goodspeed revival of Take Me Along at the Martin Beck.

It got me thinking about what other one performance wonders (as I like to call these fast flops) have received an Original Broadway Cast Album…

This is what I found:

Here’s Where I Belong – opened and closed at the Billy Rose Theatre on March 3, 1968. Ambitious musical adaptation of John Steinbeck’s allegorical masterpiece East of Eden was penned by Terrence McNally (who requested his name be removed prior to opening), with music by Robert Waldman and lyrics by Alfred Uhry. There was considerable reticence on my part to include this one here as the cast album on Blue Pear LP appears to be a glorified bootleg, however, I since there is an LP with artwork that was available, here it is.

The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall – opened and closed at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on May 13, 1979. You may recall that I brought this one up to Marilyn Caskey at Angus McIndoe’s after the closing performance of Gypsy this past January. Written by Clark Gesner of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown fame, the show had a well received engagement in San Francisco in 1976 starring Jill Tanner as a British headmistress driven to insanity by the pranks of her students. Three years later, the show was revamped for its new star Celeste Holm, who was dreadfully miscast and out of her element (which can be evidenced on the record). The show stayed a week at the Hellinger, though it managed to get out an album and is licensed by Samuel French (I have the libretto!)

Onward Victoriaopened and closed at the Martin Beck Theatre on December 14, 1980. Larger than life historical figures have often made for interesting musicals. 1776, Gypsy, Fiorello!, among others come immediately to mind. However, this musical about Victoria Woodhull, a millionaire stockbroker turned suffragette presidential nominee didn’t quite live up to the standard. Starring Jill Eikenberry as Victoria, the show had music by Keith Hermann and book & lyrics by Charlotte Anker and Irene Rosenberg. Woodhull had long been considered for musical theatre, with proposed shows starring Lisa Kirk, Carol Channing and an out of town failure Winner Take All starring the sublime Patricia Morison.

opened and closed at the Playhouse Theatre on June 23, 1982. The show was a bawdy camp piece written for the Sheffield Theatre Ensemble that had a brief tour in the South before transferring to NY for its brief tenure. The score was by comedy writer Buddy Sheffield and the book was co-written by Sheffield and David Sheffield. It appears to have played successfully in New Orleans and it transferred to NY cast intact for literally a week. It featured such memorable moments as Jay Rogers in drag singing “Boys Will Be Girls”… it was that sort of show.

Dance a Little Closer – opened and closed at the Minskoff on May 11, 1983 and was jokingly referred to as Close a Little Faster by its detractors. The musical was an adaptation of Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight starring Len Cariou, George Rose, Liz Robertson and Brent Barrett with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Jule Styne. The creators updated the antiwar play by putting the characters at the brink of nuclear annihilation. The show’s cast album was recorded two weeks after the closing but was left unreleased until 1987.

Two other shows would receive later recordings. Kelly (February 6, 1965), quite possibly the most notorious of all the one-night stands, received ample coverage in Lewis Lapham’s legendary Saturday Evening Post article (and reprinted in Steven Suskin’s Second Act Trouble) got a studio cast album in 1998 restoring the composer and lyricist’s deluded intentions for the utterly misguided, misdirected and misproduced effort. Heathen! (May 21, 1972) resurfaced in New Zealand in 1981 under a new title Aloha! and that cast took the show into the recording studio.

Seth Rudetsky Deconstructs "It’s Today"

Seth has been doing 30 reconstructions in 30 days for Broadwayworld.com, and for April 17, he takes on “It’s Today” from the original cast recording of Mame, which introduces the audience and listener to Angela Lansbury as Auntie Mame (with that bugle blast and a slide down the banister). Even though it’s actually the second number of the show, I think this does more to establish the tone for the evening and ultimately is more of an opening number than “St. Bridget.” The original cast album of Mame is a joy to hear from those opening chords of the overture to the very last “Mame!” during the curtain call/finale. The album is one of my all-time favorites and one that I would cherish as a desert-island top 5.

