Imagine for a moment that you're a very famous, beloved actor and you have the opportunity to star in a big-budget Hollywood film of a smash-hit Broadway musical. The problem is that you're not right for the role in question for several reasons, including the fact that you can't sing. Do you sadly but wisely yield the part to someone who deserves it? Or do you press on, blinded by ego, and take the job anyway? Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball made the latter choice in accepting starring roles in the movie versions of Gypsy and Mame, respectively. Their grabbiness was greeted with great disappointment by Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury, who should have been allowed to recreate their Broadway roles of Rose Hovick and Mame Dennis on film, and with derision by the vast majority of critics and moviegoers.
The stars' co-opting of these roles is ironic in view of their own cognizance of their vocal limitations. As CD producer George Feltenstein points out in his notes for the Mame package, Lucille Ball's inability to sing had been a running gag throughout her career and, in particular, had been used as comic fodder in many an I Love Lucy episode. Similarly, when Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green wrote an emergency replacement score for Wonderful Town within the space of four weeks in 1953, star Rosalind Russell prevailed upon them to craft for her songs that would stress her skill as a comic actress rather than her singing talent, which was next to nil.
Both Russell and Ball had success in Broadway musicals that were tailored specifically to their vocal limitations (Ball's vehicle was Wildcat), but these ladies should never have come anywhere near Gypsy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) or Mame (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman). The fact that they were cast in the film versions of these classic musicals is particularly galling given the permanence and pervasiveness of the film medium; it's bad enough for someone to play a role they're not up to on Broadway, but it's far worse when their folly is enshrined for all time in a film that will be seen by millions of people in theaters and then have an eternal afterlife on the home video market, no matter how bad it may be.
Lucy's hubris in tackling Mame is evident to anyone who has seen (and heard!) the film or listened to its soundtrack album, long out of print but recently transferred to CD for the first time by Rhino. In contrast, Russell's vocal inequality to the role of Rose in Gypsy has long been obscured by the fact that about 90% of the character's singing in the film was post-dubbed by Lisa Kirk, most famous for her performances in the original Broadway casts of Kiss Me Kate and Allegro. (There's an interesting near-connection here in that Kirk was almost hired to dub Mame but it was ultimately decided that Lucy's "singing voice" was too well known to allow for such a substitution.) A delicious legend has it that the dispossessed Ethel Merman had somehow acquired tapes of Russell's actual vocal tracks and would gleefully play them for others and for her own edification. Now, the general public can judge for itself because Russell's recordings of almost all of Rose's songs are included as bonus cuts on Rhino's new Gypsy soundtrack CD -- and, yes, they are appalling. (In her autobiography, Russell shamefully insisted that she did all of her own singing in the movie. That seems more ridiculous than ever now that we all can hear just how pathetic she sounds in this great score.)
Rhino's Gypsy CD may be purchased in stores but its limited-edition release of Mame is available only on line through www.rhinohandmade.com; the latter has no bonus tracks, which is fine under the circumstances. These recordings have their plusses, most notably (1) the superb playing of the Warner Bros. studio orchestra on both, and (2) the fine performances of original Broadway cast members Paul Wallace and Faith Dane on the former and Beatrice Arthur and Jane Connell on the latter. Natalie Wood is dramatically affecting if musically questionable in the title role of Gypsy, and Robert Preston is the ideal Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside in Mame. As for Roz and Lucy: Although posterity will view these unique artists with great affection for their triumphs, it must be said that their reputations were compromised by their late-career attempts at musical film roles for which they were unqualified.
More Deluxe Reissues from RCA
Anyone who knows Galt MacDermot's score for Hair only through the 1978 film version of that seminal rock musical may have a hard time understanding why so many musical theater traditionalists were nonplussed when the show became a big hit Off-Broadway and then on Broadway in the late 1960s. As I've pointed out repeatedly, the Hair film is a vast improvement over the stage show if only in terms of its script -- a brilliant adaptation by Michael Weller. But the original Broadway and Off-Broadway productions were also to be deplored in that they featured lots of substandard singing, as is proved by RCA's recent release of the cast albums of those shows in a 2-CD Broadway Deluxe Collector's Edition.
According to co-creator James Rado's notes in the CD booklet, "Hair was...a free-form theater piece. We were interested in experimental theater, and we wanted to see how much we could fool around with that concept. So instead of the 15 to 16 songs usually found in musicals, we had about 30 or 33 in our show. That also meant we had less of a book per se, though in actuality we had a very strong underlying story and sense of characters, even though it didn't seem that way." (That's right, Jim; it sure didn't seem that way!)
