Have More Fun with Blondes
By Peter Filichia —
So Ivy Lynn didn’t take those pills and got to play Marilyn Monroe after all.
Well, in a manner of speaking. In one of the smartest casting decisions in recent years, Megan Hilty was cast as Lorelei Lee – an iconic Monroe role – in the Encores! semi-production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. So although Hilty’s character in the TV series Smash doesn’t seem to be the choice of producer Eileen Rand and director Derek Wills, she certainly won over critics when playing Lorelei this past May.
Hilty only performed Lorelei for five days, so many of you missed her. But here she is in the smashing new recording of the Jule Styne-Leo Robin score. It’s now available on CD and digital download.
No question that the 1949 original cast album with Carol Channing is terrific. But with the time constraints of a “long-playing” album, only forty-four minutes and fifty seconds of the score could be accommodated. This new one weighs in at seventy-two minutes and seventeen seconds – almost a half-hour more.
There’s almost an additional two minutes to the overture. These are most welcome, for is there any better kind of overture than one by Jule Styne? Note in “Bye Bye Baby” those sweet clarinets before the muted trumpet solo.
Here’s where Encores! most shines, of course: its orchestra. This one’s thirty pieces strong. As a result, that overture that features six Styne melodies sounds strong and lusty. Later, after marvelous baritone Aaron Lazar has finished his A-A-B-A’s in “Just a Kiss Apart,” hear how swell that orchestra is when it swells up and takes over.
Styne and Robin must have known they had winners in “A Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” for they purposely wrote one encore for the former and two for the latter. You have to have confidence in your songs to do that. Now you can hear each encore in its entirety – which is entirely fitting, given that this is a recording from Encores!
“Little Rock” has more than a minute’s more worth of material. This is the number in which we see that Lorelei is the type to make up words. For the rest of us, “ermine” isn’t a verb, but Lorelei tells us how she was “wined and dined and ermined.” But wait a minute – if such a noun as “wine” can be transformed into a verb, why can’t “ermine,” too?
This is the essence of Lorelei Lee: you think at first she’s a bubble-head, and then when you give a little thought to what she’s said, you realize that, darnit, she has a point.
What’s more, Lorelei shows that she understands the concept of “no pain, no gain.” Although many of us haven’t been all that successful in forgiving our enemies, Lorelei has not only already accomplished this, but she’s now also grateful to “the one who done me wrong.” After all, if he hadn’t dumped her, she’d still be in little Little Rock. Worse, from her point-of-view, she’d have a very little rock on her finger.
While Channing got fewer than three minutes to proclaim her appreciation for diamonds (mostly because they appreciate in value), Hilty was awarded over five to celebrate her best friends. These extra minutes include a word that producer Goddard Lieberson couldn’t allow Channing to record in 1949. Earlier that year, he’d permitted “damn” to be recorded in “Bloody Mary” in South Pacific. But “damn” with a three-letter word before it? Yes, Lorelei had a point in using this adjective when describing the type of liars men could be. So here it is on the new unexpurgated recording.
And bless record producers David Lai, Bob Berman and Joseph Weiss for giving each encore its separate track. Those who feel they know these hit songs well enough may just want to repeat-program the encores with which they’re far less familiar.
Hilty’s voice is more mellifluous than Channing’s. There’s that famous story about Mary Martin, who, when told that Ezio Pinza would be her leading man in South Pacific, joked that the show would have “two basses.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes only had one, but it was Channing, who went so low at times you’d swear a man was singing. Most of the other men in the cast fell somewhere between baritone and tenor.
A few weeks ago, when discussing Call Me Madam, I pointed out that not everyone likes the sound of Ethel Merman’s voice. Some don’t like Channing’s, either. How well I remember that Black Monday when my father went rushing over to my beloved record player to throw the whole thing on the floor when he’d heard Channing “sing” the words “Marrrrrch, marrrrrch, marrrrrch” one time too many in “Motherhood” on the cast album of Hello, Dolly! (Thanks again, Mom, for intercepting him.) Hilty is easier to take.
The album’s biggest surprise is “I Love What I’m Doing,” in which Dorothy Shaw tells a group of Olympians her value system. On the original, Yvonne Adair got two minutes and eighteen seconds. Rachel York only gets six seconds more, but that’s not the point, my friends: what follows is a full three minutes and eighteen seconds worth of heavenly dance music.
This, after all, is the greatest asset of this era of extended recordings: they usually have the heavenly dance music that was the first thing to go in the LP era.
There’s more in “It’s Delightful Down in Chile,” which also has a delightfully retro moment. Lorelei and Sir Francis Beekman (Simon Jones) sing about the charms of Chile (although Lorelei is more interested in “chinchilly”). Now this is a private moment between them, but that doesn’t stop a chorus from coming in and singing the same sentiments. Wait, did everyone just so happen to be chatting about Chile?
All right, it’s not the most convincing of musical comedy moves, but the end justifies the full-of-beans rendition. Here’s a good chance to salute vocal arranger Hugh Martin. This close harmony is closer than ever.
If you missed the show at Encores! then you were denied Randy Skinner’s extraordinary choreography. But at least some of it can be heard on “Mamie Is Mimi.” Hearing tap-dancing perfectly in time and in tune with the music is one of the joys of cast albums. Hearing those fabulous feet of Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes will get your toes a-tappin’. (Just don’t expect to keep up with them, that’s all.) I predict you’ll also fail when you try to keep your hand off your knees during “Keeping Cool with Coolidge” – a genuine Charleston.
What a shame that Leo Robin’s lyrics can’t be heard on many cast albums; of the 10 shows on which he actively worked, only Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Girl in Pink Tights were recorded.
From the show’s first lyric, we can see that Robin was something special. “It’s High Time,” Dorothy sings (and has Rachel York ever sounded better?). Note the pun to stress the Prohibition that she had to endure until the Ile de France sailed far enough from the U.S.A. shore: “It’s High Time” doesn’t only mean that it’s time to get high on liquor; it also says that an event that’s been much anticipated will finally happen.
What inspiration Robin had when he had Lorelei’s straight-laced beau Gus (Clarke Thorell) promise her that while she’s away, “I’ll be in my room alone / Ev’ry post meridian” — and then have Lorelei refer to her stateroom and hotel room: “And I’ll be with my diary / And that book by Mister Gideon.”
Translation: The Bible. Is Lorelei naïve or dense in not knowing what the Gideon Bible was? You decide.
Dense, you think? In “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Robin had Lorelei smart enough to know that “we all lose our charms in the end.” Better still: ”Time rolls on and youth is gone and you can’t straighten up when you bend.” As good as that observation is, Robin was building to an excellent rhyme: “But stiff back or stiff knees, you stand straight at Tiff’ny’s.” To think of “stiff knees” and “Tiff’ny’s” would be triumph enough, but that he prepared us for the knees image with “you can’t straighten up when you bend” makes it a real achievement.
Lorelei, Dorothy and friends come to the conclusion that they’re “Homesick.” They recall what and whom they’ve missed, which includes many ‘20s icons – including “A show like Sally.” Hear how orchestrator Don Walker throws in a few notes of “Look for the Silver Lining,” the hit song from that musical.
You’ll be homesick, too, if you forget to take your copy of the new Gentlemen Prefer Blondes after you leave the house. It’ll be one of your best friends.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.