When Cole Porter wrote the verse to "You're the Top" for Anything Goes, he tipped his hat to Vincent Youmans, rhyming the name of his fellow composer with "gifted humans." Porter's colleague had written the scores to two of the biggest hits of the 1920s, No, No Nanette and Hit the Deck, and several milder successes as well. Then he suffered through one disaster after another--Rainbow, Great Day, Smiles, Through the Years. The short runs of these shows had nothing to do with Youmans' music, which critics and audiences liked; leaden books, overproduction, and miscasting sank most of them, along with a little thing called the Depression.

Through the Years met a particularly grim fate, especially given how promising it looked on paper. Acting as his own producer, Youmans hired librettist Brian Hooker (The Vagabond King) and lyricist Edward Heyman (Three's a Crowd) to adapt Jane Cowl's famous tearjerker Smilin' Through. It's a Maytime-style, multi-generational weepie about a bride, murdered on her wedding day, who has a busy afterlife comforting the heartsick groom who is also the uncle of another bride, whose intended's father was the murderer of the uncle's bride...are you following this? Do you care? Neither did audiences in 1932; the show ran for a scant 20 performances.

Yet the story's ripe sentiment allowed Youmans to compose in a new, introspective style, with long-lined ballads and a Debussy-like delicacy miles away from "Tea for Two." The soaring title song, with its almost religious fervor and a melodic purity rare on Broadway, survived the show's truncated run and became a standard. As other gems from the score have appeared from time to time--the art song-like "You're Everywhere" was a highlight of Judy Kaye's debut album--musical theater fans have had their curiosity piqued. Thus has Through the Years become one of those scores, like Weill's Marie Galante, Lerner and Loewe's The Day Before Spring, and Kern's Gentlemen Unafraid, that many know of but nobody knows.

Now we know. In a noble move hardly likely to mint millions for the label, PS Classics has released the "world premiere cast recording" of Through the Years. Conducted by Youmans archivist Aaron Gandy, the album was obviously assembled with toil and care. But while it's often fascinating listening for historically minded musical theater buffs, Through the Years is also something of a letdown.

Vincent Youmans and friend
Vincent Youmans and friend
The disappointment begins with the material itself. The New York Times' Brooks Atkinson, one of the show's few champions, wrote of an "organic unity" to the score, but the consistency of mood goes only about halfway. Certainly, Youmans penned some gorgeous melodies, from the title song to the Irish air "Kathleen Mine" to the joyous, musically adventurous "How Happy is the Bride." The harmonies are surprising, the key changes constant and imaginative--you can hear the influence of Show Boat and Youmans' determination to out-Kern Kern. But Through the Years is no epic, and Heyman is no Oscar Hammerstein II: He keeps coming up with frivolities like "Her youth and laughter, joy and song / Compel the golden hours along." (To give him his due, Heyman can also be a neat rhymester: "I ask you, what would a Romeo do? / Show me, oh do.")

The larger problem is that the heartfelt tone of the piece isn't as sustained as Atkinson led us to believe. The libretto shoehorns in not one but two sets of supporting comic lovers, and the whole quartet seem to have wandered in from Hit the Deck. The soubrettes squeal and pout, the juveniles mug and crack wise--what are they doing in the middle of a tragic romance? They sing songs like "Kinda Like You," a cute trifle that would fit comfortably into one of Youmans' lighter works but sadly undercuts his loftier ambitions here. At least second-couple Hunter Foster and Jennifer Cody have an authentic sense of period; if anybody ever does revive No, No Nanette (again) or Hit the Deck, they would make ideal leads.

So the score toggles uncertainly between operetta and musical comedy, though at least it's high-quality operetta and not-bad musical comedy. Alas, there's another hitch: the CD's overall sound. Working on a limited budget, Gandy and orchestrator Larry Hochman have scored the whole thing for 12 musicians. But you can't make 12 pieces recreate the sound of a full theater pit circa 1932, no matter how much you "sweeten" the sound (the engineers turn the reverb way up), and what might have been a lovely orchestration ends up sounding like elevator music. All of that hard work reducing the charts, and all of the flavor has been boiled out. Two pianos might have done the trick better.

As Uncle John, Brent Barrett is his usual outstanding self (he offers an especially sensitive reading of the title song), and Philip Chaffin does well singing the romantic lead. Chaffin's vis-à-vis is Heidi Grant Murphy, who comes from the opera and has been hailed as a capable crossover soprano on the order of Dawn Upshaw or Frederica von Stade; I found her charmless and even wobbly in spots.

In the second half of his career, Youmans had terrible luck which seems to have persisted over a half-century after his death. There are many pleasures in this unexpected CD, and one wants to see it sell a lot of copies; then maybe we'll get a recording of Youmans' and Hammerstein's Rainbow, which sounds even more interesting. If we ever do see that album, let's hope its pleasures aren't compromised as much as are the pleasures of Through the Years.