March Madness: Week Two
As I wrote last week, if college basketball can have “March Madness,” so can musical theater.
My column of February 26 stated that aficionados should spend March going delightfully mad. Each day of the month, they could play as few as one song or as many as found on a cast album that celebrates a March opening or birthday.
I listed March first to the fourth last week; now I’ll tackle the fifth through the eleventh.
March 5 marks the fifty-ninth anniversary of The Girl in Pink Tights, a musical about the first American musical: The Black Crook. In 1866, it came into the world, to quote Benjamin Franklin in 1776, “half-improvised and half-compromised.”
A ballet troupe from Paris had been scheduled to appear at a New York theater, only to find that the place had burned down the night before. Across the street, an impresario who was presenting a melodrama took pity on the dancers and hired them to do some numbers between scenes. Attendees liked the idea so much that writers started thinking, “Hmmm, what if we started creating shows that had a little dance here, a little song there and a little dialogue in between?”
That 1866 incident was the jumping-off point for librettists Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields, composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist Leo Robin. They were loosely adapting what had happened eighty-eight years earlier – until 1951, when Romberg died.
Happily enough, orchestrator Don Walker finished the music. Some may credit him for making the score sound less operetta-ish than the Romberg we know from The Student Prince or The Desert Song. But check out Deep in My Heart, the bio-pic of Romberg that was released later in 1954: you’ll hear more perky musical comedy tunes there than you might have anticipated. So too here.
March 6 is the thirty-ninth anniversary of the opening of Over Here! World War II USO entertainers Paulette and Pauline de Paul knew they needed a third singer if they were to become as big as, say, The Andrews Sisters. Portraying the de Pauls, in fact, were the two surviving Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene. (My buddy Al Koenig tells me that art imitated life; the two Andrews did seek a replacement for Laverne after she’d died, but to no avail.)
The score was provided by the Sherman Brothers, but there isn’t a made-up word along the lines of gratifaction or supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Better still, the music sounds quintessentially adult-oriented ‘40s. To be fair, Patty’s husband Walter Weschler helped out as “creative consultant,” and perhaps he helped the Shermans with the requisite “Big Band Sound.”
Over Here! also gives listeners a chance to play a little game. In the chorus numbers, can they make out the voices of then-newcomers Treat Williams, Marilu Henner and Ann Reinking? Hearing the rookie who’d become the most well-known is substantially easier: John Travolta gets a solo called “Dream Drummin’.”
Quick! Aside from Mary Martin, who was the most famous performer in the original cast of The Sound of Music? Some may be surprised to hear that it was not Theodore Bikel, but Marion Marlowe, who played Else Schraeder.
Marlowe was then a household name, for she’d spent the first five years of the ‘50s appearing on the various variety shows hosted by Arthur Godfrey. He’s forgotten now, too, but he was virtually ubiquitous during the early TV era; as a result, Marlowe was as well.
Celebrate what would have been Marlowe’s 83rd birthday on March 7 by playing the two Sound of Music songs that featured her: “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It.” Besides, you don’t hear those songs often enough, given that each was dropped from the famous 1965 film.
A day later, celebrate the 95th anniversary of Eileen Herlie’s birth. True, she was mostly known for roles in classical works; she was Gertrude not only in Olivier’s 1948 Oscar-winning Hamlet, but also in Richard Burton’s 1964 revival. Herlie could be found in the occasional comedy, too, most notably as the original Irene Molloy in The Matchmaker.
Still, Herlie did make two forays into Broadway musicals: Take Me Along in 1959 and All American in 1962. The former, an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! , had Herlie playing Lily Miller. She was a strong turn-of-the-century character, for she didn’t fear being unmarried. Indeed, she preferred to be a so-called “old maid” rather than be wed to drunkard Sid Davis – although she did love the lush.
Her two solos, “Promise Me a Rose” and “We’re Home” are lovely, but when she shares the stage with Sid – no less than Jackie Gleason – she can whoop it up in two terrific comedy numbers: “I Get Embarrassed” and “But Yours.”
And who’d expect that a film and stage Gertrude would help introduce a standard? Nevertheless, that’s what Herlie did in All American when she duetted with Ray Bolger in “Once upon a Time.” Charles Strouse still includes this song whenever he’s asked to go to the piano and play a medley of his hits.
March 9 is the 54th anniversary of the opening of Juno, based on Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. Melvyn Douglas’ character was stripped from the title, and he got second-billing, too. But that had to happen when an actor was playing opposite Tony- and Oscar-winner Shirley Booth. (Douglas would win a Tony and two Oscars, but that was still in the future.)
Booth and Douglas share a most delightful song in Marc Blitzstein’s score (which, incidentally, is much gentler than his The Cradle Will Rock). “Old Sayin’s” is actually two songs in one. The first part has the Paycock complaining about his wife’s not spoiling him, and her telling why she won’t. The second has him quoting bromides and her rebutting each one in short order. Juno is quite a serious musical, but Blitzstein certainly made room for delectable comic relief.
On March 10, 1974 – only four days after the debut of Over Here! -- Candide made its long-awaited return to Broadway. Granted, it didn’t resemble the 1956 version; the cast was substantially younger, the orchestra was smaller, the book less absurdist and the setting environmental. The result was much more musical comedy and less operetta.
It also had the benefit of a new book by Hugh Wheeler. The 1974 revival cast album on two discs allows us to hear all of it. And if that isn’t enough, we also have some new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
His best contribution was transforming “Venice Gavotte” into “Life Is Happiness Indeed,” a funny number that introduces us to the idealistic Candide, his love Cunegonde, her vain brother Maximilian and the serving maid Paquette. Stay tuned for their adventures – all the way to “Make Our Garden Grow,” one of Leonard Bernstein’s best songs (which, of course, is saying a lot).
A dozen years have passed since A Class Act opened on March 11, 2001. One could call this a jukebox musical in that virtually every melody and lyric had been written years earlier by Edward Kleban. None, however, would actually be found in a jukebox, more’s the pity.
Kleban was a one-hit wonder as a lyricist, but, oh, what a wondrous hit he wrote: A Chorus Line. The show examines why “After Chorus Line, nothing happened.”
Has there ever been a jukebox musical in which the songs genuinely sound as if they were written in tandem with the book? The best of the exemplary lot is “The Next Best Thing to Love,” in which friendship is shown to deserve full-blown love status. Really: don’t you genuinely love your best platonic friend? Then you’ll adore the song. Don’t be surprised if you love all the others, too.
March 11 also marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the most thrilling nights in Broadway history: Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. It was producer Kurt Peterson’s homage to the man who was fast becoming the musical theater’s greatest composer-lyricist, and set the tone for other great one-night extravaganzas on Broadway. Listen to the phenomenal applause by a packed house of enthusiastic pros.
To our good fortune, the show was recorded. It soon became known as “The Scrabble Album” because the names of Sondheim’s shows were laid out in Scrabble tiles on the back cover.
Not all, of course, but all that he’d written up to that time. How lucky for us that he’s since written so many more. No one will call you mad if you spend all twenty-four hours of March 11 playing all the Sondheim you can.
But if you must choose only one song from Sondheim: A Musical Tribute, make it Nancy Walker’s rendition of “I’m Still Here.” I’ve heard dozens of renditions of this song, but this one’s the best of the bunch. Thank the Lord it IS still here on this thrilling cast album.