Category Archives: T-V

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Molly-BroadwayOriginal Broadway Cast, 1960 (Capitol/Angel) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) “I ain’t down yet!” shouts/sings the title character of this rowdy musical based on the real-life story of Molly Brown, and that might also be the motto of the show itself. Composer-lyricist Meredith Willson wrote this score right after his spectacular success with The Music Man. In a sense, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is the feisty younger sister of that great American musical; it’s rough around the edges, but just as appealing in its own way. One reason for its moderate initial success was the casting of the young Tammy Grimes and Harve Presnell, who were instantly recognized for their star quality in the show’s leading roles. Grimes’ inimitable voice is perfect for Molly, and her performance on the album is full of energy, especially in the rousing “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys.” Presnell’s gorgeous baritone is a joy; when he belts out “I’ll Never Say No,” goose bumps rise. The album is so well recorded that it makes you feel as if you’re seated front-row-center for this joyous musical.  Oddly, although Johnny Brown’s “Colorado, My Home” is in the show’s printed score and the melody is heard briefly in the overture, the song is not sung by Presnell on the album. But the recording is otherwise quite full, and since so many numbers were cut from the film version of Molly Brown and its soundtrack album (see below), this is your only opportunity to hear the bulk of the original score, including “I’ve A’ready Started In,” “My Own Brass Bed,” “Bea-u-ti-ful People of Denver,” “Are You Sure,” “If I Knew,” “Chick-a-Pen,” and “Dolce Far Niente.” — Gerard Alessandrini

Molly-filmFilm Soundtrack, 1964 (MGM/Rhino-Turner) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) Debbie Reynolds wrapped this musical around her little finger when she made the movie version. While the film is uneven, Reynolds propels it into the realm of a great MGM musical by shouting, grunting, and absolutely refusing to give less than 100 percent of herself to the role of Molly. Happily, Harve Presnell recreates his stunning Broadway performance as Johnny Brown; here, he sounds less big-baritonal and more tenorish than he does on the Broadway recording, but the effect is appropriate for the greater intimacy of the film medium. One of Presnell’s best numbers is the majestic “Colorado, My Home,” absent from the Broadway album. “I Ain’t Down Yet’ and “Belly Up to the Bar Boys” are the high points for Reynolds. Robert Armbruster’s musical direction is excellent, and the thrilling orchestrations are just about up to par with the great MGM musical sound of earlier decades. The only unfortunate aspect of the film and the soundtrack album is that so many of the Broadway songs were excised; missed most of all are “Beautiful People of Denver” and “Are You Sure?” Willson did write one new song for the film: “He’s My Friend,” a free-for-all dance number that helps keep the second half of the movie buoyant, at least until that scene where the Titanic sinks. Rhino’s expanded soundtrack CD is a delight. — G.A.

Two’s Company

Twos-CompanyOriginal Broadway Cast, 1952 (RCA/Masterworks Broadway) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Bette Davis always claimed that she knew exactly what she was doing when she decided to star in this revue. “Just turn me loose on Broadway as a musical comedy girl,” she sings (?) here. Two’s Company certainly had some prime talent behind it: composer Vernon Duke, lyricists Ogden Nash and Sammy Cahn, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and a strong cast that included David Burns, Ellen Hanley, and Nora Kaye. But the critics were bewildered, and the star’s illness forced the show to close after three sold-out months on Broadway. Without this particular star, Two’s Company would have been just another late-entry collection of topical skits and so-so songs; with her, it has retained a status perched somewhere between legendary disaster and unparalleled curiosity. The cast album certainly makes for interesting listening. The material is adequate, the supporting cast and presentation are strong, and the opening “Theatre Is a Lady” is a worthy anthem. Onstage, Davis’s authority may have masked some of her musical deficiencies, but on the recording, she sounds like a drag impersonator in a piano bar just before last call. Her pitch is uniquely her own, and her phrasing is a harbinger of her odd line readings in her later films. In a hillbilly number, “Purple Rose,” she’s game but uneasy and not very funny, yet she’s touching in the torchy “Just Like a Man.” Since her only subsequent musical was the ill-fated, unrecorded Miss Moffatt, the Two’s Company album is a fascinating footnote to a long, magnificently uneven career. — Richard Barrios

