Antonio is my best friend at work. He's about five years younger than I am, and the devoted father of two boys who are zeroing in on puberty. Tony wants everything for his boys, including a working knowledge of the arts, so he turns to me and I try to help him out. I've loaned him a few CDs, and he's been very impressed (and so has one of his boys, who decided to listen in). And we talk.
I keep a Discman handy at my desk so I can research this column and work at the same time. Tony, bless him, has developed a habit of checking what CDs I have with me, stacked on my desk where I can grab what I want. Earlier this week, I caught him rifling through the CDs and giving me a funny look. "You know you've got four copies of the same CD here?" he asked. In his hand he held four different recordings of Gypsy.
He patiently listened while I explained that they weren't exactly the same. The Original Cast Recording of 1959, starring Ethel Merman, is a classic but flawed because of the time limitations caused by the LP format. The London Cast Recording of 1973, starring Angela Lansbury, includes some material omitted from the OCR, but makes other cuts, again because of the LP format. 1989's revival recording starring Tyne Daly is about three minutes longer, but suffers from Tyne's voice. And Bette Midler's 1993 remake of the film...
At this, Tony had to interrupt. "Wait a second, a remake?" Yep. The original theatrical film starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood was released back in 1963. I know a lot of people who love it, and a lot who don't. Russell didn't even do all of her own singing as much of it being dubbed by Lisa Kirk. Midler, in remaking the film for television, chose to stick as close as possible to the original Arthur Laurents script and, of course, did her own singing. The soundtrack of the Russell film, it has yet to be released on CD.
"Oh." Tony looked over the four disc cases, trying to make some sense of everything I had just told him. There was Ethel the Broadway belter of legend, Angela the classy actress who can also sing, Tyne the former television cop, and Bette the bawdy Pop chantoosie with a heart of gold. Four very different ladies, four variations on one remarkable show. "So which one is the best?" he finally asked.
"That, my friend, is what I'm trying to find out." He raised an eyebrow and gave a little smile as he handed back the discs. Tony may be a novice when it comes to the theater, but he knows how to be a good audience.
The big problem with numbering the tracks lies with the Lansbury recording. As I've noted, LPs had severe time restrictions. To beat this, her recording combines elements of "Let Me Entertain You," "Baby June and her Newsboys," and "Dainty June and her Farmboys" into one big track, "Let Me Entertain You (Montage)." All things considered, this is a logical condensation of the material. However, it plays all sorts of havoc with listing the tracks in parallel order. Therefor, I'll be listing her disc's tracks AFTER the song title, like this: (A - Track 12).
Similarly, in listing the casting for each track, I'm going to be using the following abbreviations, based on the star's first name. Anyone appearing with Ethel Merman will be followed with an (E), Angela Lansbury's team will be designated (A), Tyne Daly's group will be (T), and Bette's Brassy Babes (and boys) will be (B). Everyone got that? Good, lets get to the Track By Track.
Let's face it, this Overture is practically foolproof. It is wonderfully structured, moving from one melody to the next with a growing sense of urgency, setting the audience up for a great time in the theater. There is only one place where the orchestra can screw things up, and it all sits on the shoulders of one man. Well, more accurately on the lips of one man. The trumpet solo during the 'Burlesque Music' section of the Overture demands a certain sense of improvisation, a willingness to really let 'er rip. The Lansbury recording falls flat here, totally uninspired. Midler's trumpeter seems a bit programmed. Daly's trumpeter does a good job, but the real blast comes from the original on Merman's recording. That trumpet is raw and over the top. Just as it should be.
Admittedly a short track on every disc, it does serve to set the tone for each of the productions. The Daly recording falls way short, with lots of arguing from the stage hands about who let that mother in the theater, making it impossible to hear the song itself. Midler's calls from the back of the theater have more of a pleading note, begging her girls to do their best. Merman, in contrast, is commanding her girls on what they should do, completely oblivious that they aren't still in rehearsal. It's a toss-up between the two for my own preference. As for Lansbury, the track isn't even on the disc! (She'll make up for this later.)
One small cast note: Lacey Chabert can also be heard on the soundtrack of the animated film Anastasia, during the Prologue as Little Anastasia. She and her grandmother Marie sing a brief quote from the song "Once Upon a December." Marie, of course, is played by Angela Lansbury. Funny how casting has a way of cycling around.
