Pardon a blunt question: What are they smoking down at DRG? Hugh Fordin's little specialty CD label has been snapping up rights to the Columbia Records cast album catalogue as if old flop musicals were the hottest thing since reality TV. In the past few months, DRG has gone to Columbia's vaults and returned with Kean, Christine, and Oh, Captain!, plus early-'50s studio versions of several operettas, all in their CD debuts. Now come the original cast albums of 1959's First Impressions, 1962's Bravo Giovanni, and 1961's The Happiest Girl in the World, none of which ran much longer than three months. As musical theater buffs and collectors, we can only be grateful; my LPs of the trio were scratched beyond playability. Still, the economics are baffling, and one has to hope that DRG isn't reissuing itself into oblivion.
Meanwhile, let's party on and give these three new CDs a listen. All are in stereo, and DRG valiantly strives to reprint the plot synopses and most of the photos from the original LPs jackets. (First Impressions and Happiest Girl even boast some photos that the originals lacked.) Since all three were produced for Columbia by the late, great Goddard Lieberson, we know they're full, sonorous readings of the scores with that indefinable theatrical spark. Only with First Impressions is it unclear why Lieberson bothered.
First Impressions was Abe Burrows' ill-advised attempt to turn Pride and Prejudice into a musical. (The tuner's title was what Jane Austen had originally intended to call the novel.) Burrows wrote the book for the show and directed, Jule Styne produced (and is rumored to have doctored the score), and the music and lyrics were assigned to three relative tyros: Robert Goldman, Glenn Paxton, and George Weiss. The score isn't tuneless or tasteless, just dully dutiful in its storytelling, with unwieldy song titles like "I Suddenly Find It Agreeable" and "Wasn't It a Simply Lovely Wedding?" Like most romantic musicals of the era, what First Impressions really wants to be is My Fair Lady, and its empty echoes of that Lerner-Loewe classic are pathetic. When Mr. D'Arcy rails against Elizabeth Bennett in "A Gentleman Never Falls Wildly in Love," he might as well be 'enry 'iggins declaring he's an ordinary man. When Elizabeth decides she likes D'Arcy after all and rips into "This Really Isn't Me," even Don Walker's orchestration recalls "I Could Have Danced All Night."
Polly Bergen played Elizabeth and Hermione Gingold (!!!) was her social-climbing mother -- and if you can accept those two as coming from the same gene pool, maybe you'll buy Farley Granger as D'Arcy. It's almost painful to hear Bergen, who is miscast but tries hard, dragging the vocally challenged Granger through the duets; and it is painful to hear Granger (who doesn't sound like he's trying at all) sprechstimme his way through "A Perfect Evening" or wander off pitch in "The Heart Has Won the Game." As for Gingold, she acts like she's in another musical altogether -- a rowdy music-hall entertainment that allows her to rumble, grunt, squeal, and hard-sell her way through her hapless comic numbers. An appealing supporting cast (including Phyllis Newman, Christopher Hewett, and Ellen Hanley, who stepped into the lead when Bergen bolted) helps, and there are two pretty ballads, "Love Will Find Out the Way" and "I Feel Sorry for the Girl" (whose refrain oddly comments, "Fee, fie, fo, fum"). But how much can you care about a romantic musical in which both protagonists come off as headstrong and unlikable, or in which the lyrics are so flat and prosaic ("We're all impressed with your superb reputation," "This meeting was quite unforeseeable," etc.)? No wonder it was decades before Bergen felt compelled to do another musical!
Similarly, the star of Bravo Giovanni, handsome Metropolitan Opera basso Cesare Siepi, was scared off from doing another musical until 1979's Carmelina. (That one had glorious songs, a wise and funny book, and a two-week run; Siepi just had no luck.) Though the factoid is not reprinted in Giovanni's CD booklet, the LP's notes state that, "When it became known [Siepi] was interested in doing a musical comedy, he was showered with offers." And this is the one he chose.
Based on a now-forgotten novel by one Howard Shaw, Bravo Giovanni was the loud, splashy, and preposterous tale of Giovanni Venturi, a Roman restaurateur who battles the larger eatery across the street by digging a tunnel and sneaking food from its kitchen. He also falls in love with the much younger Miranda (played by 19-year-old Michele Lee), which leads to plenty of May-September songs in the vein of Fanny or The Most Happy Fella. For comic relief, there's George S. Irving as Giovanni's nasty business rival and Mrs. Irving, a.k.a. Maria Karnilova, as a feisty widow.
