And the Year Starts Up
By Peter Filichia –
So what was the first recording in 2012 that you chose for your listening pleasure?
For the twentieth straight year, I started New Year’s Day by playing the CD that I got in late 1991: And the World Goes ‘Round. It’s the recording of the revue that celebrates John Kander and Fred Ebb’s first quarter-century on Broadway.
Why choose this for January 1? Well, the world has indeed gone ‘round and endured another spin, so giving this CD a spin seems apt.
Besides, to hear 18 cuts by Kander and Ebb is never a bad way to inaugurate a new year. The recording offers songs that the team had written for eight stage musicals and three films. As a little lagniappe, And the World Goes ‘Round includes two songs they wrote just for the fun of it: “My Coloring Book,” their first pop hit (which Ebb created at a dinner party just to show he could write a song in a hurry if need be) and “Sara Lee,” Ebb’s paean to a confectionary treat of which we’ve all availed ourselves. (Brenda Pressley does the former in haunting fashion; Jim Walton, while zestfully doing the latter, makes you wonder how someone this voracious about pastry could still keep his youthful figure.)
Another reason that I like to start the year with And the World Goes ‘Round is that it brings back memories of the recording session on August 26, 1991. How well I recall standing in RCA Victor’s fondly remembered recording studio on Forty-fifth between Sixth and Seventh. Pressley was especially impressed to be there, for, as she told me, the first cast album with which she’d fallen in love was Ain’t Misbehavin’ – which was recorded right here, too.
Pressley then left to join the talented foursome standing behind panes of glass that were thicker than those found in even the most secure banks. What a pleasure it was to hear their glorious voices coming out of speakers that made my home equipment sound like two Dixie cups connected by a string.
Karen Mason looked especially radiant. This was her first opportunity to record a cast album, although she had already recorded her own solo disc. On that one, she’d recorded “Colored Lights” from The Rink. Little did she know then that she’d be singing it in this show, too. “We did my album in a church in New Rochelle,” she said, eyeballs twirling around at the thought of it. “Isn’t this better?” she added, referencing the Funny Lady song that And the World Goes ‘Round gave her.
I remember that Mason had arrived late, although she’d had permission to; she’d been doing an AIDS benefit in Chicago. Record producer Jay David Saks was glad to see her. “K.M.,” he said, “I wanted it to be your voice we recorded for ethical Milli Vanilli reasons.”
Mason was called “K.M.” because she wasn’t the only Karen in the troupe. Future Tony-winner Karen Ziemba was thus “K.Z.” She erotically shook the top of her body (to put it gingerly and gentlemanly) while the band was playing the instrumental section of “Arthur in the Afternoon.” Well, to be fair, the song is about a lady lustily enjoying sexual good times; Ziemba was simply staying in character.
I was somewhat jolted when I heard Ziemba sing, “You can keep your crystal to heat up someone’s pistol.” Those weren’t the original lyrics when Liza Minnelli sang them in 1977 in The Act. But Ebb had done some cosmetic surgery on dated, once-topical references.
The best example of that came when Mason played the glamorous Tess Harding (of Woman of the Year) to Pressley’s dishwater-dull housewife in the song that reminds us that “The Grass Is Always Greener” in someone else’s yard. When Woman of the Year opened in 1981, hausfrau Jan was impressed that glamorous Tess was “eating at the White House,” which caused Tess to respond, “What’s so wonderful? First you pass the jelly beans.” It was nice ‘n’ topical then, with Ronald Reagan only having been inaugurated a few months earlier. But by the time And the World Goes ‘Round showed up, George H.W. Bush had assumed the presidency. So Ebb, noting Bush’s promise of “Read my lips: no new taxes,” gave Tess a new line for this revue: “Read my lips: boring.”
Pressley was thrilled to do it again with “K.M.,” because she’d already left the production, which had opened the previous March. Jim Walton had left a little later to do West Side Story overseas. Although he’d been gone for a while, Walton told me that he remembered a good deal of his K&E material, and that it was “an old suit of clothes that feels comfortable.” He also reminded me that he’d performed this show much more than the two others whose cast albums he’d recorded: Merrily We Roll Along and Follies in Concert.
“K.M.” was planning to leave the show in the next few weeks in order to do her one-woman show, One Tough Cookie. As a then-currently running Grand Hotel was informing everyone, “People come; people go.” But we’ll always have this album with those original casters and Bob Cuccioli, as he then chummily billed himself. Five years later, when he played both title roles in Jekyll & Hyde (and got a Tony nomination for them), he’d adopt the more formal-sounding Robert as his first name.
Cuccioli got the song in which most musical theater enthusiasts were the most interested: the title song from Kiss of the Spider Woman. The show had opened a year earlier in Purchase, New York as part of “New Musicals.” The company had offered the revolutionary idea of developing musicals more economically and out of the harsh New York eye. Alas, critics came anyway, didn’t like what they saw, and Spider Woman, New Musicals’ first offering, wound up being its last.
So show aficionados had every right in 1991 to believe they’d never hear anything from Spider Woman and thus treasured this stirring cut. Ah, but underestimating Kander and Ebb was never wise. Two years later, not only did they get the show to Broadway, but they also won Tonys for Best Score (in a bizarre tie with Pete Townshend’s The Who’s Tommy) before their show won Best Musical outright.
Most of the And the World Goes ‘Round songs, however, deal with peoples’ reactions to love both lost and found. Ziemba reminded us that falling in love is “A Quiet Thing” (the team’s first extraordinarily beautiful song), after which Walton made us believe that he’d experienced romantic pain in “Sometimes a Day Goes By.” But Cuccioli showed that there was room for optimism in “We Can Make It.” Pressley got the title song that pointed out that no matter how miserable one is in matters of love or anything else, the world indeed still goes ‘round. What’s remarkable is that although all the show songs were done out-of-context without a book to explain their motivation, all still landed because Ebb was such a specific lyricist about the human condition.
The last two cuts were reserved for Kander and Ebb’s most famous songs: “Cabaret” and “New York, New York.” Of course, even by 1991, each had been done to death. Director Scott Ellis, up-and-coming choreographer Susan Stroman and David Thompson (who had conceived the show with them) knew that they had to find a novel approach with each.
They indeed did. Bless David Krane for his skillful cool-jazz interpretation of “Cabaret.” As for “New York, New York,” the cast took turns in delivering each line in a different foreign language. Mustn’t it be marvelous to have written a song that everyone knows so well that doing it in foreign languages won’t mean missing a word?
What a team. No other in the latter half of the twentieth century was as accomplished and prolific as Kander and Ebb. Alas, Ebb died in 2004 –but he would have been the first to shrug and say, “And the world goes ‘round.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.