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Blow Out the Trumpets for Flahooley!

The musical that marked Barbara Cook's Broadway debut gets a new CD edition, and what a strange but appealing concoction it is. logo
Surveying the cast albums of the early 1950s, one quality that irks many listeners too young to have sampled the real thing is their lack of edge. Seventeen, Make a Wish, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Three Wishes for Jamie, even hits like Wish You Were Here and Fanny -- the characters come across as so darned nice by today's standards, the melodies so eager to tease the ear and worm their way into your brain, the philosophies so homey, the dramatic conflicts so resolvable.

May these shows never perish from the earth, says I; but for those who find them too namby-pamby, one title in the bunch has always stood apart. The 1951 Sammy Fain-E.Y. Harburg flop Flahooley was an unwieldy agglomeration of the nice and the unsettling, with conventional young lovers and the Bil Baird Marionettes on the one hand but anti-capitalism, anti-McCarthyism, and Yma Sumac on the other. Capitol Records' cast album, which probably grossed about two cents in its original release, quickly went out of print. It was sought by collectors for decades, made a welcome return to LP in the mid-1970s, turned up on an Angel CD in 1993, and then disappeared again. Now it's set to be reissued by DRG on March 23 just as original stars Barbara Cook and Irwin Corey are about to grace New York stages, she in another one-woman show at Lincoln Center and he -- at 92! -- in the Sly Fox revival. It's a propitious time to catch up with this barbed, tuneful, supremely bizarre relic from the Broadway of long ago.

The driving force behind the enterprise seems to have been Harburg, who was counting his royalties from Finian's Rainbow and pondering an encore. That 1947 smash didn't suffer for its leftist satire or its mixture of fantasy and realism, so he figured on concocting something similar but different. While Finian was laid down in bucolic, mythical Missitucky, Flahooley was set in industrial, mythical Capsulanti, Indiana, in the toy factory of B.G. Bigelow, Inc. Finian's co-librettist Fred Saidy returned; so, briefly, did composer Burton Lane (after Harold Arlen passed on it). Then Lane quit, Fain signed on, Harburg hired the untested Barbara Cook after one audition, Cheryl Crawford produced -- and trouble ensued.

Not at first; Flahooley was a hit in its Philadelphia tryout but what arrived in New York baffled many and angered others. So many elements were thrown onto the stage that Ken Mandelbaum's synopsis, reprinted from the 1993 CD release, strives vainly to make sense of the plot. Bigelow whiz kid Sylvester (Jerome Courtland) loves Sandy (Cook). He invents a laughing doll called Flahooley. Some Baghdad emissaries, including the glamorous Najla (Sumac), wander in with a broken magic lamp, begging Bigelow to repair it and restore enchantment to Araby. Bigelow's competitor, A.E.I.O.U. (and Sometimes Y) Schwarz, rolls out a cheaper doll identical to Flahooley. A stray genie (Corey) saturates America with Flahooleys, undermining the toy market. Sylvester is fired and the genie disappears. Iraqi-American relations crumble. Bigelow's storehouses collapse under the weight of all those Flahooleys. Yma Sumac wanders the stage, singing five octaves' worth of special material.

What the hell was going on? Critics couldn't puzzle it out and several went out of their way to slap Harburg for what they viewed as ungrateful anti-Americanism. Flahooley expired after 40 performances. Fortunately, record contracts were often ironclad in those days, so Capitol rolled out a cast album anyway. It's less than complete: Some extended musical scenes are badly trimmed (you can hear more comprehensive versions on the Koch CD Yip Sings Harburg) and Capitol refused to record the sardonic commercialism-of-Christmas carol, "Sing the Merry," whose final lines run: "And for Christ's sake, may this nation / Soon give Christmas back to Christ." (This, too, is available elsewhere, on Ben Bagley's E.Y. Harburg Rediscovered album.)

But what remains is tangy and distinctive, with helpful connecting dialogue and sound effects galore -- factory pistons and whistles, telephones, sirens, Flahooley herself. The opening number, "You, Too, Can Be a Puppet," overflows with Harburgian satirical whimsy as its singing marionettes mock television, psychoanalysis, the KKK, the Saturday Evening Post, Betty Grable...and that's just for starters. Then there's Cook, fresh off the train from Atlanta, delivering one of Fain's loveliest melodies (and one of Harburg's most characteristic lyrics), "Here's to Your Illusions." She writes in the CD liner notes of first-show jitters; she expected at any moment to be replaced but she needn't have worried. If her line readings are a little raw, her musical phrasing's exquisite and she partners well with the smooth baritone of Courtland, from whom more should have been heard. (They share another fine ballad later, "He's Only Wonderful.")

Ballads aside, there are big-business anthems here plus a witch-hunt march, paeans to childhood and springtime and magic, plot-forwarding lyrics like "One thing is suttin' / The market's gluttin' / The prices cuttin' / Way down to nuttin'" -- and, of course, plenty of Sumac. Her three solos, written by hubby Moises Vivanco, run way up and down pseudo-Arabian minor-key scales and the lyrics are roughly "Oy vavavaoy chwop chwop chwop" and other such utterances. Sumac is loony, indescribable, and inimitable; had Flahooley run, who on earth would have played her role in the national company?

One can certainly accuse Harburg of biting the democratic hand that fed him but Flahooley was ultimately concerned with pointing out inequities and foibles in the American system, not with bringing the country down. In the finale -- young lovers united, ailing genie recovered, Najla engaged to B.G. Bigelow -- Harburg took pains to celebrate America's ability to laugh at itself: "Show me a land where they gag every gag and they choke every joke with chains / And I'll show you a land without Donald Ducks and a land without Mark Twains." Thanks to the re-release of Flahooley, Harburg and Fain get the last laugh and we get a bracingly odd, 40-minute cast album.

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