Forty-odd years ago, when 10 new musicals opened per season, show enthusiasts would pray for Columbia Records to snag the cast album rights for as many as possible. While the releases from RCA, Capitol, and Decca tended to clock in at barely 40 minutes each and contained sketchy or nonexistent liner notes and plot summaries, Columbia crammed as much onto one LP as the technology allowed. Under the longtime supervision of artists & repertoire division head Goddard Lieberson, the label included the overtures, reprises, entr'actes, incidental numbers, dance music, and finales of these shows.
Lieberson embraced new recording techniques and media such as the long-playing record, and he produced some of the earliest stereo cast albums (Bells Are Ringing, Candide, West Side Story). He hired George B. Dale to write elegant, concise synopses and biographies, allowing listeners to follow every plot turn of a show even if they hadn't seen it. He pioneered the multiple-disc cast album with the great, three-LP Most Happy Fella (1956). And somehow, he preserved not only the songs and legendary performances of the era but also the theatrical energy and immediacy of these shows; though the first, mono album of My Fair Lady was taped at CBS Studios, it has the vitality of a night early in the show's run at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Perhaps best of all, Lieberson championed the original cast album as a historic document, not just a way to make a quick buck off a busy season's latest hit: He snapped up as many titles as he could and, if a show flopped, he didn't try to wriggle out of the contract. Thanks to him, Columbia lavished as much care on Oh, Captain! and First Impressions as it did on Gypsy and The Sound of Music.
Showing the same sort of dedication, two musical theater labels have just released CDs of two old Columbia cast albums. From Fynsworth Alley comes the Lieberson-produced Juno, Marc Blitzstein's 1959 musical drama based on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. (Currently, it is available only through the label's website, www.fynsworthalley.com; that could change, as it did with Fynsworth's last vintage cast album release, Subways Are for Sleeping, now available in stores.) Meanwhile, DRG Records has valiantly issued 1960's Christine, a quasi-operetta with a colorful score by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. Interestingly, Christine was produced not by Lieberson but by jazz specialist Teo Macero under the master's supervision, and it was certainly given 'the Lieberson treatment.'
These two shows racked up a mere 28 performances between them, but their scores sparkle: One is sublime and the other is sublimely ridiculous. Juno has long been a cult musical and cast album; copies of the LP consistently fetched $30 and up in the shops, and partisans have shouted for a CD for years. Meanwhile, as far as I know, there has never been a huge public outcry for Christine. With a book co-written by that musical-comedy natural, Pearl S. Buck, it was fashioned as a vehicle for movie star Maureen O'Hara in her Broadway musical debut. The recipe is hand-me-down Rodgers and Hammerstein: Combine elements of The King and I, South Pacific, and Flower Drum Song in a clay pot, grind vigorously, and overseason with curry. The plot: titled Irish lady (O'Hara) arrives in India to visit her daughter, who has married an older Indian doctor (the Metropolitan Opera's Morley Meredith). Mom is shocked to find that her daughter has died in childbirth...and even more shocked to find herself falling in love with her son-in-law. (Combining miscegenation with implicit incest is something Hammerstein never thought of.) Her attachment to the children of this extended family further confuses the woman's choices; but, manacled by the racial politics of the era (think No Strings, Kwamina, Golden Boy), she concludes: "We were born a little too soon, Rashil / Too soon, too soon to reach for the moon, Rashil." So she paddles back to Old Ireland, sadly reprising the intended hit tune (and it's a fine one), "I Never Meant To Fall In Love."
