My buddy Ingrid Gammerman has told me that she does it. So has my pal Donald Tesione. On occasion, I’ve done it, too.
That is, play a cast album on the precise night of an all-star concert version event that I can’t attend.
You, too? Then I guess if you can’t be in Carnegie Hall on April 30 at 6:30 p.m. when The Collegiate Chorale does Song of Norway, you’ll be playing that 1959 Jones Beach cast album.
It was Robert Wright and George “Chet” Forrest’s first hit – and what a hit. Although many had assumed that operetta was dead and gone by 1944, Song of Norway miraculously stayed on Broadway for 860 performances with Edvard Grieg music that they had adapted. When the show closed in 1946, only two book musicals – Oklahoma! and Follow the Girls – had ever run longer.
To this day, it remains the longest-running operetta in Broadway history.
With a track record such as that, Song of Norway was sure to have an afterlife – and that included a run at the Jones Beach Marine Theater on Long Island. It opened on June 23, 1958, and word of mouth must have been good, for the July 19 performance played host to 8,588 (382 of whom stood). It was the highest attendance in the theater’s six-year history.
So the following summer, Song of Norway warranted a Jones Beach revival. This time Columbia Records wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity. The company recorded it in new-fangled stereo – making up for the poorly recorded, monophonic original cast album that had been made in the days of more primitive sound. Lehman Engel, who would soon begin the BMI Workshop that would yield hits from A Chorus Line to Avenue Q, conducted.
The plot? Young Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg meets established poet Rikard Nordraak, who’s written a poem that celebrates Norway. Grieg says he’ll set it to music.
Then Henrik Ibsen (yes, that Henrik Ibsen) comes into the picture. He’d already written such box-office smashes as The Feast at Solhaug and Brand, so when he offers Grieg the chance to do music for his upcoming Peer Gynt, Grieg the composer puts Nordraak on the back burner.
Imagine how terrible Grieg feels when Nordraak suddenly and unexpectedly dies at 24. Only now does Grieg set his poem to music – but perhaps because he’s so moved by the death and sorrowful that he didn’t do it sooner, his work turns out to be extraordinary.
Fine, but where’s the romance for which operetta is famous? That’s where the lovely Nina Hagerup comes into Grieg’s life. But so does Countess Louisa Giovanni, an esteemed opera singer who insists that Grieg accompany her to Italy, and never mind the Count to whom she’s married. Grieg agrees and goes. (Seems like the guy is very easily led, no?) True love triumphs, however, as it always does in operetta.
“Very little of it is true,” says James Bagwell, The Collegiate Chorale’s music director. But any operetta, of course, is all about the music – and what is accurate is that Grieg fervently wanted Norwegians to experience genuinely Norwegian music.
Bagwell notes that The Collegiate Chorale started in 1941, a bit before Song of Norway began its mammoth run. The chorale was under the direction of Robert Shaw — not with the actor (Jaws), writer (The Man in the Glass Booth) and almost star of the 1968 Caesar and Cleopatra musical called Her First Roman. (“But I wouldn’t do it unless they retitled it His First Egyptian,” he once quipped to me.)
No, THIS Robert Shaw was a choral director who worked on Broadway, starting with the original Carmen Jones in 1943, and continuing with South Pacific, The Seven Lively Arts, Laffing Room Only and My Darlin’ Aida.
Those with a keen knowledge of Broadway history may be snarling, “Wait a minute! South Pacific came after The Seven Lively Arts and Laffing Room Only. Well, yes, the MUSICAL did, but there was a PLAY called South Pacific that had nothing to do with James Michener, Rodgers or Hammerstein. It opened in 1943 and closed in 1944 – which sounds impressive until you realize it opened December 29 and closed January 1 after five performances. It did have one section in which soldiers sang, and that’s where Shaw’s work came in.
Shaw pretty much said “Pshaw!” to Broadway after he started The Collegiate Chorale. An RCA Victor contract kept him busy. “He had the first gold record in classical music,” says Bagwell, “referring to a disc of Christmas liturgical music.”
But the chorale was where his heart was, and he’d be happy to learn that the organization is still thriving fourteen years after his death. “We have more than two dozen musicians in the pit,” says Bagwell, “as well as a hundred fifty chorus members on stage. They’re mostly volunteers, but we do hire guest artists.”
That’s where director and conductor Ted Sperling came in. He cast Jason Danieley as Nordraak, Santino Fontana as Grieg, Alexandra Silber as Nina and Judy Kaye as the countess. (And as we know from Kaye’s Tony-winning stint in The Phantom of the Opera, she can do these prima donna roles.)
Says Sperling, “Judy and I worked together early on in the Ragtime process. I knew Santino was going to be a star when he was still at college, when I saw him perform at Joe’s Pub. I’m also looking forward to working with him this summer at Caramoor, where he’ll play Georg in She Loves Me with Alexandra as his Amalia.”
The person who many moons ago hired Sperling to play piano while she gave voice lessons will play Grieg’s mother: Marni Nixon. Although Hollywood didn’t always think that Nixon should be seen as well as heard, The Collegiate Chorale is glad to show her off to good advantage.
“Wright and Forrest did a very clever and very respectful adaptation,” says Sperling, who was playing Grieg’s music not long after he started playing classical piano at age six. “The two men didn’t slice and dice too much. Now it’s hard for me to divorce the melodies from the Wright and Forrest lyrics.”
As you can hear from the Jones Beach cast album, Wright and Forrest began and concluded the show with an adaptation of Grieg’s A-Minor concerto. You know it even if you think you don’t, courtesy of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. After Finch decides that he’s in love with Rosemary and sings, “Just imagine if we kissed! What a crescendo,” send in the Grieg.
Grieg’s “Norwegian Dance” became the tuneful “Freddy and His Fiddle.” But with all those musicians in the bit, don’t expect one mere fiddle to play on April 30. “I’ll tell you what we don’t have and don’t want,” says Sperling. “Microphones.”
Wright and Forrest merged Grieg’s “Waltz Op. 12, No. 2” with his “Violin Sonata No. 2” and came up with a song called “Now.” They didn’t have to look hard to find the right words for the piece that Grieg called “Ich Liebe Dich.” They maintained the idea by titling it “I Love You.”
Anyone who was around in the late ‘40s can hum the big hit from the show: “Strange Music,” which was a fast seller, thanks to two recordings made by then-major recording stars Bing Crosby and Kate Smith. The song, adapted from both Grieg’s “Nocturne” and “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” was a particular favorite of Guy Lombardo. And what does the perennial New Year’s Eve host have to do with all this? He was artistic director at Jones Beach, and chose to present the show.
The 1959 cast album has as its Grieg John Reardon, who’d show up the following year on Broadway in Do Re Mi. William Olvis portrays Rikard, Helena Scott is Nina while Brenda Lewis, who’d scored as Birdie in Regina, is the countess. Portraying her husband is the performer who originated the role in the 1944 production: Sig Arno.
In the late ‘60s, ABC Pictures decided that Song of Norway could do for that country what The Sound of Music had done for Austria. No, it couldn’t. Neither Bagwell nor Sperling stands by the 1970 film, which is a throwback to the musical movies of the ‘40s, many of which famously bore little resemblance to the original properties.
Says Bagwell, “Pauline Kael’s review of the film is my all-time favorite piece of invective. She said it had ‘an unbelievable badness that brings back clichés you didn’t even know you knew.’ We expect to do a lot better than that.”