By Peter Filichia —
A few weeks ago, we talked about the 25-disc “Broadway in a Box” set as a holiday present for newcomers to musical theater. If that’s a little too rich for your blood, how about the new 12-disc, 11-show set that called Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Complete Broadway Musicals.
The box is the 12-by-12-inch size that was once the standard for “long-playing” records. The CDs themselves and the single cardboard sleeves in which they come don’t require very much acreage; however, the box is required to house the gorgeous foot-by-foot-long, 96-page book inside. Many a picture fills the page, and some are in color. Not only that, Masterworks Broadway’s own David Foil has written some incisive fact-packed essays that astutely comment on the show.
The first disc, of course, is Oklahoma! – not the original cast album, but the 1979 revival cast. There are many differences in choice of songs and recording techniques, but the most fascinating occurs in Jud Fry’s “Lonely Room.” The 1943 original cast album didn’t have room for it, and only included it later on an Oklahoma! Volume Two. Even then, original Jud Howard DaSilva wasn’t available, so Alfred Drake — the original Curly who’d already recorded the rest of the album – did the cut. The result was that listeners felt they weren’t listening to Jud, but to Curly – who seemed to be displaying his dark side.
Carousel is a revival cast album, too, although original star John Raitt returned for this 1965 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production. Look for Jerry Orbach, Dixie Carter and original Daddy Warbucks Reid Shelton in supporting roles.
Next comes State Fair, although it’s neither the 1945 nor 1962 film soundtrack. (With regard to the latter, we offer our apologies to both of Pat Boone’s loyal fans.) Instead, this is the cast album of the 1996 stage production that offers a few extra R&H obscurities, too.
You may have blinked at my stating “12-disc, 11-show set.” The extra disc goes to Allegro, in that marvelous and as-complete-as-can-be 2009 studio cast album. That means that South Pacific is the first show out of the initial five that is a genuine original cast album.
For years we’ve all heard that Gertrude Lawrence sang terribly in The King and I, so the 1977 revival cast album spares you that and offers Constance Towers instead. To be frank, Yul Brynner sang much better on this album than he did on the first one. Practice makes perfect, for Brynner did have thousands of tune-ups before getting into the recording studio with this one.
But it’s the next disc that may well have you buying this set for yourself. Quite some time has passed since the original cast album of their 1953 semi-hit Me and Juliet, has been available. But here it is, right before Pipe Dream, Cinderella, Flower Drum Song and, of course, The Sound of Music.
Rodgers’ 30th musical, and Hammerstein’s 36th said welcome the theater, to the magic, to the fun. Actually, it was about a show that Hammerstein described in his dialogue as an “unconventional dance opera” called Me and Juliet.
We don’t see the four weeks when they rehearse and rehearse, or the three weeks when it couldn’t be worse. Hammerstein opted to show what a musical looked like in the middle of its long run, when the hullabaloo had died down and the “Darling-you-were-wonderfuls” weren’t as plentiful. So we go back and forth between seeing a bit of the on-stage show known as Me and Juliet, and what’s going on backstage.
But the best sequence actually takes place during intermission – albeit not the one that theatergoers actually experienced at the Majestic during the 358-performance run. Instead, Rodgers and Hammerstein opened their second act in the downstairs lounge of the theater in which the musical-within-a-music Me and Juliet was playing, right after the show had just finished its first act. The four-and-a-half minute “Intermission Talk” told us what was on the theatergoers’ minds. Sometimes that involved the show they were seeing, and sometimes it didn’t.
The fun of revisiting “Intermission Talk” more than a half-century later shows what has changed about the theater and what hasn’t.
The song starts with a vendor named Herbie singing, “Lemonade; freshly made; a bottle of ice cold Coke.” And that was about all you could get at a theater lounge back then. Liquor wasn’t allowed until 1964.
“Bored Patron” then sings, “I love to go to a theater lounge to enjoy a noisy smoke.” Now, of course, he’d better step outside the theater and do his smoking on the sidewalk – if even that’s allowed anymore.
“Music Lover” sings, “I like the one that goes da-di-da-dum – ‘Marriage Type Love,’” quoting one of the songs from the on-stage Me and Juliet. “I like the one that goes ‘No Other Love Have I,’ she sings, citing the song that actually did turn out to be a 1953 hit. Then she segues into “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!” citing a different song we’ve heard.
