Show Boat (1927)
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1927 Show Boat is many things: a backstage musical, a show with somber themes (race relations, miscegenation), a serious musical (with great comedy sprinkled about), and a history of American popular music (operetta, minstrelsy and, because the show ends in the 1927 present, the Charleston). Hammerstein’s libretto proved it was possible to entertain and enlighten at the same time, something he would do until the end of his career. Show Boat was hugely influential on the development of the musical, especially its transition from the faraway palaces and deserts of operetta to a purely American story—a story that would grapple with the very idea of what America is.
The forces required to perform Show Boat are large and various, including an African-American ensemble, a Caucasian ensemble, and multitudes of leading roles of both races. Add to this a huge dancing ensemble, a time frame that moves forward from 1887 to 1927, and scenes that include the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the title vessel, and you have a show that poses myriad production problems.
In 1988, John McGlinn undertook the daunting task of recording Show Boat in as complete a version as possible, incorporating every note written for every version, revival, and film. That he pretty much succeeded is a testament to his dedication to the project (released on a three-CD set by EMI). He used Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1927 orchestrations wherever possible and a luxurious cast drawn from the opera as well as the musical theater worlds, even down to casting silent film star Lillian Gish in a brief but pivotal speaking role. Luckily the opera singers, Frederica von Stade, Jerry Hadley, Teresa Stratas, and Bruce Hubbard were comfortable with musical theater styles, with vocal chops as well as acting chops to spare, especially notable in Stratas’ intense Julie, a brief singing role but a heavy acting one (much dialogue is included). Von Stade (Magnolia, naïve daughter of the owners of the “floating show” Cotton Blossom) and Hadley (Gaylord Ravenal, gambler and ne’er-do-well) make a wonderful leading couple and lend credibility to roles that take them from courtship to marriage, parenthood, divorce, and old age. In the extended “Make Believe” scene (one of the more traditional operetta-like sequences in the show, beginning with “I’ve never seen you before” and ending with “I love you”), their performances progress credibly from the innocence required at the beginning to their fate being sealed with one another at the end. Karla Burns is a spectacular Queenie (the Cotton Blossom cook), especially strong in the trio “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and the portentous “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’.” David Garrison and Paige O’Hara as the song-and-dance team round out the cast, and the whole piece is given gravitas by Hubbard’s commanding performance of the iconic “Ol’ Man River.” Add to this the sparkling digital sound and the idiomatic playing of the London Sinfonietta and you have the most essential of essential musical theater recordings, rich in humor, drama, and character—not to mention distinctly American songs that will live as long as people love music.
Broadway Musicals 1930–1949
The early digital era (and the longer recording time afforded by the compact disc) coupled with a renewed interest in older shows in their original orchestrations brought about many landmark recordings during the 1980s. In fact, some of the earliest digital original cast recordings were made of shows from the 1930s, among them the Broadway revivals of Rodgers and Hart’s 1936 On Your Toes in 1983, with its original orchestrations by Hans Spialek (containing what is still the best recording of the famous “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet), and a Broadway import of the reworked 1937 British musical by Noel Gay, Me and My Girl, in 1986. This interest in early shows was greatly helped by the popularity of New York City Center’s Encores! series that began in 1994 and has attempted to restore original orchestrations and performance styles to the repertoire.
Roxbury Recordings, launched in 1990 by Leonore Gershwin, Ira Gershwin’s widow, is further evidence of this renewed interest in earlier shows. Roxbury soon released all of George Gershwin’s major early musicals in excellent recordings, mostly on the Nonesuch label: Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1927/1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Pardon My English (1933).
Girl Crazy is especially important for several reasons. It launched the career of the great musical comedy star Ethel Merman, and was packed with hit songs, too, as Gershwin found his own jazzy voice. Another plus, this first recording (Nonesuch) of the complete score included Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations. Interestingly it would be in his later Pulitzer Prize-winning show Of Thee I Sing that George Gershwin would spoof operetta conventions, but here he is his most wonderful Jazz-Age self, creating with his brother Ira standards like there was no tomorrow. (And there wasn’t; George would die several years later after creating his “folk opera” Porgy and Bess in 1935 and moving to Los Angeles to write film scores.) Girl Crazy is a veritable hit parade that introduced “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me,” and “Embraceable You.” Legend has it that in the pit on opening night were Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey, with Gershwin himself conducting.
For the present recording we have none other than Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft in Ethel Merman’s role as Kate. While no Merman, Luft’s enthusiasm more than compensates with credible renditions of “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and the classic “I Got Rhythm.” David Carroll and the wonderful Judy Blazer are terrific as the love interest and Frank Gorshin steals the show with his impressions during a “comic reprise” of “Embraceable You.” However, it’s the chance to hear the music played with zing by actual New York pit players who have a swell time digging into the score that makes this an essential recording.
Before Rodgers and Hammerstein, there was Rodgers and Hart. In the late 1930s Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart had a show on Broadway just about every season (and sometimes two). Hart’s embrace of vernacular and idiom propelled the age of operetta into the age of musical comedy. Only Cole Porter in the Golden Age and Stephen Sondheim in the modern would equal his wordplay, wit, rhymes, puns, and double entendres. While Rodgers and Hart are chiefly remembered today for heartfelt ballads like “My Funny Valentine,” “My Heart StoodStill,”and“WhereorWhen,”folks at the time were more taken by up-tempo numbers such as “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “You Took Advantage of Me.”
New York City Center’s Encores! series has done much to restore the work of these two to the repertoire, producing performances with original orchestrations of Babes in Arms (1937), Pal Joey (1940), and A Connecticut Yankee (1943 revival as the original 1927 version is lost). In 1997 Encores! staged The Boys from Syracuse. Always innovative, Rodgers and Hart decided to base the show on something that had not been done before: a play by William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors. Notoriously difficult to produce with two, count ’em, two sets of twins, The Boys from Syracuse (DRG) has been infrequently revived. It does however contain some of the team’s most wonderful songs. Rodgers was one of the 20th century’s waltz kings and all of his shows contain at least one example. In the present case we have “Falling in Love with Love” with its beguiling and soaring melody (along with a rather sardonic lyric in the context of the show) featuring the pure soprano of Rebecca Luker. You can also discover neglected ballads like “The Shortest Day of the Year,” sung by Malcolm Gets, and “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” an emotional duet performed by the strong-voiced Davis Gaines and Sarah Uriarte Berry who also show their versatility with the rousing “This Can’t Be Love.” Comic relief is amply supplied by Mario Cantone as Dromio of Syracuse and Debbie Gravitte as the man-hungry Luce in their duet, “He and She,” with Gravitte later belting out “Oh, Diogenes (find a man who’s honest!)” A particular highlight of this recording is the trio “Sing for Your Supper” with its song styles from operetta to jazz and its bird imitations (performed here with its original Hugh Martin vocal arrangement).