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Cabaret’s Sui Generis Cast Album

Three Fiftieth Anniversaries By Peter Filichia

Three wonderful scores and a trio of Tony-winning performances were first – or last – heard on Broadway a full fifty years ago.

January 18, 1968 was the opening of The Happy Time, the first of two Kander and Ebb scores that would debut that year.

Zorba would be the other. It may be Kander and Ebb’s most exciting score, Cabaret their most exhilarating, Kiss of the Spider Woman their most dynamic and Chicago their more atmospheric. But The Happy Time is their most beautiful score.

Comparatively few musicals offer a waltz as an opening number, but John Kander was right to choose a three-quarter time signature to invoke the nostalgia needed for a musical that recalls the past and details the present in a small French Canadian town.

Photographer Jacques Bonnard (Robert Goulet) recalls his youth in St. Pierre, which he left as soon as he could to see the world and shoot it (in the best sense of the word).

Now Jacques will return there to the consternation of his family which has always been contemptuous (and threatened) by his worldly ways. Of course that’s just what makes him catnip to the teenager in the house: Bibi, who implores “Please Stay!” while fully admitting (in Fred Ebb’s clever lyrical twist) that the rest of the world is where anyone would prefer to be.

Longtime Broadway observer Jay Bahny recently asked on Facebook “Was Robert Goulet the greatest Broadway baritone of all time or what?” I agreed, for I’d long before been mesmerized by Goulet’s distinctively crisp voice after I heard a mere few seconds of “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Believe it or not, as much of a sensation as Goulet was in Camelot – it established his career and got him both recording and film contracts – he wasn’t even Tony-nominated for his Lancelot. That was somewhat rectified by his receiving the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his Jacques in The Happy Time.

That performance – and voice — comes through on the cast album. Goulet’s rendition of “I Don’t Remember You” becomes both a denial of lost love and a plea for it. When he joins in on “St. Pierre,” the town’s official anthem, Goulet makes us realize that Jacques has come to appreciate what he’d once written off as a one-pony town.

Only eight days after Kander and Ebb read their reviews, Darling of the Day, the only collaboration between Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg, opened.

The former was a sexagenarian; the latter, a septuagenarian. How sad that they didn’t start writing together earlier, for this score proved they made an exemplary songwriting team.

The then all-powerful Clive Barnes of The New York Times judged their show “effortlessly the season’s best musical.” Such a line spurs a multiple-year run, but not in Darling’s case – for Barnes was busy reviewing a ballet on opening night and only happened to deliver his money-quote in an off-handed manner in a column about another subject.

The Times’ second-string critic had attended and – you know how this works – such a critic is often is harsher than a first-stringer, lest he or she come across as a pushover. So he damned the effort with very faint praise and many more denunciations. Darling had its final day on Feb. 24, 1968 after its mere thirty-first performance.

Under those circumstances, that a cast album was made remains a modern-day miracle; only six book musicals that had run a shorter number of performances had ever seen its original cast head to a recording studio.

So let’s give our thanks to disc producers George R. Marek and Andy Wiswell, for allowing us to hear what has often been called Jule Styne’s third-best score. (Gypsy and Funny Girl are of course respectively in first and second place in that race.)

“Let’s See What Happens” was obviously one of Styne’s favorite compositions, for every time I attended a tribute to him that called him up to the piano, this is the first song he played.

“Let’s give the waltz a chance” is the first line, making us wonder if Harburg wrote first and Styne then was obliged to write in three-quarter time. Or had Harburg heard Styne’s beautiful waltz and had to immediately reference it?

And here’s a fun fact: Harburg included the words “the great adventure” in the lyric, which was the original title of Arnold Bennett’s novel and play – the source material for Darling.

Harburg quoted Oscar Wilde in “Panache” – “To increase a painting’s value, you must first increase the price.” Broadway has certainly followed that lead in the fifty years since Darling, when seats that are now deemed premium were then going for $12.

The cast album has kept Patricia Routledge’s performance alive, which may have given Tony voters enough awareness or a second chance to choose her as Best Actress in a Musical. Routledge was both endearing and delightful for her Alice Chalice (!), a provincial who had no idea that she married a world-renowned painter — for he’s intent on keeping the secret from her. That Routledge had the chance to do her signature number “Not on Your Nellie” on The Ed Sullivan Show might have helped as well.

Routledge didn’t win outright; she tied with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby!  — which also had music by Jule Styne, although for this assignment he once again worked with the equally legendary Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

This month, Hallelujah also marked a fiftieth anniversary, although in this case it was a sad one. For on January 13, 1968, Baby! breathed its last after a disappointing 293 performances.

And yet, fourteen weeks later Hallelujah, Baby!  won the Tony as Best Musical of 1967-68. It was, still is and may always be the only already-closed musical to claim that distinction.

But the cast album lives on, and it’s a stunner. Because the show details the plight and progress of African-Americans from the early to the middle years of the last century, Styne composed accordingly.

“Feet Do Yo’ Stuff” is a Charleston befitting The Roaring ‘20s. “Witches’ Brew” recreates that ‘30s sound when female trios ruled the airwaves. (Think of the Boylan Sisters in Annie or The Andrews Sisters long before the two surviving siblings starred in Over Here!)

The sultry and sophisticated music of the ‘40s in “Talking to Yourself” is followed by the Kay Thompson-ish snazzy supper club sounds of the ‘50s in the title song. The resolute but not rebellious attitude found in the passive resistance of the ‘60s can be found in the final song “Now’s the Time.”

Longtime Broadway musical fans will tell you that “Witches’ Brew” has the same melody as “Call Me Savage” – a song from Styne, Comden and Green’s ill-fated Fade Out – Fade In that had debuted a mere twenty-three months earlier. Apparently Styne felt like relaxing while his lyricists were hard at work finding new words for the second-hand melody.

I recall a Comden and Green panel discussion of some years later. After they spoke (and enchanted everyone), the floor was opened up to questions. One musical enthusiast went to the microphone and said “In Fade Out – Fade In, you had a song called ‘Call Me Savage,’ but in Halle — ”

He didn’t get to say the entire sentence, for Comden — after stretching out her arms straight in front of her and putting her hands together in a ready-to-be-handcuffed mode, interrupted in a doleful voice “It’s the same song. Arrest me.”

By the way, if you’re in New York from Jan. 27 through Feb. 4, you’ll have the opportunity to see at least a staged reading of Hallelujah, Baby! at the York Theatre Company’s valuable Musicals in Mufti series. The last time that august troupe presented it was in 2000.

Dare you wait on the off-chance that York will do it again? Comden and Green once wrote “Twenty-four hours can go so fast,” which is indeed true – but an  eighteen-year wait takes 157,680 times longer.