But “Music Lover” couldn’t have heard it — because it’s a book song sung by one of Me and Juliet’s cast members while backstage, and not a song in the musical-within-a-musical that “Music Lover” has been watching. Was Hammerstein having a little fun with himself? After all, the next line from “Her Companion” is “That doesn’t sound quite right.”
“Wife” sings, “I don’t think it’s right to be sulky all night from one little bill from Saks” — something that a wife these days would pay herself from the big bucks she earns.
“Businessman” sings, “What do I care if they balance the budget as long as the cut my tax?” a question still heard today (especially during the recent presidential campaign). “Girl” sings, “The fellow behind me keeps dropping his program and groping around my feet” as an example of terrible theatrical etiquette. Little could she know that noisy candy wrappers, ringing cell phones and awfully loud talking during a scene would eventually become the all-too-common norm for today’s Broadway audiences. Similarly, “Bored Patron” had no idea how lucky he was when he sang, “The couple behind me had garlic for dinner; would you like to change your seat?” I’ve been at performances where families have passed bags of McDonalds and buckets of KFC to each other as they enjoyed the show and smelled up the place.
Eventually, however, the entire group — whom Hammerstein labels “Happy Mourners” — prove that Everybody’s a Critic. “They don’t write music anymore,” they lament, which is something we’ve increasingly heard in the last half-century. Even in 1953, Hammerstein was noting that “The plots are all too serious,” long before his most famous protégé wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and the score for Sweeney Todd. “No longer sweet and gay,” Hammerstein has his “Happy Mourners” sing, totally unaware that the not-sweet Sweet Smell of Success and truly gay musicals were coming along.
“The theater is dying, the theater is practically dead,” they decide, before Herbie interrupts them with, “But the show still goes on. The theater’s not gone.” Is that just wishful thinking from the kid who needs it to make a living hawking lemonade and Coke?
Not at all. For soon Hammerstein has “Starry-Eyed Girl” sing, “I thought I’d laugh myself silly on the ev’ning I spent with Bea Lillie.” That refers to the esteemed British comedienne’s one-woman show for which she won a special Tony.
“Businessman” sings, “I sure had to hassle and hustle buying tickets for Rosalind Russell” — a reference to Wonderful Town, which had opened three months before Me and Juliet (and lasted some time after it).
Later, that “Businessmen” sings, “I loved Shirley Booth and Tom Ewell.” He meant the former’s appearance in The Time of the Cuckoo, the Arthur Laurents play that later was musicalized as Do I Hear a Waltz? Ewell, meanwhile, starred in The Seven Year Itch, and later replicated his performance on screen, albeit not with his stage leading lady Vanessa Brown.
“Romantic Patron” notes “My love for my husband grew thinner the first time I looked at Yul Brynner.” Seems that Hammerstein wasn’t above giving his still-running The King and I a plug.
Sings “Satisfied Patron,” “I just had a picnic at Picnic, and loved everyone in the cast.” Here’s hoping that Peggy Conklin, Eileen Heckart, Ruth McDevitt, Ralph Meeker, Morris Miller, Paul Newman, Arthur O’Connell Janice Rule, Reta Shaw, Kim Stanley and Elizabeth Wilson got to hear that line some Sunday night at a Me and Juliet Actors Fund benefit.
And while many if not all of the above named and shows may be dim memories or unknown quantities in 2012, Hammerstein wrote one line for “Enthusiastic Patron” that’s still relevant at high schools, colleges and regional theaters around the country: “The Crucible! Boy, what a play!”
Still, “Happy Mourners” sing, “The theater is dying! The theater is dying! The theater is practically dead! The ones who are backing it take a shellacking.”
Well, that’s even truer today. In 1953, when Me and Juliet opened, it ran less than a year and only made a little money after a little tour. Twenty years later, Irene opened, ran 18 months and still didn’t remotely pay back. Moderate hits do much worse these days.
And yet, that cockeyed optimist Hammerstein and “All the Rest” of the lounge patrons eventually come to the conclusion that “actors keep acting and plays keep attracting and seats are not easy to buy … and year after year, there’s something to cheer … the theater is living! The theater is living” which is still true.
Rodgers and Hammerstein have had a lot to do with that.