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Just Take Those Old Records Off the Shelf

A CD tour of Broadway musicals circa 1914-1930 offers much to enjoy--and some modern parallels. logo

Irving Berlin
Bob Smith, the nice young law student, is invited to a weekend at Mrs. Van Alstyne's Long Island estate, where he is framed by the comic villains for the theft of the family jewels. This complicates his romance with Molly O'Malley, the feisty Tenth Avenue colleen trying to pass herself off as a Ruritanian countess, and necessitates a third act to restore Bob's good name. Such is the plot of that hit musical comedy, er...okay, I made it up. But it could be any of literally hundreds of musicals from 1914 to 1930. Two remarkable new 2-CD sets evoke this era in all its frivolous glory, offering us a clear view of what was wonderful about these shows--and what was atrocious. Wonderful wins out.

The albums Broadway Through the Gramophone Volumes III and IV (Pearl Gems 0084 and 0085) consist of medleys from hit, near-hit, and flop shows of the era, performed mostly by the "Victor Light Opera Company," a sort of Ray Coniff Singers of the day. Original cast albums didn't begin to be recorded in the U.S. until 1937 with The Cradle Will Rock (though London cast albums date back at least to 1903's Floradora), so these medleys are generally our best shot at sampling the sound of Broadway during a period of extraordinary innovation and prolificacy. Granted, the performances are a little impersonal, the orchestrations scaled down to suit a finicky monaural microphone. And the tempos are a little rushed; most medleys attempt to cram the highlights of an entire score into about six minutes, the maximum for one side of a 78 rpm LP. A few rate special treatment: Victor Herbert is allowed two sides to conduct his favorite among his scores, 1917's Eileen. (It's glorious.)

But even in this attenuated form, the medleys give off a strong whiff of the musical circa World War I and into the Roaring Twenties. Thanks to a digital clean-up, they sound better than ever, with previously undecipherable lyrics now quite audible. (This proves a mixed blessing when the lyrics run to "So tender the feeling that 'round me is stealing" or "When will your lips press to mine/When will you say I am thine?") A few impressions, after racing through 16 years of musicals in a little over five hours:

1) What richness! While even the better shows sport asinine librettos, their scores venture bravely into new forms. This is apparent as early as 1914's Watch Your Step, Irving Berlin's irresistible first score. The ragtime rhythms are bold and sassy, the slangy lyrics shorn of the stuffy European-operetta influences that dominated the prior decade. Berlin's next effort, 1915's Stop! Look! Listen!, has the same snap and impudence, while his 1925 score for The Cocoanuts, minus the Marx Brothers' anarchy, is pleasantly formulaic: the in-our-dear-little-nest duet ("A Little Bungalow"), the syncopated dance sensation ("Monkey Doodle Doo"), the two-four rouser ("Lucky Boy"), the exotic ballad ("Tango Melody"), and the scene-setting chorus ("Florida by the Sea"). Berlin's songs are the musical equivalent of Astaire's dances--so carefully wrought that they seem effortless, plucked out of the air.

But Berlin is hardly alone; this was an age of geniuses. Victor Herbert and Franz Lehar led the old guard, while the jazzy up-and-comers included Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Vincent Youmans, and, at the era's end, Cole Porter. On the operetta side, Friml and Romberg each turned out a show a year, give or take. Then there's the all-time champ in both quality and quantity: Jerome Kern. In 1917, Kern wrote half a dozen scores. Two are classics--Oh, Boy! and Leave it to Jane--and the others are filled with good things. It takes Sondheim, what, 10 years to get Wise Guys out of the gate?

Of course, we're dealing with different economics here, and different expectations. The 1920s musical was an evanescent entertainment, not written for posterity or the betterment of humankind. A show could break even on Broadway after a couple of months, then hit the road for a year, where the real money was to be made. That explains the sheer, unimaginable volume of product: some 50 new musicals in 1927 alone.

2) What variety! Consider the legendary winning streak of September, 1925, when No, No, Nanette, Dearest Enemy, The Vagabond King, and Sunny opened within a week of one another. That's two top-notch musical comedies, a lavish operetta, and something excitingly in-between (Dearest Enemy). And that's not to mention the intimate revues of the day (a genre not represented in this CD collection) or the spectacles, such as the Ziegfeld Follies (which does rate one medley, from its 1917 edition). Truly, there was something for everyone.

