Showstopper: “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad”

Since Some Like It Hot is one of the funniest films of all time, you’d think that a musical comedy adaptation would follow suit. Well, it didn’t but that didn’t keep Sugar from being enjoyable. Jule Styne and Bob Merrill supplied the score; Gower Champion was the director. Robert Morse and Tony Roberts starred as the down-on-their-luck musicians on the run. Elaine Joyce had the least desirable job of the seeing – trying to live up to the legacy of Monroe. The show had trouble out of town and opened in NY to mixed reviews. Styne and Merrill’s score wasn’t very original or exciting, but it was tuneful and engaging. But on the strength of the original property and the Tony-nominated lead performance of Morse, the show ran 505 performances at the Majestic. The show continues to be licensed and is occasionally revived under the film’s title.

In 1998, Morse and Roberts donned the drag one more time for the Carnegie Hall special My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies where they opened the show with their first act show-stopper “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad.” They were the only men on the bill that evening (and continuing in the gender bending theme that got things started, they were introduced by Julie Andrews in her Victor/Victoria tux.


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.

Step to the Rear: "How Now, Dow Jones" receives Fringe revival

With all the Fringe shows being presented, this one caught my eye as I consider Ken Mandelbaum’s Not Since Carrie a personal Bible. The release tells you all you need to know about the show, so I won’t go into detail. While the original production failed after six months, one song in particular managed to find a life of its own: the act one production number “Step to the Rear.” The song has been used in political rallies, Dodge car commercials and has even been adapted into the University of South Carolina Fight song (“The Fighting Gamecocks Lead the Way” – I kid you not). Here is star Tony Roberts (then still just Anthony) leading the cast in the song on the 1968 Tony Awards. Anyway, here is the press information on the revisal of this long neglected musical:

The new developmental production of How Now, Dow Jones ( starring Cristen Paige (Spelling Bee, The Visit, Cry-Baby), Colin Hanlon (Rent, I Love You Because) and Fred Berman (The Normal Heart, Room Service) will begin performances this Saturday at the Minetta Lane Theatre (18 Minetta Lane) as part of the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival. This new production will also restore an Elmer Bernstein-Carolyn Leigh cabaret favorite to the show: “Shakespeare Lied”.

In a statement, director Ben West (Old Acquaintance) said, “We are thrilled to be developing this new version of How Now, Dow Jones as part of the NY International Fringe Festival. Though it was written over forty years ago, Dow Jones remains wonderfully timely particularly given the current state of the economy and the sexual politics that dominate Washington and big business. As the project has developed, we have included previously unused lyrics by Ms. Leigh, previously unused dialogue by Mr. Shulman, and just recently restored ‘Shakespeare Lied’ to the score. With its extraordinary original material – reshaped in this new version – I look forward to returning Dow Jones to the American musical theatre canon.”

With book by Max Shulman, music by Academy Award winner Elmer Bernstein and lyrics by Tony Award nominee Carolyn Leigh, this new version – revised and directed by Ben West (Old Acquaintance) – plays the following dates and times:

*Saturday, August 15 at 12 Noon

*Monday, August 17 at 10:30 PM

*Tuesday, August 18 at 8 PM

*Thursday, August 20 at 8:15 PM

*Sunday, August 23 at 5:45 PM

How Now, Dow Jones is a zany 1968 musical comedy that follows Kate, the voice of Dow Jones, whose fiancé won’t marry her until the Dow Jones Averages hit 1,000! Bribery, adultery and neurotic Republicans abound in this madcap and timely tale set in the heart of Wall Street.

This new version will be performed without an intermission by a cast of eight. The Tony-nominated score will feature three new songs: “Don’t Let a Good Thing Get Away”, “Where You Are” and “Touch and Go”; all cut from the original Broadway production. Four major roles and the ensemble have been eliminated while five musical numbers have been cut. Additionally, the musical’s signature song “Step to the Rear” will take its own advice and close the show, replacing the previously existing finale.

The production also stars Shane Bland (Bombay Dreams), Jim Middleton (Goodspeed’s 1776), Dennis O’Bannion (White Christmas), Elon Rutberg (The Black Monk) and Cori Silberman (Movie Geek). Choreography is by Rommy Sandhu (Applause, Mary Poppins) with music direction and arrangements by Fran Minarik (Sessions, The J.A.P. Show).

Tickets are currently on-sale by visiting or calling 866-468-7619. Visit: The Minetta Lane Theatre is located at 18 Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village, NYC.

The original Broadway production of How Now, Dow Jones opened on December 7, 1967 starring Tony Roberts, Marlyn Mason and Brenda Vaccaro. The David Merrick production was directed by George Abbott with choreography by Gillian Lynne (and an uncredited Michael Bennett). It played 220 performances and was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical, winning one for co-star Hiram Sherman. The musical, originally presented with a cast of over 40 actors, has been rarely performed since.