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Grand Dames

Harbinger Records gives us recorded gems from two Legendary Performers, Mabel Mercer and Susan Johnson. logo

Ken Bloom's Harbinger Records specializes in cabaret and musical theater releases that no sane capitalist label would touch. (Full disclosure: Ken is my friend. He'll be yours, too, when you hear these CDs.) Old, forgotten LPs, composers singing their own songs in thin voices, obscure cabaret performers honoring equally obscure writers--Harbinger is truly, to quote one of its recent CD titles, "The Land Where the Good Songs Go." To put it another way, what the Island of Misfit Toys was to misfit toys, Harbinger is to sophisticated singers of underexposed songs: a safe harbor for the unappreciated. Not that its artists are unloved; they're just not loved in sufficient number to prosper in a world ruled by Britneys and Eminems.

Many Harbinger releases are reissues, but the label's two newest CDs, inaugurating a "Legendary Performers" series, boast "previously unreleased live performances." Culled from early-1960s nightclub tapes and TV audio tracks, crisply cleaned up by engineer Kenneth Kantor, both deliver what they promise--particularly in the "legendary" department. One CD celebrates the first lady of cabaret and the other is a tour de force from the queen of '50s musical flops.

Mabel Mercer presents the cabaret doyenne doing 23 songs, and it's a typically idiosyncratic song list from a chanteuse who put a personal stamp on all her material. There are plenty of showtunes here, including the rarefied stuff that buffs love--"Days Gone By" from She Loves Me, "Merely Marvelous" from Redhead, ballads from Julius Monk revues--along with many non-theatrical titles. The authors of these numbers aren't household names but they are familiar to cabaret cognoscenti--names like Bart Howard, Alec Wilder, and Cy Walter. Mercer also prided herself on digging up minor material from major songwriters: One find here is "Isn't He Adorable?", a cute Cy Coleman pop tune with a daffy Joseph McCarthy lyric. Another is "Looking At You," a Cole Porter rarity that doesn't seem to be attached to any play or movie.

Long cited as a "singer's singer" (Frank Sinatra, for one, adored her), Mercer is an acquired taste. Her odd, quasi-Mayfair accent can be off-putting and her rolled r's hark back to a mannered performing style that was dated even in her prime. These relatively late-career recordings find Mercer's voice slightly frayed, and her penchant for teary sentimentality is unchecked: Listen to her pour it on in "When the World Was Young." Yet, though I have never been a huge fan, this disc won me over. Mercer wasn't really about beautiful tones anyway, so the vocal wear and tear don't mute her artistry much. Musically, she's honest and basic: She sings what the composer wrote. When the material calls for it, she can swing. And her lyrical mastery is complete. So confident is her delivery that when she fluffs a lyric, she sounds like she intended to fluff it.

Will Friedwald, in his smart liner notes, speaks of a "central irony" in Mercer's output: She was the last word in supper-club sophistication, yet her most memorable performances "are the ones in which she retrogresses to girlhood." In other words, without ever entirely submerging her identity, she's a considerable actress. Take a song like "Mira," from Carnival. Mercer is not the likeliest Lili and she never actually becomes the vulnerable teenage orphan pining for a home, but she infuses Bob Merrill's lyric with a girlish intensity that makes her entirely believable and moving on her own terms. Similarly, in "I Feel Pretty," Mercer's Maria may not be from Central Casting--but, dammit, she feels pretty! The giddiness and playfulness are real as she offers a fresh, valid take on a number that is usually performed by the numbers.

That's what much good cabaret singing is about--finding new meanings and shadings in well-worn material. In this, and in rescuing deserving songs from obscurity, Mercer was a master; her standing as a high priestess in the world of cabaret is secure. Susan Johnson, meanwhile, is such a cult figure that even showtune lovers may have a hard time placing the name. As even Johnson admits in a wonderful, revealing liner-note interview with TheaterMania's Peter Filichia, "I'm shocked when people remember who I am." But what her fan club lacks in number, it makes up for in ardor: Almost every time she's mentioned in print, she's "the great Susan Johnson." An old-style belter who could shift effortlessly to warm interpretations of ballads, Johnson had no trouble finding work in the booming Broadway of the '50s. Unfortunately, that work tended to be in disasters like Carnival in Flanders, Buttrio Square, and the infamous Whoop-Up. So, while Johnson's personal notices were invariably raves (she was a particular pet of Walter Kerr), there were frequent bouts with unemployment.

It's no surprise to learn from Filichia that Johnson understudied Dolores Gray in Carnival in Flanders, for their styles are similar: a smooth, secure belt, impeccable phrasing, and a brashness tempered with vulnerability. I'd hate to have to choose between the two, but movies and kinescopes reveal Gray to be rather calculated while Johnson is unfailingly sincere (or, at least, superior at maintaining the illusion). Luckily, most of Johnson's musicals were recorded, so her "Give It All You've Got" (from Oh, Captain!) and "Sad Was the Day" (Donnybrook!) are safe for posterity. But there are those of us for whom there simply cannot be enough Susan Johnson. Imagine a Callas fan discovering a hitherto-unknown live Tosca; that's what Harbinger's Susan Johnson is like for the faithful.

It's a short disc, about 45 minutes worth of material divided into "medleys" (individual songs, a minute or two each, followed by the skimpy applause of a tiny studio audience) devoted to Berlin, Loesser, Porter, Rodgers, and Donnybrook! composer-lyricist Johnny Burke. Johnson is in magnificent form, whether brash ("Always True to You in My Fashion") or reflective ("Sunday, Monday, or Always"). Earthiness is her default mode, so her "If I Were a Bell" and "I Can't Say No" come across as far dirtier than their original-cast performances. But, just as Ethel Merman could retreat into head voice and mutate from brassy dame to wounded romantic, Johnson has a second, huskier, understated sound for the quieter songs--and she's devastating in them. Listen especially to the ballads, written for other characters, from two of her shows: Donnybrook! and her one hit, The Most Happy Fella. Johnson's "Somebody, Somewhere" (from Happy Fella) is a master class in phrasing, breathing, and interpretation. But "He Makes Me Feel I'm Lovely" might well be her crowning achievement. Joan Fagan, on Donnybrook!'s long-out-of-print cast album, is lovely and assured, but Johnson combines superb vocalism with a wrenchingly heartfelt performance. It's one of those tracks you want to listen to again the instant you've finished it.

Johnson epitomizes one of Broadway's undersung glories: the hardworking second banana who never attains full stardom but is beloved by those in the know. In show after show, while the heroine was suffering whatever simple-minded, romantic, musical-comedy nonsense the script threw at her, the Susan Johnsons provided the ballast and brass. They landed the jokes, made the second-rate seem first-rate and made the first-rate immortal. Pulling magic out of a Carnival in Flanders can't have been easy, yet the reviews prove that Johnson succeeded. How lucky we are to have her back on disc, sounding splendid in a brief but rangy concert. And how reassuring to learn, via Filichia's interview, that she's not only still around but feisty as ever.

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