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Get Your Irish Up (on a Turntable)

Which Irish-themed cast album should you listen to on St. Patrick's Day? Filichia recommends Donnybrook!

By New York City

So, what Broadway show songs have you chosen to celebrate St. Patrick's Day? "An Irish-American" from Little Johnny Jones? The Irish-themed songs from Christine and Irene? (The former featured "Ireland Was Never Like This," while the latter had "An Irish Girl.") Maybe you've opted for that trifecta from Victor Herbert's Eileen: "The Irish Reel," "The Irish Have a Great Day Tonight," and that cleverly title paean to one's homeland, "Ireland My Sireland." Speaking of Eileen, how about "My Darlin' Eileen" from Wonderful Town? It may not have the word "Irish" in its title, but it sure has Ireland infused through its melody. Oh -- and do let me know if you find a recording of "The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago" from The Ed Wynn Carnival, which 83 years ago was ensconced where The Lion King is now. What could such a song sound like, and what could its title mean?

Most of us who celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a cast album automatically reach for Finian's Rainbow -- either the original 1947 cast or the 1960 revival cast. I much prefer the latter -- one of the few times that I like a subsequent cast album more than the original. That could be because I heard the 1960 version on an RCA LP long before I heard the 1947 Columbia record. We all tend to favor the first recordings we hear, don't we? We get so used to them that any vocal or orchestral variation strikes our ears as a frightening anomaly. But in Finian's case, I'm sure I favor the 1960 album because I've always found original caster Ella Logan's performance to be precious and pretentious, lauded though it was in 1947.

Actually, what I always play on St. Patrick's Day is Donnybrook!, a musical whose cast album on the now-defunct Kapp label hasn't been transferred to CD -- though Decca Broadway, which now controls it, says that it just might surface by next St. Patrick's Day. Don't wait! Find the LP and pounce. If you don't have a turntable, being able to play Donnybrook! is, in itself, a good reason to buy one.

According to Paul Meyers's liner notes, Donnybrook! took "the Broadway stage by storm in one of the most memorable musical comedies of the 1961 season...(a) great success." Now, this statement is immediately suspect because, of course, there was no "1961 season." A theater season starts in June and ends in May, so Donnybrook! was part of the 1960-1961 season. But that's the least of Meyers's errors. If Donnybrook! was such a success, why did it shutter after only 68 performances? It ran slightly before my theatergoing time, so I can't say for sure, but my buddy David Wolf tells me that he once read Robert E. McEnroe's libretto and "felt as if a seventh grader had written it." Reason enough.

Donnybrook! was based on the popular 1952 John Ford film The Quiet Man. That's the one where Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American boxer -- make that ex-boxer, because he killed a ring opponent and now wants to start a new life. So he returns to his birthplace in Innisfree, Ireland, where he isn't warmly welcomed by its citizens. Not that they know about his manslaughter; they just don't trust Americans. Big bully Red Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) takes a special dislike to Sean. This is a problem, for Sean has fallen in love with Red Will's sister Mary Kate (played by Maureen O'Hara, who'd go on to do the aforementioned Christine). Sean and Mary Kate do marry but the bride insists that she won't bed Sean until he gets her dowry from Red Will. The ornery brother demands that Sean fight him for it. Sean finally puts up his dukes, wins the fight, and only then does he earn the true respect of his wife and the townspeople.

There have been worse ideas for musicals. It did seem to be a good property for the quintessentially Irish Johnny Burke, whose work was celebrated on Broadway six years ago. Remember the Tony-nominated musical compilation of his material, Swinging on a Star? It was of course named after the Oscar-winning song for which he provided the fetching lyrics to James Van Heusen's equally fetching music. Also included in Swinging were such Burke hits as "Here's That Rainy Day," "Misty," and "Pennies from Heaven" -- but nothing at all from Donnybrook!

