Monday, October 25, 2010

Under-Recorded Musicals

As a fan of musicals, I long ago learned to accept that many of the pre-1943 musicals are unlikely to receive a full-fledged cast recording: these shows were created before Oklahoma! popularized the Original Cast Album in the U.S. (original cast recordings had been much more common in England up until then) and before the LP made it possible to record most of the important numbers in a score. Some shows have been reconstructed and recorded in their original form, mostly when someone is willing to pay for them -- the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization has paid for several Rodgers and Hart musicals to be recorded (though not enough of them; most of their '20s scores lack full recordings) and the Gershwin estate often does the same with musicals by George and/or Ira Gershwin. But this is always going to be an under-recorded part of musical history; the supply is too great and consumer demand for recordings too small.

There's another category of under-recorded musical, which is a post-Oklahoma! musical that was recorded but, for one reason or another, never really got a fully satisfying recording. Usually this happens with musicals that have extremely long scores that couldn't be contained on a single LP; they had to undergo cutting and pruning for that purpose.

The show whose lack of a really complete recording is most frustrating to me is Carousel. It has probably the longest score of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show (as well as possibly the best), and no single-disc version could accommodate it. The original cast version, on 78s, really gives only a vague idea of what the score was like -- and it also incorporates several arrangements that were thrown out soon after the recording was made. (Robert Russell Bennett's original version of the "Carousel Waltz," used on the recording, was replaced with a more symphonic version by the show's main orchestrator, Don Walker, and it's Walker's version that's the basis for most stand-alone performances of the suite.) The movie soundtrack incorporates all the cuts and changes that were made for the movie version. The Lincoln Center cast recording, from 1965, has nearly-complete versions of some numbers -- notably the bench scene, perhaps the most ambitious musical scene ever undertaken in musical theatre up to that point -- but had to drop or truncate other numbers to make room for them.

In the '80s, when studio cast recordings of old musicals were briefly popular, there were plans to do a complete Carousel, but it never happened. MCA did do a recording with Samuel Ramey as Billy, but due to some kind of rights issue they were not allowed to use the original orchestrations, and had new (and not very good, as I recall) ones specially made for the recording.

Since then, there have been two cast recordings based on Nicholas Hytner's 1993 London stage production. They have their good points, but the vocalism isn't always up to what the score needs. More importantly, they had to re-orchestrate for smaller orchestras, and that's a bigger problem for Carousel than most musicals: it was scored for one of the biggest orchestras in Broadway history. It used a 39-piece orchestra, including 22 strings. That's bigger than some orchestras that play Mozart, never mind Broadway. It can be done with a smaller string section (it's hard to tell, but it sounds like fewer strings in the clip above), but when you cut down the strings to the level of modern pit bands, the music's impact is reduced even more than for the average re-orchestrated show.

At least the 1994 recording based on Hytner's production (after it moved to New York), though with some re-scoring, uses a string section that's large enough to do some justice to the score -- though even with the longer running times of CD, it had to make some cuts to avoid spilling over onto two discs.

What Carousel needs is a recording of two discs, with a full orchestra. But though there were a bunch of recordings like these in the '90s, from John Yap's TER/Jay company (which recorded every note of dance music and transition music for many classic musicals, marketing them to schools and amateurs who wanted to learn all the music prior to performing it), Carousel never made it onto the list of recorded shows; I'm not sure why. The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization recently paid to make a two-disc complete recording of Allegro, but I honestly think Carousel needs it more.

Another big show that needs another recording is Follies, though that's a show that actually has had nearly all its music recorded in its original form; it's just that it's never had a really satisfying recording. There have been four recordings of Follies, and all of them have something wrong with them:

- The original cast recording has (of course) the best cast, but the record company refused to give the album two LPs. To get it onto one, nearly every song was truncated.

