DAMES AT SEA SAILS TO LONDON
By Peter Filichia
There have been 1,025 recordings of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” 1,604 renditions of Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s “Star Dust” and over 2,200 covers of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
But there have been precious few recordings of “Good Times Are Here to Stay,” the marvelous cheer-up song that’s the Act One closer of Dames at Sea.
Chances are that you only have one in your collection: Track Eight (or, to LP collectors, the last song on Side One) on the original off-Broadway cast album. The recording was released soon after this coming-out-of-nowhere show was extraordinarily received on December 20, 1968. The reception given this good-natured spoof certainly allowed co-star David Christmas to have an extra-special Christmas that year.
Mr. Christmas played a sailor named Dick – read: Powell, star of such ’30s movie musicals 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Flirtation Walk, Shipmates Forever, Colleen and – of course – Dames.
As Christmas’ co-star we had the up-and-coming Bernadette Peters, delicious as Ruby — read: Keeler, who co-starred with Powell in all seven of the above-named films. In Dames at Sea, a naïve native of Centerville, Utah named Ruby arrives in New York and proclaims, “I’m a dancer, I just got off the bus, and I want to be in a Broadway show!” Mirabile dictu, she does just that by the end of the day – and in the starring role, no less.
Needless to say, Ms. Peters took a little longer to achieve such stardom. She needed even more than the matter of weeks Ms. Keeler required in 42nd Street. But Peters certainly did it.
We can be grateful that Dames at Sea headed into the recording studio soon after opening and didn’t wait until June, 1969 when Peters left the show. Otherwise, we’d be hearing her replacement, one Pia Zadora as Ruby. She only stayed for a month. Was Zadora an interim replacement? Did she quit? Was she canned? As Jerry Herman wrote in La Cage aux Folles, “Who knows? Who knows? Who knows?”
Before 1969 came to a close, a London production of the surprise hit opened in the West End and was recorded. And while I won’t pretend that it became as rare as the limited-release soundtrack album of the TV special that aired in 1971 (Ann-Margret was Ruby to Harvey Evans’ Dick), the London Cast Album has never been available on compact disc or available for download – until now.
It’s not a precise replication of the original cast album, which is what makes it refreshing. Just as alternative-universe novelist Harry Turtledove has given us new takes on what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War II or if the South had emerged victorious in the Civil War, a London cast album gives us an alternative universe- experience.
For one thing, there are different orchestrations, courtesy of music man Bill Shepherd. For another, an all-British cast plays the seven roles – although you’d never know it. That the British are so adept at replicating American accents and not revealing their roots is truly amazing. Only a very rare few betray that they’re from, say, Hertford, Hereford or Hampshire. You’ll find this the case in this Dames at Sea.
Sheila White is enchanting in the role that made Peters a star. How wonderfully tender she sounds when falling in love at first sight with Dick (Blayne Barrington, a British name if I’ve ever heard one). Their duet “It’s You” is great nostalgic fun, for it lists no fewer than twenty-six celebrities of the era, from Amos ‘n’ Andy to Bert Wheeler.
White makes us believe that she’s found “The Sailor of My Dreams” before Dick hooks up with big star Mona Kent (Joyce Blair) – only professionally, but Ruby doesn’t know that. Hence, she soon feels that it’s “Raining in My Heart.” Need I tell you that the misunderstanding is solved in short order? If not, how could a song called “Let’s Have a Simple Wedding” follow only four tracks later?
Before that, there’s another conflict. The musical that Dick wrote for Mona – called Dames at Sea, natch – finds that the theater in which it’s to play is meeting the same fate that would face Dimitri Weismann’s showplace in 1971: demolition. Despite this roadblock, Ruby’s sudden best-friend Joan (Rita Burton) insists that “Good Times Are Here to Stay.” Certainly original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick knew that composer Jim Wise as well as co-lyricists George Haimsohn and Robin Miller had a winner with this one, for he made it the first song featured in the overture.
Dick and his shipmate Lucky (William Ellis) convince The Captain (Kevin Scott) that he provide a new home for Dames at Sea. He agrees, making it arguably the first cruise ship musical. Good times were indeed here to stay.
They’re still offered on this album. In “Choo-Choo Honeymoon,” Burton and Ellis put a little extra flavor into the phrase “gettin’ in soon” to almost make it a double entendre. Barrington is an especially strong singer, so Dick’s songs come across vibrantly. Blair is a snazzy Mona Kent, especially in “Wall Street,” the show’s opening number. In other words, this “Wall Street” does not lay an egg.
All right, so if the London Dames at Sea is so terrific, why did it run a scant 127 performances in the West End, not even approaching a quarter of the off-Broadway engagement? One explanation could be that the ‘30s movies the show spoofed weren’t seen nearly as much in England as they were here in the United States. The reason isn’t simply that they were Hollywood projects aimed for an American audience. Remember that London has traditionally had far fewer TV channels than the states did, so there weren’t nearly as many opportunities for Dick-and-Ruby movies to play on The Late, Late Show. So Londoners might have taken the takeoff at face value, not realizing that Haimsohn and Miller’s libretto was a sendup.
And yet, now barely a week goes by when there isn’t a production in some part of the United Kingdom. One 1989 production in Eastburne, England even got its own recording – the third jewel of the triple crown.
Plans are afoot for a Broadway production of Dames at Sea under the guidance of Randy Skinner, who did a good deal of the choreography for the original 42nd Street when Gower Champion was falling increasingly ill. The workshop that Skinner staged last year with Laura Osnes as Ruby, Rachel York as Mona and John Bolton as The Captain was sensational. Dare we hope for another alternate recording of Dames at Sea? In the meantime, this 1969 London Cast disc will do quite nicely.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.