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Small Wonder

Filichia has big praise for Neva Small's new CD, "My Place in the World." logo
Now, you have to understand that I'm the type of guy who bought a Sergio Franchi album back in 1967 because it contained one song from Sherry! -- for that show didn't run long enough to warrant an original cast album. The same year, I bought a Lana Cantrell album because it had two songs from Breakfast at Tiffany's -- which also failed to yield a cast album. So imagine how I felt this morning when I got a CD that sports two songs from The Prince of Grand Street, two more from Something More, and one each from Show Me Where the Good Times Are and F. Jasmine Addams. Yes, the album of the year for me is Neva Small's My Place in the World, which at least gives us a hint of what those unrecorded musicals were like.

Small was in all of them. The title of her album comes from a song that she sang in The Prince of Grand Street, the 1978 tuner that played Philadelphia but died in Boston. Take it from one who saw the show's gypsy run-through before it left for its tryout: Small tore down the house as the wife of a Yiddish theater star, well-played by Robert Preston, proclaiming that she was "A Girl with Too Much Heart" before finally realizing that being by Nathan's side was "My Place in the World."

"Bob Merrill wrote the role for me," Small told me last week. He certainly knew what she could do since, in 1967, she had appeared in his musical Henry, Sweet Henry, as Don Ameche's would-be girlfriend. "Both my parents told me that the show's choreographer -- Michael Bennett -- was going to amount to something," she says. "When he directed Twigs, they even invested in it." Small opens the album with a song that she didn't do in the show, "Here I Am." But that title makes for a good introduction, so she and producer Walter Willison were wise to use it as the first cut.

In fact, the album includes many songs that weren't originally performed by Small. When she played the eccentric but lovable F. Jasmine Addams in the 1971 musical version of The Member of the Wedding, she and the boy playing John Henry backed-up maid Berenice when the lady sang about "Peach Ice Cream." Now, Small gets the whole song. (That score, incidentally, was by G. Wood, the actor who'd recently appeared in three films with sensibilities that couldn't be more removed from Carson McCullers: M*A*S*H*, Brewster McCloud, and Harold and Maude). And while Small appeared in the Kennedy Center premiere of Mass in 1971, she didn't sing "I Go On" then -- but she does now. And Lord knows that Tevye, not she, sang "When Messiah Comes" in Fiddler -- though even he didn't get to do it in the Broadway production or the film version, in which Small played Chava. The tune was dropped in Detroit but I'm glad she included it on her CD. You can never have enough recordings of this gem.

Actually, the title song from Show Me Where the Good Times Are -- the 1970 musical update of The Imaginary Invalid that played the Edison for 29 performances -- wasn't written for that show. Composer Ken Jacobson and lyricist Rhoda Roberts wrote it for Hot September, the 1965 musical version of William Inge's Picnic that played the Shubert Theatre in Boston and went no further. But you can't expect Small to know this bit of information because, at the same time that Hot September was dying, she was very busy across the street at the Wilbur Theatre in her first big role: the younger daughter in The Impossible Years, with Alan King.

Small has continued to appear here and there, such as in the Off-Broadway show "Golden Land"; that score is represented by "Cigarettes" on the album. But, years ago, she decided to concentrate on her marriage and motherhood. "I married my dermatologist," she says with a bemused smile, then divulges that she had to make many an appointment before he asked her out. "Five years," she moans.

But Dr. Fred Fenig had a hand in this album. As Small's biggest fan, he cherished the recordings she'd done over the years; so when producer Willison encouraged Small to compile an album, she had a head start with those cuts from years ago. They include a jazz-flavored rendition of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" with Dizzy Gillespie and "Portrait," an Amanda McBroom song. "I met Amanda while we were doing a Hoagy Carmichael revue, Hoagy-Bix, at the Mark Taper Forum," Small reports. There's a song from that revue, "Riverboat Shuffle," on the album, too.

Neva Small
While Small drew the line at including a song or two from her the 1971 one-nighter Frank Merriwell or the 61-performance Something's Afoot of 1976, the album does pay homage to her Broadway debut, when she portrayed the daughter of Barbara Cook and Arthur Hill in the 15-performance 1964 flop Something More. That show had music by Sammy Fain, who could write good scores (Flahooley) and not-so-good ones (Ankles Aweigh), and lyrics by a now-famous team that was just starting out: Marilyn and Alan Bergman. Small does "You Gotta Taste All the Fruit," which you may very well have already heard. In what has to be the most bizarre crossover from theater to film ever, the song showed up five years later in the 1969 disaster Myra Breckinridge. (Good Lord, hadn't it suffered enough? Did it have to be heard in a movie that's routinely listed among Hollywood's all-time worst?) If you own a copy of the movie -- and I'll bet that many of my readers do! -- you already have Mae West's rendition of this number. But I'm sure you won't find it hard to believe that Small's version is vastly superior, for she doesn't sound deceased when she does it. (Apologies to Jo and Charlie, the two most devoted fans of that Dirty Blonde, but I speak the truth.)

Yet it's the other song from Something More, "I Feel Like New Year's Eve," that made me take my eyes off treacherous New Jersey Turnpike traffic to press the "Repeat" button on my car CD player. Risking life and limb for this jaunty number was well worth it. What a discovery! Fred Barton's orchestration is wonderful, too. But here's the thing: According to Ken Bloom's American Song, "I Feel Like New Year's Eve" does have a lyric by the Bergmans but the melody was provided by no less than Jule Styne, who, believe it or not, directed Something More! The moment I learned this, I nodded emphatically. The melody indeed does sound like Jule Styne -- not first-class Jule Styne, mind you, but certainly first-tier second-class Styne. How nice to have a "new" Styne song 40 years after the fact.

The notes in the CD booklet credit the melody to Fain. "Frankie [Fain, Sammy's son] tells me that he wrote it," Small relates while giving me a look that says, "I'm just a singer; you can be the historian." Yes, she sure is a singer, and how well she cooks up this baker's dozens of songs. Neva Small continues to possess a real theater voice, and there's no greater compliment than that.


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

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