As Ethan Mordden notes in his latest book, Open a New Window, it's easy to scoff at this stuff in 2002--especially given the presence in Christine of an Eastern second couple that seems very Western (Phil Leeds and Nancy Andrews) and the fact that the show vulgarizes a foreign culture in a way that was rampant in 1960s musicals. After a stirring overture, Christine's next 10 minutes or so are tough going, with several cloying songs for the children (the amount of sugar in "I'm Just a Little Sparrow" may wreck your CD player) and a dead-on-arrival soliloquy for Meredith. But then O'Hara launches into the gently melodic "My Little Lost Girl" and the benevolent side of Christine's Jekyll-and-Hyde nature emerges; who knew that this star had such a lovely lyric soprano in her? O'Hara exudes a Helen Morgan-like wistfulness in Fain's surprisingly rangy ballads, and her jig specialty ("Ireland Was Never Like This") livens up a second act that surely must have needed it. Andrews almost puts over her lame comedy lyrics, Meredith persuasively croons the attractive title tune, Janet Pavek impresses in her one solo, and there's Broadway-style, faux-Eastern exoticism galore. To listen to the gaudy, pseudo-Indian posturings of "The Lovely Girls of Akbarabad" or "The Divali Festival" is to encounter the Broadway musical at its most un-PC--but that's not to say the finger cymbals, sitars, and myriad references to saris and Vishnu and the Ganges aren't fun and a half. Christine is one of those rare scores wherein nearly everything is either wonderful or terrible; but thanks to its classy star, Fain's appealing melodies, and the lush Columbia treatment, even most of what's terrible is pretty wonderful.
No such sorry-grateful equivocations are needed for Juno, hailed by virtually every musical theater historian as a near-masterpiece that suffered some unlucky breaks. In adapting O'Casey's great drama of 1920s Dublin, Blitzstein and librettist Joseph Stein were faithful to a fault, retaining the original's unruly mix of tragedy and comedy and "opening it up" just enough to accommodate (superb) music and dance. Juno was blessed with a first-rate production team (Agnes de Mille, Oliver Smith, Irene Sharaff, Robert Russell Bennett, etc.) and an even more amazing cast (Shirley Booth, Melvyn Douglas, Jack MacGowran, Nancy Andrews again, Tommy Rall, Jean Stapleton, Monte Amundsen, Gemze de Lappe, Sada Thompson, Beulah Garrick, Loren Driscoll, Arthur Rubin), yet it opened to cool reviews and was gone inside of two weeks. Mordden blames the direction. Ken Mandelbaum suggests that Broadway audiences simply found it too tragic (how, then, to explain West Side Story's run?). Gerald Bordman thinks Stein's book drained the humor out of the original (Stein denies it). Whatever the reason, Juno remains one of Broadway's most tantalizing failures. Blitzstein, who genuinely expected it to bring the popular acclaim that so persistently eluded him, was crushed.
Fortunately, Lieberson believed in the piece, too, and Juno's cast album is a thing of surpassing beauty. From its ironically upbeat opening march, "We're Alive" (which turns into a dirge when an IRA sympathizer is murdered by the British) to its tragic finale, the score is overpowering. The comic songs for the sparring central couple, the Boyles (think the Kramdens with brogues, embodied by Booth and Douglas with small voices but huge expressiveness), are funny and tender. As their daughter, the lucky Amundsen gets three unique, moving ballads ("I Wish It So," "My True Heart," and "For Love"); Driscoll gets another, "One Kind Word"; Booth and Amundsen blend touchingly on "Bird Upon the Tree," a seemingly out-of-context parable that in fact encapsulates Irish history; and Blitzstein's gift for pastiche invigorates "The Liffey Waltz" and "It's Not Irish," the latter a sly spoof of lachrymose "mother" songs. "On a Day Like This," a block party production number, is brilliant musical theater writing on many levels: It captures the narrative's one unambiguously joyous moment, gives major and minor players character-defining lyrics, and contains particularly lilting dance music.
As a dramatist, Blitzstein often touched on the plight of the underclass, but Juno brought out a lyricism not heard from him in more polemical pieces such as The Cradle Will Rock or No For An Answer. Those great works are more about ideas than people; the deliberately one-dimensional characters of Cradle and the flesh-and-blood creations of Juno are worlds apart. In Juno, for once, Blitzstein's political convictions and storytelling skills are in perfect, complementary balance. They're even set to soaring melody, though it takes several listenings for this score to fully yield its riches. It is adult, challenging, romantic, and witty work, thrillingly captured by Lieberson's microphones. A deep bow to Fynsworth Alley for bringing it to CD at last.