- The 1985 "Follies in Concert" recording has the usual problems of live recording at the time -- it's not a great-sounding album. More importantly, it's not a satisfying cast overall; hardly anybody is exactly right for his or her part. (Barbara Cook is a great singer; Sally was never really her kind of part -- it's not a part she would have done on the stage.) And even this version left out or changed some bits of the score.

- The 1987 London cast recording preserves the "revisal" that Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman created (on suggestions by the producer, Cameron Mackintosh) for this production, revisions that were eventually withdrawn because hardly anyone liked them. Though this was the only production of Follies that has ever been a commercial hit, so frankly I would think they'd be worth looking at more closely. Still, the recording preserves the worst ideas from the production: dropping a very important song ("The Road You Didn't Take") and adding mostly mediocre new songs from a Sondheim who had forgotten how to write a concise 32-bar song. (The new climactic number, "Make The Most of Your Music," is one of Sondheim's most overlong and repetitive songs.)

- The 1998 recording based on the New Jersey Papermill Playhouse production includes nearly the whole score plus some cut numbers, with the original orchestrations and a cast that at least had performed the thing on stage. While I'm glad to have it just for the completeness and archival value, it's a very unexciting recording -- maybe because Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, stepped in to conduct it. He's a great orchestrator but a dull conductor, and the whole thing is too low-energy to make much of an impact.

It's too bad the 2007 Encores! production of Follies didn't get a recording, but again, if no one wants to step in and pay for one, you can't blame record companies for not doing it; most show albums are money-losers. There's a production of Follies coming next year with Bernadette Peters as Sally, and that might get a recording if it does well -- but I fear that this might use a reduced orchestra too, and this (like Carousel) is a show that needs the original orchestrations more than most.

Finally, the post-Oklahoma! musical that is done least justice by its recording is probably The Golden Apple, John LaTouche and Jerome Moross's monumentally ambitious, weird, goofy and kind of brilliant Americanized take on The Odyssey. As one of the first true through-composed musicals -- a show that's sung almost from beginning to end but calls for musical-comedy, not opera, voices -- the single-disc cast album can't give more than a taste of the score, but because it wasn't a big hit, there's never been a full recording. Except that because there's no full recording, it's hard for people to discover it, and therefore hard for the show to get as many performances as it probably deserves.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Ann-Margret Unbalancing Act

TCM showed The Pleasure Seekers tonight (they've been getting access to more and more Fox films, presumably -- I don't get the channel -- as the Fox Movie Channel phases older films out). I've written a couple of times before about how this terrible film is the perfect cheesy, prematurely-dated example of all the problems old-school popular culture was facing in 1964. The visuals, the attitude to sexual freedom, and the music are all clearly the products of people who wanted to appeal to the Youth Market but had no idea what young people were like. The Bossa Nova version of "Blue Moon" at a dance for wealthy Jet Setters is still one of the definitive 1964 moments.

Pleasure Seekers was followed by another Viva Las Vegas showing, which I didn't watch (that's a movie that works better in excerpts, anyway). But two 1964 Ann-Margret movies in a row got me to thinking about her again. I always liked her, at all stages of her career, and never got why critics in the mid-'60s seemed to dislike her: in The Cincinnati Kid she's actually very good (granted that it's not a difficult part for her to play) and her bad movies aren't bad because of anything she does. But though she probably would have become a big movie star if musicals had been more in fashion, it occurred to me that there's something most of her early movies have in common: they're almost all unbalanced by her presence, tilted in her favor either more than the story warrants or more than the actual star wanted.

The early Ann-Margret movies, apart from Kitten With a Whip where she's sort of the star and Pocketful of Miracles where she wasn't well-known yet, all seem to beef up her role to some extent:

- State Fair increases her role's importance compared to the same part (as played by Vivian Blaine) in the previous movie version.

- Bye Bye Birdie, of course, is one of the era's most famous examples of a movie where the director threw more and more material at a part that was supposed to be supporting. It culminated in the legendary opening and closing scenes (shot after all the other production had wrapped), effectively turning it into her movie and her story, since the real arc of the film becomes how she goes from screechy teenager to sultry woman.

