Well, here’s a reissue of a show album that many fanatically dedicated cast album collectors never owned.
ClownAround was originally recorded in 1972 by RCA Victor. But was it ever released? Some said yes, some said no. Who was right?
The question surrounding the recording spurred my buddy Richard Thompson to conduct a personal odyssey to find it in the late ‘70s. He was then the managing editor of the Bowie (MD) Blade, so he knew about investigative journalism. He detailed the odyssey he took in a four-page article of several thousand words in the January 1979 issue of Stereo Review. It made him the Woodward and Bernstein of original cast albums.
Thompson found that ClownAround was allegedly issued as LSP-4741. Given that he wasn’t living so far from the Library of Congress – where “a copy of virtually every release on a major label is deposited” – he paid a visit. There was RCA Victor’s LSP-4740 and its LSP-4742, but there was nothing in between. He then checked with RCA brass, had them search through the files, and that the hunt “yielded no mention of the show whatever.”
So maybe there never was a cast album. Or maybe there wasn’t even a show. The Best Plays and Theatre World annuals had no mention of a production – but what the former series did list in the 1972-1973 volume was that ClownAround was not only available as LSP-4741 but that it was also available on cassette and 8-track tape, too!
But WHAT was it? Thompson decided to do a copyright search, and found that in 1971, a show called Clown Alley, or The World of Clowns was registered by Alvin Cooperman and Morris Charlap. Cooperman was utterly unfamiliar to him – he’d later learn that he was the executive producer of the lousy TV adaptation of Damn Yankees with Phil Silvers and Lee Remick – but he certain knew Morris “Moose” Charlap as the co-composer of the classic Peter Pan as the composer of infamous 1965 one-night-Broadway-flop Kelly.
Some time later, Thompson came across a catalog by Bruce Yeko, the world’s foremost dealer of rare cast albums. While ClownAround wasn’t listed, Thompson asked Yeko if he had it. Of course he did.
That’s how Thompson learned that ClownAround was never bound for Broadway, but for Seventh Avenue — at Madison Square Garden. It was to play sports arenas all over the country before landing in New York. Alas, after opening on April 27, 1972 at the Oakland Coliseum and then segueing to the Cow Palace in San Francisco, it was gone in less than a month.
You’d think that a show with Gene Kelly’s name attached would do business. However, the window cards said “Gene Kelly’s production of ClownAround,” not Gene Kelly IN ClownAround. Kelly directed — his first attempt at staging a musical since he’d ruined the film of Hello, Dolly! (Wonder how Charlap felt when the name “Kelly” was put before him again.)
Surprisingly, for a man who’d been the choreographer for Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, Kelly turned that job over to Howard Jeffrey (Mart Crowley’s friend and prototype for the character of Harold in The Boys in the Band).
Headlining was Ruth Buzzi, “the Good Fairy” who’d appeared in the final scene of Sweet Charity, but was now suddenly famous from the TV show Laugh-In. But the real star of the show was “The Clown Machine.” As Thompson reported, the marvel of engineering was fifty-two feet high, 134 feet long and weighed more than twenty-two tons. Sean Kenny, the wizard who provided Oliver! with its revolutionary set, created this unit that placed a circus’ famous three rings high above the arena floor. Above those was another ring, topped by yet another. A performer with vertigo need not apply to be one of the seventy clowns chosen.
You always save your ace-trump, and a script of ClownAround reveals that as theatergoers entered, The Clown Machine would be obscured by a gigantic paper bag. It would be torn off and thirty-two “clowns, fools and jesters” would be perched on it with the other thirty-eight encircling it. The cast included “sixteen saucy, sweet columbines” – the name once given to female clowns.
Circuses are famous for their animals, but the only ones that ClownAround had were three chimpanzees that respectively played piano, bass and drums along with their owners “The Burgers,” a married couple. Otherwise, the clowns dressed as “a kangaroo, giraffe, monkey, lion, dog, cat and Chinese dragon.”