That was probably because the show's songs were pretty specific to the plot, and certainly not because they aren't good. Liner-notes author Meyers didn't exaggerate much when he described Burke's score as "glorious" and "lilting." Donnybrook! starts with the best opening number you've not yet heard: "Sez I" has Ellen Roe (Burke's new name for Mary Kate) stating that she isn't going to marry just anyone. "There's an old, old saying," she sings. "'If it isn't everything it's nothing.' And my heart keeps saying and saying, 'If it isn't everything, it's nothing.' So if one small ingredient should be missing. Though he may be such that many a girl would fall. Well, he's not the gentleman I'll be kissing. 'Cause if it isn't everything, it's nothing at all."

This Harbinger Records CD of recordings bySusan Johnson includes "I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny"
This Harbinger Records CD of recordings by
Susan Johnson includes "I Wouldn’t Bet One Penny"
Musicals of this era had to have a comic subplot, so one was concocted involving Michaeleen Flynn, who is Inisfree's matchmaker when he isn't functioning as the town's bookmaker. In the film, this fellow couples Sean and Mary Kate, but here -- just like Dolly Levi -- the matchmaker has a chance to get matched, in this case to widow Kathy Carey. The musical sure got excellent actors to play these roles: Eddie Foy, Jr. (Hinesy from The Pajama Game) was the slightly renamed Mikeen Flynn, while the object of his affection was the inimitable Susan Johnson. It's sad to be writing about Donnybrook! less than a month after Johnson's death, for the brassy musical comedy actress was shown here to good advantage in what would be her last Broadway show. Her first song, "Sad Was the Day" made Sondheim's famous "Songs I'd Wished I'd Written" list, so how bad can it be? It's a widow's fey lament about a husband who really wasn't so terrific; she him some homage without immediately realizing that she's better off without him. Yet Burke followed the Broadway songwriter's handbook in making sure that the number went somewhere: By its final measures, Kathy has decided to move on and find another man.

That doesn't mean Will, as Red Will is called here. Granted, he wants Kathy more for her money than for herself. But money is also why Mikeen wants to set them up; he'll get a nice fee if he does so. There's the standard musical comedy confusion where Mikeen goes to Kathy to promote Will but she assumes he's there to advance his own cause. This leads to one of the most melodious showstoppers of the '60s: "I Wouldn't Bet One Penny (on the Way I'd Feel)," complete with a modulation that comes when the lyric doesn't have another point to make. But the song's so delicious, as are Foy and Johnson's performances, that we wouldn't want it to end too quickly.

Three great songs, and we haven't even got to the pretty ballads. Given that there's a song called "Ellen Roe," I have to wonder if this was a Burke trunk song whose very existence inspired him to change the character's name. It's nicely sung by Art Lund (Joey in the original Most Happy Fella), who as the renamed John also does a terrific job with two other fine ballads, "I Have My Own Way" and "For My Own." But the prettiest tune may be Ellen's "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely," sung by Joan Fagan, who later succeeded Inga Swenson in 110 in the Shade and was superb in that show. If she had much of a career after that, I don't know a thing about it.

There are two Irish tenor throwaway numbers given to minor characters, but they're each pleasant on their own terms. "Wisha-Wurra" -- apparently an Irish term for not-so-hot furniture -- and a comedy song called "The Lovable Irish" pass muster, too. And while there's a formula feeling when Johnson complains about "Mr. Flynn" just before she and he and work it out, prompting "Dee-Lightful is the Word," both numbers are great fun.

All right, I'll confess that not all of Donnybrook! is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. While the title song is often a musical's best, Donnybrook!'s may be its worst, right up there -- no, down there -- with "Let It Ride" and "Happy Hunting." Burke couldn't find a way to make the word sing. Besides, the song's all about the joys of fighting, and there's something inherently unpleasant about that.

The album comes to an end with Foy telling Johnson, "I'm not good enough for you," only to have Johnson state in no uncertain terms, "Nobody ever said that you were." Thus, it was another of those musicals where theatergoers must have cared more about the fun-filled secondary couple than the serious, so-called first couple. Maybe Donnybrook! didn't succeed because theatergoers believed Ellen Roe's own philosophy: "If it isn't everything, it's nothing at all." But this score warrants your attention any day of the year.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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