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December 6, 2013

Betty & Adolph & Jule & Sammy & Saul & William & Larry & Bob & André

Listening to the fetching LOST BROADWAY AND MORE: VOLUME 5, I was reminded of that famous expression that Jule Styne was fond of quoting: “Musicals aren’t written; they’re rewritten.”

You can certainly prove it from the logos of two of his shows. FUNNY GIRL’S has a woman roller-skating (badly), but during rehearsals, the song that inspired the logo -- “I Did It on Roller Skates” -- was dropped, leaving the logo a little less logical. It would have regained its relevance in the film in which Fanny Brice (almost) skated, but it wasn’t reinserted.

Because the on-stage FUNNY GIRL wouldn’t allow for retakes and would make Streisand much too vulnerable to spills that could keep her out of the show indefinitely, in came “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” It’s a number that really makes no sense, for savvy showman Flo Ziegfeld would have never put his onion-roll-faced Fanny in that number for real. But it stayed and “I Did It on Roller Skates” rolled into oblivion.

Now, a mere half-century after it was cut, we can finally hear it, thanks to musical director and sheet music guru Michael Lavine and musical theater historian David Cleaver. They’ve found and recorded seven obscure songs written by Styne, Comden and Green as well as 13 others they wrote with other collaborators: Styne with Sammy Cahn, Bob Merrill and William D. Dunham (Who?); Comden and Green with Saul Chaplin and Larry Grossman.

“I Did It on Roller Skates” is sung by the ever-versatile Christine Pedi. She replicates the real Jewish-tinged, down-to-earth delivery with a superb Second Avenue accent that Fanny Brice routinely used. Indeed, she’s far closer to the Fanny Brice mark than Streisand ever got. Pedi’s piece de resistance occurs when the song calls for a kiss; she makes the marvelous sound of a squeaky smack that’s worthy of a cartoon character.

Hilary Knight’s artwork for HALLELUJAH, BABY! displayed a woman under an umbrella, because the opening number, “When the Weather’s Better” had Leslie Uggams and everyone else on stage enduring a rainstorm. That song was lost in Boston, although both the LP and CD reissue retained a picture of Uggams holding an umbrella.

The show, which concerned the African-American experience in this country, originally used “When the Weather’s Better” to begin and end the show. Its metaphor was that the skies were all cloudy and gray for blacks in the late 19th century but they improved as time went on, concluding in 1967 with everyone’s putting out his hand, finding that no rain was falling and then closing his umbrella.

The symbolism worked well enough when I saw the Boston tryout; why the song and concept were dropped I’ll never understand (especially given that nothing took their place). The song itself was a perky winner, as you’ll hear courtesy of Nyna Nelson and Lavine himself.

While those two logos remained as is despite the changes, FADE OUT -- FADE IN’s changed – although that had nothing to do with a dropped song. The original logo was a Hirschfeld of star Carol Burnett wearing a sandwich sign. “It still is,” you say. Yes, but Hirschfeld re-caricatured her face -- I’m assuming at Burnett’s insistence. The first drawing had her look far less attractive, replete with pinwheel eyes and scraggly hair that only Flip of THE APPLE TREE would have approved.

In FADE OUT – FADE IN’s case, the songs included in LOST BROADWAY aren’t ones that were dropped from the show, but songs that were later added. After Burnett tried to wangle her way out of doing the musical (only to find that she was legally bound to continue), Styne, Comden and Green added two songs: one was “Notice Me,” in which a minor studio exec proclaimed his ardor to Burnett’s ambitious character who paid little attention. The other was a solo for Burnett called “A Girl to Remember,” which at one point was the title song until the creators decided that they liked “Fade Out – Fade In” better. (A listen or two to “A Girl to Remember” may convince you that the creators made the right choice.)

These discs are our “Ben Bagley records” of the 21st century. As Bagley did, Lavine and Cleaver structured their disc as if it were a musical. Thus, the first selection is an overture (culled from some Styne music from HIGH BUTTON SHOES) and the second cut is a gen-u-ine opening number: the wryly conceived “Why Must There Be an Op’ning Song?” from STEP LIVELY, the musical movie of ROOM SERVICE.

So if this record is meant to replicate a musical, it certainly is devoid of second-act trouble. Most of the early songs are more fascinating than memorable, but the majority of the later ones are excellent.

When Comden and Green did their PARTY as a Broadway revue in 1958 and again in 1977, they included one song – “Inspiration” -- from BONANZA BOUND, their 1947 out-of-town closer. Too bad Green never did “Misunderstood,” a terrific number about a con man who tries to con everyone into believing that he doesn’t con anyone (but isn’t convincing). Tom Hewitt, however, is an excellent stand-in for Green and delivers the proper umbrage with the witty if occasionally syntax-challenged lyrics.

Long before Douglas J. Cohen wrote his excellent “So Far, So Good” (for NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY), Styne, Comden and Green wrote a song by the same title for TWO ON THE AISLE, their 1951 revue. Eight years after it was dropped, its first four measures provided the melody for “Momma’s Talkin Soft,” a song that would be dropped from GYPSY not because it stunk, but because director Jerome Robbins positioned Rose’s daughters high above the action, and the kid playing Baby Louise was petrified of heights. Considering all we’ve heard about Robbins, it’s a miracle he didn’t replace her (before kicking her down the stairs).

Anyway, “So Far, So Good” is a nifty charm song, and perhaps that’s why it didn’t stay in TWO ON THE AISLE; if there’s one thing that Dolores Gray and Bert Lahr didn’t much have, it was charm (especially when appearing opposite each other – but that’s another story).

Sexually free women have somehow always been assumed to be financially irresponsible. Not in “I’m Laying away a Buck,” sung by a loose woman who would think that Suze Orman is a good thing. Here’s Brooke Moriber (Hey, what happened to her sunny middle name?) to sing this second-act sweetie from GLAD TO SEE YOU, the show that opened in Philadelphia in late 1944 but closed in Boston in early 1945. Sammy Cahn was a lyricist whose seemed to save his best work for films, but here he came up with a most clever and thorough lyric.

By the way, there’s some Lerner and Loewe as well as some Kern and Hammerstein on the disc – because Lavine and Cleaver decided to include a good joke from SAY, DARLING, the 1958 comedy with music. The play’s best running gag has a parade of people entering to audition for an upcoming musical – and each sings the same song: the then-ubiquitous “I Could Have Danced All Night.” (All right, one guy goes for “Ol’ Man River.”)

Finally someone comes in and auditions with a song that no one on the staff knows. Actually, it’s not the refrain, as we’re inclined to infer, but it turns out to be a verse – to “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now THIS part of the song was indeed written by Styne, Comden and Green, so here you have a strange collaboration between them and Lerner and Loewe.

But the disc includes a far more worthy selection from SAY, DARLING. The song may be called “My Little Yellow Dress,” but a better article of clothing to describe it would be soft-shoe. The singer is Nyna Nelson, and Nyna scores a ten in her charming rendition.

There’s that word “charm” again. That’s what so many of these songs have – including the title song for FUNNY GIRL.

“What,” you say, “you think that dreary and boring song that came from the movie had charm?” No, the song that Lavine and Cleaver include here is a far better one which Styne and Merrill wrote in 1964. That year “Hello, Dolly!” sparked a title-song mania across Broadway, so FUNNY GIRL producer Ray Stark asked Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, who hadn’t written a title song for their hit, to get on the ball. They obliged, but Streisand, already the centerpiece of eight numbers and a presence on three others, felt she’d had enough to do. Still, she recorded it and now Leslie Kritzer -- an excellent Fanny Brice in the 2001 Paper Mill production -- does it proud here.

And so it goes, with a solid eleven o’clock number called “Fill ‘er Up” from the aforementioned BONANZA BOUND and a nice denouement with the title song for WHATA WAY TO GO, the 1964 picaresque film for which Comden and Green provided the screenplay. The film was made as a madcap comedy, but the song is a tender and tuneful ballad. I’m guessing that it was earmarked for the section where heroine Louisa May Foster Hopper Flint Anderson Benson sees her life with Husband Number Four (Gene Kelly) as a movie musical.

There are even curtain calls done in the style that Bob Fosse adopted for his later shows: in alphabetical order, each cast member gets to say his name while Lavine reprises “Hey, What’s Your Name?” a song from the 1946 film THE KID FROM BROOKLYN.

But wait a minute! Where’s Bruce Yeko’s credit on this ending?

Longtime fans of cast albums know Yeko’s name from the dozens upon dozens of recordings he’s either sponsored or made happen in a 40-year career. Granted, he only speaks on the disc, and his contribution is limited to seven words, but I say that should be enough for a credit at the end – which is why I’m giving him a credit at the end of my piece.

         — Peter Filichia

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