- Viva Las Vegas, same thing (same director as Birdie); there's a famous story that Colonel Parker insisted on the scrapping of some of the material that was planned for her, though this may not necessarily have been only because she was stealing the movie from Elvis -- apparently what really bugged Parker was that Sidney was going way over budget, and the whole point of the Parker/Presley strategy was to make movies very cheap, so that they could always make back their cost no matter how bad they were. In any case, the movie has a weird structure because her part sort of drops away to almost nothing after "My Rival," and yet she still dominates the movie because she's a much more natural movie performer than Elvis is.

- The Pleasure Seekers is another version of the Three Coins In the Fountain story, where the three girls are usually supposed to be about equal. Here, though the other two girls actually have marginally more substantial stories (I said marginally; they're all kind of terrible, and Carol Lynley is stuck with a scene that the film's producer would recycle in Valley of the Dolls), A-M gets four solo musical numbers -- written by the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn team, who had no idea how to write for her -- once again tipping the movie to her.

- The Cincinnati Kid isn't really tilted that much toward her; it's just that both the young female parts are a bit irrelevant (that was one of Sam Peckinpah's problems with the project, apparently) and A-M plays her part much better than Tuesday Weld plays hers, thereby making her the definite female lead when it was probably supposed to be Weld, or neither of them.

A lot of these examples have to do with directors and producers tossing extra material at Ann-Margret because either they were infatuated with her, or really thought she was great (with George Sidney it seemed to be a combination of both) or because they thought she was destined for stardom and wanted to get in on it. But the way these movies use her, they probably didn't help her become a star; they seemed to suggest that she was an outsize personality who was always trying to dominate any scene she was in, and couldn't do a normal co-starring role with another actor. I can barely think of an early A-M scene where she's not completely in control of the scene, whether the story calls for it or not.

All of this, as I said, just shows that she needed to be in musicals, where everybody is always trying to upstage everybody and the more you try, the more fun it is (sometimes). And of course starting in Carnal Knowledge she proved she could tone it down and re-invent herself as a character actress who could stand still and let someone else have the scene. But in her early years, at the height of hype -- hype which I think was well-deserved -- her movies are all written and shot in such a way as to make it clear that no one has a chance to be noticed when she's on screen.

Which, paradoxically, I think made it harder for her to establish herself as a star. After the Elvis experience, there was really no way for her to get male co-stars of any stature for a while (except Alain Delon in Once a Thief, and in an English-language movie he wasn't exactly a star), because there was no reason to believe a male co-star wouldn't get eaten for lunch. Which is why her few '60s movies as an attempted star mostly have male co-stars who are used to getting eaten alive by leading ladies. Like Tony Franciosa, Hollywood's man of choice when you needed a guy who understood that when he was onscreen with A-M or Raquel Welch, nobody would be looking at him. This may also explain why she was passed over for parts in the big musicals that dominated the '60s; she was considered for Mrs. Molloy in Hello, Dolly!, but even assuming Streisand would have accepted it, she would have been way too outsize a personality for that rather little part.

That's a bit too much writing about one starlet from the '60s, even one I think was more genuinely talented and interesting than we usually got to see in movies. (I've compared her, and still do, to Anna Karina: they had the looks, the distinctive personality, the obvious fascination they inspired in their directors, and even the ability to sing and dance -- but they didn't always put it all together in the same film.) I just find it intriguing that it doesn't necessarily help a potential star to have supporting parts inflated for her (or, perhaps worse, to inflate them simply by being on the screen); it just gets you a reputation as someone who isn't enough of a team player to be a star.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


I tried to make a video like this myself a while back, but this one is much better and more complete -- as far as I can tell, it's all of Pinky's responses to the "Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?" question from "Animaniacs" and the spin-off series. I think they did the routine a couple of times on "Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain" and in the "Wakko's Wish" movie, so it's not one hundred percent complete, but it's all the responses from the commercial DVD sets.