This song has two things happening at once. Within the structure of a popular song, it fully introduces us to Rose, and it also has the subtext of Rose trying to get money from her Pop. The actress therefor has to sell the song during the verse, switch over to storytelling in the middle, and switch back to selling the song at the end. And, by the way, she also has to make sure we kind of like her, even through she steals from her father at the end. (That's not evident on the disc, but its part of the script.)
Daly does none of this well. She is belligerent, argumentative, and short of breath. (There's a reason for this, which I'll get into later.) Merman is quite content with simply selling the song, rather than work on character. Her version has an amazing amount of sweetening with strings in the first few bars. Midler, in contrast, steps right in with buckets of charm, and is very effective.
When it comes to a performer's own subtext informing her interpretation of this song, Angela Lansbury comes out on top. Angela had given up her career for the sake of her children (specifically, to get her son away from drugs) and had stepped away from public view, moving her family to rural Ireland. With this production she returned to the stage, playing a mother devoted to the success of her children. The role fit her like a glove, and this song becomes a proclamation that she is back! She's not as strong in the middle section, but the total joy when Angela declares that other people "can sit and rot, but not Rose!" makes up for that weakness. I'd score this one as a tie between Midler and Lansbury.
Merman's take on "Small World" is the quintessential pop recording, filled with more sweetening strings and flutes, her own vocal boosted by a touch of echo from an open studio. It's very pretty, but somehow less interesting than I'd hoped, perhaps because hers is the only version that doesn't include her co-star.
The co-star is exactly what I find wrong with Lansbury's recording. The pacing is good, as is her singing, but when the song comes to the reprise of the bridge, Barrie Ingham steps up to the mike as Herbie and throws everything off. The problem is that I find his singing is too good! For me, Herbie's charm is partly due to his being out of his depth with Rose, including as a singer. Ingham has a good, round tone to his singing voice that I find out of place. It's almost as if Merman had been matched with Howard Keel instead of Jack Klugman. (I much prefer Ingham's work opposite Vincent Price, as Basil in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective. He can also be found on the OCR for the recent musicalization of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, more to Der Brucer's taste than mine.)
Daly's voice strains and cracks again, but she plays well with her Herbie, Jonathan Hadary. That sort of sounds like something written on a report card, but she brightens up the moment he joins in the song. Her vocal problems came from her having had laryngitis just prior to the recording date. She simply didn't have enough time to recover, which is a shame.
Midler's advantage of having both years in the recording studio and touring with the Harlettes makes hers the better recording. She is able to make the song intimate yet not obviously a "recorded song" the way Merman's plays. Bette is also well matched by actor Peter Riegert as Herbie, who has an unpolished quality that plays well opposite Bette.
On stage, the continually repeating Baby June bits become a running joke. On disc, the joke is diluted because of its visual nature. However, the London recording, merging Baby June's performance with Dainty June's "all new" production with her Farmboys, solves the problem. This presentation underlines how the more the act changes, the more it stays the same. I find it preferable to the other tracks.
What is included in each recording is worth noting. The OCR starts with the Newsboys singing "Extra, Extra," followed by Baby June singing "Let Me Entertain You" and a brief dance. It is thankfully brief, running just ninety-two seconds. The Tyne Daly revival follows this almost exactly, stretching the dance until the number runs a full two minutes. Midler's film version runs an extra ten seconds, but mercifully gives us the least cloying Baby June in the aforementioned Lacey Chabert.
The London Cast Recording starts with Angela bragging about the act, followed by the Newsboys singing "Extra, Extra," Baby June singing "Let Me Entertain You," and her dance. A narrator then says "Five years later," Angela again brags about the act, and the now older Farmboys again sing "Extra, Extra." June, now called Dainty June, sings about "Broadway," the Farmboys sing a chorus of the same, and they all conclude with a final reprise of "Let Me Entertain You." This all takes place is four and a half minutes.
By the way, London's Baby June, Bonnie Langford, has had a fairly good career as an adult. She appeared in the original London production of Cats as Rumpleteaser, and on television played the Sixth and Seventh Doctor's companion Melanie Bush on the long-running sci-fi series Dr. Who. There aren't many child actresses (or actors) who get a second chance when they grow up.
There are no good recordings of this song.
