My recent experience with Jason Alexander has had me repeatedly playing the cast album of JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY. I’ve particularly savored Alexander and company in one of Broadway’s greatest opening numbers: “Comedy Tonight.”
Its lyric – “Baritones and basses” – started me thinking about Broadway’s best in those categories. There are plenty who could come to mind, but you’ll be surprised to hear that the one I thought of first was Michael Kermoyan.
When the excellent studio recording of ON THE TOWN was released in 1961, there was a serious omission in the liner notes. The identity of the performer who sang “I Feel Like I’m Not out of Bed Yet” was not disclosed. For years, the oversight haunted Jane Klain, The Paley Center’s Senior Associate of Library & Guest Services. Back in the 1990s, she asked me if I could identify the voice; I couldn’t, but I told her that I’d ask my readers.
One knew: Kenneth Kantor, who would soon spend a good deal of his life performing in the Broadway production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. He was certain the voice belonged to Kermoyan, who’d appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, starting with THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS and continuing with CAMELOT and THE HAPPIEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, among others. (He was best known for occasionally playing the lead in THE KING AND I on Broadway and elsewhere.)
Kantor’s knowledge allowed Klain to track down more information, and indeed she found that Kermoyan did get that ON THE TOWN off to a terrific start.
This week, I got in touch with Kantor to learn more about baritones and basses. Like the King in ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, he had a lot to say.
“The reason I admired Kermoyan so much,” he said, “is because he was a very rare bird: a real bass who actually sang bass in principal roles. But baritones are far more common animals in musicals. Robert Weede (of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA fame) comes to mind: a baritone who vocalized up to the tenor range.”
“Alfred Drake was a pure baritone,” he said. To me, the key word is “pure,” because the sound he gave on cast albums is pure heaven.
Although Drake was the original Curly in OKLAHOMA! in 1943, he really came into prominence with KISS ME, KATE in 1948 and KISMET in 1953. For the former, he shone on the romantic ballads (“So in Love” and “Were Thine That Special Face”), but my favorite moment comes in the up-tempo “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” As he catalogues all the women he’s romanced, he asks “Where are you, Alice?” with such a comic emphasis on “Alice,” you might assume that someone else came in to sing the word.
Something similar happens in KISMET’s “Rhymes Have I,” in which Drake bragged that he could match the right word for any sound. Proving his ability to his daughter – who feeds him crutch, look and vagrant – he deftly and assuredly uses that strong baritone to rebut with clutch, hook and fragrant. However, when she offers “dromedary” and he just as staunchly says “Very hairy,” she asks in astonishment, “Very hairy?!?!” To which he amusingly mews an apology: “Very sorry.”
Musical theater enthusiasts know Drake from those two albums, but many don’t know KEAN, which would have run longer if the baritone had been healthy. Here, too. Drake delivers a bolt-of-lightning showpiece in “Sweet Danger,” a lovely ballad in “Elena” and a funny bit in “Civilized People,” where two women are fighting over him while he’s trying to make them stop.
Co-starring with Drake in KISMET was Richard Kiley. Kantor describes him as “a utility baritone who primarily acted and sang what was requested.” But here’s the fascinating part that Kantor added: “Kiley was pushed up to tenor in KISMET because Drake didn’t want two baritones in the show.”
As for John Raitt, Kantor described him as “a baritone with a tenor extension.” True, Raitt didn’t do many musicals on Broadway, but he certainly was the leading man of two classics. Hear him on the cast album of THE PAJAMA GAME (and see him in the film version), where he introduced “Hey There,” which probably would have won a Best Song Tony if the category had existed.
More significantly, though, in 1945 Raitt introduced what many (including me) consider to be the greatest achievement in a Broadway score: “Soliloquy” from CAROUSEL. What’s amazing is that 20 years later, Raitt reprised his role in a Lincoln Center production whose cast album showed that he then had an even better command of the mammoth seven-minutes-plus, one-person musical scene.
Kantor also said that Jerry Orbach and George Hearn, who have been known to deliver lyrics in both a baritone and bass voice, “defied categorization.”
Still, whatever Orbach was, he can be heard to good advantage in CHICAGO and 42nd STREET. As for the former, I’ll always remember what happened at Amy Weinstein’s StudentsLive presentation, which brought schoolkids into the Shubert to see and hear a few numbers from the Kander and Ebb revival.
Roxane Carrasco, then playing one of the “Cell Block Tango” murderesses, mentioned that CHICAGO’s original production starred Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach. One boy turned to his friend and exclaimed, “Jerry Orbach?!” When he got a squint of confusion from his buddy, the lad shook his head as if to clear it before he came to the conclusion that the actor he was seeing on Law & Order just couldn’t possibly be the same guy.
Hearn is best known for his Tony-winning performance in LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, where he alternated between playing Albin, husband to club owner Georges, and Zaza, the boite’s drag queen extraordinaire. Hearn used his masculine baritone in every song – even the one in which he was Zaza and delivered Jerry Herman’s delightful title tune.
Robert Goulet, Kantor insisted, was “a lazy baritone who was frightened to sing very high.” No argument from me, but Goulet can be heard to great advantage in CAMELOT. Has anyone bettered him in the lyric “when fall nips the air” in “If Ever I Would Leave You”? You can actually hear the nip from the way he delivers that word.
He won a well-deserved Tony for THE HAPPY TIME. Right from the first cut – the title song – when he sings “What a happy time!” you know you’re going to get one.
No surprise that Kantor would include Ron Holgate in the list of fine baritones, given that he had ample time to hear him in the 1979 musical THE GRAND TOUR, in which they both appeared. Holgate sang in seven of Jerry Herman’s songs, with two solos (including the glorious “Marianne”) and an exhilarating duet with Joel Grey: “You I Like,” which made us like – nay, love – both of them.
Moving into the current era, Kantor had nice things to say about baritones Brian Stokes Mitchell and Norm Lewis. The former made them hear him in RAGTIME, especially in his “Wheels of a Dream” duet with Audra McDonald. As for Lewis, Kantor also bestowed the adjective “pure” for his baritone, as we can hear in SIDE SHOW, where he warned the conjoined Hilton Sisters not to leave the side show in favor of vaudeville because “The Devil You Know (Beats the Devil You Don’t).”
As for basses, Kantor said that Robert Preston – a Tony-winner not only for THE MUSIC MAN, but also I DO! I DO! – “sang in that range.” So too, he said, did Bruce Yarnell, best known for duetting with Ethel Merman in “An Old Fashioned Wedding” in the 1966 revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.
Kantor admitted that selecting which performers are baritones and which are basses “is a game you’ll never win. Call someone a baritone, and people will point out low notes to prove you’re wrong; call one a bass, and people will point to their high notes.”
That probably wouldn’t be the case with the 1980-81 Tony-winning performer who sang “One of the Boys” in WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Lauren Bacall, on her final note, showed she could be the basest of the basses.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon. He’ll be teaching Master Classes on Lerner and Loewe on July 11 and 18. Sign up at TheBroadwayMaven.com.”