Gershwin: Girl Crazy

Girl Crazy
Lorna Luft, David Carroll, Judy Blazer, David Garrison, etc/John Mauceri
Nonesuch Opera Collection
Catalogue Number:
7559-79437-2 Reissue
BBC Music Magazine
There have been three attempts to put HIGH SOCIETY on the stage and none of them has worked. The idea seems reasonable enough. The 1956 film, with a Cole Porter score, was based on a successful Thirties play, Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (itself the source of a celebrated non-musical movie); all that seems necessary is to revive the play, filleting it to make room for the Porter songs and beefing it up with other numbers from his back-catalogue. There are problems, though. The movie, though pleasant, was never great; much of its appeal depended on its cast, none of whom is now available. (High Society was unique in bringing together the three most important male pop voices of the century: Crosby, Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.) Porter’s new songs were far from his best, and are further shown up when juxtaposed with his earlier ones which, apart from their intrinsic merits, are far better matched to the play in tone and period. In the most recent version, seen on Broadway in 1998 and now making a belated appearance on disc, the 1956 movie songs seem almost incidental; only seven of the original nine remain and one of them – the ‘High Society Calypso’ – has been so altered in rhythm and lyric as to be unrecognisable. Yes, unbelievably, someone – Susan Birkenhead – was hired to rewrite Porter’s words, in this song and many others. Even more incredibly, her new lyrics fit perfectly with the old; without a crib, you would be hard-pressed to spot the joins. The title-number is now used as a recurring choral comment for the servants, casting affectionate but sceptical eyes on the antics of their rich employers. They were among the chief attractions of the stage show; another was the masque-like atmosphere that descended in its second act as the various couples sorted out their destinies, alfresco by moonlight. It was in fact quite an enjoyable muddle of a show, and the same may be said for the CD. None of the performers stands out, except perhaps John McMartin in the new starring role of drunk Uncle Willie. GIRL CRAZY is unblushingly described on its cover as ‘revived after 60 years’. This suggests that it’s the record of a new stage production. Actually it’s the reissue of a 1990 studio performance, originally released on Nonesuch as the first entry in its complete Gershwin project (now sadly aborted). It now appears, mysteriously, as part of an ‘Opera Collection’, though the only operatic thing about it is the tamely academic singing of the chorus who are meant to be cowboys and showgirls. The show contains more Gershwin standards than any other (‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘But Not for Me’ and others) but there’s a sad gulf between them and the rest of the score. The best thing about this series was its use of the original orchestrations, crisp and evocative; the worst was the uninspired casting of many of the leads. It’s particularly evident here, though Lorna Luft and Judy Blazer aren’t bad. SONDHEIM TONIGHT was a 1998 charity performance at the Barbican, dedicated, says its director, to the ‘music... rather than just the musical comedy of Stephen Sondheim’. It does include a greater number than usual of excellent instrumentals, but it still starts with ‘Comedy Tonight’ and its subsequent choice of songs is indistinguishable from that of other tributes. And if you don’t want to emphasise musical comedy, why ask Dame Edna Everage (well, he did used to be a musical-comedy performer – as far back as the original Oliver!) to intone her own version of ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, complete with cheeky additional lyrics? The list of famous names is shorter than usual for these events; some of them (Cleo Laine, Julia McKenzie) make only token appearances, and others (Len Cariou in four lines of Sweeney Todd) even less. The most, and the best, comes from Maria Friedman. ASV has three new compilations of Twenties and Thirties vocals. GERTRUDE LAWRENCE’s twittering can sometimes make you wonder what all the fuss was about, but then – in ‘Mad About the Boy’, or opposite Coward as half of the fading music-hall duo of ‘Red Peppers’ – she will turn on her acting chops and be devastatingly real. ETHEL WATERS was simply the greatest – the only performer who could do jazz and theatre; this selection omits some of her best things but does include my two favourite Waters tracks, ‘Birmingham Bertha’ and ‘Heat Wave’, and some great rarities. HOAGY CARMICHAEL was hardly a theatre performer, or writer, but this selection includes his own wayward vocals on some of his own best songs, including the classics ‘Hong Kong Blues’ and ‘Ol’ Buttermilk Sky’. The booklet notes pay over-serious attention to the conjectural hit parade lists that have been assembled in recent years; all these performers flourished blessedly long before the tyranny of the Top 40.
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