By Peter Filichia
Let’s get ready to celebrate what would have been Alan Jay Lerner’s 97th birthday on August 31.
Alas, we lost him on June 14, 1986, when he was but sixty-seven years old. At least his most enduring works can be found here at Masterworks Broadway.
Let’s start with Brigadoon, his first hit after he’d endured two flops. It’s the story of disenchanted Tommy who happens into a Scottish town and falls deeply in love with Fiona, who returns the feeling. Only trouble is, the town sticks around for a day and then takes a hundred-year breather before coming ‘round again. If Tommy stays past midnight, he’ll be giving up everything at home in New York. On the other hand, considering that he’s been engaged to Jane simply because he’s been seeing her long enough for her to expect a proposal, taking up residence in Brigadoon might be a good thing.
On March 14, 1947 Brooks Atkinson in the Times said “To the growing list of major achievements of the musical stage, add one more.” Howard Barnes of the Herald-Tribune decided it was “a scintillating song and dance fantasy that has given theatergoers reason to toss their tam o’shanters in the air.” Richard Watts, Jr. in the Post admitted that “I have seen other musical comedies that I enjoyed more” before conceding “but few for which I have deeper admiration.” John Chapman in the News was far more fanciful when adding “If there isn’t a village called Brigadoon, there ought to be.”
Although a run of 581 performances doesn’t sound amazing today, at the time only ten book musicals had ever run longer.Brigadoon had a profound effect on Lerner’s personal life, too. Marion Bell, who originated Fiona when the show opened, closed Lerner’s first (but hardly last) marriage. The two wed a mere 197 days afterBrigadoon‘s debut.
Bell can be heard on the original cast album which was first released as five 78 r.p.m. records. She and leading man David Brooks are certainly accomplished, but the chemistry is better still between Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones on theBrigadoon studio cast album that they recorded on July 15-16, 1957.
This is an anomaly. Original cast albums are almost always superior to studio cast albums. By the time a Broadway cast gets into the recording studio, its performers have had some sort of workshop, a few weeks of rehearsal, an out-of-town tryout or preview period and even a few-if-not-many “official” performances. Having plenty of time to hone their delivery allows them to deliver their songs with confidence, which can result in an arresting album.
Studio cast albums, on the other hand, don’t get nearly as much time and rehearsal. A performer is lucky if he has a chance to trade a “How do you do?” with another actor before each puts on his headphones and heads to the microphone. Hence, many studio cast albums are lackluster.
Brigadoon shines because Cassidy and Jones were indeed a real-life couple. They’d met in 1955 after being cast as Curly and Laurey for a tour of Oklahoma! That legendary musical seemed destined to fit into Jones’ life, for it had opened on March 31, 1943, her ninth birthday.
When Cassidy and Jones recorded Tommy and Fiona, they were just weeks away from celebrating their first anniversary on August 6. The honeymoon was certainly not over, and although it would be by 1975, at this point the two were still very much in “Marriage Type Love,” to quote the name of an album they made a few years later.
Some may be surprised to hear Cassidy as a romantic lead, for he made his Broadway reputation by playing egomaniacal ne’er-do-wells. Such roles came later, however, perhaps reaching an apotheosis in 1966 when Cassidy portrayed the newspaper reporter who wanted to destroy the title character of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. How more evil can you get than that?
Don’t forget, howeverthat Cassidy had been a romantic lead in both Wish You Were Here in 1952 and on the 1955 Oh, Kay! studio cast album. So when Cassidy made this Brigadoon, he was still making nice.
When his fans play this recording, they’ll have to be patient. Cassidy doesn’t utter as much as a hemidemisemiquaver for the first four cuts. Aside from The Magic Show in which Doug Henning didn’t sing a note (because he really couldn’t), can you think of any musical in which the leading man delivers the show’s first spoken line but doesn’t sing until we’ve first heard from 1) the merry villagers 2) the leading lady and 3) the featured male?
There’s good reason for this: Tommy has no music in him or his life until he discovers Brigadoon and Fiona, who’s a marked contrast to Jane, the ice-queen who has even less music in her than pre-Brigadoon Tommy. How can Tommy sing about her? Conversely, Charlie Dalrymple (Frank Poretta) speaks only eight lines before he begins crooning about his fiancée Bonnie Jean.
