DO YOU KNOW YOUR LINES? By Peter Filichia
So — do you agree with Goddard Lieberson on the dialogue issue?
Although he’s still regarded as the all-time guru of original cast albums (and probably always will be), the former Columbia Records president decided early on that the original cast albums he’d produce would go easy on the spoken word.
Producers of cast albums on many other labels started some of their songs with introductory dialogue. RCA Victor, which was then Columbia’s chief rival in the cast album race, wasn’t above having Liza Minnelli say “Application for no job,” Carol Channing decree “Well, Horace, it looks as if there’s nothing more for me to say – but” and Zero Mostel entreat “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?” — all to ease entrances into the songs themselves.
Lieberson instead assumed that people wanted to hear Broadway music, not Broadway dialogue. So if you want to know what Sally Bowles had to say to Cliff before forcing her way into his apartment, Jill Haworth won’t oblige on the original Broadway cast album of Cabaret. Get the London version where you’ll be treated to Judi Dench (yes, that Judi Dench — the first London Sally Bowles), courtesy of Norman Newell, who produced the disc.
But Lieberson did make a few exceptions during his illustrious career. He allowed Henry Higgins to roar “Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” before he launched into “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Of course South Pacific – also a Lieberson cast album — had introduced “Damn” to listening audiences seven years earlier when the Seabees sang “Now ain’t that too damn bad?” But four consecutive “damns” in the Eisenhower era? Hot stuff!
But if Higgins had just started by singing “I’ve grown accustomed to her face,” listeners would not have inferred just how frustrated and upset he was. With four profanities in a row, they then could.
Because My Fair Lady at the time became the bestselling album of all albums ever pressed, we must wonder if these four words did their part in loosening up the language and paving the road (for better or worse) for more four-letter words to come our way. A dozen years after Fair Lady, Hair proudly advertised that “All the songs in this album have been recorded complete and unexpurgated as they are performed on the Broadway stage.”
In 1956, however, Lieberson might well have feared that listeners would accuse him of going too far. Perhaps he carefully weighed and measured questionable language, for the last line of Alfred P. Doolittle’s second song is actually “For God’s sake, get me to the church on time.” But on the album, the first three words of that lyric are “Be sure and.”
Lieberson wisely allowed Ethel Merman to start “Rose’s Turn” with “Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here’s Rose!” Imagine this galvanizing one-woman musical scene without those introductory words. It would have been a “Rose’s Turn” for the worse.
We might wonder how much sleep Lieberson lost while deciding how to handle Bye Bye Birdie. As was the case with those previously mentioned Lieberson albums, it would be issued on Columbia’s grey Masterworks label that came into existence for classical music, but hosted Broadway shows, too. For the privilege, consumers paid a dollar more – or sometimes two dollars more, depending on the packaging.
Many classical enthusiasts must have hated that such insignificant-to-them music wasn’t on the red label reserved for pop music, but Lieberson obviously had enough respect for Broadway to treat this as a grey area.
But Bye Bye Birdie had a few tunes that were unabashedly rock ‘n’ roll (as rock was then called). The grey label had never stooped to giving its rarefied audiences music that they and Birdie’s Mr. McAfee would brand as “awful.”
So perhaps that’s why Lieberson allowed Ursula, a Sweet Apple Conrad Birdie fan extraordinaire, to start the cut with her shriek-filled plea to her American idol “Speak to us, oh beautiful one! Tell us how you make that glorious sound that even now, in anticipation of it, has reduced me to a snarling, raging panting jungle beast!”
Only after that did Conrad Birdie launch into “Honestly Sincere.” My guess is that Lieberson wanted to show the idiocy of an obsessed teen-idol fan and to say to his lofty grey-labeled listeners “Brace yourself for some supreme silliness in this purposely satiric song.”
Groomed to be Lieberson’s successor was Thomas Z. Shepard, whom you can see guiding a landmark recording session on that fascinating documentary Original Cast Album: Company. Early on the disc, Shepard included Bobby’s pointed question to a harried husband: “Harry, are you ever sorry you got married?”
This line is really needed; otherwise, the entire song — in which a long-wed spouse tells that he’s “Sorry/Grateful” that he’d ever tied the (Gordian) knot with his wife — would have seemed to have come out of the blue. No, Bobby needed to set the table by posing this question.
Original Cast Album: Company will always be remembered for showing how much trouble and strife Elaine Stritch endured in nailing her showpiece “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But I’ve been told by two eyewitnesses that the recording session of 42nd Street made that Company session seem like Daddy Warbucks’ adoption party for Annie.
Is this why neither Shepard – who by then had moved over to RCA Victor – nor anyone else thought to put on the disc one of the all-time great lines prior to “Lullaby of Broadway”?
In case you’ve forgotten – and I’ll bet you haven’t –neophyte performer Peggy Sawyer tells her producer-director “I’m sorry, Mr. Marsh. Show business isn’t for me. I’m going back to Allentown.”
“What was that word you just said?” Marsh snarled “‘Allentown?’ I’m offering you the chance to star in the biggest musical Broadway’s seen in twenty years – and you say ‘Allentown?’” And then Jerry Orbach launched into “Lullaby of Broadway.”
But wait! There’s more! In the show Marsh also added “Now listen Sawyer, and listen good. Even if you don’t give a damn about me, think about all those kids you’ll be throwing out of work if you don’t do this. Think of the songs that will wither and die if you don’t get up there and sing them.
Think of the scenery that’ll never be seen, the costumes never worn, the orchestrations never heard! Think of Pretty Lady and the thrill and pleasure it could give to millions! Think of musical comedy – the most glorious words in the English language!”
Each of the eight times I’ve seen 42nd Street I’ve applauded that last line – even in 1992 in Sydney, Australia, where a very tired bus and truck was playing its last week to a third-filled house of people who had been politely applauding each of the prior nine numbers that the cast had done in perfunctory fashion. Because I’d arrived at the theater just before showtime, I was in the last row that had been sold – Row L, mind you – and when I applauded the line, most everyone in Rows A to K snapped their heads around to see what had happened to make this person behind them cause a ruckus. As General Fairfax sings in Little Mary Sunshine, “They don’t understand.”
If Lieberson’s supposition is correct — that listeners tire of dialogue after only a few listens — what about unpleasant sounds? How I wish that RCA Victor record producer Jay David Saks had chosen not to have that screechy whistle at the start of Sweeney Todd or Rapunzel’s scream before The Witch launched into “Stay with Me.”
And you may quote me.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.