Having earned only sour reviews and a brief run, Bravo Giovanni is mostly known for snatching a Best Score Tony nomination from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. And yes, Sondheim was robbed -- but maybe not as shockingly as you'd think. Giovanni's score, by Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham, is a bit bombastic but it's also clever and melodic, with killer orchestrations by Robert Ginzler. (Dig those crazy trumpets!) Siepi charms in "Rome" and "If I Were the Man," Lee has two fine numbers in "I'm All I've Got" and "Steady, Steady," and there was even a hit song: the lilting, faux-Neapolitan "Ah! Camminare." (It's sung by Gene Varrone, an invaluable Broadway tenor who pops up in everything from Subways Are for Sleeping to A Little Night Music.) The comedy lyrics are at least funnier than those of First Impressions and the Irvings sock them across like the pros they are.
Giovanni is one of those fun flops with many good things in it, much like Schafer's next score, Drat! the Cat. It evokes a happy, confident time in Broadway musical history, when JFK and optimism ruled, silliness was permissible, and rock and roll hadn't quite overtaken everything. Speaking of rock and roll, the CD has a bonus track, Michele Lee's 1965 version of "Steady, Steady" gone all funkadelic, with electric guitars and organs. It's amusing, but I prefer her original, slow-building, look-out-Streisand reading.
Speaking of fun flops, The Happiest Girl In the World is the happiest CD of this trio. It's a smart, dirty riff on Lysistrata, the sex-and-war satire by Aristophanes that someone is always trying to make a musical of. (There was a luckless attempt as recently as last year, starring Cherry Jones; and there's also a Lysistrata-out-West movie musical, 1955's The Second Greatest Sex, that tries to be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.) The driving force behind Happiest Girl was E.Y. Harburg. He brought along his Finian's Rainbow co-librettist Fred Saidy and screenwriter Henry Myers, whose credits included Destry Rides Again and Million Dollar Legs. For music, Harburg set his lyrics to the best of Jacques Offenbach. And, no disrespect to Harburg's other collaborators -- among them Kern, Lane, and Arlen -- but this was a perfect marriage. Besides being a supreme melodist, Offenbach shared with Harburg (1) a naughty sense of humor, and (2) a healthy interest in sex. Since the plot runs to wives denying their warrior husbands conjugal rights until the boys promise to stop fighting, you can't ask for better than that.
And Harburg's lyrics are, from opening number to finale, comically dazzling -- maybe his best set ever, outshining even Finian's and The Wizard of Oz. "We give you sex / That's ambi-dex," boasts the opening number, "The Glory That Is Greece." When Diana (Janice Rule), goddess of the moon, tries to figure out what earthly feminine appeal is, she observes: "Why, each new tot / That is begat / Cannot be got / Without that 'that'!" When the chorus of other gods sings, "Immortals must avoid mortality," Diana sensibly pipes up, "We've got to last until at least A.D.!" And try to top this quatrain, sung by Pluto, god of the underworld: "A virgin is a scourge / She's never had her splurge / The trouble with a virgin is / She's always on the verge!" (Only limited space and copyright considerations prevent me from quoting Harburg all night.)
The romantic lyrics are lovely, too. Harburg was especially proud of "Adrift On a Star," which, he explained to The New York Times, was a nuclear-era consideration of love's indestructibility; it's exquisitely sung here by Bruce Yarnell and Dran Seitz. "Five Minutes of Spring," "Shall We Say Farewell?" and "How Soon, O Moon?" also have charm to spare. And listen to how expertly the score is programmed -- comic number, ballad, comic number, ballad -- so that the listener is never bored.
There is a caveat, and it's a big one: Cyril Ritchard. The Peter Pan star played multiple roles in Happiest Girl in addition to directing the show, and he oversells his comic lyrics (which scarcely need it) as if he were...Hermione Gingold in First Impressions. (He's dismayingly prissy, too: Noël Coward, in his Diaries, wonders why the long-married Ritchard didn't just come out and get it over with). But the other players are definitive -- even Rule, with an untrained but beguiling soprano; the Offenbach perennials are brilliantly served by the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Hershy Kay; and another Harburg zinger is always on the way. DRG's faith in the marketability of obscurities like Happiest Girl may be puzzling. But when the material is this delectable, ours is not to reason why -- ours is but to go and buy.