The Great American Musical Turns 50

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of what Walter Kerr called “The best damn musical I’ve seen in years.” The musical, based on the memoirs of that memorable ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, opened at the Broadway Theatre on May 21, 1959 (after a mere two previews) to great reviews and a memorable star turn from the irrepressible Ethel Merman. Arthur Laurents, in what would be prove to be his last credible success as a musical theatre librettist, contributed arguably the finest book in American musical history. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and at the insistence of Ms. Merman, Jule Styne wrote the music. Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed. The show, which opened in New York just following the 1958-59 cut-off, would be trounced in the 1959-60 season by The Sound of Music and Fiorello! in what is so far the one and only Best Musical tie in Tony history. Merman famously lost the Tony to Mary Martin, headlining the more crowdpleasing Sound of Music, with the infamous quip from Ethel: “You can’t buck a nun.” The musical play ran 702 performances in NY before Ethel Merman went out on national tour. This original cast album is a must-have for any musical theater lover. There are a lot of people who insist that Merman’s performance is subpar (many of whom didn’t actually see it, but I digress); however she delivers an electrifying performance on the album. She is ably supported by Sandra Church, Jack Klugman and Maria Karnilova as Tessie Tura. With all due respect to all other recordings that have come along, I don’t think the orchestrations by Robert Ginzler and Sid Ramin have ever sounded better than they do here. (Though let it be said, all recordings of Gypsy are required listening). Also, it’s only right to mention Dick Perry, a favorite of Jule Styne’s, who rocks out the improv section on the overture like none other. Perry also played on the original cast albums of Subways Are for Sleeping and Funny Girl, serving as soloist for “Cornet Man” and even receiving billing for it. His credits include several other big 60s musicals, as well as trumpet player in the original “Tonight Show” band.

I currently own the 1999 Sony release that cleaned up the album and restored part of “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” The album included previously unreleased demos of songs from the score, including some cut numbers, an early version of “Some People” and a combination of “Mr. Goldstone” and a tender “Little Lamb” sung by Ethel. On May 5, the original cast album will be re-released yet again by Sony Masterworks in a new 50th anniversary edition. This new release includes all material on the 40th anniversary release, but will also include an audio clip of Michael Feinstein interviewing Jule Styne, as well as a track on which Gypsy Rose Lee herself looks back on burlesque. Yes, I’m seriously considering the upgrade. Also, Masterworks is planning a similar 50th anniversary release of The Sound of Music this fall.

And they all go to the seashore!

I’ve been obsessed with the CD release of Illya Darling. I received the album the other evening and have been unable to listen to anything else. The show was a musical adaptation of the hit 1960 comedy Never on Sunday about a Grecophile from America traveling to Greece in search of a lost ideal, something he finds in a carefree prostitute in Piraeus and tries to reform her. The film was directed and written by Jules Dassin, who also appeared in the film as the American (probably due to the budget constrictions). The film was an unexpectedly huge success, as it was a small independent produced for $150,000 and released through United Artists. The film turned Melina Mercouri into an international superstar and a sex symbol at the age of 40 (suck it, Hollywood!). The score and the Oscar-winning title song were composed by Manos Hadjidakis, which also took on a popularity of its own. Dassin and Mercouri received Oscar nominations; he for writing and directing, she as Best Actress.

The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1967 directed by Dassin and starring Mercouri. Orson Bean was Homer, the priggish American and Hal Linden made his Broadway debut. In an unusual move, two other actors from the film reprised their roles for the stage show: Titos Vandis and Despo (who was playing the earthy, older prostitute named Despo). The show received mostly negative reviews, but managed to play 320 performances based on Mercouri alone (who received nothing short of love letters). The musical was nominated for six Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical, but went home empty-handed.

The cast album was released on record by United Artists, the company that had distributed the original film as well as the other Dassin-Mercouri smash hit Topkapi. For whatever reason, the songs were placed out of order on the LP, most likely to fit the time constraints (which is why material was left off the album). Well, Illya had remained a vinyl collector’s piece for 42 years until this week when Kritzerland released it. There had been word of a release from DRG, but it kept getting postponed and postponed. But now it’s finally here. Kritzerland founder Bruce Kimmel has worked considerably on the album, restoring the score to its show order, improving the sound for CD and restoring two cut bits, one of which is the show’s opening number. When I first read that “Bouzouki Nights” was not the overture, and wasn’t even the real name of the piece, I was a bit disappointed. It’s one of my favorite tracks and is one of the most joyous instrumental pieces recorded for an original Broadway cast album.

