archy and mehitabel

Concept Album, 1954 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Based on the 1920s newspaper columns of Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel stars a cockroach. Ostensibly, the columns were the work of said cockroach, named archy, who wrote them for Marquis in exchange for some apple peels left in the trash. The roach handled the mechanics of writing by hurling himself head first at the typewriter keys, and everything was in lower case because he couldn’t reach the shift key. This recording is sort of a grab-bag suite taken from different archy pieces, with scenes and narration by Joe Darion (lyricist of Man of La Mancha) underscored with music by George Kleinsinger (composer of Tubby the Tuba).  The underscoring provides a real New York atmosphere, and it occasionally explodes into whimsical songs and entertaining melodic fragments. The text is made of of archy’s thoughts (e.g., “people may think they amount to a great deal, but to a mosquito, they’re just a meal”) and stories of the odd characters he runs into. Most of his stories are about mehitabel (Carol Channing), the alley cat whom he loves unrequitedly. She takes up with a disreputable tomcat that leaves her with a litter of kittens saved by archy (Eddie Bracken) from drowning in a rainstorm. She “studies acting” with a disreputable old theater cat, then reluctantly gives in and takes a job as a house cat — but, unable to stand domesticity, she returns to the alley. In 1957, the piece was adapted for the stage as Shinbone Alley, with a full Kleinsinger-Darion score and a book by Mel Brooks; Eddie Bracken repeated his role, and Eartha Kitt played mehitabel. Three years after the Broadway failure, it turned up in a two-hour TV adaptation with Bracken and Tammy Grimes. Finally, in 1970, it became an animated cartoon with Bracken and Channing. Pirated recordings exist of the TV version, and there is also a complete, live pirate of the Broadway show, but the concept album is the only commercial recording available. — David Wolf