Fleet Charity By Peter Filichia
Masterworks Broadway has found an excellent way to celebrate the recent 50th anniversary of Sweet Charity’s opening.
It’s re-released another fine recording of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score.
The 1967 London cast album offers Juliet Prowse in the role that in 1966 brought Gwen Verdon her fifth straight Tony nomination (and her first loss — understandably to Angela Lansbury’s Mame). Click here to listen and learn more.
What this British recording also offers is a speedier rendition of the score. So Charity, which was always fleet of foot thanks to Bob Fosse’s Tony-winning choreography, is here fleet in yet another way. You’ll be done listening in fewer than forty-eight minutes – about eight fewer than the Broadway version.
One obvious (and regrettable) reason is that two songs done on Broadway aren’t here. For whatever reason, there’s no “Charity’s Soliloquy,” in which our heroine laments her history with men –especially with Charlie, the most recent one who stole her purse and pushed her into a lake. Ditto “I’m the Bravest Individual,” which has Charity trying to soothe Oscar, a claustrophobic who’s full of fear when they’re both stuck in a stalled elevator.
Even if those two songs had been included, this London edition of Sweet Charity would still be still shorter. The reason is literally in the hands of Alyn Aynsworth, who conducted with far more spirit and urgency than Fred Werner had done on Broadway. (Maybe Aynsworth speeded it up because he didn’t want to miss the train to Hartford, Hereford or Hampshire, or wherever he lived; the London Tube, unlike the subways in New York, doesn’t stay open all night.)
True, the accelerated tempi means only four fewer seconds in “You Should See Yourself” (Charity’s paean to Charlie before he robs and tries to kill her) but there’s a twenty-two second difference in the title song in which Oscar professes his love. Not so incidentally, it swings more in the way that Rod McLennan sings it, and there’s also a ride-out that’s in line with the sinuously sexual “Big Spender.”
The London musicians also belie the cliché that the British are stuffy and stodgy. Here they give a loosey-goosey, ramshackle feel to the overture that suggests we’ll be spending some time in a less-than-elegant place. And that’s an apt adjective to describe the Fandango Ballroom where Charity and her friends Nickie and Helene dance with paying customers in what they flatly admit is the “rent-a-body business.” In that spirit, trombonists wah-wah their way through “Charity’s Theme” and in “I’m a Brass Band” – in which Charity believes that Oscar has turned out to be The Man of Her Dreams — the drummer is intent on you knowing that this orchestra has a percussion section, too. In short, all the musicians are, to quote a “Baby, Dream Your Dream” lyric, “in pink condition.”
Part of the fun of listening to a London cast album of a Broadway musical is seeing what American expressions, idioms and colloquialisms didn’t survive the trip across the Atlantic. For example, “Ambition” in Do Re Mi has Tilda say she’d like to send her brother to college. Hubie on Broadway suggested Yale, but in London, he earmarked Oxford and Cambridge.
Truth to tell, we don’t hear any such substitutions here, but the show’s aficionados will notice an omission. On Broadway, Helene sang in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” that she wants to be “a hat-check girl at Sardi’s East.” Indeed, from 1958 to 1968, there was a second branch of Sardi’s at 123 East 54th St. But Londoners might have been thrown by the mention of the unfamiliar boite, so the London Helene (Florida native Paula Kelly, whose performance cemented her getting the same role in the terribly underrated 1969 film) simply expressed a desire to check hats, to quote Charity’s eleven o’clock number “I Love to Cry at Weddings,” “any time, any place, anywhere.”
So on this London recording, the Charity expert will notice an extra measure here, a missing measure there and some extra dialogue, too. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” has some additional dance music and a few new words that almost suggest product placement. What’s more, Nickie and Helene give us more time to enjoy a joke in “Baby, Dream Your Dream.”
As for Juliet Prowse, this album is a nice tribute on what is nearly the twentieth anniversary of her death from cancer on Sept. 14, 1996, a mere eleven days shy of her sixtieth birthday.
She may be somewhat forgotten today, but as the ‘60s began, much of the world knew her name. For on Sept. 19, 1959, the 23-year-old Prowse was filming another role made famous by Gwen Verdon: Can-Can’s Claudine, the star nightclub performer at the Bal du Paradis. During a production number, the man dancing behind her suddenly dove under her long dress; when he slid forward and emerged from under, he was holding a pair of red panties.
He had ample room to do it. The five-foot-eleven Prowse had legs that measured thirty-nine inches long. That’s taller than half the cast members of The Wizard of Oz.
Although the panties-snatch was an inspired bit of choreography, it didn’t please two people on the set: Mr. and Mrs. Nikita Khrushchev. He was then the Premier of the Soviet Union and on a good-will tour of the United States. He certainly didn’t dispense any good will when he angrily stormed out after deeming the number “pornographic.”
Well, you know how things like that work out. Although Can-Can turned out to be a terrible movie, it was the second-highest grossing film of 1960, bested only by Ben-Hur which had vaulted into first place thanks to the Best Picture Oscar it had won that spring. Yes, sex sells, and Khrushchev, always interested in bombs, turned this bomb into a hit, and inadvertently turned Prowse into a household name. So did co-star Frank Sinatra, when he announced that he and she were engaged (although they never did march to the altar).
That November, Prowse became even better known to Baby Boomers thanks to G. I. Blues, the fifth of Elvis Presley’s thirty-one undistinguished movies. Here she played another nightclub performer, but one who was an ice queen until Elvis was able to melt her by his good looks, even better manners and, of course, from his crooning love songs to her.
So Prowse was a Big Name when she decided to take yet another role that had been originated by Gwen Verdon: Charity Hope Valentine at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on Oct. 11, 1967.
Prowse is marvelous in the role. She, like Verdon, was best known as a dancer, but one who could also entrance with a song. What is most apparent from this album is that Prowse is not just giving a Verdon imitation. She exhibits far more pain in “Where Am I Going?” while making it a cri du couer that only barely masks her tears.
In “You Should See Yourself,” Prowse says of Charlie “Wild, you’re wild – Grrrrrrrrrrrr!” Yes, the sheet music offers those dozen “r’s,” as Charity imitates a jungle beast to show her animal magnetism and lust. Sad to say, a genuine jungle beast turned out to be the bane of Prowse’s existence. When she was rehearsing for Circus of the Stars, a 1987 TV show, she sauntered too close to a leopard who then responded by attacking her. It wasn’t too serious as such atrocities go, for Prowse only required a few stitches. But would you believe that later that year, when she was preparing to appear on The Tonight Show, so was that same leopard – who attacked her again? This time he did enough damage to require Prowse to endure nearly fifty stitches to reattach her dangling ear. (Those who believe in reincarnation must wonder if this leopard was in a previous life a husband done dirty by a previous version of Prowse.)
After listening to Prowse, you may well come to the conclusion that she purposely avoided seeing Verdon play the part or even refused to listen to her on the original cast album. Her performance shouts “It’s my part now” – which is what the best musical theater performers do; to just ape the original star is oh-so-middle-school. That is the sweetest achievement of her Charity.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.