However, as soon as I pressed play on the overture, a delicate and sweeping paean to the bouzouki (an instrument I just love), I was immediately taken with the new recording. Hearing the subtle nuances of Ralph Burns’ masterful orchestrations with such clarity had an unexpected effect on me. I had previously found the cast album on record to be something of a guilty pleasure, but now I was finding myself genuinely enjoying the score. It never achieves greatness but thrives on the music of Manos Hadjidakis and the charming Mercouri. I have never understand why Joe Darion worked as a Broadway lyricist, whose work here is less than stellar. His big show is Man of La Mancha, and don’t get me started on the quality of those lyrics… As it turns out, Sondheim himself was brought in to doctor the lyrics while the show was in previews, but none of his work actually appears in the final show. There’s an amusing anecdote regarding Mercouri and Sondheim in the liner notes, and the reason why she reverted back to Joe Darion’s version of “Piraeus, My Love.” Turns out she dropped his lyric because he “didn’t go backstage every night to pay homage to his star.” I question the validity of this assessment, but it makes for amusing reading, no? Kimmel wrote the liner notes himself and they are concise and endlessly informative.

There are a couple of strong numbers – the song “Never on Sunday” was recycled into the second act (retaining its original character-driven Greek lyric, not that vapid English substitute so widely recorded), a lovely ballad “After Love,” the comic “Medea Tango” showcasing Illya’s warped interpretation of Greek tragedy (this post’s title) and the charming finale “Ya Chara.” On the other hand: in Open a New Window, Ethan Mordden’s tome on 60s musicals, the author calls “I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore” the worst theatre song of the decade. (Like I said, there is not a lot of critical love for the show).

Tangent: The show opened April 11, 1967 on Broadway. Ten days later the Greek military junta took over in Greece. Mercouri became an avid anti-fascist activist almost instantaneously. Being in New York and out of Greece, the junta seized her property and revoked her citizenship. She rallied around the world and became an iconic figure promoting the re-establishment of democracy in her homeland. When asked for comment about the loss of her citizenship, Mercouri said “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos (who revoked it) was born a fascist and he will die a fascist!” Mercouri spoke out against the tyranny of Greece in speeches world-wide, leading rallies and marches, singing and recording albums of protest. She was subject to several terrorist attacks and even an assassination attempt, which only made her more determined. When the junta fell in 1974, Mercouri became involved in Greek parliament eventually becoming the first female Minister of Culture for Greece. Her contributions on the political level in Greece made her a national treasure. Mercouri died in 1994 and she was given a state funeral with Prime Minister’s honors. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks came out to mourn. There is a bust of the actress/politician in Athens, right near the steps leading to the Parthenon, for whose preservation as an archaeological park she worked tirelessly. Truly a remarkable life. End tangent.

It’s highly unlikely that the show will ever be revived (even though I was surprised to see it listed on the Tams-Witmark licensing website), so this album remains one of the few links to this rather obscure musical. Here is the song order from both releases to give you an idea how inaccurate the record album was in representing the show. Let me tell you, it makes a difference to hear the score as it should be heard.

The LP release track list:

1. Bouzouki Nights
2. Piraeus, My Love
3. Golden Land
4. Illya, Darling
5. Medea Tango
6. I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore
7. Never on Sunday
8. Overture (Entr’acte)
9. Love, Love, Love
10. I Think She Needs Me
11. Dear Mr. Schubert
12. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
13. After Love
14. Yorgo’s Dance
15. Ya Chara

The new CD track-list (and proper show order):

1. Overture (formerly Entr’acte)
2. Po, Po, Po (previously unreleased)
3. Piraeus, My Love
4. Golden Land
5. Yorgo’s Dance
6. Love, Love, Love
7. I Think She Needs Me
8. I’ll Never Lay Down Anymore
9. After Love
10. Birthday Song (previously unreleased)
11. Medea Tango
12. Illya Darling
13. Dear Mr. Schubert
14. Never on Sunday
15. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
16. Taverna Dance (Bouzouki Nights on LP)
17. Ya Chara

There were only 1,000 copies of the cast album printed, and the album is almost entirely sold out. But if you’re interested, there are still a few copies left. With this and the recently released Anya, Kimmel has hinted there more to come. Both were recorded on the United Artists label, so perhaps I should keep my fingers crossed for a CD release of the original London cast album of Promises, Promises with Tony Roberts and Betty Buckley…