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Johnny One-Note

The cast album of Johnny Guitar reveals a tuneful, clever, and lively score — but, on CD, a little camp sensibility goes a long way.

The 1954 Trucolor oater Johnny Guitar pits a glowering Joan Crawford against a snarling Mercedes McCambridge in a to-the-death struggle for supremacy in a one-horse Southwestern town, barely suppressing the story’s lesbian undertones even as the film climaxes with the two butch ladies squaring off for the affections of Sterling Hayden. Laced with Freudian symbolism and anti-McCarthy subtext, the movie is a cult classic with scarcely a sane moment — but whatever convinced Joel Higgins (music and lyrics), Martin Silvestri (music), and Nicholas van Hoogstraten (book) that this was good source material for an Off-Broadway musical?

If the prime requisite for successful musical storytelling is outsize emotions, Johnny Guitar has them in spades — along with a colorful setting, convention-flouting characters, and a spare plot that’s easily enough boiled down to a few dramatis personae and a single set. The trouble is, not one of those outsize emotions isn’t synthetic. And that might be why Johnny Guitar, the cast album of which has just been released on what appears to be no label, managed a run of only a couple of months at the Minetta Lane last spring. Certainly, camp musicals drawn from old-movie sources can succeed and endure: e.g., Little Shop of Horrors and Dames at Sea. The difference is that those shows have immense affection for their protagonists and an underlying sweetness that leavens all the genre-mocking. From its tumbling-tumbleweed opening to its woozy title-song-reprise finale, Johnny Guitar is a pure campfest, diverting and clever but grounded in no real emotion. The CD offers the listener plenty to chuckle at and hum, but the heart is left high and dry.

That’s too bad, because Silvestri and Higgins are smart, able writers. The two collaborated previously on The Fields of Ambrosia (1996), an ambitious contemplation on capital punishment, xenophobia, and confused American values. Starring Higgins (also a performer, whose superb musical-comedy baritone is usually heard in replacement casts) and Christine Andreas, that uneven but sometimes thrilling work opened in the West End to lacerating reviews but left behind an intriguing cast album. Its hostile reception seems to have scared the collaborators away from crafting material of any substance: In Johnny Guitar, they cling to pastiche as if it were a life raft. Mustn’t drift too near anything real, they seem to be thinking — the critics may roast you for it.

None of this is meant to say that the JG recording is an unpleasant listen. Higgins is an unadventurous but deft lyricist, pouring ideas and images galore into ’50s-pop-song molds. He sets up rhyme schemes that he can’t always honor (“She was a woman / Who got what she wanted / From no man / She’d ever confronted”), and he’s sometimes guilty of sloppy accenting (“There’s an END to this INsaniTY”). But at a time in musical theater writing when tunefulness and traditional forms seem to be mistakenly equated with triteness, it’s refreshing to hear mostly well-crafted words set to infectious pseudo-Western melodies of the sort that Patsy Cline or the early k.d. lang would have relished. The title song and “Old Santa Fe” are evocative story ballads; “Branded a Tramp” offers good, lowdown proto-feminist commentary; and “Tell Me a Lie” is the kind of overheated, whimpering ’50s plaint that Johnnie Ray or Frankie Laine might have covered. Silvestri’s and Higgins’ melodies are neat, strong, and singable, and they also allow for some pretty fancy Tejano guitar-picking.

But does anything in this retro tunestack really stir the soul? The closest the authors come is “Welcome Home,” a warm, mellow ballad sympathetically rendered by Judy McLane. As Vienna — the Joan Crawford role, a tough-as-cowhide roadhouse entrepreneuse — McLane spends far more time whipping her forceful alto up into a foam of faux-frenzy than wrapping it around the honest sentiment that this one number allows. As her nemesis, the spiteful Emma, Ann Crumb is a throaty, dykey hoot but similarly insincere. From her first track, a tornado of ’50s fury called “Who Do They Think They Are?”, Crumb overplays with giggle-inducing zest. “Of course I was right!” she wails, “but you wouldn’t listen!” (Same inflection.) “None of you!” (Same.) In this limited vein, she’s super, as is Steve Blanchard in the title role — part-Elvis, part-Vaughn Monroe.

It’s a short CD, with less than 40 minutes’ worth of material, and that’s just as well; by the time Vienna and Johnny are wrapping up “We’ve Had Our Moments,” the camp sensibility has long since worn out its welcome. Silvestri and Higgins are talented writers and I hope their next effort is a big hit. The Fields of Ambrosia notwithstanding, they may fare better serving up something heartfelt, which Johnny Guitar is not. We know that the ’50s begat plenty of overripe, unwittingly hilarious entertainment — but how much point is there to spending a whole evening, or a whole CD, razzing it?

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Johnny Guitar

Closed: May 16, 2004