Tuesday, November 14, 2017


In the days of the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’s Scandals, and the Music Box Revues, the variety show was Big Broadway fare, associated with powerhouse productions and major performing talent. Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, the Astaires, Marilyn Miller, Eleanor Powell, and Josephine Baker were among the many who headlined in revue in the 1920s and 1930s, and only in this particular form could you take in Beatrice Lillie. She appeared in book shows now and again, yes—but her unique comedy so baffled the organization of a story-and-character show that (at least until High Spirits, near the end of her career) she had to be set free in the looser form.
Lillie was still holding forth in the 1950s, in a posthumous Ziegfeld Follies, but by then the original-cast-album was controlling the way we perceive the quality of musicals. This revealed the salient weakness of revue: it didn’t make for good home listening. A cast album is a narrative above all. It isn’t just songs: it’s an exploration of how people feel and what they do, which gives us a lot of sheer there to enjoy. The storyless revue, on the other hand, doesn't take us anywhere.
Variety revue was on the way out by then anyway, supplanted by the television versions of the form. Still, Victor had a solid hit in New Faces of 1952—in my youth, it was almost as essential in the record library of my friends’ parents as My Fair Lady—and Victor must have had high hopes for New Faces of 1956 in turn. In the end, the show eked out a faltering half-season’s run, no one bought the album, and the title itself was admitted to Purgatory and never mentioned again. 
It’s an amusing listen all the same, mainly because the cast is filled with firecrackers of the kind we’re poor in nowadays. Some producers are valid judges of talent: George Abbott. Some producers are terrible judges: Robert Whitehead. The originator and lifelong producer of the New Faces shows, Leonard Sillman, was one of the valid ones, and while the cast takes in Maggie Smith (yes, she sings), Virginia Martin (later of How To Succeed and Little Me), T. C. Jones (a drag-queen interlocutor doing Tallulah Bankhead), and Jane Connell, it also had two of the best singers in Broadway history, Inga Swenson and John Reardon. The latter is a shameless oversinger, pouring out tons of voice as if tomorrow were The Day the World Ended. He goes bizarrely Caribbean in “The White Witch of Jamaica,” which manages to be fine art and wholly camp at the same time.
The funniest number, somewhat weakened on disc as much of the humor was visual, is “Isn’t She Lovely,” a lampoon of a Ziegfeldian “bring on the girls” number complete with staircase. The ladies were in crazy costumes (one, made of what looked like oranges, was falling apart as she moved) and the Roscoe kept flatting. Marshall Barer and Dean Fuller, who wrote the number (New Faces always had anthology scores) and are known today for their collaboration with Mary Rodgers and Jay Thompson on Once Upon a Mattress, were specialists in spoofing both high and low culture—there’s one line in Mattress’ “Normandy” that almost nobody gets because you have to be familiar with The Vagabond King to place its joke. Murray Grand’s “April in Fairbanks” (“I know I’ll never leave it…alive”) is another in this line, topped by Jane Connell’s trademark high B. There’s a gay reference in it, too, very rare for the time.
The New Faces of 1956 cast album is of historical note, too, for while the LP boasted sixteen cuts on its only release, Victor had actually taken down eight more numbers, including a sketch, “The Broken Kimona,” that poked fun at the art-house cinema obsession with Japanese movies, doing an American western in Asian accents. The extra numbers turned up much later on a bootleg LP with a plain white sleeve, but my Indiana friend Matt made me a two-disc New Faces of 1956 CD with a cover using the LP art, as if Victor itself had produced it. Only two copies of this treasure exist, and it looks so authentic that I can’t show it to fellow collectors or they’ll have envy heart attacks.
Among these extra numbers is a favorite revue genre, in which a song sets up a dramatic context that is then developed through choreography. Here it’s “A Doll’s House,” a screwy guignol about an unloved little girl (Swenson) with a fabulous toy. After a confrontation with a pushy urchin, the girl retreats into her self-protective shell as Sillman’s dancers treat us to a view of life in the dollhouse.
One of my favorite theatrical footnotes concerns this show. Jimmy Sisco, one of the new faces, was a skinny devastato with apple-red hair who knew how to have a good time. Though no face could be called “new” after appearing in one of these shows, Sillman found Jimmy so irresistible a talent that he hired him a second time for the next entry in the series, in 1962—billing him as James Corbett—and even gave him a semi-nude moment in a take-off on ladies’ health spas. I solemnized the event in the picture insert of my book on the sixties musical.
Speaking of books: I’m supposed to be plugging my next one, on the musical Chicago. But it won’t be out for months, so let’s move right along to another Broadway form as retired as the variety show, the period operetta filled with opera-weight voices, la-di-da diction, and Irra Petina. Actually, Petina wasn’t in Kean, from the Dumas play (and its Sartre adaptation) on the  early-nineteenth-century English actor, and except for Alfred Drake the performers are not really familiar Broadway people. Lee Venora was a fixture on the Big Sing circuit; she was virtually America’s Tuptim. But  Joan Weldon, the Other Woman in the plot, was so little known at the time that she doesn’t even qualify as a has-been. However, both sound terrific, and Drake was such a ham that he was always in his element in shows like this, with Shakespearean input, backstage antics, and an elevated cultural atmosphere along with the costume romance.
The songwriters are Robert Wright and George Forrest, using their own tunes instead of, say, those of Henry Purcell and Arthur Bliss in the Kismet manner, and the music is dense with invention. You can play this score ten times and still discover things you’d never noticed before. Some of the numbers remind me of what Ethel Merman so doubtfully said when she first heard “Rose’s Turn”: “It’s kind of an aria, isn’t it?” There’s even recitative in Kean (and a Willow Song), as if it were the opera version of a musical, and there’s a big orchestra, too. Really, the whole thing is compelling. On the one hand you have “Sweet Danger,” restless and passionate, with a terrific climax for Drake—it’s actually the song’s reprise, which Columbia smartly tacked on to the number as it is first sung—and, on the other hand, “To Look Upon My Love,” a comic spot for Drake’s legato undercut by his valet’s clipped patter. There’s even a jazzy de-dum-de-dum in the brass at the end.
True, we have to put up with “The Fog and the Grog,” one of those forced “show-stoppers” that the cast sings with their heads thrown back and their mouths locked in Pied Piper smiles, to show you what marvelous fun you’re having. But otherwise Kean is not only great music but a fascinating story—it's that cast-album thing again, about how book shows sing the narrative to us. When, this show asks, does the star actor stop acting and just live?
I guess we’re doing vanished Broadway genres, for this one is a zany musical comedy with a complicated storyline and nothing on its mind. It was never meant to succeed big-time with a major tour, a film version, a Random House text, and plenty of interest from high-school thespians. This wasn’t a show destined to rule the world. Instead, the public would be amused on a basic level, the show’s mediocrity lifted by chance creativity—ingenious choreography, perhaps, or a funny book, or getting the show-biz know-how that makes it play like a smash.
Bravo Giovanni got none of those except the dancing, laid out by Carol Haney. Worse, the show had not just an implausible plot but an idiotically implausible one. It would seem that someone thought America’s burgeoning fast-food industry would provide a useful novelty and, presumably because the show was to be built around the opera singer Cesare Siepi, the setting was contemporary Rome, where Siepi, a restaurateur, tunneled through the earth to steal food from a franchise, which made his trattoria a sensation. What, serving fast food? In Italy?
And so on, but Bravo Giovanni did boast two fine romantic leads. Siepi was a looker with a rounded bass tone and great musicality. His sound was a bit succulent for musical comedy, but the ingénue, Michele Lee—still nineteen on opening night—supplied the lean belt we love in Broadway vocalism. Her establishing number, “I’m All I’ve Got,” is a sizzler (the CD release includes her single of it as a bonus), and her sultry ballad “Steady, Steady” should have become a standard.
Siepi and Lee had the best numbers, and everyone else, all comics, had the dumb ones, often on themes that were quite passé  by then, though the score was nominated for a Tony, losing to Oliver!. There’s even a New Dance Sensation for Maria Karnilova in “The Kangaroo,” possibly the last of a kind that was by then nearly three generations old. Actually, everything about Bravo Giovanni was old except Michele Lee, and that was the show’s drawback. True, the plot was something new. But all else was over-familiar, and the authors were not marquee names. Composer Milton Schafer wrote only one other show, Drat! The Cat!, and lyricist Ronny Graham was known more for performing and also contributing to the New Faces revues. It’s unlikely that Bravo Giovanni will ever turn up at Encores!, so the CD is one’s only chance to sample the music with a full orchestra—and the scoring, by Robert Ginzler, is imaginative. My blurb is ready: “Better than Il Divo—A Musical Affair. Fight to get tickets!”