Two on the Aisle

Two-on-the-Aisle copyOriginal Broadway Cast, 1951 (Decca/MCA) 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) How does a recording of a second-rank show become an irreplaceable treasure? Here’s how: By 1951, the big-star Broadway revue was beginning to gather up its stars and skits for a finale, largely due to competition from television variety shows. Nevertheless, Betty Comden and Adolph Green still had a few satirical tricks up their sleeves. In collaboration with composer Jule Styne, they came up with a smart throwback to the days of headliner-packed revues, and that’s where Two on the Aisle shone most brightly, in that it starred Broadway’s premier clown and one of the greatest singers ever to set foot on a stage. Nor were their tasks circumscribed, for Bert Lahr could sing (in a unique fashion) and Dolores Gray was an ace comedienne. There were also supporting actors, none of them too impressive, and a rather gruesome pair of singing lovers. Fortunately, the cast album focuses on Lahr and Gray in both musical and comedic modes, without conveying their well-documented backstage feud. All here is golden, or close to it: Lahr’s mock-Pagliacci ode to “The Clown”; the chorus’s “Show Train,” an amusing précis of then-current stage hits; and Lahr and Gray as a vaudeville team invading the Metropolitan Opera (“You’ll be Lucia,” he blusters, “and I’ll be Sextet”). Gray is sensational, her songs perfectly tailored to her fabulous singing — intimate yet volcanic, funny, sexy, and so technically accomplished (with that precise diction) that lieder recitalists should study it. Gray’s performance of “If (You Hadn’t but You Did)” alone earns her a place in the Broadway pantheon. — Richard Barrios

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Verona copyOriginal Broadway Cast, 1971 (Decca) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) When you listen to the original cast recording of Two Gentlemen of Verona, you’ll know why this show won the 1972 Tony Award for Best Musical but not for Best Score. Even though the score, by composer Galt MacDermot and lyricist John Guare, is hopelessly locked into the 1970s, the album is an enjoyable listen; it captures a show of tremendous youth, vivacity, and edge, a unique mixture of Shakespeare and rock. The result is a century-spanning musical party. Sure, there are some duds, such as “Thurio’s Samba,” in which swear words and vulgarities are rhymed with nonsense syllables. But the standouts — “Summer, Summer,” “I Love My Father,” “Night Letter,” “Hot Lover,” and the finale — are quite a bit of fun. A fine cast helps: the one-and-only Raul Julia, Clifton Davis, Diana Davila, and Jonelle Allen, all of whom sound as if they’ve having the time of their lives. — Matthew Murray

Two by Two

Two-by-TwoOriginal Broadway Cast, 1970 (Columbia/Sony) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and a book by Peter Stone, Two by Two is an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play The Flowering Peach. The show became notorious for the onstage antics of its star, Danny Kaye, who turned the whole thing into an unruly vaudeville act when he resorted to performing the role of Noah in a wheelchair after tearing a ligament. None of his bad behavior need be suffered on the cast album, although showpieces like “Ninety Again!” and “You Have Got to Have a Rudder on the Ark” do reveal a self-indulgent star. Get past that and you’ll hear mostly excellent, late-career Rodgers; the master infuses ballads like “I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You” and “Something Doesn’t Happen” with his trademark warmth and melodic surprises. Eddie Sauter’s orchestrations have a comfy feel, and Charnin’s lyrics are probably the best of his career, pitched midway between the sentiment of Hammerstein and the dexterity of Hart. The supporting cast is as youthful and exuberant as Kaye is old-school and steeped in shtick: Walter Willison sings out with real Broadway juvenile brio, and Madeline Kahn nails a high C at the end of a vulgar piece of special material. The CD has a brief Act I finale track that’s missing from the LP, and it’s a much better sonic mix.  — Marc Miller

Tuscaloosa’s Calling Me…But I’m Not Going!

TuscaloosaOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 1975 (Vanguard/no CD) No stars; not recommended. The dated humor of this revue makes the cast album more of a time capsule than a listening pleasure. Written as a love letter to New York, the score, by composer Hank Beebe and lyricist Bill Heyer, takes lightly satirical swipes at Big Apple attitude (“Everything You Hate Is Right Here,” sung by “Sodom and the Gomorrahs”), nudity in the theater (“Things Were Out”), sex (“Fugue for a Ménage aTrois”), and the dating scene (“Singles Bar”). The archeologically minded will appreciate the two sketches included on the recording, especially the dialogue between a cab driver and an out-of-towner who complains about Broadway theater tickets costing 17 dollars. It’s all very lacking in distinction, although the title tune is rather stirring. Of the three-person cast, only Patti Perkins stands out with her childlike belt. Seventies nostalgists may change the rating above to one star. — David Barbour

