ETHAN MORDDEN’S CHATS WITH YOU ABOUT CDs By Peter Filichia
In a way, the title of my own just-released tome – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – could almost serve as the title of Ethan Mordden’s new book.
He’s called it BROADWAY MUSICALS ON CD: A CONVERSATIONAL GUIDE. Nevertheless, be prepared to debate, dispute, disagree – as well as wholeheartedly concur – with the most perceptive and wittiest of all musical theater observers.
Your first dispute or disagreement may come when you see what compact discs Mordden has omitted: BLOOD BROTHERS, DAMES AT SEA, WILDCAT and dozens of others. “Yes, you will miss some of your favorites,” he concedes at the outset, “but the book is long enough as it is.”
And how many pages does the pleasantly plump book sport? Hard to say, for there’s no pagination. Mordden could argue that it’s alphabetically arranged, so page numbers aren’t truly necessary. So, as Mordden offers as many opinions as CHICAGO has had performances — I mean the original production, which ran slightly fewer than 1,000 – you’ll easily find SHOW BOAT’s 12 full pages, PARADE’s entire paragraph on “Pretty Music” and HOW NOW, DOW JONES’s dismissal in 21 words (an opinion with which I’ll dispute, debate and disagree).
Yet I’m in total agreement with his evaluation that “I Could Get Married Today” in SEVENTEEN “absolutely demands an encore.” Ditto that Scott Bakula and Bernadette Peters’ rendition of “With So Little to Be Sure Of” on the 1995 Carnegie Hall ANYONE CAN WHISTLE “is more beautiful than on” the original cast album. Indeed, Andrew Lippa had one of “his sauciest inspirations” when writing “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” for THE WILD PARTY. (When I saw the musical, Alix Korey hadn’t even reached the 14-second mark yet I knew that I’d be applauding like crazy in a few minutes.)
So Mordden likes DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, MY LIFE WITH ALBERTINE and NAUGHTY MARIETTA more than I. So what? Let’s appreciate that he goes to bat for the underdog: FIRST IMPRESSIONS is “one of the best – classy and theatrical” of musicals that didn’t succeed; THE GIRL IN PINK TIGHTS is “the Sigmund Romberg show that doesn’t sound like Sigmund Romberg.” (That might even get someone to buy it.) What he writes about PACIFIC OVERTURES surprises – not his assessment that it’s “one of the best albums of all time” but that “Someone in a Tree” is “a toe-tapper of irresistible appeal.”
(He does, however, rhetorically ask “Is it embarrassing to say this?”)
You have to expect that he’ll rupture a sacred cow or two. BELLS ARE RINGING “second-rate”? I dispute! Judy Holliday’s first and last numbers alone belie that.
When Mordden wants you to hear it a certain moment of a song, he
specifically tells you where it appears on the recording. So you’ll learn that 28 seconds into “Wedding Celebration” in THE GRAND TOUR, “one line about the color of a certain piece of headgear brought the house down every time.” For OUT OF THIS WORLD’s “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” he’ll send you to 2:52 to hear “the most risqué joke Cole Porter ever wrote.”
Fun facts include that Laurence Guittard, NIGHT MUSIC’S original Carl-Magnus, is heir to an esteemed chocolate company. Mordden includes pithy quotations: Burton Lane, who composed ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER, predicted “This show is going to fail, but at least the album will sound good.”
(He was right on both counts.)
From his excellent series of 20th century musicals, we know that Mordden knows his history. He reveals that when FANNY’s closing death scene wasn’t working, the decision was made to play it for laughs, which delighted audiences and irked its stars. The title song of MISS LIBERTY made it into the Overture but nowhere else. Even those long familiar with CANDIDE may be surprised to learn that Pangloss actually means “loves it all.” And the next time we talk about Mr. Anderson, composer of GOLDILOCKS, we’ll know enough to call him “Le-ROY” and not “LEE-roy.”
He gets into musicology, too. Singers will be impressed to find that Alfred Drake “sinks to a low C” in KEAN’s “Civilized People.” On the other end of the spectrum, when Ken Page recorded AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, he “enters the Barbra Streisand Breath Control Contest with a long-held baritone’s high G.”
That’s just one example of how Mordden’s description of URINETOWN – “laugh-out-loud amusing” – applies to him, too. The way that he details a certain faded star’s unexpected comeback in NO, NO, NANETTE is “Helen Gallagher was finally let out of prison for having been the star of HAZEL FLAGG.” He complains that “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” in SAY, DARLING is “a real hymn,” and that “folks don’t buy original cast albums to hear hymns. That’s what school morning assemblies are for.” A NEW BRAIN’s Mary Testa is “as wild as a Tolkein forest,” and as for Joel Grey, he “always sounds to me like a very small child doing a presentation in his elocution class.”
His theory on why TWO’S COMPANY with Bette Davis ran only 90 performances is as funny as it is convincing: “Bette got to thinking about that luxurious Hollywood regimen of lounging in one’s trailer, modeling Orry-Kelly, and slapping Miriam Hopkins and she suddenly contracted that rare disease Quittitis.”
Mordden carefully tracks any CDs that have bonus tracks. The Broadway Deluxe Collector’s Edition of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF includes the dropped-after-Detroit “When Messiah Comes” sung by its lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Mordden details the song’s liabilities as well as its assets before deciding “it should be heard.”
He even occasionally comments on liner notes. (ONCE ON THIS ISLAND: “The booklet describes moment by moment Graciela Daniele’s imaginative staging.”) As for the pictures that accompany REX, Mordden states that “Barbara Andres is wearing period headgear that looks as if she was playing hide-and-go-seek and got stuck inside a cuckoo clock.” There’s that wit again …
The 25th anniversary studio cast album of PINS AND NEEDLES sported six singers, but it’s still available today because of Barbra Streisand’s participation. She, Mordden insists, is “wonderful in it, full of that easy instinct for comic inflection that she lost when glamorizing her style to suit Hollywood diva prestige.”
As Lena Horne sings in JAMAICA, “Ain’t it de truth?” And speaking of that one, Mordden praises its “expert engineering (that) makes the entire thing jump out of your speakers with a brilliance rarely heard” in one of his many comments on sound. He appreciates “the wonderful stereo of ‘One More Kiss’” in FOLLIES IN CONCERT and the way “Molly Picon traverses the sound stages through the speakers” in MILK AND HONEY.
Any book that deals with cast albums must include the words “Goddard” and “Lieberson” in honor of the eminence who helmed so many recordings for Columbia Records. His specialty, Mordden says, was “giving the listener an idea of what the show was like in the theater.” More than that, though, Lieberson had “the soul of an artist, not a suit,” and offers Lieberson’s recording of JUNO as evidence. Here was a two-week musical that got its second chance to show its immense quality through its original cast album.
To quote a song from SKYSCRAPER (which, according to Mordden, has “songs of no interest”), “Everybody has the right to be wrong.” He admits “I once predicted that MARIE CHRISTINE would end up in the repertory of the world’s opera houses. Well, okay, it hasn’t” he concedes before adding a “Yet” as the sole word of his next paragraph.
An occasional word or name incorrectly spelled. Some “facts” are wrong too. There’s no index as well, and – what’s really atypical – Mordden didn’t put song titles in quotation marks.
That Mordden self-published may be why. But as Mary Martin and Robert Preston sing in I DO! I DO! – another album he doesn’t cover — “Nobody’s Perfect.” Let’s consider BROADWAY MUSICALS ON CD: A CONVERSATIONAL GUIDE a whole book of bonus tracks.
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.