How to get into the right mood for Sunday night’s Oscars?
I spent the week listening to Academy Award winners who’d appeared in musicals from Paul (WATCH ON THE RHINE) Lukas to Jose (CYRANO DE BERGERAC) Ferrer in THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER to Kevin (A FISH NAMED WANDA) Kline in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY – and beyond.
In 1957, Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews were up for Tonys for MY FAIR LADY. He won; she didn’t. But eight years later, both won Oscars – although this time their victories weren’t for the same property: Harrison reigned again for MY FAIR LADY and Andrews for MARY POPPINS.
Between those two outings, Harrison and Andrews were together again but for the first time in London with MY FAIR LADY. The prevailing opinion seems to be that Harrison is better on the original Broadway cast album while Andrews comes across better on the London cast album. Your thoughts?
The show that got Andrews MY FAIR LADY was THE BOY FRIEND, imported from London in 1954. The Broadway production was terribly troubled. Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin fired the director before Feuer succeeded her. Then they made rehearsals off-limits to Sandy Wilson, who did no less than conceive the show and write a book, music and lyrics for it, too.
On opening night, according to Feuer’s memoir I GOT THE SHOW RIGHT HERE (which really should have been called CY’S MATTERS), Andrews said “I don’t know how to play this part.” Feuer said his last-minute advice worked; her sterling performance on the cast album substantiates that.
Rodgers and Hammerstein later chose her to be their TV CINDERELLA. Rodgers was famous for purposely writing “wrong notes” – those that are flattened, sharpened or diminished notes that shouldn’t sound right and yet do. He gave Andrews a beauty in her opening number. Listen to the second “own” in “In my own little corner in my OWN little chair …”
Judy (BORN YESTERDAY) Holliday is the one who bested Andrews for the Tony. It came for her portrayal of Ella Peterson, Susanswerphone’s nicest switchboard receptionist.
We’ll all agree that Ethel Merman in GYPSY had the best opening and closing numbers where anger is concerned: “Some People” and “Rose’s Turn.” Holliday however has the best opening and closing numbers where charm is paramount: “It’s a Perfect Relationship” has her moon for a man she never expects to meet. (Of course she does – or there’d be no show. And we wouldn’t want that to happen).
To be sure, “I’m Goin’ Back” has anger in it, but that which Ella directs to herself. After a verse that indicates more disappointment than ire, she sings to a soft-shoe melody. Even when she and the song rev up in the middle section she’s charming.
Both BELLS ARE RINGING and GYPSY have a composer in common. Jule Styne, who often referred to himself as “a musical dramatist.” These four selections are proof positive that he wasn’t aggrandizing himself. Besides, Styne – neither Betty Comden nor Adolph Green, who were doing BELLS’ lyrics – came up with the idea for “I’m Goin’ Back.”
Whether you choose CABARET’s original Broadway or London cast album, you’ll get an Oscar-winning performance. In 1972, Joel Grey gave one six years after his Tony-victory as the impish Emcee.
Some will be surprised to hear that Judi (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE) Dench was the first Sally Bowles that London saw. The proof is in the recording.
Those albums don’t give Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-winning CABARET performance, but you can hear her first Tony-winning performance, which she received a mere three months and a day after she’d turned nineteen.
That was in 1965 when Minnelli portrayed FLORA, THE RED MENACE. Today her performance seems a little raw, before she became a star and was still learning.
Kander and Ebb’s first score shows that they were, too. Nevertheless, FLORA is a fine way to spend your time with three legends-to-be.
Speaking of Kander and Ebb, two Oscar-winners – Anthony Quinn and Lila Kedrova – revived their ZORBA in 1983. Both knew their characters, for they’d played them nineteen years earlier in ZORBA THE GREEK. He’d received an Oscar nomination while she won the prize.
This time, she’d win the Tony while he wasn’t even nominated. Ah, well; they both shine on the revival cast album: Quinn with his gruff voice, she with her pert one.
Shirley (COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA) Booth had already been Oscared when she appeared in the much underrated JUNO, the musicalization of Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. Co-star Melvyn Douglas hadn’t, but he’d eventually nab two (for HUD and BEING THERE).
Booth and Douglas are endearing as a long-term couple in a relationship that isn’t quite “love-hate.” Each has just been worn down by the other. Hear this ambitious Marc Blitzstein Irish-flavored score and weep that Broadway critics and audiences couldn’t keep it around for more than two weeks. Bless Goddard Lieberson for recording it anyway, even though he knew it wouldn’t make a dime for his company.
Don (COCOON) Ameche was so famous for appearing as the title character in the 1939 film THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL that for a while the telephone was jokingly dubbed “The Ameche.” Many movies of the ‘40s have characters who refer to the instrument as just that.
Between those films Ameche could be found in Broadway musicals. First came SILK STOCKINGS. You know that a Cole Porter show will have a ditty that at the time was deemed a little ribald. Ameche gets it: “All of You” includes “I’d love to make a tour of you: the eyes, the arms, the mouth of you: the east, west, north, and the south of you.”
In GOLDILOCKS, Ameche portrayed Max Grady, a pioneer movie maker who went to the max to get films made. That single-mindedness consternates star Maggie Harris (the indomitable Elaine Stritch). Max isn’t worried; Ameche oils his way through his first number “There Never Was a Woman (who couldn’t be had).” We’ll see how accurate that is.
Yul Brynner couldn’t know that when he was cast as Siam’s reigning monarch in THE KING AND I that he was creating a career for himself. His Featured Actor in a Musical Tony led to his Oscar-winning performance. Yet as he aged, he naturally brought more maturity to the character not named in the show, but known as both King Mongkut and King Rama IV. The 1977 revival yielded his best performance on record.
Shirley (ELMER GANTRY) Jones received her Oscar for portraying a lady of the evening; wouldn’t we all want to listen to this lady every evening and daytime, too?
Jones starred in BRIGADOON’s second major recording. As Fiona MacLaren, she’s “Waitin’ for My Dearie.” Jones wasn’t; she’d already hooked up with Jack Cassidy, who’s Tommy on the album. So their singing “Almost Like Being in Love” was actually retroactive.
They were still together more than a decade later. Cassidy sang the words “beautiful, adorable, miraculous” and “astonishing” when singing about Jones – or to be more precise, MAGGIE FLYNN in the title song of this 1968 musical. Anyone listening to Jones’ first number (“I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”) would use those four adjectives, too.
Hear “Hello, I’m Maggie Smith” from the actress who’d win Academy Awards for THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE and CALIFORNIA SUITE. It sounds as if she’s an Oscar presenter, but this was actually her introduction to America in NEW FACES OF 1956 when she was a nobody.
J.K. Simmons appeared in the 1992 revival of GUYS AND DOLLS, one of Broadway’s most successful remountings. As Benny Southstreet, he doesn’t get an entire song to himself, but he has some solo moments in “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “The Oldest Established” and “Guys and Dolls” – arguably the best numbers in one of Broadway’s best scores.
And let’s not forget Barbra Streisand who won for FUNNY GIRL after proving she was just that in I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE. Many who heard her dynamic “Miss Marmelstein” said “A star is born” – four words that weren’t irrelevant to Ms. Streisand’s second Oscar.