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).

“Promises, Promises” – Original London Cast Recording

Just when it seemed as though there wouldn’t be anything more to say about Promises, Promises cast albums, Bruce Kimmel went ahead and released the long unavailable original London cast album on CD. Kimmel’s label, Kritzerland, recently made a splash with the 2 disc limited edition of the original Broadway album a couple months ago, which was so popular a second single disc edition was pressed. Sony Masterworks released a revival cast album which has been selling well. But for die hard fans, this is one of those rare cast albums that’s been long awaited. I, for one, lived with an mp3 rip of a good quality LP for the last couple of years and was one of those folks crying out for a CD.  The good news is that it’s been entirely worth the wait, the bad news is the limited pressing of 1,000 CDs has sold out (they did in a flash!)

Producers didn’t waste much time in bringing Promises, Promises to London. It opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1969, running a respectable 560 performances. Tony Roberts was Chuck Baxter. He does a decent job, if he’s not nearly as distinctive as Jerry Orbach. Betty Buckley and she sings the hell out of the score as Fran, easily the best sung on record. Her “Knowing When to Leave” is definitive, particularly the way she crescendos from head voice pianissimo to full out belt on the last line. Jack Kruschen, who played the doctor in The Apartment reprised his role in this production. Donna McKechnie flew to London to recreate the showstopping “Turkey Lurkey Time” for six weeks, but apparently this album was recorded after she left. (Her name is credited on the album cover, but inside the credit goes to Alix Kirsta).

Like the Kritzerland release of the OBC, the London album has also been placed in show order. It was produced similarly to the first, but offers an entirely different listening experience. The inherent idiosyncrasies make this London recording required listening. The pit singers are much clearer, especially in the overture. But the thing that really struck me, and it was probably the remix that helped me realize this, was the percussion. I have no idea who the drummer was, but his or her work really just pops on the album, especially in “Turkey Lurkey Time.”

One of my main quibbles with both the original Broadway and London albums is that “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” doesn’t have its dance break or big finish, both recordings repeat the refrain as they fade out. As a sort of consolation, Mr. Kimmel has included the song from the Italian cast album in its entirety as a bonus after the title song. Kimmel once again supplies the liner notes which covers much of the same area as the Broadway Promises, but gives a concise history of the London run.

As I said, the CD is sold out (though you may still be able to snag a copy on Footlight Records) so if you’ve missed out, I hope you’ve got a friend who’ll be nice and let you borrow their copy. You’ll definitely want to give this one a spin.

“Promises, Promises” OBCR 3.0

Nowadays, it seems that every time a movie is even moderately successful it’s pretty much a given that it will sooner or later find its way onstage (and almost always as a musical). Back in the 50s and 60s this was far less common, with plays and novels (and the occasional original idea) acting as source material. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t such adaptations. The 1953 MGM hit Lili became Carnival! in 1961 and the Oscar winning Best Picture of 1960 The Apartment became Promises, Promises in 1968. Incidentally, both of these hit musicals starred the late, great Jerry Orbach and I am a huge fan of both.

The latter is currently receiving its first Broadway revival, while that particular production wasn’t very well received, its been in the headlines due to a controversial Newsweek article, a Tony win for supporting star Katie Finneran and its success in spite of a critical excoriation. They’ve even released a new cast album (more on that CD next time!)

The original production of Promises, Promises was a smash. A no holds barred, full out, critical salvos up the wazoo smash. Jerry Orbach and Jill O’Hara starred in the roles famously created by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the Billy Wilder film. However, Promises was made a contemporary musical – its score and sensibility are reflective of late 60s pop, with a memorable score from pop composer Burt Bacharach and his lyricist Hal David (their only stage score). Robert Moore directed, but it was choreographer Michael Bennett‘s contributions which most remember. His dances permeated scene changes and turned a troubled first act pastiche into a showstopper to end all showstoppers (“Turkey Lurkey Time“).

Jonathan Tunick, our foremost orchestrator, made his first mark on Broadway adopting a style that would be further explored two years later in Sondheim’s Company. The production won Tony Awards for Orbach, Featured Actress Marian Mercer (as Marge MacDougall, in a stunning comic turn at the top of act two) and was a nominee for Best Musical (it lost to 1776, the other nominees were Hair and Zorba!). Promises, Promises closed after 1,281 performances at the Shubert. A London run starring Tony Roberts and Betty Buckley ran for 560 performances (and that cast album, with Buckley’s definitive rendering of “Knowing When to Leave” has never been released digitally, and according to my sources is likely to remain in the vault).