They're not arranged in order, which makes it less clear, but there was an evolution in the kind of answers Pinky gave. Originally it was something that implied he was "pondering" a solution to the actual problem he and Brain were dealing with, but that his idea was something weird or potentially obscene. Midway through the spinoff, it changed to become a random thought on popular culture or some other issue that happened to be on Pinky's mind ("But 'Tuesday Weld' isn't a complete sentence").

There was also at least one "pondering" that was written in and redubbed at the last minute. A longtime fan (I think it was Ron "Keeper" O'Dell, the keeper of the most important "Animaniacs" online resource) suggested "I think so, Brain, but she'd never leave Mickey." It was apparently recorded, but the Warners legal department ordered it out because of the knotty compensation issues involved -- you're not supposed to use unsolicited ideas, even if they give you permission. So it was changed to "But then my name would be 'Thumby.'"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Created in the Studio

I just wanted to highlight this post about the matte shots in The Love Bug (supervised by Alan Maley, though the king of mattes, Peter Ellenshaw, came back to do some, including the famous shot of Dean Jones' nighttime search for Herbie). The Disney company's determination to do as much studio and as little location work as possible -- substituting the matte department, the Ub Iwerks sodium process, and other special effects gimmicks for location shooting -- was just an extreme version of a common tendency for old-school studio films in the '60s: as the '40s and '50s vogue for location shooting started to recede, older producers and directors were interested in controlling costs by staying in the studio.

Also, I think some producers may have felt that the visual appeal of location shooting had become diluted. Two of the biggest hit movies from 1964, Warners' My Fair Lady and Disney's Mary Poppins, both elected to tell turn-of-the-century English stories entirely on Hollywood studio sets, and while it's hard to know whether this saved a lot of money (especially on My Fair Lady, which was insanely expensive for a film with few locations and a relatively small cast), but it made the films look more distinctive and spectacular than the real London would have looked at that point.

In any case, I think The Love Bug has some of the best uses of matte paintings ever; like those TV shows today that use green screen to fake many locations, it uses mattes in places where you're barely aware of them. And yet the overall effect is to create a San Francisco that is an idealized, misty, magical version of the city -- a place where the crazy story seems plausible. Extensive location shooting (there was some, but not much) would have made the story seem much harder to accept.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Disney and the Copyright Police

That Donald Duck remix cartoon also reminded me of something I don't think I've mentioned before: despite its reputation as an extreme copyright hawk -- there's a reason "Disney lawyer" is a term all its own -- Disney probably cracks down less on YouTube postings of its classic material than almost any other company.

I won't link to examples for fear of jinxing it, but there are clips of Disney cartoons, or songs from Disney animated features, that were uploaded soon after YouTube got popular and are still there, years later. There are some that have gotten pulled, I'm sure; recent material quite rightly gets a harder time, and not all classic clips stay up forever -- though some of them may be due to account deletion (from other things that got pulled) rather than Disney complaints. It may be that they've done what other companies do and simply arranged to get YouTube to give them a piece of the ad revenue in exchange for keeping those clips up. I don't know the details, though I'm going to try and find out.

But if you compare it to Warner Brothers, it's a whole different thing: Warners is constantly cracking down on classic cartoon uploads, taking them down almost every time they appear. The few that are still there are exceptions, clips that WB hasn't noticed yet for some reason or another, or public domain cartoons. Disney either has a laissez-faire attitude about classics on YouTube, or just doesn't have a system in place for taking the stuff down.

Whether this is a conscious Disney policy or not, you'll be unsurprised to hear that I think it's a good policy. As I've complained many times, by taking its classic cartoons off YouTube, Warner Brothers cuts off its best hope of introducing young people to these films; they're constantly trying to figure out how to rebuild the Looney Tunes brand, but cracking down on uploads that get hundreds of thousands of views for these characters. Whereas kids who want to see Donald Duck can see him all over YouTube; there are some real Donald Duck cartoon uploads with millions of hits. That's got to be good for Disney's branding and marketing, even if it's not legal.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Spot the Donald Duck Cartoons

I know many others have linked to it already, but this mashup video, "Right Wing Radio Duck" -- where Donald's unemployment and economic insecurity make him receptive to the Glenn Beck show -- is today's viral video, and rightly. The creators deserve some kind of prize for finding a way to tell a complete, coherent story with almost nothing but actual Donald Duck cartoon clips and actual radio voice-overs.