As to the singing on the cast albums, it ranges from okay to execrable. The few highlights are all to be found on the Broadway disc; among them are Lynn Kellogg's "Easy to Be Hard" and Shelley Plimpton's "Frank Mills." It's fun to hear a young Diane Keaton and Melba Moore in "Black Boys" and "White Boys" (respectively). Leads Gerome Ragni and James Rado sing well enough in technical terms but their interpretations lack theatrical charisma. The nadir of the two-dic set is the breathtaking double-whammy of tracks 16 ("Aquarius") and 17 ("Good Morning Starshine") on the Off-Broadway cast CD, sung so far off-pitch that you'll gasp; Jill O'Hara, infamous for her performance on the cast album of Promises, Promises, is the hapless soloist in "Starshine." According to a note from Tom O'Horgan, who came aboard as director when Hair transferred to Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, "Most of the original downtown cast lacked the qualities we needed" for the Broadway version. (Yeah -- like the ability to sing!)
In his notes on the bonus tracks -- notes that seem never to have passed an editor's desk -- series producer Daniel Guss writes that the recording of the Off-Broadway Hair "co-existed with the Broadway cast album for a few years, but soon was deleted and slipped into obscurity." Listening to the Off-Broadway album in its CD debut, one is tempted to add "...where it belonged!" The bonus tracks here consist of some songs cut from the album and a less-than-gripping interview with Galt MacDermot.
Another cast album recently given the "deluxe" treatment by RCA is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), and to say that it's more listenable than the Hair disc is a gross understatement. The recorded performances of Robert Morse as J. Pierrepont Finch, Charles Nelson Reilly as Bud Frump, and Rudy Vallee as J.B. Biggley are so vibrant that you'll almost feel as if they're performing live in your living room; happily, Morse and Reilly are just as delightful in the recent audio interviews that are included here as bonus material.
This recording has one glaring flaw, but I suppose it would have been too much to expect RCA to edit out the leading lady's singing voice and replace it with someone else's. For some reason that has remained inexplicable to record listeners for lo these many years, the role of Rosemary Pilkington in How to Succeed was given to one Bonnie Scott, who emits some of the coarsest, most charmless sounds ever set down on a Broadway cast album. One gets the impression that Scott relentlessly strains her vocal cords is an effort to project her voice, and perhaps the effect was less grating in the theater, but that's small consolation for those of us who have to suffer through her singing -- or skip her tracks -- when listening to the album. (If memory serves, Scott left How to Succeed due to pregnancy not that long after the show opened; one of her replacements was the fabulous Michele Lee, who went on to play the role in the film version.)
In sum, these two deluxe reissues are more satisfactory than the first batch from RCA, which consisted of Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oliver! There are no errors within the text of the Hair and How to Succeed packages to compare with the misspelling of the title character's name in Dolly! -- although, on the back of the Hair fold-out box, both of the discs inside are identified as the "Original Broadway Cast Recording." (Somebody left out the "Off-" in reference to the 1967 album.) The sound quality of the new transfers is first rate; some spurious reverb has been removed from How to Succeed and this gives the singers' voices more presence. Finally, environmentalists will be pleased to know that the CDs are contained not in plastic jewel cases but in cardboard.
If you're browsing in your local record store and you come across a London studio cast recording of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents masterwork West Side Story with an eye-catching red-and-white cover, DO NOT BUY IT! The best way to convey the awfulness of this album is to say that it's worse than the notoriously misguided 1985 recording that featured Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, and a bunch of other opera singers under the direction of Bernstein himself.
Available on the Warner Classics label, the London WSS is apparently a re-release of a 1993 recording that stars Michael Ball and Barbara Bonney as Tony and Maria. Among the other singers are LaVerne Williams as Anita and Christopher Howard as Riff. (In a major oversight, the "Somewhere" soloist is not identified; it sounds like it could be Bonney, but your guess is as good as mine.) The principals are backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus as conducted by Barry Wordsworth -- but if all of the above sounds good to you, please think twice. This is the most appalling recording of West Side Story score that has ever been foisted upon the public.
The chief offender is Ball, one of those sad individuals who possess an exceptional vocal instrument but have absolutely no idea of how to use it for good rather than evil. Perhaps partly because he logged time in such Eurotrashy musicals as Les Misérables and Aspects of Love, Ball has developed terrible singing habits. In WSS, he renders the words "know" and "vow" as "know-UHH" and "vow-UHH," and when he sings "Tonight there will be no morning star," the last word sounds like "staah-uh-EHHHH." His tasteless vocalizing is here exacerbated by the fact that he's desperately trying to sound like a New York teenager of the 1950s; instead, he ends up sounding like a Brit affecting the mannerisms of a Las Vegas lounge singer. You really have to hear this performance to believe it.
Just as bad as Ball, in her own way, is Williams. A mezzo with a cavernous register break, her performance as the earthy Anita is so affected and stuffy that it sounds like something you might find in a hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch about opera singers ruining great musicals. Howard and the other Jets are less objectionable, though their attempts to hide their British accents are amusing. The most successful of the soloists is Bonney -- none too surprising, as the role of Maria is the most "legit" in the score.
You might think that, at least, the orchestral cuts on this album would be okay -- but no. Many of Wordsworth's tempi are way off; the "Prologue" is lethargic and each section of the "Dance at the Gym" sequence is either a little too fast or a little too slow. I would say that this West Side Story is ready for landfill if I didn't know that the CD and its plastic jewel case are non-biodegradable.