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The Sound of Lyric-Less Music

The Sound of Lyric-Less Music

By Peter Filichia
The upcoming revival cast album of Promises PromisesSee it here will include the marvelous instrumental known as “The Grapes of Roth.”

Its title could be confusing to Promises neophytes, for there’s nothing in the music to suggest grapes. As it turns out, The Grapes of Roth is the name of Eddie Roth’s neighborhood bar, a happy place where people come to congregate and dance. It’s also the nightspot where our hero C.C. “Chuck” Baxter (Sean Hayes) often stops in for a drink.

Considering the worth of the music heard there, we’re glad that Chuck’s a customer. “The Grapes of Roth” is only little more than a minute long, but it impresses, thanks to composer Burt Bacharach. Here are his trademark bleating trumpets and smooth rhythms, not to mention those vocal “Ba-ba-da-ba-das” that he’d use quite a bit the following year (1969) when he scored the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s music that defines the Swinging ‘60s, when people did dances with such fanciful names as the Watusi, the Pony and, of course, the Hanky-Panky.

These little instrumentals don’t show up very often on cast albums. Oh, overtures do with frequency, but they’re different musical entities in a class by themselves. (They’ll be discussed in a future column. Watch this space!)

However, the Prologue from West Side Story is a different animal. The show did have a genuine overture where the hoped-for-hits were prominently displayed. But the Prologue that came after stressed the Jets’ finger-snapping, ever-cool attitude. The lads would get hotter at “The Dance at the Gym,” and hotter still during “The Rumble.” Matters became more sensitive during the delicate “Somewhere Ballet.” All feature, to say the least, landmark Leonard Bernstein music – whose ballet and jazz work demand to be heard in On the Town, too.

“The Dance at the Gym” offers the Best Mambo in Broadway history. What’s the Best Bolero on a cast album? Arguably the stirring one near the end of Grand Hotel. The Best Gavotte? Certainly the one that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for Cinderella.

The Best Irish Jig comes, as one might expect, from Finian’s Rainbow. The 1960 revival cast album offers the invigorating “Look to the Rainbow” as a dance piece on its own track. It previews the song itself, which follows with E.Y. Harburg’s delicious lyrics in place.

The Best March might well be the subtlest one. There aren’t 76 trombones or anything near it in the quietly effective “March of the Siamese Children” from The King and I. Oh, it does get a little loud when Prince Chulalongkorn makes his entrance with his I’m-the-future-king stance, but it’s a lovely piece of Richard Rodgers music all around.

And how often does the musical theater give us a genuine bourree? “The Return of the Animals” in Children of Eden is a charming piece of music punctuated with happy sounds of lions and tigers and bears (and plenty of other beings); all seem happy to get off Noah’s Ark on Day 41. The nifty four-minute selection was part of the 1997 Paper Mill Playhouse production, and it’s available on both the complete two-disc set as well as the single highlights CD. And unlike the notorious original London cast album, either of these will play on your CD player; for some reason known only to the most ardent of techies, the 1991 London CD self-destructed over the years.

The most erotic piece of dance music on a cast album? “Tick Tock” may have disappeared from many subsequent productions of Company, but it remains on every original cast album. True, a few lines of dialogue show up near the end of the selection which augments the eroticism, but the piece (courtesy of Stephen Sondheim, Wally Harper, and David Shire) was doing just fine without it.

Longtime Fiddler on the Roof fans had to wait decades before they got to hear the “Wedding Dance” that was recorded in 1964 by album producer Andy Wiswell. It didn’t make the LP of the original cast album, but finally showed up on the CD reissue . And although “Wedding Dance” was a part of the 1971 soundtrack album, there is something about hearing the orchestra that played for the cast album doing this selection on the same disc. It fits in nicely with the rest of the piece.

Very few cast albums offer “out music” – meaning the music that the orchestra plays once every curtain call has been taken and as the crowd leaves. But “Double Talk Walk” in City of Angels was such a potent piece of jazz that it had to be included. It was written, of course, by Cy Coleman. When it came to jazz, no Broadway-centric composer could touch him.

Coleman was also happily responsible for the music in Sweet Charity, whose cast album sported two distinctive musical interludes. First came “Charity’s Theme,” an easygoing piece that reflected its heroine’s outlook on life. Later came “Rich Man’s Frug,” an electronic-sounding piece that was Coleman’s predecessor to Bacharach’s “The Grapes of Roth.”

Let’s not forget “Jump for Joy” from The Goodbye Girl. It has that distinctive Marvin Hamlisch sound, with trumpeters sliding up the scale and busy saxophones adding to what is supposed to be a production number on a TV special. (And special it indeed is.) “The Riviera Rage” from Irene is so melodically quirky that one can easily image the wondrous chaos that choreographer Peter Gennaro must have put on the stage.

And then there are the waltzes that get their due on a few albums – most notably “Night Waltz” after the sung overture in A Little Night Music. Usually the overture is all music and what follows involves words, but Sondheim has always dared to be different. Richard Rodgers’ “Laendler” in The Sound of Music starts out imposingly, but soon settles down into an elegant, violin-heavy, woodwind-enhanced waltz version “The Lonely Goatherd.” But the most swirling waltz of note on any cast album is “The Embassy Waltz” in My Fair Lady. It has genuine majesty, which could unrattle someone less poised than the new Eliza Doolittle.

Speaking of My Fair Lady, let’s praise its dance music arranger, Peter Howard (1927–2008). He provided Broadway with some of the greatest pieces of dance music. The pulsating “The Sound of Money” from I Can Get It for You Wholesale, the elegant “He Plays the Violin” in 1776, the Dixieland riffs in “Put It in the Book” in The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd are all Howard’s work. Note how clever he was, too: Chicago’s “Hot Honey Rag” subtly includes a little of “I Can’t Do It Alone,” and Hello Dolly’s title number just as subtly includes a bit of “Call on Dolly.” True, all these selections have lyrics encircling them, but Howard’s work is so impressive that it could stand on its own.

Some may wonder why I’m not including the delicious “Parade” from Camelot – that jaunty piece of music that came between “If Ever I Would Leave You” and “Before I Gaze at You Again.” Ah, then you haven’t listened to Camelot since the LP era. When the CD was issued in the late ‘80s, “Parade” was incorporated into the overture. Time to have another listen, friends.

Peter Filichia also writes a column on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia