Needless to say, we all savor certain scores, songs and performances on original, revival and studio cast albums.
In Half a Sixpence, we love hearing Tommy Steele play that banjo in “Money to Burn.”
Through Hallelujah, Baby! we see how song styles gradually changed in the first six decades of the twentieth century thanks to Jule Styne’s magnificent music and Peter Matz’s remarkable orchestrations.
When we listen to No, No Nanette’s tappers in “I Want to Be Happy,” we may be seated, but we often find our own feet tapping away, for we’re just as happy as they.
However, when Irene’s “The Riviera Rage” plays, we can no longer stay seated, because the dance music is just too intoxicating. We’re up and dancing (as long as nobody else is in the room).
They’re all wonderful and exemplary. And although we all know the bromide “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” you can judge – and wildly approve of – these five aforementioned cast albums by their covers, thanks to Hilary Knight.
Although Knight is best known as the artist who let us see Eloise, the little girl who lived at (and pretty much ruled) The Plaza Hotel, he did the logos for all the above productions. Now you can see not only the drawings you know from your cast albums, but the sketches that he initiated and developed into those iconic drawings (and the ones he himself rejected). Costume and set designs, too, are all featured in a marvelous exhibition called Hilary Knight’s Stage-Struck World.
Now through September 1, it’s on the first and second floors of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center – the one on Broadway between 63rd & 65th Streets. Let’s thank Terry Allen Kramer, who produced three musicals for which Knight provided the logos, for sponsoring the show.
As is the case with all great artists, one quick look is all that it takes to make you say, “Ah! That’s a Hilary Knight!” The sleek feet that suggest elegance, the bubbles that never burst and the flowers that never wilt are as much a signature as Knight’s own printed name at the bottom.
Half a Sixpence shows a dapper young man in his Sunday clothes, so excited to give his girlfriend, as he sings, “a token of our eternal love.” No, No Nanette harkens back to the scantily clad showgirls of yore. Irene shows more baubles, bangles and beads than you’ll find in all five major recordings of Kismet.
Some may wonder why Knight chose an umbrella motif for Hallelujah, Baby! After all, there’s no song in the score that references it. No, but during the Boston tryout, there indeed was: “When the Weather’s Better,” which Clem (Robert Hooks) sang to Georgina (Leslie Uggams, who’d win a Tony for her role). In it, Clem used the weather as a metaphor to predict that as bad as things were for African Americans, they’d eventually improve, just as rain, rain goes away. It’s a fine song, and it’s too late now to ask Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green why they dropped it – but happily, the producers didn’t discard Hilary Knight’s dynamic logo.
Also in the exhibit are Knight’s rejected logos for Timbuktu! and Mike (the musical about impresario Mike Todd that would later be renamed Ain’t Broadway Grand). You may well agree that the producers made a colossal mistake not just in producing those shows, but also for not accepting what Knight drew for them. If his logos had been used, to paraphrase Ella Peterson, those two shows’d be alive today.
And then there’s Magdalena, the 1948 musical which had music by the esteemed and legendary Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The lyrics were by Robert Wright and George Forrest, whose Song of Norway had recently closed as the third-longest-running book musical of the ‘40s.
On the debit side of the ledger, Magdalena lasted only eighty-eight performances. That may have been exacerbated by the fact that Villa-Lobos didn’t speak English and Wright and Forrest didn’t know any Brazilian. Nevertheless, many theatergoers loved the score; they had to be disappointed when it went unrecorded. And while eighty-eight performances don’t always guarantee an original cast album, I can think of 128 musicals that didn’t stay on Broadway that long and still got recorded. (Can’t you?)
The real reason that Magdalena went unwaxed was that it had the misfortune to open during the recording strike initiated by James C. Petrillo, then president of The American Federation of Musicians. No records of any kind could be made after January 1, 1948, and there was Magdalena, opening on Broadway on September 20. The strike lasted until December 14, but that was ten days after Magdalena had closed.
A new generation didn’t hear Magdalena until 1987, when Evans Haile did a concert version at Alice Tully Hall. Cast album guru Robert Sher recorded the score and released discs and cassettes the following year – with Hilary Knight’s custom-made logo.
Magdalena has a song called “The Emerald,” which is quite the understatement, because the plot involves 100 emeralds. As a result, Knight did a drawing that featured precisely that number of green jewels. Wouldn’t you know, though, that there wasn’t enough room on the CD cover to show the entire array? It’s just another reason why many of us mourn the loss of those expansive and glorious covers on 12-by-12-inch long-playing records.
The exhibit also sports Knight’s logo for Colette, the 1982 Jones-Schmidt musical about the famed novelist. Diana Rigg was not only signed to be the above-the-title star, but also, in deference to her great talent and reputation, would see her name be embossed in special print that would be added later. Thus, above Knight’s logo were merely the words “in Colette.”
Alas, the show shuttered in Denver, which left Knight with a boatload of no-longer-needed window cards cluttering his apartment. Rather than toss them, he distributed them to many a friend and acquaintance, but only after he’d painstakingly put each person’s name above the title on every one.
As a result, I am the proud possessor of a Hilary Knight logo on a window card that states, “Peter Filichia in Colette.”
Yeah, it would have been more fun if it had stated “Peter Filichia AS Colette,” but I’m grateful to own this personal treasure which has a hallowed place in my apartment. You won’t see it in Hilary Knight’s Stage-Struck World, but there will be plenty else so that you won’t remotely miss it.
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.