The New Recording of ROBERTA
My work station at THE STAR-LEDGER was across from the sports section. Its writers knew that I’d written a book on baseball and had seen a game at every major league park save Cincinnati, so we got along.
Eventually, when some of them couldn’t place a name, they’d look over to me and say, “Hey, Pete – what was the name of that second-baseman for the Orioles in 1960?” to which I’d immediately say “Marv Breeding.”
One Friday morning they were huddled around my desk talking about the previous night’s “Monday Night Football.”
(Did you catch the incongruity of that sentence? There’s a reason that we were discussing a previous evening’s “Monday Night Football” game on a Friday. Seriously: “Monday Night Football” is the actual name of the weekly program, so when a game is played on Thursday, it’s called “A Thursday Night Edition of Monday Night Football.” Honest to God.)
Anyway, New Englander that I am, I was waxing rhapsodic about the recent Patriots success, in great contrast to the team’s horrific history starting in 1960 and continuing into the ‘70s when they helped opposing running back O.J. Simpson (remember him?) to set a record. The writers were listening intently -- older ones nodding in agreement at each fact I correctly divulged while younger ones were finding my revelations of more than moderate interest.
Then the mail deliverer came by and handed me a package. I assumed it was one of the 17 books I’d ordered the previous week from the new service I’d discovered on line: www.abebooks.com. I didn’t know which one it was until I opened the package, when the sportswriters and I saw the title.
GOWNS BY ROBERTA.
And ever so slowly, the sportswriters backed away, suddenly saying that they really needed to get back to work.
I knew that there was no use in explaining that I wanted to read Alice Duer Miller’s 1933 best-seller because it was refashioned as a musical that same year. Even today, ROBERTA remains one of Broadway’s most famous ‘30s titles. The Jerome Kern-Otta Harbach hit yielded a standard (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) that literally became a Number One Hit even in the rock ‘n’ roll era a full 25 years later, thanks to a soulful rendition by The Platters.
ROBERTA also inspired a Fred-and-Ginger movie, a renamed revisal remake (LOVELY TO LOOK AT) and seven studio cast albums. Now we have an eighth -- easily the best of them all -- on New World Records. What an achievement from cast members Annalene Beechey, Kim Criswell, Patrick Cummings, Jason Graae, Diana Montague and conductor Rob Berman with Orchestra of Ireland. Credit, too, to those behind the recording studio glass: Judith Sherman, Larry Moore, Jonathan Ford and Joe Csibi.
This two-disc set contains plenty of dialogue, too. If the actors’ delivery seems arch and artificial, I suspect that the performers have precisely replicated the style of musicals back then. Similarly speaking, Criswell’s giving Clementina Scharwenka an accent thicker than Billy Magnuson’s character in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is probably in line with what theatergoers heard at the New Amsterdam in 1933. ROBERTA’S middle-class audience had parents and grandparents with similar accents; now their easily assimilated offspring were speaking The King’s English and could recognize and laugh at their forebears.
And because I did read GOWNS BY ROBERTA (although in the privacy of my own home), I was now able to see what librettist-lyricist Harbach had retained, discarded and invented.
Miller’s story has ever-so-straight-and sincere football hero John Kent dumped by debutante Sophia Teale just before they were to set sail for Paris. He makes the trip without her, although he knows only one person in all of France: Aunt Minnie, long ago ostracized by his family because she’d been involved in “one of the great scandals of the happy ‘90s.” (Translation: she got herself a husband -- but he wasn’t hers.)
Unfortunately and not surprisingly, Minnie’s lover left his money to his wife and kids. Leave it to Minnie to reinvent herself as Paris’ most celebrated and successful dress designer. Of course she needed a more rarefied name than Minnie’s Gowns and thus chose Gowns by Roberta.
“When you’re depressed,” Miller observes, “that’s when you visit relatives.” And as many who have been dumped have done, John pours out his anguish to Roberta. She pooh-poohs it: “Here they will adore you,” she insists, “They will fight over you.”
John can’t see it, but Roberta insists “I will teach you. In three weeks you will know more than she does.” Roberta dresses him as expertly as Elle would remake Emmett in a musical nearly 74 years later. But, a la the daddies in THE FANTASTICKS who know enough to “never say no,” she deems off-limits her employee Stephanie, to whom John is indeed attracted.
The big surprise is that Roberta dies on page 72 of the 175-page book (and Track 16 of the 43-track set). Really, both the novel and musical should have been called JOHN, and not because commercial tie-ins could have been mined from plumbing concerns; he remains the main event. For the rest of the book, John will endeavor to give “the only tribute he can make to her memory,” which is “to try to be a little bit the sort of a man Roberta admired.”
Like Lambert Strether in AMBASSADOR, Gay Paree awakens and changes dull and innocent John. He’ll eventually learn with Stephanie that “The second person singular is used between lovers.”
Hmmm, imagine a song in which two people begin using “vous” and fewer than 32 bars later switch to “tu.” Now that’s a way to move the action forward! Kern and Harbach didn’t think of that, but they did give such gems as “Yesterdays,” splendidly delivered by Minnie (Montague) and “You’re Devastating,” sung by John (Cummings), Sophie (Daniel) and Huck (Graae).
“Huck?” you’re asking. Yes, to make ROBERTA more of a musical, Harbach gave John an insouciant friend – a band singer – who wisely sees through Sophie. Most of his lines are veiled criticisms of the pretentious miss. Graae is drier than a one-part-vermouth, six-parts-gin martini. But when he sings, the joy comes in, especially in the jaunty and delicious “Let’s Begin” which you’ll wish would never end.
Roberta leaves John $40,000. Is that, he wonders, enough to woo Stephanie? Clearly he’s used to thinking money is the main factor in winning a woman. But Roberta leaves the business to Stephanie, who decides she’ll only take it on if John is a hands-on partner. He reluctantly agrees.
How flummoxed John is by his new occupation! “Women dress to please men, don’t they?” he asks, only to be told “Or to annoy one another.” He’s also surprised that “a gray dress with a touch of flame” is called “The Nun Awakens.”
A man in a woman’s world makes him the talk of the town as well as back home. His mother derides the idea of “a male dressmaker!” and demands he “come home and attend to a business no man need be ashamed of.”
Ashamed? Well, Miller wrote, “One of the more disreputable Paris revues put in a one-act play dealing with the adventures of an innocent American youth in the fitting room of his new inheritance.”
Instead, the ROBERTA recording reveals that Kern and Harbach opted for an opera parody as seen and heard through popular entertainers of the day: Bing Crosby, Morton Downey, Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Arthur Tracy, Rudy Vallee and, last but hardly least, Ethel Merman (replicated here by Kevin Vortman).
The musical keeps Sophie on the scene, and John’s love and loyalty does threaten to make him succumb to her. But, wrote Miller, “Roberta had taught him that a man in love would neither be a slave nor master -- that in a great love a man and woman must be partners.” So after plenty of cat-and-mouse, John does wind up with Stephanie – but not before she sabotages Sophie by selling her a terrible dress. “All my life,” Stephanie says, “I have been dressing women to bring out the best in them. Now let me see what I can do to bring out the worst.”
Even if you didn’t know when GOWNS BY ROBERTA was published, you’d know it’s an ancient novel just from its having an umlaut in the word “coöperation.” But ROBERTA, despite an old-fashioned libretto, sparkles in this new recording. I’d even recommend it to sportswriters.
— Peter Filichia