IN LIEU OF A GRAMMY BROADCAST… By Peter Filichia
And the 2022 Grammy for the Best Musical Theater Album goes to …
Well, to quote a song from a 1984 Grammy nominee for Best Cast Show Album, as the category was then awkwardly called, “Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?”
(That song is “The Best of Times” from LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, if you didn’t glean it from the three-question quotation.)
We weren’t able to discover what won for Best Musical Theater Album last Monday, as we had expected, for the sixty-fourth annual Grammy Awards weren’t dispensed on that date. Needless to say, in these days of the pandemic, it isn’t the first ceremony to be postponed and, sad to say, it undoubtedly won’t be the last.
But to keep us in the Grammy mood until April 3, let’s take a look at the history of the category that most interests us.
It was then known as Best Original Cast Album from Broadway or Television when the awards themselves were first bestowed in 1959. The contenders were for all albums that had been released in 1958. THE MUSIC MAN won, just as it had won the Tony for Best Musical over WEST SIDE STORY.
However, here history didn’t repeat itself with the Grammys, because WEST SIDE STORY wasn’t even nominated.
Calm down. There was good reason for that. WEST SIDE STORY, which opened in September, 1957, had its cast album released a month later. Thus it would have only been eligible for a Grammy had the awards existed in 1958.
Conversely, THE MUSIC MAN opened in December, 1957, but the album wasn’t released until 1958. Therefore, it was thus eligible for the first Grammys.
Had those 1958 awards been in place for 1957 musicals, WEST SIDE STORY’s competition would have included NEW GIRL IN TOWN and JAMAICA, each one worthy of the prize. But there would have been one other contender that might have had a better chance of winning:
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA.
True, it was “only” a TV special, but very special special it was. When CBS aired it on Sunday, March 31, 1957, the color program (a rather uncommon occurrence back then) reportedly snagged more than 107 million viewers – or about sixty percent of the population.
Granted, there were only three TV networks in those days, so that’s still a record that will be hard to beat record even with Super Bowls in contention. CINDERELLA, with a 60.6 rating, even scored than twelve points higher than the program that would finish in second place that week: The Oscars.
You might feel that CINDERELLA, a “mere” TV show, shouldn’t have been eligible. Again: Best Original Cast Album from Broadway or Television was the name of the category. So CINDERELLA would have been very much in contention and might well have emerged victorious over WEST SIDE STORY.
As much as we adore the show, remember that WEST SIDE STORY, although pleasing all seven of the town’s major theater critics, wasn’t a smash-hit.
Those who know that CANDIDE had opened on Dec. 1, 1956 might be wondering about its Grammy chances over WEST SIDE STORY had the awards existed then. Considering that that musicals that opened that late in a year often didn’t get an album release until the following year, would Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 music have emerged victorious over his 1957 effort? As phenomenal as WEST SIDE STORY is, CANDIDE has long been considered even more musically ambitious.
The argument is moot. CANDIDE would have been ineligible by an eyelash; it was released on Dec. 31, 1956. Unhappy New Year, CANDIDE.
Never mind what might have happened. Here’s what did happen with the first-ever Best Original Cast Album from Broadway or Television prize went to Meredith Willson. You say, “Of course it did; to whom else would you give the prize but its composer and/or lyricist?”
Those who feel this way won’t be surprised to learn that two years later in 1961, the Grammy went to Rodgers and Hammerstein for THE SOUND OF MUSIC (released in 1960), and in 1962, to Frank Loesser for HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (released in 1961).
Fine – but what about the year before THE SOUND OF MUSIC? There was a tie involving two albums that had been issued in 1959.
One winner would be easy to infer: GYPSY, with trophies going to Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. The other isn’t so obvious, but one you might guess because it won the 1958-59 Best Musical Tony: REDHEAD.
Yes, but with all due respect to REDHEAD’s lyricist Dorothy Fields, who was easily one of the greats, having her and composer Albert Hague win the same prize as Styne and Sondheim for their score seems implausible – or even a crime against theatrical humanity.
But that didn’t happen: Grammys did NOT go to Fields, Hague, Styne and Sondheim. (Poor Steve! More than a decade would pass before he would win ANY kind of award.)
No, as odd as it may sound, that year the two Grammys for Best Original Cast Album from Broadway or Television went to Ethel Merman and Gwen Verdon, the respective stars of their shows.
To quote a lyric from what would undoubtedly been the Grammy winner in the show category in 1950, “Who can explain it? Who can tell you why?” However, whatever the reason, the Grammy website (which we must assume is correct) says the prizes went to Merman and Verdon. (So does Wikipedia, for whatever that’s worth.)
Well, Merman and Verdon DO dominate their recordings, don’t they? Merman gets seven songs in GYPSY, with her first one stingingly memorable (“Some People”), her first-act curtain one of the most dynamic (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) and her final number a titanic solo musical scene (“Rose’s Turn”).
Verdon, you may be surprised to hear, was involved in no fewer than eleven songs. Once again: with all due respect to REDHEAD (and I’m enough of a fan that I wrote the liner notes for two separate CD issues), Verdon’s songs range from plaintive (“The Right Finger of My Left Hand”) to enthusiastic (“Merely Marvelous”) to tongue-twisting (“Erbie Fitch’s Twitch”) to romantic (“Look Who’s in Love”). Still, none can match what Merman had in GYPSY.
What this decision does indicate, however, is the high esteem that Verdon had at the time. By then, she’d received four Tonys in five years, a feat that no one had matched – not even Merman – and no one has since; even Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald can’t make the claim.
As to what’ll happen this year, all good things come to those who can wait, as Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett sang both on stage in SWEENEY TODD, the 1979 Tony-winning musical – and on the 1980 Grammy-winning Cast Show Album.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.