Given that this is the first real chance the actress playing Louise gets to take center stage, "Little Lamb" demands a strong, sympathetic presentation, but the way the song is written makes this a very difficult task. I found Zan Charisse very weak and breathy. Christa Moore's recording is so undermiked and pale that it is simply embarrassing. Sandra Church had a very clear, rounded tone to her singing, and gives a wonderful evocation of her character's inner strength. Cynthia Gibb's voice isn't quite as good as Church's, but does a better job with character when towards the end she falters, wondering how old she really is. I'd recommend either Gibb or Church, but drop the other two.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the rendition Midler and Riegert give this song, but the spark isn't there. Lansbury is in fine voice, and I suppose I can put up with Ingham, but there is an overlong and obvious dance break in the London recording that may work on stage, but on disc is very annoying.
Finally making his way onto the OCR with his distinct inability to sing, Jack Klugman proves the perfect foil to Merman. Their work together gives their recording of this song it's snap. He's become a hero of mine in recent years, returning to acting in films and on stage after losing his voice to cancer. I admire any man who knows his limitations and then goes beyond them.
It's the Daly revival that I find most interesting. The song doesn't tax her voice too much; if anything the strains give her a deeper humanity. But in this recording, Rose is only half the song. The dialogue introducing the number is included, and Herbie turns out to be just as fully fleshed as the woman he loves. There is a clear chemistry between Daly and Jonathan Hadary, missing in the other recordings, which just increases my respect for her costar. True Sondheim fans will of course recognize Hadary from the OCR of Assassins, but he is also featured on the recording of an off-Broadway musical called Weird Romance. With music by Alan Menkin (his first stage project after the death of his songwriting partner Howard Ashman) and lyrics by David Spencer, Hadary gets to play both a villainous industrialist and a romantic scientist. If you like Harady, I highly recommend seeking this one out.
I still prefer the montage from the London recording, but it is worth noting what Dainty June and her whateverboys are doing on the other versions. On the OCR, the boys sing "Extra, Extra," followed by Dainty June singing about "Caroline," her cow, who joins her in a dance. On the Daly revival, it's "Extra, Extra" and "Caroline", but Rose isn't about to let her troupe be stopped. They add the "Broadway" section heard in the London montage, and end with a burst of the "Stars and Stripes Forever" for a finale. Not to be outdone, Midler's film version starts with a tweeting opening from the "William Tell Overture," followed by "Extra, Extra," "Caroline," the cow dance, "Broadway", and an extended dance break and reprise of "Broadway" by June. Then, the number simply fades out with some train music. Odd.
I'm not impressed with Moore and Venner. If Moore was weak on "Little Lamb," Venner proves her equal here. Sandra Church sings very well, but Lane Bradbury is irritating and measured. I'm bothered by the way Bradbury is so clearly less talented compared to Church, since it is supposed to be the opposite relationship between the girls in the play. Gibb and Beck sing sweetly together, but I wish the difference in their characters was emphasized more. Which leaves us with Charisse and Bowen, who are as well matched as Gibb and Beck. I suppose this gives us a tie between the Lansbury and Midler versions, but mostly by default.
It's really hard to judge this song based on what's on a CD, because it really is a dance number and the performance should be judged on how the actor playing Tulsa sells the dance. Paul Wallace played the role both on Broadway and in the Roz Russell film, and he's good. So is Jeffrey Broadhurst in the Midler remake. I'm more impressed with Robert Lambert's youthful enthusiasm in the Daly revival. He shows more of Tulsa's ability to dream than do his other American counterparts. As for Andrew Norman, the added edge of his working-class Brit accent gives the song an interesting layer of social commentary. This one goes to the Lansbury and Daly recordings.
The rags that Tyne Daly's voice had become because of her bout with laryngitis really shows here, which is a shame because she is so obviously a powerful actress. Merman plays the song for what it is, an anthem to her belief in herself and her daughter, but she never was a great actress, and that would have given her performance here a boost. Midler's acting ability shows here, which gives her the edge over Merman, but I find Lansbury's addition of a little heartbreak in her voice to make hers the best rendition of this song. If only Daly hadn't been incapacitated...
There's an odd, measured quality to the Merman recording, no swing at all, everything staying strictly to the beat. The OCR also cuts the song short by a verse, leaving out the "When I sing B-flat" bit. The London cast recording restores this verse, but Ingham so obviously fakes his singing flat that the joke fails. The bit is missing again in Midler's film version, which is further marred by her scooping as many notes as she can. Interestingly, it is Hadary's charging forward with singing harmony and generally generating that chemistry he had with Tyne Daly, augmented here with a blossoming Christa Moore, that makes the revival recording the best of the four. They also put a fun spin the B-flat joke by having everyone sing a little flat, with Hadary's Herbie going the furthest afield.
