Broadway musicals don’t come more charming than Seventeen. Musical theatre in 1951 had much more challenging fare on offer, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I and Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, as well as zippy shows like Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam and the satirical Jule Styne revue Two on the Aisle, so it’s understandable that in such a context this chocolate-box musical comedy didn’t run long (182 performances) and hasn’t had much of an afterlife (though I treasure the published vocal score).
Yet the cast album, newly reissued on CD by Sony Masterworks Broadway and available as a disc-on-demand from ArchivMusic.com, is a sheer delight from start to finish. The composer (Walter Kent) and lyricist (Kim Gannon) are best known for writing the seasonal favourite, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”, but their lack of Broadway credits need not worry us. Their work here is absolutely lovely, and the music is especially impressive from the point of view of nifty harmonic shifts and contrapuntal imagination. Of note is the fluency and bouncy accompaniment of “This Was Just Another Day”, the jolliness of the chorus “Things Are Gonna Hum This Summer” and the lyrical concept of “Reciprocity”. The book is by Sally Benson, familiar from the source material for Meet Me in St Louis, and Seventeen is of the same genre and flavour. Seek it out: you won’t be disappointed.
Another fine example of the excellent work being done by Broadway Masterworks to reissue material we haven’t seen for years is the release of the Original London Cast of Cabaret. Judi Dench’s assumption of the lead role of Sally Bowles is the stuff of legend, and the album really shows us why. Though Dench is no singer she knows how to put across a song (check out “Don’t Tell Mama”), and to have this document of her early career is a real treasure. This was the production where the concept Cabaret really came into its own: even on record, you can tell how dark the performances were. An earlier CD issue in the UK has long been deleted, and this new release boasts superior sound. It’s perhaps a shame the booklet is not more extensive, but the presentation is largely attractive and this is a valuable addition to the catalogue.
Less distinguished as a piece of writing is Clownaround, issued on CD for the first time. The show played on tour in 1972 but never made it to Broadway in spite of a huge name above the title: Gene Kelly as the director. The score boasts a few gems, which is no surprise from Moose Charlap, composer of songs for Peter Pan as well as Whoop-Up (1958), but the book – which took audiences into the world of clowns (obviously), and was aimed at families – clearly didn’t allow much scope for sophistication. Yet the sound quality is very high, and even with the circus atmosphere this is a real curiosity. David Foil’s liner notes make a good case for appreciating the work, and overall Clownaround is too cheerful to be ignored, even if it’s no masterwork.
The word “masterwork” certainly applies to Bye Bye Birdie(1960), the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical hit whose movie soundtrack (from 1963) is made available here. It’s great to see Masterworks Broadway dipping its toes into the soundtrack market, and I’m also thrilled that they’re releasing the movie soundtrack of A Little Night Music on August 13, on CD format for the first time (along with bonus tracks). No fan of musicals will want to be without either of these releases, especially if Birdie is a sign of things to come. Didier C. Deutsch has produced the remastered reissue in honour of the film's fiftieth anniversary, and his liner notes in the lavish booklet make fascinating reading. Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret lead the cast in this perennial favourite, with hit songs including “Put On a Happy Face”, and the reissue is supplemented by bonus tracks including the film version of “One Last Kiss”. For me, the Broadway cast album will never be replaced, but this impeccably-presented soundtrack is a must-have, and let’s hope Masterworks Broadway continues to explore their back catalogue of movie musicals.
At the other end of the scale is Elephant Steps. It’s hard to think of anything less commercial, yet it’s intriguing to be able to hear this unusual piece from 1968 (recorded in 1973). Composed by Stanley Silverman and with libretto by Richard Foreman, the work is essentially an avant-garde opera, and certainly an art piece in spite of the use of some pop genres in the score. It even has the young Michael Tilson Thomas as the conductor. Elephant Steps was conceived as a “phantasmagorical radio show” and incorporates an instrumental ensemble of raga group, gypsy ensemble and elephants, amongst others. It seems to have been a complete experience, where “sound and light, language and music, images and movement, graphics and films, incense and machinery, props and performers are incorporated into a spectacular mix”, according to the press release.
It’s probably not something for the Jerome Kern or Irving Berlin fan, but anyone with a serious interest in the development of music theatre in America in the last 1960s should certainly check it out. Helpfully, the liner booklet includes the texts, which brings everything into focus for the listener. The great thing about the label’s strategy is that each release normally comes as a direct contrast to the last. So the latest CD issue is Seven Come Eleven, a witty, sophisticated but slight café revue by the legendary Julius Monk. It’s not at all arty, and the material is amusing but easily forgettable. Yet for the collector, there’s much of interest here, including sketches by William F Brown (book writer for The Wiz) and lyrics by Bruce Geller (creator and producer of Mission: Impossible on TV).
Against such riches and rarities, I must confess that the label’s brand new recordings pale a little by comparison for me, even though they’re obviously important. The two cast albums could not be more different from one another. Chaplin: The Musicalclosed in January 2013 after only 136 performances, yet the music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis are charming and Rob McClure leads a fine cast. By contrast, Kinky Boots is the season’s big hit, but I just can’t seem to warm to Cyndi Lauper’s score, which is often quite generic and pop-based rather than dramatic. I’m sure it’s just a question of taste, but to my ears there’s not a great deal of storytelling going on here, in spite of a few strong numbers (e.g the more lyric-driven “Not My Father’s Son” and the inspired ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart”). Importantly, though, the show already has its audience, and it’s great that Sony has the album in its catalogue, especially if it helps to subsidise the wonderful programme to release its (presumably less commercial) back catalogue. The coming months include the first-ever CD release of Cowardy Custard alongside the soundtrack of Night Music, both of which will be hotly anticipated by the musical theatre connoisseur.