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On the Street Where Holmes Lives

The CD debut of the Baker Street cast album prompts Filichia to analyze the score. logo
Some shows start with an overture; some don't. But Baker Street, a musical that opened on Broadway 41 years ago this week, had an overture but didn't start with it. The curtain rose on a book scene (by Jerome Coopersmith) in which Sherlock Holmes (Fritz Weaver) thwarted his assassination. After this, the curtain descended, and only then did the overture start. Flamboyant producer Alexander H. Cohen wanted his show to stand out from all the other musicals, and this was one way of doing that.

That was my first recollection while listening to the newly released Decca Broadway CD of Baker Street, originally an MGM Record. I remembered that the overture's first five notes are identical to a quintet of notes in "Josephine" in Silk Stockings, though Don Walker's orchestration offered a more ominous sound to suggest the exciting experiences that Holmes and Professor Moriarty (Martin Gabel) would have. The show's music and lyrics were written by Raymond Jessel (who's still around, doing a cabaret act) and Marian Grudeff (who's also still around but is not doing a cabaret act). People often had a problem pronouncing Grudeff's last name, so she helpfully said, "Think of someone who's lost his hearing: He 'grew deaf.' " Joshua Logan, the original Baker Street director before Hal Prince came in, once told her that Emlyn Williams had asked him about "Marian Wentblind."

The two provided an almost always enjoyable if never brilliant score. Holmes's first number, "It's So Simple," has little melody but accomplishes that much-sought-after musical theater goal of moving the action forward in song. But ending the song with Holmes saying "It's elementary" wasn't a good idea. If you're musicalizing someone who has a famous catchphrase, use it later in the show; don't rely on it to set up the character. Notice that Annie doesn't say "leapin' lizards" until her musical is almost over. Similarly, Ben Franklin quips "We must all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately" very late in 1776. Had he said this in an early scene, we'd roll our eyes.

The two songs for the Baker Street Irregulars are highly irregular. "Leave It to Us, Guv" -- wherein the merry band of Holmes-helpers assure their master that they're on the case -- suffers because the song often stops dead in its tracks to accommodate dialogue. Didn't anyone think of underscoring? That would have made the number more fluid and exciting. Worse is "Roof Space." Would you ever expect a song about space on a roof? The reason: Someone had the idea to show Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Parade not with chorus guys walking along the stage but from a high-above perspective, with Bil Baird Marionettes playing those soldiers on the far-below street. This became the most publicized aspect of the show.

Or maybe that honor goes to "A Married Man," which Watson sings when he and Holmes are tied to chairs in front of Moriarty's ticking bomb. An irrelevant song about the joys of marriage at this point? Ah, but showman Cohen put on his thinking cap and got his leading man from the previous season's Hamlet -- one Richard Burton -- to make a recording of it for release as a single. The implication was that he was singing about his own wife, then the world's biggest star: Elizabeth Taylor. Burton's spoken rendition, included as a bonus track, is fun. (An extraneous instrumental bonus track is not.)

Inga Swenson played actress Irene Adler, who wants to insinuate herself into Holmes's life. During Baker Street's Boston tryout, "I'll Do It Again" was Irene's first song, but by the time the show reached New York, it had become her last. Into its original slot went show doctors Bock and Harnick's "I'm in London Again," which I sing every time I'm in London again. Swenson got a nice showcase in "Letters," in which Irene catalogues her admirers from Bohemia, the American West, and England before offering a surprise ending that -- congratulations to Jessel and Grudeff once again -- moves the plot forward. Swenson also got the show's Big Ballad, "Finding Words for Spring." Golden Age musicals often reprised their Big Melodies, but this one did so in a subtler way than most: In "Pursuit," as Holmes tried to concentrate on catching Moriarty, he heard Irene's voice singing this song.

The score's highlight is "What a Night This is Going to Be," a real "show song" that also gets points for -- yes! -- moving the plot forward. Holmes and Adler start out as themselves and wind up disguised. The lyric-crafting could be better, though; when Adler begins the refrain with "I was mad to say yes / But I'm glad, nonetheless," you're primed to hear the first two lines rhyme every time. The next go-round, though, Holmes sings "So it's off to the hunt / in a few minutes' time." Hey, what happened to the rhyme scheme? Immediately following this is a dreary song. No, not "Dreary" (a song that Holmes lost in Boston), but Moriarty's "I Shall Miss You, Holmes." Writing a song for a villain is never easy, but one expected more from Bock and Harnick. Still, Harnick provided a great closing line that's well worth the wait. (The Grudeff-Jessel song that this one replaced, "A Veritable Work of Art," made each audience member wish he grew deaf.)

"Jewelry" is a rousing 11 o'clocker but it's sung by people we haven't met before, which undercuts the number's power. And that's where the recording ends. You'd think there'd be a final cut that wraps up the case and tells us what happened to Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty, but no. I'll bet if one of the major cast album producers of the day -- Goddard Lieberson, George Marek, Dick Jones -- had recorded this show, we'd have such a cut. But MGM wasn't a regular player in the cast album field, and this album's producer didn't know that providing such a capper is, well, elementary.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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