Ethan Mordden ON SONDHEIM by Peter Filichia
By Peter Filichia
There are dozens of reasons to read Ethan Mordden’s great books on musical theater.
Let me tell you one of my favorites: Mordden’s revelatory opinions on musical after musical get me to revisit these shows’ cast albums. Sometimes I want to relive a glorious song that he’s praised; other times I’m out to catch a musical phrase or lyric that he’s stressed. Whatever the case, Mordden always returns me to discs that haven’t been out of their jewel boxes for a while.
This happened yet again while reading his newest success: On Sondheim from Oxford University Press.
Political theorists have said for decades that John F. Kennedy’s unsuccessful bid to be the 1956 Democratic nominee for vice-president was a blessing in disguise, for his being part of a losing ticket might have tainted his bid for the 1960 nomination. Similarly speaking, Mordden says that the death of Lemuel Ayers, who’d planned to produce Sondheim’s first show, Saturday Night, prevented a production that “might have harmed Sondheim’s career,” for the little charm-filled show was not in tune with the great big Broadway shows of the era.
Still, I got out the album, and while I saw Mordden’s point – the razz-ma-tazz found in such ‘50s Best Musical Tony-winners as Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and even The Music Man wasn’t in evidence – Saturday Night made for mighty pleasant listening.
Mordden reports that during rehearsals for Gypsy, director-choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to eliminate the overture – often considered to be the best one ever. A listen to Track One on both the original 1959 cast album and the 1973 London cast recording proved that both hold up splendidly.
And yet, I did find myself recalling the famous story of the Billion Dollar Baby rehearsal when Robbins was on stage, steadily moving backwards and getting dangerously close to the edge of the orchestra pit only to have his cast members not warn him of the inherent danger so that they could enjoy his falling in. Now that Mordden has told us about Robbins and the Gypsy overture, we can infer that his head suffered permanent damage from that incident.
Mordden reminded me that Sondheim wrote some additional lyrics for Hermoine Gingold for the 1977 film of A Little Night Music. That sent me to the soundtrack, where I smiled during this autumn night at Madame Armfeldt’s statement that she’d receive her unwanted guests “in the red room” and “then retire to the bedroom.”
And that sent me to the film itself, where I found not a trace of red in the room where she and her guests did dine. But before we castigate art director Herta Pisching and set decorator Hans Ziegelwagner for not following Sondheim’s lead, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: Sondheim is notorious for getting his songs in at the last minute, and the possibility firmly exists that the scenery was built and finished long before the lyric was.
During his analysis of Anyone Can Whistle’s torturous initial reception, Mordden mentions Lee Remick’s long and intense speech that she followed with a calm-the-waters song: “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” The creators felt one had to go, and the song wound up walking the plank.
Goddard Lieberson, the Columbia cast album guru, not only surprised everyone by recording a show that had closed after a week but more astonishingly had Remick do “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” How many producers of cast albums bother to record the cut songs?
In 1964, a vinyl record was lucky to reach an hour in length, so time constraints forced Lieberson to remove “There Won’t Be Trumpets.” We had to wait to hear it until May, 1988, when the compact disc’s greater capacity allowed the song to be restored to its original spot.
We’ve become accustomed to bonus tracks that are demos (Merman for some reason singing “Little Lamb” on Gypsy) or studio recordings (Percy Faith’s “The Embassy Waltz” from My Fair Lady). They’re treats, but they don’t mesh with the rest of the album. Getting “There Won’t Be Trumpets” with the same singer and orchestration found on the rest of the album is a wondrous experience. Re-listening again brings up a salient question: should the song have been dropped? If something had to go, why not the speech? The show was a musical, after all.
I love how Mordden notices details even in stories that are familiar. He’s hardly the first to tell us that in the ‘40s, Oscar Hammerstein told his protégé to write four musicals as exercises. Adapt a play he admired as well as one that had problems; dramatize a novel or short story that hadn’t yet been brought to the stage and do one that was totally original.
Although it’s been said many times, many ways, leave it to Mordden to notice that Hammerstein took his own advice when re-starting his career with Richard Rodgers: Oklahoma! was based on the flawed play; Carousel took its inspiration from a great one. South Pacific was an adaptation of short stories; Allegro was a total original. I wound up re-listening to all four scores, which brought back the heavenly days when they were brand-new discoveries to me.