3) What plagiarism! In one little-remembered convention of the day, Broadway composers plundered classical or traditional melodies, changed the tempos, and passed them off as their own. It's startling to hear Chopin's "Minute Waltz" recycled into Irene's "Castle of Dreams," an Offenbach waltz turned into a fox trot, and even "Dixie" lifted by Kern for She's a Good Fellow's "Jubilo." (Who collected the royalties?) Finally, in an act of self-cannibalism that would do Lloyd Webber proud, Sigmund Romberg took his hit waltz from The Student Prince ("Deep in My Heart, Dear"), changed a few notes, and tossed it into the following season's Princess Flavia as "I Dare Not Love You." He fooled no one, and Flavia flopped.

4) What inept song-plugging! Often, the producers at Victor gave reprises and/or extra choruses to a score's perceived hit song, providing opportunities for some amusing Monday-morning quarterbacking. In the Rose Marie medley, "Indian Love Call" gets the bum's rush in favor of the little-known waltz "Door of My Dreams," while the Watch Your Step medley entirely omits "Play a Simple Melody." And what shortsighted person or persons expected Sunny's title song to sell more copies than "Who?"

5) What vapidity! Plenty of musicals by lesser lights are covered in this collection, too. Most are as lively and eager to please as spaniel pups, and about as brainless. Items like Jimmie (Herbert Stothart), Mary (Louis Hirsch), and Listen, Lester (Harold Orlob) teem with friendly melodies and catchy lyrics, but they're so lightweight, no wonder they're forgotten. The title song of Hirsch's The Rainbow Girl, on the other hand, is really lovely and deserves a new life.

But even the pedestrian musicals of the era are fun and charming, and that's why I've dwelt on the period for so many paragraphs. Let's turn off the time machine. What was the last new book musical comedy to be a real hit? City of Angels? Don't we deserve more? So many of today's musicals seem deeply embarrassed to be musicals, so they graft on an Important Message--e.g., America is racist, lynching isn't nice, Aida and Radames died so that two yuppies could meet at the Met. Musically, these shows dress up in opera garb, accessorizing with such finery as leitmotifs and basso ostinatos. Finally, to preclude any chance of confusion with musical comedy, contemporary shows often drain themselves of melody. While this formula will occasionally yield a worthy and memorable work, it will not sustain musical theater. We need our escape, too! That should go without saying; but coming off a season where we have had to sit through Marie Christine and two Wild Partys, maybe it doesn't.

Contrast the variety and output of, say, 1926-27 with that of the past season or three. Besides the works mentioned above, we've had dansicals (Swing!, Fosse, Contact), literary adaptations (James Joyce's The Dead), movies on stage (Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, High Society), and whats-its (The Civil War). Not a meritless list, but not one of overwhelming latitude--and certainly not one to tickle the funny bone.

Here's where the good news comes in: Next season looks like the busiest in a long while, and one of the widest ranging. No fewer than three out-and-out musical comedies are due (Seussical, The Full Monty, and The Producers), with more promised in the near future (The Witches of Eastwick, Moonstruck, Everything's Ducky). The 1980s legacy of literary-heavyweight adaptations continues on a smaller scale, with Little Women and Jane Eyre. The reign of the plotless, pointless song and/or dance revue appears to have peaked. Movie adaptations boast new scores, not pop recyclings. And, if we go back just a few seasons, we see that even operetta isn't dead these days. The Scarlet Pimpernel can be viewed as the bastard grandson of The New Moon and The Three Musketeers: lavishly appointed, lushly melodic, and born stupid.

In short, we may be on the brink of a new golden age. Not as rich as the 1910s or 1920s, maybe, but far more varied and interesting than the era that made Best Musical nominees of Starmites and Quilters. And who has the time to sit through 50 musicals in a season, anyway? Meanwhile, for a reminder of how good it can get, I suggest you revel in the five-hours-plus Broadway Through the Gramophone. And budget extra time: You'll want to hear a lot of this stuff twice.

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