WHAT A SURPRISE! By Peter Filichia
My excitement in seeing a musical’s pre-Broadway tryout in Philly, Boston or Baltimore didn’t end when the curtain came down.
There’d be another delight a few weeks later when the original cast album was released.
Sometimes there’d just be a reordering of songs. When I saw ANNIE at Goodspeed, six months before it debuted on Broadway, the opening number was “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”
(And I don’t mean “Maybe.”)
But more intriguing still was seeing that the list of songs on the album cover didn’t precisely match the one in my Playbill. A new song or two was added en route to Broadway.
BAJOUR at The Shubert Theatre in Boston had Cockeye Johnny Dembo, King of the Gypsies, sing “Was Always,” a song that told the history of the Romany people. It was tender and nice, but it wasn’t an eleven o’clock number. Would this new song “Honest Man” do the trick?
Indeed it did. It’s one of the best numbers from Marks’ strong score.
Liza Minnelli made quite an impression at Boston’s Colonial Theatre when she sang “A Quiet Thing” John Kander’s first beautiful song (of many to follow). I was anticipating that one when I got the album of FLORA, THE RED MENACE, which sported a title I didn’t see: “Sing Happy.” What a dynamic number it turned out to be! And, as Ethan Mordden pointed out in OPEN A NEW WINDOW, Fred Ebb’s lyric about an “impossible dream” beat Joe Darion’s in MAN OF LA MANCHA by more than half a year.
When HALLELUJAH, BABY! played the Colonial, it had African-Americans, headed by Leslie Uggams, holding umbrellas and singing that they were looking forward to the time “When the Weather’s Better.” That’s why Hilary Knight’s logo has a woman holding an umbrella and why the CD booklet’s first picture shows Uggams sporting one, too.
The final scene had the cast slowly closing the umbrellas, indicating that it wasn’t raining anymore, making the metaphor that life was improving. It was too soft a message, so when I got the cast album, I wasn’t surprised to see that the show now concluded with “Now’s the Time!” which called for more active action.
MAME at the Shubert had our title character go to meet Patrick’s fiancée and family and decide “Do You Call That Living?” It wasn’t quite landing in a show where everything else was. So when I got the album, I wasn’t surprised to see that Mame now sang “That’s How Young I Feel.”
But it wasn’t a new song. Before Boston, MAME had played Philadelphia, where “That’s How Young I Feel” WAS in the show. Jerry Herman apparently thought he could do better until he realized if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Getting the cast album to PROMISES, PROMISES was a treat with its spanking-new-sounding Burt Bacharach-Hal David score. I loved revisiting all the songs I’d heard at the Colonial, but wondered if the new one that came towards the end of the show would be any good.
As it turned out, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” certainly was.
TWO BY TWO’s world premiere in New Haven in September, 1970 opened with Noah (Danny Kaye) singing “Everything That’s Gonna Be, Has Been,” which did have dramatic irony: we knew that the unknowing Noah would soon have a life-changing experience.
But the song was sonorous and feeble. Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin obviously knew that they had to put a little life in their Noah, and wrote the fetching “Why Me?” in which he asked God to tell him the reason he’d been chosen for this monumental task.
In 1973, when I saw the revival of IRENE at The National Theatre in Washington, Debbie Reynolds didn’t have a dynamic opening song. Back in 1919, didn’t composer Harry Tierney and lyricist Joseph McCarthy write one for their Irene? With both now dead, who’d step up to the plate?
Composer Wally Harper and lyricist Jack Lloyd, that’s who. Here’s guessing that they watched Reynolds’ Oscar-nominated performance in THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN and were inspired by her opening number: “I Ain’t Down Yet” is the determined credo of someone who wants more out of life – just as Irene O’Dare did when she declared “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue.” The soaring melody and pungent lyric made you fall in love with Reynolds and Irene long before the song came to an end.
Sometimes getting a cast album of a tryout meant hearing a new voice. Louis Jourdan had the lead in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER when I saw it at the Colonial, but some weeks later, John Cullum took his place. Jourdan did well enough by the terrific Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane songs; would Cullum be an improvement?
The album revealed that indeed he was, delivering the soaring title song, the tender “Melinda” and the stirring “Come Back to Me” in a beautiful baritone.
When I opened up the gatefold album of the 1971 revival cast of NO, NO, NANETTE, the tunestack hadn’t changed from when I’d attended at The Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. The surprise instead came in a photo where four chorus girls were perched atop beach balls that were about three feet high.
But the ones I’d seen were at least six times bigger, wider than many off-Broadway stages and taller than Weismann showgirls. The women’s expert maneuvering in not falling off these behemoths got bigger applause than FIDDLER’S “Bottle Dance.” Why would such a feat of feet be dropped?
Years later, when I met NANETTE originator Harry Rigby, he explained that the enormous balls I’d seen were easily stored backstage in the four-year-old Mechanic, which had been planned with ample wing space. But The 46th Street Theatre, built in 1925 on precious prime New York real estate, simply didn’t have the room backstage to store enormous beach balls.
Oh, well. If something had to be cut from that NO, NO, NANETTE, better it be beach balls than anything from its scintillating score.
And then there was a surprise from a show I didn’t see, more’s the pity: SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE on March 11, 1973.
As I opened the two-record set, there were obscure Sondheim songs of which I’d heard but had never heard: “Your Eyes Are Blue” (A FUNNY THING HAPPENED …), “Pleasant Little Kingdom” (FOLLIES) and “So Many People” from SATURDAY NIGHT, his first musical that at that point had gone unproduced.
But also included was “We’re Gonna Be All Right” that simple A-A-B-A show tune that failed to impress me when I saw the Boston tryout of DO I HEAR A WALTZ? Weeks later, the original cast album didn’t make me change my mind. Why was this in the mix?
Because this “We’re Gonna Be All Right” wasn’t the one in WALTZ, where a couple naively believed that their marriage would automatically endure. This version, replete with a verse, had them acknowledge the possibility of adultery, spousal abuse and divorce. It was set to a lighthearted Richard Rodgers melody that nicely played against Sondheim’s all-too-knowing lyric. For my money, it was The Song of the Year.
“Silly People,” dropped from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, was also included in SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE, but I already knew it. George Lee Andrews had sung it at the world premiere of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC that I attended at the Colonial on Jan. 20, 1973 along with many Bostonians who simply couldn’t wait for a second performance of a new Sondheim show — not after we’d seen the splendors of COMPANY, when “Being Alive” wasn’t yet in and “Happily Ever After” was and FOLLIES, when Yvonne De Carlo marveled “Can That Boy Fox Trot” instead of musing that she was “still here.”
Glad the album is still here. Glad they all are with songs both new and old.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.