Many think of Brigadoon as a sticky-sweet show, but Lerner did give it bite. Charlie sings “I used to have a hundred friends, but when we are wedded the friendship ends.” Although Charlie had missed the previous hundred years, he knows what Irving Kahal and Willie Raskin wrote in a 1929 hit song: “Those wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine” – and what few husbands truly realize until they’re married.
More intriguing is Charlie’s telling the town’s married men “I’ll soon have a wife and leave yours alone.” Ah, so even the idyllic Brigadoon has adulterers! Neither Lerner nor Frederick Loewe wanted audiences to miss the point, so they followed the line with a pause to let audiences digest precisely what Charlie means. Musical director Lehman Engel certainly observed it on this recording.
Then there’s Meg Brockie, the randiest girl in town. In “The Love of My Life,” she admits that she gave one Chris MacGill “my heart – and a few other things” – when she was sixteen. (MacGill, I say you’re in a heap of trouble.) In an age where a woman was still expected to be a virgin when she married, Meg admits to an additional three lovers and gives the impression she could mention many more if given the additional time and the choruses.
Later when Meg she sings about “My Mother’s Wedding Day,” she goes into extravagant detail about the drinking and brawling that ensued while everyone waited for the groom to get to the church on time. “I ought to know,” sings Meg, “for I was there.” This time, Lerner, Loewe and Engel did not put a pause into the song. Chances are they hoped that less discerning listeners would miss the then-scandalous disclosure and that those who did hear it would be sophisticated enough to smile rather than be shocked.
Pamela Britton — later the meddlesome and scatterbrained landlady on My Favorite Martian — originated Meg, but she only got to do “My Mother’s Wedding Day” on the cast album. Apparently “The Love of My Life” was considered too raunchy for popular consumption and certainly airplay. And in those days, believe it or not, the occasional cut from an original cast album did make it onto pop radio stations.
No offense to Britton, but on the Cassidy-Jones album, we may well have the definitive Meg Brockie: Susan Johnson. The woman who rued the pain in her feet in The Most Happy Fella and who gave it all she had in Oh Captain! had already played Meg in the 1950 City Center revival. That gave her a leg up (or at least her poor, poor feet up) on the role, and she sounds unapologetically amoral here.
Interesting, isn’t it, that we never hear a note sung by Jean, the bride, but two songs of love from her fiancé? Musicals usually have women more interested in marriage than men: Sweet Charity, Miss Adelaide, Rose Alvarez, Linda Low, Dot and of course Daisy Hilton. Lerner describes Jean as “18 and pretty” and leaves it at that. But just when we think this dish merely has the personality of one, Lerner does have her say of Harry, who has quite a bit of unrequited love for her, “I feel sorry for him.” That makes us like her.
Not hearing from Jean gives us more time with the more dynamic Fiona. Jones makes the character’s unrealistic optimism believable in the confident way she sings “Waiting for My Dearie.” Although Fiona insists that “One day he’ll come walking over the horizon,” her good friends realize that chances are slim that anyone will walk into the once-a-century Brigadoon. They warn that she might be headed for the simple non-joys of old-maidenhood: “When lassies sit and have no men, oh how long becomes the night.” Fiona has a marvelous rebuttal which Jones crows out: “I fear the night is longer when the lad’s not right.”
Of course, the cynical would say that Fiona’s had ample time to assess every eligible male in Brigadoon, so any newcomer would look good to her. Maybe it’s Cassidy’s smooth-as-refined-silk voice that puts him above the other men in town. Both have an easy way in their first song — Brigadoon’s second-most famous one – “The Heather on the Hill.” As for its first-most-famous song, it’s “Almost Like Being in Love.” Note that Jones sings her penultimate line with a missing “g” – “I could swear I was fallin’” – but Cassidy uses it – “I could swear I was falling.” He almost seems to be correcting her pronunciation. Was this the beginning of the end of the Cassidy-Jones honeymoon?
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.