I listened to more Rodgers music – and, of course, Sondheim lyrics –after I read Mordden’s chapter on Do I Hear a Waltz? He states that Elizabeth Allen, playing secretary Leona Samish on holiday in Venice, was “too self-assured” and that her “confident, friendly belt with sharp diction” was at odds with the character. Her opening song “Someone Woke Up” does substantiate his point — but on the other hand, Leona is excited to be awakened, and as Michael Bennett would have taught us had he lived to get Scandals on, people become very different people when they’re on vacation. In a place where nobody knows who you’ve been – and nobody’s watching – you can re-invent yourself to your heart and libido’s content.
That could mean consorting with the first handsome man you meet, which for Leona is Renato di Rossi, originally played by then-pop-star Sergio Franchi. Writes Mordden, “With Franchi’s smashing tenor at their disposal, Rodgers and Sondheim dreamed up an exhibition piece for him, ‘Bargaining,’ in which he gives Allen a lesson in shopping for the best price … a ‘duet for one,’ Franchi voicing the seller in his natural tones and then the buyer in pinging falsetto, switching back and forth untill he capped the number with a gigantic A flat.”
Around the turn of the century, Sondheim and bookwriter Arthur Laurents revisited Waltz and decided not to include “Bargaining.” While the song is not essential to the action, it does serve to make Leona – and us – like di Rossi. Thus, if you only get the revival cast album, you’ll miss out on this gem.
However, this new Waltz does include the complete “We’re Gonna Be All Right” – but it’s not shown to its best advantage here. I took out the magnificent 1973 Sondheim: A Musical Tribute and listened to Laurence Guittard, then Carl-Magnus in Night Music, and Teri Ralston, the original Jenny of Company, breeze through it.
This brought back memories of the day I got the two-record set that’s become chummily known as “The Scrabble Album” because tiles from the game spelled out “Sondheim” and the names of his shows on the cover. I remembered perusing the song list and savoring such then-unfamiliar titles as “Two Fairy Tales” (cut from A Little Night Music) and “So Many People” (from the yet-to-be-produced Saturday Night). But WHAT was “We’re Gonna Be All Right,” a Waltz throwaway, doing there?
Ah, but it wasn’t the business-as-usual ditty that had been found on the original cast edition. Here were some previously unheard and extraordinarily clever verses about the boredom that affects marriage. (“Mildew will do harm.”) Mordden suggests that Rodgers – or, more to the point, his wife Dorothy – hated it because she “had detected in it a summation of her less than Happily Ever After with Dick.”
The Tribute album also has Nancy Walker’s “I’m Still Here,” which is my favorite rendition of the song. What a revelation this was, too, for those of us who had previously only known it from the humiliatingly truncated Follies original cast album. Frankly, after getting the 1985 Lincoln Center concert discs, I’ve seldom-if-ever listened to the original cast recording. While the performances on that single record have never been bettered – which is to be expected from cast that had been refining the material for months – I miss all the magnificent Sondheim work that it amputated. Once the concert made me aware of all that Sondheim had written, I couldn’t bear to miss any of his great music and lyrics.
I’m not alone. “Ask a younger musical theater buff what title he or she would like to go back in time to see,” Mordden writes, “and believe me, it won’t be Show Boat or Guys and Dolls. It’s this one.”
Indeed, I routinely ask every theatregoer I meet what he’d see if a time machine were suddenly invented; the number one answer is Follies. For the record, the runners-up are Streisand in Funny Girl, Merman in Gypsy, and then the original casts of West Side Story and Show Boat. But Follies is the road that most would take. No wonder that if you check the index at the back of On Sondheim, you’ll find seventeen distinct references to Follies; no other Sondheim title gets more – and that includes “More” from Dick Tracy.
On Sondheim is also an excellent starter kit for your son, daughter, niece, nephew or young neighbor who’s just beginning a lifelong love affair with musicals. Each of them and you have some delightful reading ahead which will lead to some collateral non-damage of much wonderful listening.
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.