The Band’s Wagon (Studio Cast Recording 1950)
Good times of the past get better by a psychological quirk which modern doctors explain while reminding us that we rarely remember the ants at the picnic. Good shows represent good times and there were no ants at the picnic as far as memory serves in connection with The Band Wagon. Although few musical shows ever come out the way the authors dreamed them, this one came to life with an added dimension that more than satisfied.
The Band Wagon was in many ways an experimental production, combining as it did the best features of the so-called intimate type of revue that had come into vogue with The Garrick Gaieties and The Little Show with the more spectacular background associated with the productions of Florenz Ziegfeld. It presented a mildly revolutionary use of the revolving stage. Formerly the turntable had been used – in extravaganzas at the Century Theatre – as a device primarily for the visual changing of scenery. Now it was used as an intrinsic musical conception, an asset to numbers that had merry-go-rounds and other circumferential suggestion. The staging of “I Love Louisa” and “Hoops” hinged on the use of the rotating platform. The technique gave rise to the conjecture as to the next step in theatrical mechanics. Frank Morgan, in his monologue, suggested that it might not be a bad idea to keep the stage stationary and have revolving audiences.
The music of The Band Wagon was composed by Arthur Schwartz and his score is outstanding in the history of revue annals. Together we had previously written a few revues, particularly Three’s a Crowd for Max Gordon. Mr. Gordon suggested that I assume the general supervision of this new project. I agreed, on condition that George Kaufman could be induced to collaborate and that Fred and Adele Astaire could be secured to head the cast. Mr. Kaufman consented to write and direct the sketches, accepting some small contribution from me to his department. The sketches he delivered had more body than the conventional blackouts and topical gag notions that characterized the standard musical show of this type. In fact they might be described as travesty playlets. One of the sketches, “The Pride of the Claghornes,” the best of the lampoons on the deep South, deserves inclusion in any representative anthology of American one-act comedies.
When I called on Fred Astaire to sell him the idea of signing up, I found him slightly ill in bed, doubtless recovering from a musical comedy called Smiles which had just closed. I made the point that he and Adele would be better off in the revue form because they could overcome the brother-and-sister objection to playing sentimental roles in shows with plots. They could vary their characters scene by scene and thus hurdle the awkwardness presented by the usually unincestuous love story. Fred was cautious but I used a prop to persuade him. In the corner of his room was an accordion which Fred could handle. I suggested that he practice a number on the accordion until he knew it so well that he would dance while he played. This appealed to his choreographic inventiveness and in a moment of weakness he consented to appear in the show.
The Band Wagon was his penultimate stage appearance. He did The Gay Divorce after that and then went into the films. But although well-established, it is the feeling of many that he really came into his own in The Band Wagon, particularly in his “New Sun in the Sky” number. He has stayed in “his own” ever since as the outstanding star of musical pictures. Little short of wonderful, his rendition of a song is on a par with his dancing. He leans on music.
Adele had, in some respects, been the most noticed of the pair up to this time, principally because she played the comedy roles. But when I heard that she was about to marry – to become Lady Charles Cavendish – it was questionable whether she would stay in the cast for the run of the play if it was a hit. Certainly she would not be willing to go on tour. A new balance in the parts was therefore created and it was planned that The Band Wagon should be more of Fred’s show. Adele retired to England after the year’s run in New York, and the historic theatrical partnership of the Astaires came to an end.
The other stars in the cast were the late Frank Morgan who created a character that became a trademarked mannerism in the films, Helen Broderick, as droll as they come, and Tilly Losch, the ballerina who has recently made a name for herself as a modern painter. Albert Johnson designed the show, Constance Ripley did the costumes, Albertina Rasch did the dances, and Hassard Short did the technical direction.
Anyone who has written light songs will be happy to have them recorded by Nellie Forbush (who is also known as Mary Martin). Her singing of The Band Wagon numbers adds a cubit to an already monumental stature. Playing the songs is a nostalgic experience for those who liked the show and particularly for those who had a hand in creating it. While the arrangements and tempos are not exactly as they were played at the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1931, they are properly modernized and keep the score as alive as any music on today’s radio. The composer is pleased and Mary is the lyric-writer’s delight.
An Overture, eight songs (“It Better Be Good,” “Hoops,” “High and Low,” “Confession,” “New Sun in the Sky,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Love Louisa,” “Where Can He Be?”), and a Finale have been vocally arranged for Miss Martin and company by Ted Royal who has used many satisfying little tricks. Lehman Engel is the conductor, Goddard Lieberson the producer. The scenery and costumes may be missing, but I believe you can put these records on your machine, sit back and almost see the show again. Slightly abbreviated, it’s true, but nevertheless this is an excellent revival of a show that would be too expensive to produce today with the diminished price of the dollar.
– Howard Dietz, taken from the original liner notes, 1950
Tracks 1–8 Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Tracks 9–18 Music by Arthur Schwartz, Lyrics by Howard Dietz
Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Lehman Engel
Orchestrations by Ted Royal
Produced by Goddard Lieberson
Track 19 sung by Mary Martin and Larry Hagman; Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin; Orchestra under the direction of Mitch Miller, recorded 12/1/1950
Tracks 1–18 originally released as Columbia Masterworks LPs ML 2159 and ML 2160 in 1950, subsequently released as Columbia Masterworks LP ML 4751 in 1953
Track 19 originally released on Columbia single record 39115 in 1951