From the bookshelf…

Every six months, the booksellers at B&N receive what is called the “Employee Appreciation Discount” which gives us 40% off on books for a period of about a week. I was hell-bent on not buying anything, but my impulsive-compulsive whimsy took me to the computer screen to search for items of interest. One of the things I decided to do was look up some books that were later musicals or movies.

I read three of those recently (among two other books – the Strouse memoir and A Separate Peace by John Knowles): The Flower Drum Song by C.Y. Lee, The World of Henry Orient by Nora Johnson and Buried Alive by Arnold Bennett. Obviously the first was the basis for Flower Drum Song, the second, the 1967 Bob Merrill flop Henry, Sweet Henry (which came about from the popularity of the 1964 film adaptation) and my beloved 1968 disaster Darling of the Day.

As I read through the books, it fascinated me to see what the original creators came up with in terms of plot and character. Particularly FDS. In the book, the plot follows Wang Ta from his failed romance with the sluttish Linda Tow to his guilt-laden affair with the obsessive Helen Chao (who does one further than tell love to look away, she kills herself) and finally his romance with May Li, a Chinese immigrant, who is much more outspoken and not as charming as the character presented in the musical (the 2002 Hwang revisal need not apply). However, the themes of tradition and culture when juxtaposed with a generational gap (add to that the East vs. West friction), you see where Rodgers and Hammerstein found their musical. Keeping the characters and certain plot elements, they made their musical a decidedly lighter and more comic piece.

The World of Henry Orient and Buried Alive were pre-paid print on demand orders. They are books not regularly carried by the store and are non-returnable, so its got to be paid for and shipped to your home. I enjoyed that – you want a book, they print it especially for you – it’s kinda nice. Henry Orient, I think, should go onto the middle school reading lists. It’s a remarkably sophisticated coming of age story about two imaginative and quirky pubescent girls whose friendship revolves around their fascination with a second-rate pianist. However, the plot isn’t enough to carry a full-scale musical (not to mention the decision to take the relatively minor character of Lillian Kafritz and build her up with two glorious, but extraneous, showstoppers, but of course that’s what happens when you write a role for the fantastic Alice Playten).

Buried Alive is a delightful light British prose, with the farcical plot elements of a famed painter switching places with his dead valet. However, one of the major changes between Buried and Darling is the character of Priam Farll. In the book, most of his actions stem from an incredible introversion as opposed to the Henry Higgins-like disgust with British class society of the musical. Fortunately they kept the social commentary about the class society (Yip Harburg had a field day) in adaptation. However, the song “Butler in the Abbey” presents a finale that doesn’t possibly make sense. In the musical, its decided that the idea a valet has been buried in Westminster Abbey would bring ruination to England, and the final decision is to let Priam Farll go on being Henry Leek in Putney, with a decidedly Gilbertian tone. In the book, with more realism and great humor, the author playfully describes the media circus the trial creates throughout England, satirizing everyone along the way.

I’ve also started to list the books I’ve recently read under the aptly titled “A Trip to the Library” toward the right of the blog posts. Just feel like sharing!!

Outstanding songs from flop shows

Let it be known, I love my flops. I have been fascinated by them for years, ever since my interest in Broadway musicals became deeply profound in late 2000, early 2001 and I decided I wanted every recording ever made. That was the year I first sampled Sondheim; Bernstein (aside from West Side Story) and I heard my first genuine flop score: Candide. This fascination continued to grow until I wanted to hear every possible score out there. I never realized that I would hear some of the songs on this list, but I have been fortunately blessed to know them.

Here are a few of my favorite flop numbers, perhaps the first in a series of blogs, perhaps not. We’ll see. Order is random; just as they come to me.

“One More Walk Around the Garden” – Carmelina (Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner; 1979; St. James: 17 performances) An adaptation of the popular Gina Lollobrigida film, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (one woman; her daughter; the three former WWII GI’s who could be the father – elements conspicuously present in Mamma Mia) features this hauntingly simplistic and poignantly nostalgic trio for the three soldiers as they reminisce. Achingly beautiful.

“Sur Le Quais” – Lolita, My Love (John Barry- Alan Jay Lerner; 1971; closed closed out of town in Boston) Dorothy Loudon‘s performance as Charlotte Haze is perhaps the greatest thing this ill-fated adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov‘s extraordinary novel has to offer. In looking at the material as an example of creating an adaptation, it works well; the pederasty is just plain uncomfortable to stomach when dramatized, especially in a musical. Loudon stopped the show with this Gallic-flavored romp with Humbert midway through the first act.

Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)” – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Leonard Bernstein- Alan Jay Lerner; 1976; Mark Hellinger: 7 performances) A musical covering race relations and the first one hundred years of the White House. Lofty ambitions basically did the show in the from beginning. With a libretto that plays more like a musical revue than a book show; and two actors (Ken Howard and the divine Patricia Routledge) serving as each President and First Lady, the show’s strength is in its performers and its score. There is not enough time in a 2 1/2 hour musical to possibly cover all the ground that I’m sure the creative team hoped to. The show never completely gelled; much was changed and revised and the show was a critical and financial disaster in NY, lasting a week; and Bernstein refused to allow the original cast album to be made, which is unfortunate. In this act two showstopper, one of the most daunting and brilliantly conceived in a flop or hit, Routledge switches between the characters of Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. For almost nine minutes; we get the history of the election, the end of the era of Reconstruction and racial commentary thrown in among the barbed insults the character hurl at one another. She’s a schizophrenic marvel as she created two clearly delineated characters while utilizing a chest resonance for one and a coloratura soprano for the other. Genius.

“Glitter and Be Gay” – Candide (Leonard Bernstein-Richard Wilbur, John LaTouche, & Dorothy Parker; 1956; Martin Beck: 73 performances). Sure, it’s gone on to glory in opera repertories and numerous revivals around the world – and its overture is a popular favorite among classical orchestras. But Candide was a pretty hefty flop in 1956, dividing critics (still does) and just not pulling in the business. Barbara Cook, that legend divine, received one of the most difficult piece for sopranos in the musical theatre canon (hell, and opera) with this demanding coloratura soprano aria. Not only are you expected to hit high Eb’s above C, you must also be witty, satiric and hilarious. Eight times a week. It goes without saying that Cook’s rendition is definitive.

“It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love”/”Let’s See What Happens”/”Not on Your Nellie” – Darling of the Day (Jules Styne-E.Y. Harburg; 1968; George Abbott: 32 performances). See my yesterday’s post.

“He Had Refinement” – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Arthur Schwartz-Dorothy Fields; 1951; Alvin: 267 performances). Speculation as to the failure of this problematic yet endearing musical of the Betty Smith novel (brilliant bildungsroman I might add; yes I was an English major) was due to the rearrangement in structure, with the novel’s protagonist Francie taking a back seat to the parents (this included her absence from the entire first act as well). Also Shirley Booth, who received top billing for her part as Cissy, a secondary character, seemed to have thrown off the balance of the show because she walked away with it in her pocket. The force that is Booth displayed her requisite earthy charm, gracious down-to-earth humor and effortless star quality throughout the evening. The most memorable of these moments was her loving recollection of her “first Harry” in laugh out loud hilarious “He Had Refinement.” (An honorable mention here to the glorious yet underrated act one finale, the soaring “I’ll Buy You a Star”).

“And I Was Beautiful” – Dear World (Jerry Herman; 1969; Mark Hellinger: 132 performances). There is much to enjoy in Herman’s score: the showstopping “I Don’t Want to Know,” the intricate trio “The Tea Party,” “Kiss Her Now” and “I’ve Never Said I Love You” could all fit the bill here, but for me it is this devastating ballad about the loss of love – and the effects time has on said loss – sung by a resplendent Angela Lansbury as the Madwoman of Chaillot.

“Sez I/If It Isn’t Everything” – Donnybrook! (Johnny Burke; 1961; 46th Street: 68 performances) The musical version of the highly popular The Quiet Man didn’t fare well on Broadway, but possesses a delightful score, with performances from Art Lund, Joan Fagan, Eddie Foy Jr and the ever reliable Susan Johnson. Ellen Roe Danaher (Mary Kate in the film), played by Fagan, sings this spirited Celtic jig, one of the liveliest numbers to ever open a musical, in which she explains to her family her philosophies on love – and how she hasn’t found the right man. Think of it as a fiery, belty Irish cousin to Brigadoon’s “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and Oklahoma!’s “Many a New Day.”

“A Time for Singing” – A Time for Singing (John Morris-Gerald Freedman; 1966; Broadway: 41 performances). Tessie O’Shea leads this exuberant title song here; a musical adaptation of How Green Was My Valley that has a woefully unknown gem of a score. Nothing but sheer joy emanates from this song. Encores!, come on!