Triumph of Love

TriumphOriginal Broadway Cast, 1997 (JAY) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) Pierre Marivaux’s 1722 farce La surprise de l’amour gets a musical workout and an English title, Triumph of Love, thanks to librettist James Magruder, composer Jeffrey Stock, and lyricist Susan Birkenhead. Christopher Sieber is Agis, a young Prince of Sparta, raised by his rationalist Aunt Hesione (Betty Buckley) and Uncle Hermocrates (F. Murray Abraham) to disdain emotional expression and the usurping Princess Leonide (Susan Egan). Naturally, the latter shows up, love blossoms, and complications multiply like rabbits. (This show sets a world’s record for mistaken-identity plot twists.) The narrative is wearying at times — even reading the synopsis in the CD booklet can lead to fatigue — but the songs are accomplished and often enjoyable. Stock has a definite gift for soaring, exciting melodies, orchestrated here by Bruce Coughlin, and Birkenhead’s lyrics are very witty. The best songs are the opener, “This Day of Days,” “Serenity,” and “Issue in Question,” in which Hesione and Agis struggle with feelings of love. “Teach Me Not to Love You” is a notably pretty quartet. The score is less successful when trolling for Broadway laughs via the clown characters played by Nancy Opel, Roger Bart, and Kevin Chamberlin, whose songs include “Mr. Right” and “Henchmen Are Forgotten.” The cast, however, is exemplary. Buckley’s singing is nothing short of heroic, especially in “Serenity” and “If I Cannot Love,” which was cut during previews but is offered here as a bonus track. Sieber and Egan provide sterling vocals, and Abraham is surprisingly effective in “Emotions.” (Note that the melody of “Mr. Right” is by Van Dyke Parks, and that of “Have a Little Faith” is by Michael Kosarin.) — David Barbour

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

TreeOriginal Broadway Cast, 1951 (Columbia/Sony) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) With its high nostalgia quotient and dream ballet, this adaptation of Betty Smith’s beloved novel — scripted by Smith herself, with George Abbott’s help — may seem more like the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein than that of Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields. Although A Tree Grows in Brooklyn didn’t quite recoup its investment during its eight-month run, the show felt like a hit at the time. And the cast album, produced by Goddard Lieberson with his usual finesse, captures the excitement of recording the score just after the rave reviews came in. Schwartz’s music shows his fine gift for evoking time, place, and mood in his songs, and Fields superbly captures the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of early-20th-century Brooklyn in her lyrics, which are poignant, salty, or hilarious by turns. As the tragic young Nolans, Johnny Johnston and Marcia Van Dyke are a bit on the dull side but are blessed with magnificent material, from his cocky “Mine ‘Til Monday” and “I’m Like a New Broom” to her pensive “Make the Man Love Me” and joyous “Look Who’s Dancing.” As sassy Aunt Cissy, Shirley Booth is occasionally off pitch but otherwise dead on, wringing every drop of bawdiness and poignancy from “He Had Refinement” and “Is That My Prince?” Some abrupt tonal shifts between comedy and tragedy betray the dramaturgical problems that may have contributed to the show not having a longer run, and a hokey hit-song finale fashioned especially for the recording was a mistake. Still, this is an overall excellent preservation of an undersung, affecting score. — Marc Miller


TovarichOriginal Broadway Cast, 1963 (Capitol/Angel) 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) In its CD and MP3 formats, this cast album is very different from the original LP edition in that, aside from the overture, no song is in the same position as it was on the original. Still, in any medium, Tovarich is a pleasant listen, with a score by composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Anne Croswell. Film stars Vivien Leigh and Jean Pierre Aumont play the leads, Tatiana and Mikail, two Russian royals who flee to Paris after the revolution and hire themselves out as a butler and a maid. Most of the songs aren’t terribly dramatic, as their titles indicate: “You Love Me,” “The Only One,” “I Know the Feeling,” and “All for You.” But they’re all lovely, and they do have the right feel. Margery Gray and Byron Mitchell as the young adults in the household, who fall in puppy love with their new servants, have two undistinguished but fun songs together. And Mitchell gets to do a Charleston with Leigh in the tuneful paean to “Wilkes-Barre, PA.” — Peter Filichia


Touch-finalOriginal Cast, 1970 (Ampex/no CD) No stars; not recommended. For years, this seemed the most ubiquitous of all show recordings. It turned up everywhere: at garage sales, school sales, library sales. If you moved into a new apartment, you’d find a copy of Touch in the closet. One has to wonder who on earth bought the thing, but lots of people had to if it ended up in all those places. For the record, this is a sweet-tempered, soft-rock musical, with a score by Jim Crozier and Kenn Long, that got decent notices and had a modest run Off-Broadway. With its environmental and social concerns, the show was certainly well meaning, but its dramaturgy is primitive and its songs are flavorless. There’s very little here to interest musical theater aficionados. — David Wolf