Kismet’s Lovelier, the Second Time Around By Peter Filichia
And just how important was stereo to 1960s record-buyers?
The Music Theater of Lincoln Center’s 1965 production of Kismet, recently re-released by Masterworks Broadway, once again reiterates how potent the Stereo Revolution was.
Eleven years earlier, the original cast album of Kismet was issued in monaural, which was then the only option for any recording company. Listeners heard the same sound coming out of each speaker.
But stereo arrived in the late ‘50s, allowing home audiophiles to be stunned and delighted to hear strings come out of one speaker and brass blaring from the other. Sometimes a performer could be heard walking from speaker right to speaker left, or vice versa.
Suddenly everyone was buying stereo, although it cost a dollar more per record. Mono recordings were now greeted as warmly as mononucleosis. And in those glory days of original cast albums, record executives knew that something had to be done to keep consumers buying the Broadway scores that had been too early for stereo.
Someone came up with the idea for electronic stereo. So Columbia’s “Electronically Re-Channeled for Stereo” process was bestowed on Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, House of Flowers, The Most Happy Fella and Kiss Me, Kate. Meanwhile, RCA Victor gave the “Stereo Effect Reprocessed from Monophonic” treatment to Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, Fanny, Peter Pan and Damn Yankees.
As it turned out, electronic stereo was just about as successful as New Coke, the Edsel and Qwikster. It wasn’t bad for overtures and dance music, but whenever anyone spoke or sang, it provided a terrible echo.
So to keep interest in vintage scores that needed the new sound, recording companies were quick to welcome any new productions of musicals and bring them into the recording studio.
The Music Theater of Lincoln Center, which ran in the mid-sixties at what was then called The New York State Theatre, solved the stereo problem for The King and I, The Merry Widow, South Pacific and Show Boat; better still, Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel and Kismet were newly recorded with the stars that had made them famous: Ethel Merman, John Raitt and Alfred Drake.
Drake was the only Tony winner of the bunch, for Merman and Raitt’s shows pre-dated the awards. He played what may well be the only leading character in a musical whose name we never really know.
We tend to call him “Hajj” but that isn’t accurate. Bookwriters Charles Lederer and Luther Davis and songwriters Robert Wright and George “Chet” Forrest – when adapting Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play in 1953 — called him “The Public Poet, later called Hajj.” In this “musical Arabian night,” as the authors dubbed it, The Poet happens to go to a bazaar, parks himself in the place where beggar Hajj usually sits and is soon mistaken by thugs for the real Hajj, who take him to their leader.
Luckily, The Poet is always fast-talking, bargaining, cajoling and charming his way through many a difficulty. But you’d expect a poet to be awfully good with language, wouldn’t you? And we see that right away in his delicious opening number, “Rhymes Have I.”
Actually, The Poet anticipates another famous musical theater character: Pseudolus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Like that wily slave, “Gesticulate” is one of the songs that shows him smart-talking (and singing) his way out of an especially difficult situation.
While Pseudolus wants freedom from slavery, The Poet wants freedom from the slavery of poverty. (All you poets out there will empathize.) Audiences root for both characters because each is an underdog; the two, we firmly believe, deserve a better fate — which, indeed, is what the Turkish word “kismet” means in English. Hence, Drake gets the brooding song “Fate,” too.
Unlike Pseudolus, however, The Poet must have a beautiful baritone to sing his part of Kismet’s demanding music. Wright and Forrest based their score on themes by classical composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). But as Ethan Mordden pointed out in Coming Up Roses, his excellent study of musicals in the ‘50s, the team didn’t just adapt. When writing about two of the show’s three hit songs, Mordden detailed that the second movement of Borodin’s Second String Quartet “provided the main strain of ‘Baubles, Bangles, and Beads,’ but halfway through the second A, Wright and Forrest are elaborating, and by the release, they are composing. The quartet’s third movement gave them ‘And This Is My Beloved,’ but similarly, the release is theirs.”
The other hit, “Stranger in Paradise,” is a duet for Marsinah, The Poet’s daughter, and The Caliph, who’s pretending to be a mere gardener because he just wants to be one of the guys and see if he can be liked for himself and not because he’s royalty. Alas, Marsinah and The Caliph provide a love-at-first-sight convention that plagues so many musicals, but Western audiences – especially women — have always liked The Caliph because he has their values in wanting to love one woman instead of an entire harem, as his countrymen urge him to do. Of course, their coming together doesn’t happen easily, but, in another Forum parallel, lovers divided get coincided.
(Funny that Drake, the show’s only Tony-winning performer, should get none of the three hit songs. But he does have a half-dozen good ones of his own.)
Another reason why your average Pseudolus wouldn’t be good as The Poet: he must also be a dynamic, macho sexual presence. He’ll soon be romancing Lalume, The Wazir’s “wife of wives” who thinks her tub-of-lard husband is a moron. (In fact, he is, considering how he never sees through her many chock-full-of-cuckold double-entendres.)
This revival cast album gives a song that you won’t find on the original cast album: “Bored,” in which Lalume tells The Port about her dull marriage to The Wazir. “Bored” was actually in the original production’s pre-Broadway tryout in Los Angeles, but went in and out of the show during stops in San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia. Revivals of Kismet aren’t plentiful, but most tend to keep “Bored” in the score.
And why don’t we see more Kismet revivals? Well, there is that line that The Wazir says after he hears that three of his latest concubines aren’t happy: “Not happy in Baghdad! That’s impossible! Why Baghdad is the symbol of happiness on earth!”
Yes, times do change, don’t they? So we can’t expect much joy to greet the famous lyric that Lalume sings to open “Not Since Nineveh.” Whether you hear it on the original cast album in mono or the revival cast album in stereo, you’ll find a cruel irony in the lyric “Baghdad! Don’t underestimate Baghdad!”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.