Wednesday, August 24, 2011

When It Comes to Bull Event

Fans of bad musicals have a particular soft spot for Whoop-Up, a 1958 show that seemed to demonstrate just how wrong a producing team could go when they decided to do more than produce. Specifically, Feuer and Martin, the most successful musical producing team of the '50s due to their partnership with people like Abe Burrows on Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and Silk Stockings, started moving more into the creative side of things: on Whoop-Up Feuer not only directed the show (he'd already begun moving into directing, though with assistance from Burrows on Silk Stockings) but he and Martin co-wrote the book, from a novel later adapted for Elvis Presley's film Stay Away, Joe.

And after successful shows with Frank Loesser and Cole Porter, they took a chance on young songwriting talent -- unfortunately, the young songwriters, Moose Charlap and Norman Gimbel, turned out a mostly awful score. (Charlap had written the better songs in Peter Pan, though he and lyricist Carolyn Leigh were fired during the tryout. Gimbel was a mediocre pop lyricist mentored by Loesser, but despite the mentorship he remained a mediocre pop lyricist. A successful one, mind you: "Girl From Ipanema," "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and many TV themes.) Even the titles are bad: "Love Eyes," "Till The Big Fat Moon Falls Down."

The cast album is a bit of a cult item for several reasons. One, so many of the songs are so cheesy and in some cases tasteless. Two, it's got the great Susan Johnson in one of her few true lead roles. And three, the CD of the cast album went into print and out of print in about five minutes, making it a semi-legendary collectors' item. It's been said that Larry Lash from Polydor released it on a bet.

Also, because it was a Feuer and Martin production and they had never had a failure yet, hopes were high for Whoop-Up, which meant many artists were sent into recording studios to record cover versions of the new show's songs. Lash's CD release of Whoop-Up included these as a supplement: weird '50s arcana like Rosemary Clooney duetting on "Flattery" (one of many imitation-Loesser duets written in this era) with her husband José Ferrer, or Connie Francis trying to sound sultry and suggestive on "Love Eyes."

But the greatest find of the album, and possibly the weirdest cover version of all time, was of one of the very worst songs in a musical. "Nobody Throw Those Bull" was a song for the French-accented father (Romo Vincent) of the male lead, explaining how proud he is of his son's bull-riding prowess. This is probably not a promising subject for a song under any circumstances. With Gimbel, Charlap and the very generic orchestrations by Phil Lang (Broadway's all-purpose purveyor of a certain type of basic, un-adorned arrangement) it sounds like this:

You wouldn't think this would be a song anyone would cover for a pop version, but novelty songs were still around in 1958, and somebody at the record company got the idea of giving it to Maurice Chevalier. The result is almost indescribable. Chevalier always tries to sound happy, but he also sounds raspy and bored, like he's working overtime to keep that smile in his voice. What he does isn't exactly singing; it's more of a heavily-accented, barely-notated cry for help.

To end this post on a somewhat more positive note, a better song -- though nothing special at all -- is "When the Tall Man Talks," a showcase for Susan Johnson's singing voice, perhaps the greatest Broadway belt voice. Even the worst songs she gets (the worst is "Men," a blatant ripoff of the pattern numbers in Music Man) sound better with her full, warm, beautifully controlled voice.

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