The original Broadway cast album of Promises, Promises has had two CD releases through Rykodisc and Varese Sarabande. I have the former, and never picked up the latter as it seemed to me a mere reissue of the first one. Then I got wind of a very special reissue of the album from Kritzerland, the CA based company run by Bruce Kimmel, who in the past year has issued limited edition cast albums (1,000 copies each) of Anya, Illya Darling, Show Girl, the 1968 House of Flowers and Cry for Us All.

I wouldn’t necessarily think that there would be a reason to purchase another version of the OBC of Promises, Promises except that Mr. Kimmel has worked his magic on the recording to create one of the best sounding cast album reissues I’ve ever heard. You see, the first two CD releases were taken from the edited eight track master tapes, leaving sound quality to be desired. The original LP master tapes were never remixed or used until this particular issue. The first disc is the original LP album in its LP order and the second disc is the remastered, pitch-corrected version which puts the songs in show order for the first time. Kimmel is supplying the listener with the album as originally heard, but also allowing us the opportunity to hear what it would have sounded like with today’s recording technology. (The issue of Jerry Orbach’s shaky pitch on the Promises cast album is something of a sticking point for many in theatre circles). Both discs make the score sound crisper than ever.

Mr. Kimmel wrote the liner notes himself, discussing the show’s history as well as his personal experiences (he was there the night three different Fran Kubeliks went on). There’s no plot synopsis or lyrics, but I don’t think many who will buy this recording will need either. There are some fun photographs (including the Turkey Lurkey girls in what must be out of town tryout – with different costumes), a reversion to the MGM LP cover art and pull quotes from all the major raves. The sad news is that the release is limited to 1,000 copies. If you haven’t picked one up yet, you may be out of luck. Last I heard there were about 125 copies left – and the preorders were shipped only the other day. (But give it a shot!) It’s worth replacing whatever copy of the original you may have.

"Cry For Us All"

All throughout the year, Bruce Kimmel at Kritzerland records has been releasing cast albums on CD for the first time. He got the ball rolling with Anya, and has continued with Illya Darling, Show Girl and the 1968 off-Broadway revival of House of Flowers. Now he is releasing the 1970 flop Cry for Us All, which when you consider the show’s troubled tryout and fast failure, sounds more like a plea from the cast than the show’s title.

The musical is based on the hit 1965 off-Broadway play Hogan’s Goat, written by William Alfred. The original play is a tragic melodrama written in blank verse about a young, ambitious Irish immigrant who wants to run against the corrupt incumbent Brooklyn mayor. (The play and musical are set in 1890, before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City). The hero’s secrets and demons come back to haunt him, destroying his life and his marriage. His dying mistress, and his civil marriage are cause for political scandal, ultimately culminating in his wife dying after he pushes her down a massive staircase. A real crowd-pleaser.

Mitch Leigh decided that the property should be a musical. Leigh, who had a successful career in advertising, was most famous for the music to Man of La Mancha and the popular jingle “Nobody Doesn’t Like Sara Lee.” All of his other theatrical ventures were failures (and all lacked a good lyricist). La Mancha director Albert Marre was brought in on the project and he co-wrote the libretto with Alfred (who was also co-lyricist with Phyllis Robinson). However, along with Marre came Mrs. Marre, stage diva Joan Diener.

Joan Diener is a musical theatre eccentricity. Trained in opera, she found her greatest successes – and failures – in the American musical theatre. Working exclusively with Marre, she only had two hit shows, Kismet (for which she won a Theatre World Award) and Man of La Mancha, in a role she latched onto as if she were the Pope. As Lalume in Kismet, the voluptuous Diener was scantily clad as an exotic temptress who tore the roof off the theatre with “Not Since Nineveh,” where she first made an impression with her unusual voice which combined a mezzo-belt and operatic soprano, which she navigated seamlessly if recklessly.

She recreated Kismet in London and in later revivals. As Aldonza, she performed in the original Broadway cast, the original London cast, the original Paris cast (in French, translated by and starring Jacques Brel), the national tour, the 1972 Broadway revival and a replacement in the 1992 flop revival when the score proved to be too much for Sheena Easton. Diener is at her best on the original cast album, where she sings with great flair and energy. Starting in London (if not before), she started slowing down the tempos for all her numbers, turning them all into dramatic soprano arias. Her “It’s All the Same” in the ’72 Vivian Beaumont revival was especially lugubrious. I can’t help but wonder if this was in a bid for more stage time.