“Please Hello” – Pacific Overtures. (Stephen Sondheim; 1976; Winter Garden: 193 performances). Only Sondheim could write a showstopper that effectively told the history of Western imperialism in Japan in the 19th century. He cleverly uses a musical style from each country represented to characterize the national diplomacy (Sousa march for the US, Gilbert and Sullivan patter for England, can-can for France, etc.). It’s a nine minute history lesson that works wonders.

If I could, I would post each song on here, but I don’t think that’s possible.

On this day in 1968…

Darling of the Day opened at the George Abbott Theatre in New York City. The musical by Jule Styne and Yip Harburg was based on the Arnold Bennett novel Buried Alive, a decidedly Anglophilic romp in which a nobleman artist assumes the identity of his deceased manservant “to get out of the world alive.” In doing so, he also takes up the deceased’s correspondence with a widow from Putney, named Alice Challice. Anyway, a convoluted farce ensues where he paints under his pseudonym and is found out by snobbish art dealers. This leads to a courtroom climax that brings about a conclusion with a decidedly Gilbert & Sullivan-esque flair.
The show’s creative process was less than happy. Darling of the Day went through various directors (4), choreographers (2), book writers (5) and titles (2) and the show opening in NY without a credited librettist (a death knell for a musical; Nunnally Johnson insisted his name be taken off the show). The revolving door also included Peter Wood, S.N. Behrman, Albert Marre, Stephen Vinaver (who was hired and fired twice) and Peter Gennaro among others. In spite of the mess created by such a tumultuous tryout period, the show managed to allow the effervescent Patricia Routledge to shine in the role of the spirited widow. The cast album is a marvel for the strength of Styne’s music and the cleverness of Harburg’s lyrics, with Routledge getting the best of the material. Every one of her numbers in the show is worth hearing: “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love,” “A Gentleman’s Gentleman,” the devastatingly beautiful waltz “Let’s See What Happens,” a lost gem of a ballad “That Extra Something Special,” and her rousing piece d’resistance, her eleven o’clocker “Not on Your Nellie.”
Routledge stole the show from the non-singing Vincent Price and won the show’s general acclaim. Darling couldn’t withstand the initial critical drubbing it received and shuttered after 32 performances. The show would (fortunately for all) record a cast album; Routledge would win the Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical, tying with Leslie Uggams who appeared in Jule Styne’s hit-flop/flop-hit Hallelujah, Baby! (Talk about book trouble).

As per Walter Kerr: [Routledge gives] “the most spectacular, most scrumptious, most embraceable musical comedy debut since Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence came to this country … I understand there are some insane people going around this town saying that they didn’t care all that much for Darling of the Day. I’d stay away from them if I were you. I warn you: if you don’t catch her act now, you’ll someday want to kill yourself.”

Talk about a notice.

The original cast album is now woefully out of print, though it was issued on CD by RCA Victor in the late 1990s. There are copies available used on amazon and also through Arkiv Music (a CD-R with reproductions of original liner notes). The show plays on record as a hit, as many flops scores do. (I forgot to mention that Ralph Burns was the orchestrator). There is also a rare recording of the opening night performance, muddied and poor quality, but you’d never believe the show was a disaster from the way the audience responds, particularly to Routledge. (Her ovation for “Not on Your Nellie” went on so long, she had to plead with the audience to let the show continue).

And now, my new favorite flop is 40 years old. It’s not often revived; though there were recent attempts at revisions, including the version presented at Musicals in Mufti a few year’s back (featuring Rebecca Luker). If we’re lucky, Encores! will present this delightful obscurity as part of their series starring Victoria Clark as Alice.

Of course, an ideal season would also include the long forgotten A Time for Singing and Donnybrook! (How about it, Encores?)

The most played songs on my iPod.

It’s very late and I’m waiting for my laundry to dry and since I have not yet seen Sweeney Todd (curses), I needed something to fill the void, so I decided to play around with my iPod/itunes. I was curious to see what my top 25 playlist consisted of, so I thought I’d share:

1. “Not on Your Nellie,” Darling of the Day, OBCR (Jule Styne-Yip Harburg). Patricia Routledge‘s rousing music-hall eleven o’clock showstopper. It’s a sheer delight from start to finish. In part because of this, and also the next entry, Routledge has become a heroine of mine. And a master class in musical comedy genius. I highly recommend the rest of the cast album. 109 plays (yeah, I’ve listened to it a lot…).

