By Didier C. Deutsch
I can imagine how Ali Baba must have felt when he entered the cave where the 40 thieves had hidden their loot. A sense of awe, of wonder, almost indescribable, when confronted with the wonders that were laid in front of his eyes.
I experienced something akin to it when I was asked to explore the many secrets kept hidden in the Columbia and RCA (now Sony) photo archives to illustrate the Masterworks Broadway website that was in construction at the time. There were thousands of candid shots of the stars I had admired (and sometimes only heard on original cast albums), some good, some not, but many of them totally amazing. Going all the way back to Finian’s Rainbow, where Ella Logan was caught crooning in front of a state-of-the-art 1947 Columbia microphone, there were Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza listening intently to a playback of South Pacific with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Barbara Cook making her way to the stage for a take of “Glitter and Be Gay” in Candide, Rex Harrison upstaging Julie Andrews (even in the recording studio) during the sessions for My Fair Lady, and Ethel Merman caught in a pensive moment behind a scrim after a take for Gypsy.
On the RCA side, there was Gwen Verdon in baseball outfit waiting for her turn in front of the mic for Damn Yankees, Carol Channing sharing a moment with Gower Champion in Hello, Dolly!, John Raitt with Jerry Orbach in Carousel, and Angela Lansbury and co-star Len Cariou in the control room as they listened to a playback of Sweeney Todd.
Selecting the appropriate shots, the ones that spoke volumes or that seemed totally unique, became a daunting task, as if trying to decide which morsel to start with in an abundant and tasty 12-course meal.
Would it make sense to have two or three photos of Debbie Reynolds in Irene, all closely similar, yet all slightly different? What about the numerous pictures of Sondheim, observing the recordings of his many shows, first as a young maverick making his first steps in the field, later as a seasoned composer wearing a beard, always in control, always ready to offer a suggestion about how to sing a verse or perform a duet? Basically, it became a question of where to start and where to stop. And when you have thousands of pictures at your disposal, this is no longer an arbitrary decision one can make.
Also complex was the task of identifying some of the individuals caught in those unrehearsed moments (who would have thought that Jill Haworth, who had been unfairly singled out by a reviewer for her portrayal as the brunette Sally Bowles, actually was a pert and very attractive blonde?). Or deciding in the multi-faced chorus line of that eponymous long-running show who was Kay Cole or Donna Drake, both fleetingly seen on stage years before. Fortunately, many fans of Broadway were able to help give some faces an appropriate name, and I must at least mention George Connolly, who on several occasions came with the right answers where we had miserably stumbled.
Initially, I had been told to select a mere two or three pictures per show, but in view of the response from early visitors to the site who had come to investigate what it was all about, my directives became more general and more generous. “Choose as many as you wish,” I was told in no uncertain terms. Dare I say that I began overloading the site with glee? As a result, you will find some personal favorites (I won’t say which), and others I added because we just couldn’t do without them…
And so, some 1000+ photos later, I can only suggest that you go and see for yourself some of the riches the Sony vaults contained, and feast your eyes like I did on rare pictures of your favorite performers. Here for the first time are candid shots which reveal them to be as friendly and as vulnerable as we all are, and (in most cases) not at all the grander-than-life characters they came to be identified with, both on stage and off.
There are exceptions of course – even in those unguarded moments, Alfred Drake cannot avoid being Hajj, the poet he played in Kismet, or Petruchio, the philandering thespian he incarnated in Kiss Me, Kate. And wherever he is, Yul Brynner couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else but The King.
But look at Danny Kaye conducting the Two By Two orchestra, or Lena Horne playfully (and seductively) posing with bassist George Duvivier during a Jamaica session break, and you’ll delight in observing those stars both at work and at play. Wouldn’t it be nice if those photos were available one day in repros you could buy?
Now, just put your favorite cast album on the player, look at the pictures, and voilà! you are there during the recording sessions… or just about.
… but wait! wait! There’s more coming!
Producer Didier C. Deutsch lists Broadway show tunes among his most favorite musical genres, which is why, when given the first opportunity, he began working on reissuing cast albums and creating theater tune compilations, producing more titles in that field than in any of the others in which he has been involved. He is also a theater critic who has been published in a wide range of magazines and newspapers, and, in that capacity, has covered Broadway openings for more than 45 years.