She also starred in the out of town failure At the Grand which thirty years later showed up on Broadway (and wholly revised) as Grand Hotel. Cry for Us All was meant to capitalize on the La Mancha success and lasted a week. Her final original musical role was as Penelope opposite Yul Brynner’s Odysseus in the one performance wonder Home Sweet Homer, which was based on and toured for a year under the title Odyssey. If Diener had a large voice, her acting style was even larger. Her character choices were broad and often bombastic, and entirely wrong for the character she was playing here. In talking about Cry for Us All in his book One More Kiss, Ethan Mordden says Diener “played the lead role as An Evening with Joan Diener.

It is Diener’s miscasting in the role of the delicate Irish wife, Kathleen, that is seen as the show’s first step on the rode to failure. Robert Weede, the virile baritone of The Most Happy Fella and Milk and Honey was brought in to play the Mayor. John Reardon was hired to play the hero, but quit during early rehearsals when Steve Arlen took over. Rounding out the leads in what were supposed to be comic relief roles were Tommy Rall and Helen Gallagher.

Out of town is where the trouble really started. Audiences in New Haven found the leading couple rather unsympathetic and drastic measures were taken to make them more likable. What that meant was that material was taken away from Rall, Gallagher and Dolores Wilson and given to Diener, whose part was starting to become much larger than it needed to be dramatically. A crucial role from the play was written out entirely and things got out of control. Other cast member’s were not thrilled with what was perceived to be Diener’s hijacking of the show, and resented losing their material to her.

In Boston they retitled the show Who to Love before reverting back to the original. Audiences there seemed to like the show, with some numbers even stopping the show. However, problems with illness, on set accidents and problems with the set were abundant. The set consisted of a three story house on a turntable which moved around to transport the action. The motor caused the set to constantly hum, and at one performance an 1800 pound tree fell into the wings (surprisingly no one was hurt). The show came into New York in April 1970, as a two hour, one-act lumbering bore.

The source material was so intensely melodramatic that it most likely should have been an opera instead of a Broadway musical. The score was the best thing going for the show. The stilted lyrics range from mediocre to appallingly bad, but the music was often quite extraordinary. The title song is somber but stirring, “This Cornucopian Land” is a fascinating eleven o’clock number, and ironically enough Diener lands the best number of the entire score in “The Verandah Waltz.” The three street urchins who function as a Greek chorus have several interesting items. Plus, it’s got a spectacular overture.

However, there are the duds. Rall sings a variation of the ribald “Leg of the Duck” song (with lyrics such as “I gave it to Amy, she said it’s too gamey”) and Gallagher sings that perennial favorite “Swing Your Bag” (according to Mordden, Diener jumped in on the last three notes culminating in a D above C – something not present on the album). However, there are too many numbers that are reminiscent of or that retread Man of La Mancha: “The End of My Race,” the overly dramatic “Who to Love If Not a Stranger?” and “That Slavery is Love” for Diener. There is also the finale where a priest sings the “De profundis” in Latin as Diener emotes a death scene.

The musical opened at the Broadhurst Theatre and was eviscerated by critics, closing one week later after 9 performances. The cast album, a favorite of collectors, has long languished on LP, but thanks to Mr. Kimmel it’s been released in a limited release of 1,000 copies. So for the curious, you’d better get your copy while you can.

Kritzerland Does It Again!

Following the highly successful limited releases of Anya and Illya, Darling on CD, Kritzerland is bringing us their next offering: the first ever CD issue of the 1968 off-Broadway revival of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s House of Flowers. The original 1954 Broadway production struck out with critics (mostly over the book, of course) and lasted 165 performances. Saint-Subber, the original producer and Capote felt that the production was too big for such an intimate story, so they reworked the show for a smaller venue. However, this production at the Theatre de Lys in 1968 proved even more shortlived than the original, lasting only 57 performances. The recent concert at Encores! also proved the book was mostly unworkable in spite of the phenomenal Arlen-Capote score (which gave the world such great songs as “One Man (Ain’t Quite Enough),” “A Sleeping Bee,” “I Never Has Seen Snow,” “Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree,” and “Don’t Like Goodbyes”).

Having never heard this particular recording, I would find it hard to believe it will live up to the essential original Broadway cast album with Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll and Juanita Hall. However, this particular album is essential for my fellow aficionados because it has several songs not present on the original cast recording as well as different, more authentically Caribbean orchestrations from Joe Raposo, who would later find great success for his musical contributions to “Sesame Street.” Kudos to Bruce Kimmel and the folks at Kritzerland for giving us yet another long forgotten album (and with this the third United Artists LP being put on CD, I hope it’s not long until the London Promises, Promises with Tony Roberts and a sublime Betty Buckley comes to disc). This will be another limited release of 1,000 copies only.