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Fresh Fields

Dorothy Fields's lyrics for Up in Central Park and Arms and the Girl remain sharp and surprising -- and the music for these shows, by Sigmund Romberg and Morton Gould, is also pretty great. logo
From "Gee, I'd like to see you looking swell, baby" to "I don't pop my cork for every guy I see" is a long journey. And of the great theater wordsmiths, perhaps no one adapted to changing times as effortlessly as Dorothy Fields (1905-1974). A new Decca Broadway twofer CD catches her in mid-career, penning the lyrics to Sigmund Romberg's hit Up in Central Park (1945) and Morton Gould's miss Arms and the Girl (1950). While neither show looks likely for revival, both scores demonstrate how dazzling a lyricist Fields could be -- how creative, how ribald, how romantic yet unhackneyed.

Decca Broadway hasn't lavished any great effort on these shows' CD debuts -- but then, they're unlikely to reap any great profit from them. The packaging features the original covers and chirpy synopses from the original LP albums ("The love of these two young people runs smoothly until Rosie's head is turned by all the glitter of the easy, extravagant life resulting from corrupt politics.") There are a few nice photos and a concise essay on Fields by theater historian Mary Henderson. Typos abound: We're informed that Fields later collaborated with "Cy Colman," and that Arms and the Girl starred "Nannette Fabray." (No, no: Nanette!) Both recordings are missing important songs from these scores and Up in Central Park isn't really an original cast album: It features Wilbur Evans and Betty Bruce from the Broadway company but pulls in guest stars Eileen Farrell and Celeste Holm for key numbers. That's how Decca did things in the '40s, and it makes even the arrangements suspect. Are these the originals? Even the liner notes aren't sure.

Up in Central Park's book, by Fields and her brother Herbert, concerns the building of the park, Boss Tweed's political machine, a crusading Times reporter, and the girl he loves. But the show was really about (1) Mike Todd's checkbook, (2) a pointless but eye-filling Currier and Ives ballet, and (3) Sigmund Romberg's ringing return to form after nearly two decades of flops. Operetta was not growing old gracefully, and the spectacular success of Oklahoma! had all but killed the genre's fustian excesses while popularizing American themes and common-folk protagonists. Up in Central Park, then, is Romberg's attempt at new-style operetta, with plenty of musical-comedy liveliness and songs aimed squarely at the Hit Parade.

In this, he was helped immeasurably by Fields. The hit ballad, "Close as Pages in a Book," sounds pretty stiff by today's standards -- especially in Evans's stilted reading. But "April Snow," tenderly rendered here by Farrell, is musically intricate (I can't for the life of me figure out that bridge) and has a superb, sad lyric that has scarcely aged. "It Doesn't Cost You Anything to Dream" is an appealing foxtrot, "Carousel in the Park" and "The Big Back Yard" are ingratiating love letters to Manhattan (any song that starts, "I wanna sing about Central Park!" is okay by me), and "The Fireman's Bride" is a bawdy waltz -- somewhat oversold here by Holm but, again, lyrically top-drawer. "When You Walk in the Room" not only has Fields whimsically anthropomorphizing everything in sight -- "The dustpan dances with the broom" -- but actually coaxes some life out of the stolid Evans.

The choicest cut of all may be "Currier and Ives," omitted from the long-ago LP pressing. It's startlingly frank yet comic lyric quotes sly Lotharios who invite unsuspecting misses up to see their etchings: "We can rest our feet upon a / Pile of real Americana / And get cozy with a book of Plutarch's Lives!" Betty Bruce, later a Merman pal and Gypsy stripper, sings the song as if virginity is a distant memory and she doesn't care who knows it.

Arms and the Girl also fuses operetta and musical comedy, but the latter wins out. This was a musical version of a 1933 play, The Pursuit of Happiness, about a fervent but inept young patriot in 1770s Connecticut and the soldiers she "bundles" with (i.e., shares her bed with platonically in order to save firewood). It allowed Fabray to strut the stage in Revolutionary garb, show off her seldom-used but quite sturdy soprano in the operetta-ish "You Kissed Me," and introduce a pile of fetching showtunes. Morton Gould never had a Broadway hit -- his other major title is Billion Dollar Baby -- but, even in this attenuated cast album, it's clear that he knew what he was doing.

Consider "I Like It Here," the patriotic outburst of Franz, the Hessian defector who will become Fabray's love interest. Soaringly sung by Georges Guetary, it traverses confidently through a fanfare-heavy refrain, a Romberg-like waltz recounting Franz's old days in Heidelberg, and a march about the menace of Teutonic totalitarianism that sent him across the sea. Fields's liberty-loving lyric articulates standard mid-century jingoism but in nonstandard ways. "I've found here what I lost way over there," Franz rhapsodizes; "I've forgotten how to fear." Isn't that a fresh, non-showy way of celebrating democracy?

Guetary also gets the closest thing to a hit song, a bucolic ballad called (I'm not kidding) "A Cow and a Plough and a Frau." It's less twee than the title implies and rather pretty. Fabray's tunestack includes a solid, "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy"-type waltz called "That's My Fella" and an establishing character number, "A Girl with a Flame," that has another dandy Fields lyric ("My country calls / But gentlemen don't.") There's also a rowdy, double-entendre ensemble, "That's What I Told Him Last Night," wherein the soldiers' wives watch their husbands' military maneuvers while tartly commenting on their prowess (or lack of same) in love and war.

Pearl Bailey was a hot property coming off of St. Louis Woman and Inside U.S.A., so Arms and the Girl cagily snapped her up and cast her as a runaway slave. Or: They cast her as Pearl Bailey in the guise of a runaway slave. Her two comic numbers, "Nothin' for Nothin'" and "There Must Be Somethin' Better Than Love," show her off brilliantly and feature more fine Fields innuendo. (One line in "Somethin' Better" was slightly expurgated in the recording studio. It should be, "Oh ho, your knittin' and your cat / You know what you can do with that!") Bailey stole most of Arms and the Girl's notices, though they were generally good all around, with special praise for Michael Kidd's dances; the star's early departure may be one reason why the show ran only four months.

When you hear old scores this diverting, you don't know whether to be sad that they're virtually forgotten or glad that someone cared enough to re-release them. Park and, even more, Arms are grand testaments to Dorothy Fields's lyrical wit, precision, intricacy, and original ways of expressing emotions. By the way, this CD will be available online only though as of October 1, and Decca Broadway swears that it will be pulled forever after December 31. If folks buy it, they further hint, they may give similar treatment to other backlist titles. That would be inducement enough, but this disc stands on its own.

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