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Mary Martin's a Babe

Mary Martin’s a Babe

By Peter Filichia —

We all have our favorite recordings. Mine, of course, may not be the same as yours. But of all the studio cast recordings that Lehman Engel made in the early ‘50s of musicals from the ‘20s through the ‘40s, the one I like best is Babes in Arms. It’s now available again after a torturously long absence. Those who’d like a CD of it can demand one simply by asking, “Burn, Babes, burn!”

Babes in Arms is the 1937 musical in which a group of teenagers need money and have no idea how to get it – until one of them yells, “Hey! Let’s put on a” – well, you know what they’re going to put on.

The score was hardly a put-on. Of the dozens of musicals for which Rodgers and Hart provided full scores, Babes in Arms has four of their most famous songs: “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Where or When?” They’re all well-served on this most spirited of Engel recordings.

Some will feel, however, that Mary Martin was miscast here. In the spring of 1951 when this recording was made, Martin was already in her late thirties. She hadn’t been a teenager since the Hoover administration. Her previous role, which she’d opened two years earlier, already had her as an ensign who’s about to become a step-mother of two.

For that matter, Martin’s co-stars on this recording — Jack Cassidy and Mardi Bayne – were then already old enough to have graduated from graduate school. They didn’t know it at the recording session, but the following year they’d be castmates in the 1952 hit “Wish You Were Here.” Bayne had already known Martin, for she’d played a fellow ensign in the original cast of South Pacific.

That the three weren’t age-appropriate didn’t much matter to Engel. His studio cast recordings of vintage musicals were hybrids that partly resembled the sound of an original cast album, but mostly came across as pop albums. None was designed to replicate each show to the nth degree, but all were meant to provide a nice living-room listening experience. Today’s cast albums replicate most every smidgen of dialogue and want to replicate the show as close to what was seen on the stage – thus alienating those who didn’t witness the musical and are a bit lost by the recording’s inside nature.

Remember, too, that the long-playing record in 1951 was less than a thousand days old. Everyone in the recording industry was still finding his way in guessing what would make the best possible product. So what if Cassidy and Bayne sang a song originally assigned to characters named Sam Reynolds and Gus fielding on “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and then sang “All at Once” which initially belonged to Billie Smith and Val Le Mar? Both songs wound up sounding good, didn’t they?

Although there is a chorus backing up all three singers, that’s it for the cast. While the original Babes in Arms split up its dozen songs among sixteen characters, the ten songs here are done by our trio.

Cassidy solos on “You Are So Fair,” which had originally featured two men and a woman. And while this isn’t one of the score’s hits, it sports a charming Richard Rodgers melody. What’s more, Lorenz Hart does some deft wordplay by using the word “fair” in both the sense of fairness and loveliness – before he adds in “fare” and “affair.”

But Engel decided not to include every one of Hart’s witty lyrics. A first refrain is followed by the orchestra’s playing, only to have the singer return and repeat the refrain we’ve already heard – the way that pop recordings were made at the time. Thus, second or third refrains are in short supply. But the overture certainly could pass for one on an original cast album, and indicates what a splendid recording this will be.

Those who came to know Mary Martin as Maria von Trapp may not realize that the star once was, in the slang sense of the word, indeed a “babe.” Take a look at her in the 1940 film Rhythm on the River, and you’ll see a sexy woman performing for you.

So when Martin coyly proclaims that “The Lady Is a Tramp” she’s utterly insouciant. (Or shall we say, “Peter Pan-ish?”) One surprise: while the original Hart lyric here stated, “I like LaGuardia, and think he’s a champ,” someone changed the first part of the line to “I still like Roos’velt.” One can’t say the change was made because LaGuardia had died (in 1947), for Roosevelt had died too (in 1945). So why the change? As Ain’t Misbehavin’ taught us, “One never knows, do one?”

We have to wonder what Martin was thinking when she sang the lyric, “I was never at a party where they honored Noel Ca-ad.” Hart was stressing the casual way that many in the upper crust said the name “Noel Coward.” Martin and Coward, however, in 1946 had endured their own stress when she did his flop musical Pacific 1860 in London. Each blamed the other for the failure, so even five years later, Martin might well have still felt she wouldn’t want to be at a party where they honored Noel — whom she may well have still considered a cad.

Never mind. When Martin sings about “the big trombone” in “Johnny One Note,” she gets down ‘n’ dirty. Later in the song, she reminds us that Ethel Merman, the “other” First Lady of the American Musical Theater in those years, wasn’t the only one who could hold a note for an inordinate length of time. Martin does it twice near song’s end and makes both times seem effortless.

Martin also gets good use out of her honey-soaked voice in “Where or When?” The way she caresses the last syllable of “Some things that happennnnn” is sensuous; then she lightens the line “seem to be haaaaappening again.” It’s quite skillful.

After Martin has sung one refrain of “My Funny Valentine” (and a heavenly amount of sumptuous violin playing occurs), she returns and plays with the melody. She improvises so securely that she makes listeners believe that she could have also had a career as a recording star if she’d wanted one. Hart’s lyric tells us that Valentine’s mouth is “a little weak,” but Martin’s vocal cords are not. So when the recording comes to an end with a medley, Engel knows who the real star is. He has Martin finish off the disc all by herself by reprising the score’s four big hits.

Footnote: For those who are new to “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” be apprised that in the show the line, “I would rather be gaga” isn’t sung by either a young girl or a female impersonator.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.

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