There are lots of variants with the recordings of this song. The OCR features Faith Dane, a genuine stripper who showed up at auditions with her trumpet and giving the Styne and Sondheim the inspiration they needed to write the number. Her performance is given a full turn, but Chotzi Foley's grind is cut down to a minimal drum solo, and Maria Karnilova's Tessie Tura doesn't even get that. (Perhaps this is just as well: Karnilova's biggest role on Broadway was as Goldie in Fiddler On the Roof, and what would Tevye say if he knew what his wife had been up to before they met?)
The London cast gets to sing their verses, but nothing is done to give any idea what their grinds are like. They do get to sing their parts in fugue towards the end of the number, however, which makes this an improvement over the OCR. The Daly revival, for the first time, presents the number in something approximating it's whole, and except for Barbara Erwin they are all in good voice for once. It's the Midler remake that comes out on top here, getting fairly good voices in all cases and presenting the whole number. By the way, Anna McNeely, who plays Electra on both the Daly revival and the Midler film, had previously opened on Broadway as Jennyanydots in Cats. (I'm probably going to get lambasted by someone for not knowing who Christine Ebersole is, but I honestly don't know anything about her. Lambast away.)
The OCR sees fit to let Sandra Church sing the song, without acting the part, and bans Ethel from making any comments from offstage. Please remember they were dealing with time constraints on the album. Also, Jerome Robbins was not in favor of Louise, now Gypsy, doing much talking. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed the Lansbury and Daly productions, had other ideas.
Zan Charise does a good acting turn on the Lansbury release, getting bolder with every new step in her career. (I hope I'm not the only one who finds satisfaction in the musical quote from "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" at the start of the Minsky section of the sequence.) This is a top-class performance. In comparison, Christa Moore starts out flat and short of breath, and doesn't get much support from her Momma Rose. She doesn't get much better when she gets to Minsky's.
Cynthia Gibb never really gets the chance to show Gypsy's growth as a performer. It's all cut down to a montage, and is very disappointing. This one goes to Charise from London, hands down.
Merman is electrifying here. She takes her style and lets her brass play against the grain of the song. This is Merman going beyond what she's done before. But then there is Lansbury, totally letting go and facing the crisis in Rose's life. She is defiant, and as definitive as Merman.
Daly's vocal condition betrays her. She doesn't "got it" here, and that's worth shedding a tear. She could have been the best. Midler's Momma is most clearly lost in Rose's fantasy, and never clearly confronts her reality. This round goes to Merman and Lansbury.
This track is only found on the Midler film recording. A brief flash of "Broadway", to a medley of "Everything's Coming Up Roses," a phrase of "I Had a Dream," "Small World," and "Together." Ear candy.
For the most part, yes. The final tally is fairly close, but I liked more of what I found on the Lansbury recording than any of the others. Bette Midler's film remake comes in a close second, by my count. Merman's recording is mostly flawed because of the necessary cuts, and Tyne Daly is a heartbreaking fourth. The big thing to remember is that all of the recordings have their high points, and their lows. The big flaw in the Lansbury recording is that she was matched with a poor Herbie. The big flaw with Midler's is that film lacks the spontaneity of live theater.
(I've decided against subjecting Der Brucer to two of the songs cut from the show, which have found their way onto other recordings I haven't picked up...yet. I've been told that the first, "Momma's Talkin' Soft," can be found on an album called "Lost in Boston III." It was to have been sung by Baby June and Baby Louise right after "Small World," but there were staging problems. The second, "Nice She Ain't", was a song for Herbie after he danced with Rose in "You'll Never Get Away From Me," but was nixed by Klugman when his own singing gave him nightmares. Michael Feinstein has recorded it, I believe on his album "The Jules Styne Songbook.")
Der Brucer is taking this in, but he's scowling. "For the most part?" he's asking. Well, there's this revival taking place at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey... No, I don't expect us to fly to the East Coast, but there is a question of whether their star, Betty Buckley, can play Momma Rose.
"And can she?" Der Brucer asks. I simply smile back at him. I've already got a hint on what she can do. But that's worth dealing with next time.
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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