By Peter Filichia —
Since MasterworksBroadway and Arkiv have made concerted efforts to re-release a number of stage recordings of yore, I’ve found that my friends have been most looking forward to Originals: Musical Comedy, 1909-1935.
To be frank, I was a little surprised. Most of my buddies get enthusiastic about recordings of full scores. Discs that sport an entire Broadway musical, ranging from overture to finale, are usually their recordings of choice. But when I mentioned to my buddy Kenneth Kantor that Originals: Musical Comedy 1909-1935 would be available on January 18, he cooed “Oh, I’ve got to get that! I love that record.” Said Paul Roberts, “I’ve had that record since the moment it came out in 1968. It’ll be great to have it again – especially since my turntable broke during the first Bush Administration.” Starting today, Paul can hear it once more, be it from digital download or disc-on-demand.
When I met Julianne Boyd at a Christmas party, the talk soon turned to her production of Eubie! that played Broadway in 1978. Her revue was a collection of songs by Eubie Blake, who lived 100 years and five days. I told her about the absolutely intoxicating song “Manda” that Blake had written with frequent collaborator Noble Sissle for Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Boyd ‘fessed up that through all her research, this one escaped her attention. “But if it’s as good as you say it is,” she said (before I interrupted with a hearty “It is!”), “then I can’t wait to get this recording.” Now’s your chance, Ms. Boyd!
“I love when a composer sings his own music,” says my ol’ pal Larry Fineberg. So he’s glad to have a chance to once again hear Cole Porter sing “You’re the Top” from his soon-to-be hit Anything Goes. Nothing against Ethel Merman or Patti LuPone, mind you. But what fun to hear the song from the source.
You’ve heard the expression “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle”? How about “I’ll be a Marx Brothers’ uncle”? Here’s your chance to hear the younger brother of the mother of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo. Al Shean was a star long before the four (then three) brothers were. He partnered with Ed Gallagher, and their calling card was a vaudeville number called “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean.” Says my friend David Schmittou, “I can’t get enough of this song.” Get ready to press “Repeat,” Mr. S.
This Gallagher-and-Shean recording stems from their appearance in Ziegfeld Follies of 1922 at the New Amsterdam Theatre, a fact that spurs Skip Koenig to help us with some Broadway geography. “The birth of the New Amsterdam Theatre was then the southern boundary of Broadway, while the birth of the Winter Garden was the northern. That’s where Vera Violetta played, and where this recording of ‘That Haunting Melody’ stems from. Here was Broadway’s biggest star; the importance of Jolson cannot be minimized, which is why you can still see an ‘Al Jolson Way’ street sign there. As for the Winter Garden, when it opened, the loge seats had ash trays.” Luckily for all our health, they’re not there anymore.
As for the audiences who lived through the era, in the Depression, were they depressed? That seems clear. “What always impresses me,” says Donald Tesione, “is that Dietz and Schwartz wrote a song during that time called ‘What a Wonderful World.’” The tune, from the 1936 musical At Home Abroad, is included here via an early recording by future Hollywood star Eleanor Powell in her final Broadway appearance. “Are those her taps on the record?” asks Koenig, before conceding, “I suppose we’ll never know.” Perhaps not, but we can enjoy them immeasurably even without that information.
Jane Strauss, I know, is looking forward to hearing Libby Holman sing “You and the Night and the Music” from the 1934 show Revenge with Music. She recently wrote me out of the blue and said, “I’ve been asked to do a one-woman show about Libby, so I figured you must have seen her; what was she like?” I laughed like a seal. Aside from a 12-day stint in a one-woman show in 1954, Holman’s Broadway career ended in 1938. Even I wasn’t remotely on the scene then. But this recording should be invaluable in helping Strauss to pick up Ms. Holman’s style.
Too bad Elliott Norton (1903-2003), the famed Boston theater critic, isn’t still around. He would have had an opinion or two on Holman, I’d wager – although I never recall him mentioning her to me. On the other hand, on more than one occasion he raved about Edith Day, who played the title role in Irene. Here she sings its big hit, “Alice Blue Gown” in a recording made 54 years before Debbie Reynolds sang it in the 1973 Irene revival.
“I’ve always adored this album,” says Ken Bloom. “But what I’m most looking forward to is hearing Fanny Brice’s ‘Second-Hand Rose’ once again.” There are a few differences from the now-famous Barbra Streisand recording; for example, “Jake the Plumber” gets a last name in this one. (Although there’s a good chance that Fanny Brice would have been completely forgot today had Barbra Streisand not resuscitated interest in her.)
“I have a lot of recordings of Eddie Cantor singing ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ from Whoopee! ” says Fred Abramowitz. “So I’ve always been grateful to this disc for instead giving me another Eddie Cantor selection from the same show: ‘Hungry Women.’” It is a nice change of pace, although I know that if my father were still with us, he’d be happy to once again hear Helen Morgan sing her big hit from Sweet Adeline: “Why Was I Born?”
“I only discovered Beatrice Lillie a few years ago, after I saw the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie,” says my young friend Lara Fodor. “I thought she was very funny, and I’ve been on a quest to get everything she’d ever done ever since. I did hear that she did a song called ‘Like He Loves Me’ on this recording, but I’ve never owned a record player, so I never thought I’d ever hear this. Now I can.”
Can’t say that I’ve ever found anyone who’s gone to bat for Blanche Ring, Nora Bayes, Elsie Janis, J. Harold Murray, Louise Groody, or Charles King. But now that Originals: Musical Comedy, 1909-1935 has returned, maybe you’ll be the one to write and let me know that you’re his, her, or their newest champions.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at www.theatermania.com/peterfilichia;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com