It's been a while since I watched a lot of Donald cartoons, so I'm not sure, for the most part, which clips the clips come from (except for the obvious ones like "Der Fuehrer's Face," a few clips from "Window Cleaners," and the José Carioca bits). Maybe someone will put together a list of sources.

Update: As pointed out in comments, I originally confused José, who is not used in this cartoon, with Panchito Pistoles, who is. Maybe José can be saved for the sequel about Donald confronting the Brazilian menace and the secret Stalinist plot behind FDR's nefarious Good Neighbor Policy.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Most Over-Rhymed Song

I was listening the other day to a 1948 musical called Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, about ballet, with a score and vocal arrangements by one of my living heroes, Hugh Martin. The show doesn't represent his very best work, as I believe he's admitted; it's possible that his easygoing style wasn't quite a perfect fit for the director, Jerome Robbins, here making his debut as a director/choreographer of musicals. In any case, the promise of the idea -- Nancy Walker stars as an heiress who decides to finance a ballet company -- doesn't really come through in the songs, which are all pleasant but could mostly fit into any situation.

Still, I never heard a Martin song yet that wasn't at least fun to listen to, especially when he's doing the vocal arrangements. One song from the show, "Gotta Dance," would have been perfect for Gene Kelly in an MGM musical; sung by Harold Lang (sort of the guy Broadway got for Gene Kelly parts after Kelly left), it was still impressive enough that Stephen Sondheim put it on a list of songs he wished he'd written.

And one song, "Shauny O'Shay," is at least slightly notable as an example of... maybe I shouldn't have said over-rhyming, since that's a pejorative term and I don't know if the rhyming kills the song. But it's certainly one of the most ambitiously packed rhyme schemes I've ever heard, with tons of internal rhymes, quadruple rhymes, and trick rhymes ("limits/dim, it's"). It may show Martin, writing a score alone for the first time -- he'd previously split songwriting duties with fellow composer-lyricist Ralph Blane -- trying too hard to show off, since I don't know that all the rhyming fits the laid-back mood of the song. But it's certainly worth hearing for fans of tight rhyming.

Incidentally, Steven Suskin's The Sound of Broadway Music says that this show was one of the first that involved the work of Robert Ginzler (Bye Bye Birdie), who became the busy Don Walker's primary "ghost" orchestrator for the next ten years. The book doesn't say which numbers Ginzler orchestrated, but some parts of this number sound like they could have been his work.

Another thing about "Shauny O'Shay" is that it's an example of the tricky relationship between pop music and musical theatre. According to Billboard, the actual character of Shauny O'Shay was eliminated from the show during tryouts, so the song went with him. But the creative team was informed that "Shauny O'Shay" was considered the only song in the score that had potential to get on the pop charts (it didn't, but nothing did from this show). So "it was finally put back to keep the disc jockeys and record companies happy, but didn't prove the potential hit it seemed to be at first." This was pretty common back in the days when pop hits came from Broadway shows, and when a pop hit was a huge plus for a musical's box-office; the producers had to think of the "exploitation" possibilities as well as the dramatic ones.

The article also mentioned how "If I Were a Bell" had been cut from the then-recent Guys and Dolls for a while, and that it was put back in after two weeks in part because it had already been recorded several times in anticipation of the opening. Though that song, at least, was not out of place in the show (and Frank Loesser claimed in the article that he never intended to leave it out entirely, just to revise it).

Here also is the "Gotta Dance" song -- much more normally rhymed -- that I mentioned before. You can see what I mean about how it would have been a perfect Gene Kelly song.