When Cats won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Book, it was subjected to quite a number of complaints. “What book?” people asked. The only time anyone spoke was to recite an a capella lyric, but there was no dialogue. As it turned out, ClownAround joined Cats and The Golden Apple as dialogue-free musicals. Cooperman’s original fifty-six page script merely lists one stage direction after another, each one detailing what the clowns would do.
Old situations, old complications. Clowns would invade the audience and dispense “candy, balloons, kisses, tweaks on cheeks, toys plus laughter.” Some would “throw pies, water, paint and other terrifying substances.” Others would bring kids from the audience into the center and give them fanciful souvenir hats. Later one clown would drive a car and get a flat tire, because he’d drive over a prostrate clown who’d been holding an awfully large tack. As the script said, “a potpourri of goofydom.”
There would be no rest for the weary clowns during intermission. Cooperman had them follow theatergoers into the lobby where they’d entertain (or annoy, depending on your point of view). When the intermission concluded, they returned to center stage and created a tableau in which every clown wore a mask … until one stole one from another and chaos ensued. “The culprit clown is captured and his demise is performed on stage,” Cooperman wrote. “We do not know at this moment whether to blow him up, shoot him or feed him to the animals.”
But ClownAround did not live by laughs alone. Other acts included The Carrillo Brothers, high-wire artists; Miss Damorra, who flew through the air with the greatest of ease on her flying trapeze; the Zampera Family, whose members jumped on trampolines when they weren’t riding on unicycles; and – the most bizarre of all — Chrys Holt, who hung from a large air balloon by her long hair. (Sounds as if she’d make a great Rapunzel in Into the Woods.)
Oh, and how’s the disc?
Quite nice, actually. The opening notes of the overture resemble “Tender Shepherd,” which Charlap wrote for Peter Pan. (A little later “Peter Pan” is mentioned in one of Cooperman’s lyrics, too.) But ClownAround was a broader entertainment with a more razz-ma-tazz score that suggests solid show music from an earlier era. “You’re a Clown” and “Animal Band” are true toe-tappers in the classic Broadway tradition.
The snazzy, right-on orchestrations help. Two musicians did them, including Jack Elliott (born Irwin Elliott Zucker), to whom Bock and Harnick entrusted dance arrangements and incidental music on three of their shows (as did Irving Berlin on Mr. President). And while co-orchestrator Allyn Ferguson never toiled on Broadway, he and Elliott co-wrote the themes for TV’s Barney Miller and Charlie’s Angels. Here they knew what orchestrations offered the most fun: Dixieland and ragtime pervade Charlap’s music.
To some, this recording of ClownAround may sound as if it’s a demo, but it appears to be the actual recording that was played over the sound system of the arenas. That indeed was the plan: to have both pre-recorded music and live singing by the clowns and columbines. Hence, the front cover said “The original show album” as opposed to “The original cast album.”
Whether or not this description has you singing “That’s entertainment,” the Clown Machine turned out to be the primary reason why ClownAround called it a life in no time flat. According to Thompson, seven forty-foot vans were required to transport it and twenty hours were needed to assemble it. “Although it was sold out in Houston,” he wrote, “the next scheduled stop, the producers couldn’t get it there.” They were out of money and Campbell’s Soup, which was an exclusive sponsor, wasn’t willing to help. ClownAround lost $650,000 – coincidentally enough, the same amount that Charlap’s Kelly was said to have lost. RCA Victor, which had pressed four thousand copies of the “show album,” melted the ones they had out of disgust. Only a few hundred had been released.
Now it’s back in a limited quantity of physical CDs as well as via digital download. I envision many a hard-core musical theater enthusiast now getting his copy of ClownAround, holding it high in the air in his right hand a la Sweeney Todd and proclaiming “At last, my collection is complete!”
Well, not quite. Plenty of cast album collectors never had Seven Come Eleven – a 1961 Julius Monk revue whose recording was only sold in the nightclub in which it played. But that’s another story — and another recording for another day which is fast approaching. For next month, we’ll see Seven Come Eleven reissued. In the meantime, fool around with ClownAround.