2. “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land),” 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner). Patricia Routledge once again snags this spot with her spirited rendition of this nine minute showstopper in which she portrays both Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes while discoursing on the election controversy that led to the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. A complete marvel of craft in both performance and writing. 60 plays.

3. “You’ve Got Possibilities,” It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, OBCR (Charles Strouse-Lee Adams). Linda Lavin stopped the show with this cleverly written song in which her character tries to seduce Clark Kent. 46 plays.

4. “Sez I/If It Isn’t Everything,” Donnybrook, OBCR (Johnny Burke). Peter Filichia referred to this in an article as the greatest opening number you’ve never heard. I will not disagree. The only fitting description I can use would be to consider it a feisty Irish cousin to “Waitin’ for My Dearie” and “Many a New Day,” Joan Fagan nails this energetic number out of the ballpark. Now if we could only get a CD release. 44 plays.

5. “The Golden Ram,” Two by Two, OBCR (Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin). Okay, so I’m a huge fan of Madeline Kahn. Extraordinarily huge. This brief exercise in coloratura hysterics is the only cast album which showcases Kahn’s soprano at its peak (she had vocal problems the day On the Twentieth Century was recorded, though apparently no one in the production team cared). She caps the number with a full-out high C. 44 plays.

6. “Another Hundred People,” Company, OBCR (Stephen Sondheim). One of the most ingenious orchestrations ever given a theatre song, Pamela Myers‘ definitive rendition is always something I listen to with earnestness and appreciation. From the melody, to the lyric, to the context, it is one of the most satisfying moments in a musical (and subsequent album) that Sondheim has given us. 44 plays.

7. “Come You Men,” A Time for Singing, OBCR (John Morris-Gerald Freedman). Granted the running time is brief (1:20), which probably led to numerous plays over the previous months; but the song itself is the stirring opening to the cast album of this devastatingly short-lived musical adaptation of How Green Was My Valley. This track is an a capella chorale in the Welsh tradition that is incredibly stirring and melodically gorgeous. 44 plays.

8. “A Time for Singing,” A Time for Singing, OBCR. Tessie O’Shea gets great material in this show, but her rousing and spirited rendition of the title song will send you to hit the repeat button again and again. A jubilant waltz, the song also takes on for me, a personal philosophy of what the singing in a musical can do. Hear the words of the first verse, and you’ll understand. Another LP album that needs a remastered CD release. 38 plays.

9. “The Girl Who Has Everything,” Grey Gardens, OBCR (Scott Frankel-Michael Korie). When I first saw this musical, it was on Broadway, where this number had replaced the song “Toyland” featured on the original cast recording from Playwrights Horizons. When the new album came out, this soaring operetta waltz, which took on considerable gravity within the show’s context, was oft repeated, especially for the stunning vocal flourish with which Christine Ebersole ended the number. 37 plays.

10. “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” Grey Gardens, OBCR. I would consider this the finest list song Broadway has had in years, if not decades. The list espoused by Little Edie in this act two opening showstopper is a feat of expository writing in an opening number. (I consider GG two linked one-act musicals, since the styles are so very different). You receive so much about setting, time and character in just the words, and even the amusing “Da-da-da-DA-dummm.” which fills the pauses between songs. Genius. 37 plays.

The rest of the top 25: “We Need a Little Christmas,” Mame OBCR (Jerry Herman); “Turkey Lurkey Time,” Promises, Promises OBCR (Bacharach-Hal David); “I Was a Shoo-In,” Subways Are for Sleeping OBCR (Styne-Comden & Green); “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love,” Darling of the Day OBCR; “Mame,” Mame OBCR; “Home Sweet Heaven,” High Spirits OBCR (Hugh Martin-Timothy Gray); “Raunchy,” 110 in the Shade, New BCR (Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones); “Let’s See What Happens,” Darling of the Day, OBCR; “Rehab,” Back to Black, Amy Winehouse (not everything is theatre 24/7…); “Ice Cream,” She Loves Me, OBCR (Bock & Harnick); “Carnegie Hall (Do-Do-Re-Do)” On the Town, 1960 studio cast (Bernstein-Comden & Green; God, that ride-out!); “Thank God I’m Old, Barnum, OLCR (Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart); “Fable,” The Light in the Piazza (Adam Guettel); “For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder (see Winehouse); “And This is My Beloved,” Kismet, Lincoln Center revival CR (Borodin; Wright & Forrest).