Essay Series Music history

Music and the Legend of Faust Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

Music and the Legend of FaustFaust 1

Some subjects simply appeal to artists more than do others. We have symphonies inspired by Spring, the forest, the sea, mountains, rivers, the stars, and the planets. From fiction, there are Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, Macbeth, and jolly fat old Falstaff. Somehow, however, the shadowy figure of Faust seems to hold some sort of record. And it is this record that I would like to examine for this new series of articles.

To start, there may or may not have been a Doctor Johann Faust who died in 1540, leaving behind him a reputation for having sold his soul to the Devil, most probably by being too educated in areas that even today lie under suspicion in the eyes of certain groups with mind-sets that do not approve of any one except themselves knowing the unknowable. But the pattern for the man who probed matters best left alone became set and led the way to so many similar tales. Why how many old Universal horror films can you name with that very message?

In 1587, there appeared a “Volksbuch” that included the moralistic story of Faust. It went through over a dozen editions very quickly and was read all over Europe. His sin was that of “speculative ambition”: desiring to enjoy the cardinal sins with impunity. You see, Faust-as-modern-man or Faust-as-Prometheus had not yet been conceived. An expanded edition came out in 1590 and had Faust performing all sorts of magic tricks; but the trickster is of course tricked by the Supreme Trickster in the end and the moral pretty much remains the same.

220px-Faustus-tragedyLike the mass-media of today, a best-selling idea was quickly seized upon and Faust books by the dozens were popping up all over the continent, not to mention hundreds of puppet shows that told this and that version of the story—all of them the true version, of course—and it is very likely that many authors were influenced directly by any one or several of these. Christopher Marlowe’s  Doctor Faustus (1588) is a very uneven play, starting and ending grandly and suffering from a mid-section that is as silly in parts as any puppet play. But the message has something of a new element.

After seeing how useless it is to study the “allowed” material—theology, metaphysics, and so on—Faust turns to the forbidden books to call upon Infernal assistance. Once he has made his pact with Mephistopheles, this Faust seems content with practical jokes until he realizes the enormity of the consequences. “Cut is the branch that might have grown straight” is how the Epilogue describes the result; and we are left to feel how he wasted his opportunities rather than feeling sorry for his fate. Whether or not this is what Marlowe had in mind is not to be known, but the play seems to suggest such a non-moralizing message: if you are going to do bad, at least do it well!

What is certain is that of the several operas based on the Faust legend, only one of  them draws upon material from the Marlowe version—and that is the one the least known of the lot. (Is there a moral in that somewhere?) Since the German translation of this play was available only after Goethe had begun his more epic version of the story, scholars believe it had no influence on his whatsoever. This is neither here nor there, because Goethe’s version is entirely different and its influence on music is immense.

14706First of all, Goethe’s earlier version called the “ur-Faust” and the expansion known as “Faust, the First Part” were products of the Romantic Movement, not the Middle Ages. The philosophy of this stage in European thought could be summarized baldly and therefore badly thus: the Age of  Faith did not eliminate human misery, nor did the Age of Humanism or did the Age of Reason—therefore we must return to and trust in Nature for all solutions. Since Nature seems to be in a constant state of Sturm und Drang, it follows that a Man should be in the same state of striving for the unattainable. It is clearly stated in the “Prologue in Heaven” that while Mephistopheles scorns the useless striving of Faust, the Lord sees that as Man’s noblest characteristic. So it is part of the double bet that the Devil has to make with first God and then Faust that he can (1) turn Faust’s energies down the garden path to Hell and (2) give Faust a “moment of contentment” in which he can stop trying .  That he fails on both accounts is what separates this version from the earlier ones, for it is Heaven that greets the old scholar at the end of the Second Part as he is drawn on high by “the Eternal Feminine.”

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Faust and Wagner being stalked by a devil of a dog

Now all I have left out of this account is the marvelous poetry, the complex philosophical problems, the hundred or so minor characters, and most of what makes Goethe’s Faust one of the greatest achievements of Western literature. On the other hand, that is pretty much what the most popular musical form, that of Gounod, does. So what I would like to do in this series of articles is trace the different musical treatments of the Faust story, mostly the Goethe version, and see how it has been trivialized here and treated reasonably there.


Pineapple Poll Dances in Seattle

Pineapple Poll Dances in Seattle

IMG_20150727_0001In 1951, Charles Mackerras arranged a few dozen melodies from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to form the score of a ballet called “Pineapple Poll.” As an ardent Savoyard (viz., Gilbert and Sullivan lover), I have worn out many an LP recording of that score and play it frequently on CD, lamenting all the while that it has never been released as a video.

Well, it turns out that I have been wrong for many years! Back in 2004, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society worked together with the Spectrum Dance Theater and performed the work as part of the Society’s season. Based on a Gilbert Bab Ballad, it tells the tale of Pineapple Poll and other lovers on and around HMS Hot Cross Bun.

51cA8aL8TuL._AA160_The score is an absolute delight. Music from all but the first and the last two of the Savoy works is represented. There is also a passage from Sullivan’s “Overture Da Ballo” and the Rataplan song from “Cox and Box”to throw off the scent any expert trying to name the origin of each melody. There are also two numbers from “Ruddigore” that had been dropped in the current recordings of that work at the time “Pineapple Poll” was created  (“The battle’s roar is over” and the original start of the Act II finale, “Having been a wicked baronet a week). This Seattle production charmingly adds a short introduction and an entr’acte not in the original score.

Now and then the lyrics sung in the operetta to the melody being played actually have reference to the situation in the ballet, and that only adds to the fun. It does indeed help to have Gilbert and Sullivan memorized now and then!

Filmed before an audience, who seems to be having a wonderful time, the production uses, perforce, a scaled-down orchestra (the original score calls for 60 players) and a scaled-down corps de ballet. Who cares? The cast is having such fun that quantity has nothing to do with it.

web pineapple poll (2)There are one or two aspects of the choreography created by Donald Byrd that strike me as a bit silly (like rolling on the ground with legs twitching in the air); but the plot is pretty silly to begin with, so what matter? I do like the camera showing the full stage when it is filled with movement, saving close-ups for solos or pas de deux. The running time is 54 minutes and there is not a dull moment in them.

A copy can be ordered through the Society’s website,

downloadNote: The ballet can also be seen in a vintage black-and-white television version on a now out of print ICA Classics DVD, along with “The Lady and the Fool.” The Seattle disc is in color, the ICA in black and white from a 1959 telecast. However, the latter is choreographed by John Cranko and must be seen, if only for the interesting contrast in interpretations between the two troupes.

Drama Shakespeare

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

A “Macbeth” to Avoid

A-SH-Macbeth (Globe]
The blood comes from what the director did to Shakespeare

Can you imagine a production of “Macbeth” in which Macbeth gets more laughs than the drunken Porter? Such is the fiasco seen at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, in 2013 when it was decided (it would seemd to perform this great tragedy as a comedy! The results can be seen, if one could stand them, on a Kultur DVD.

Never mind that Macbeth (Joseph Millson) and his Lady Macbeth (Samantha Spiro) simply shout at each other like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Worse still, Millson throws away great climactic lines (such as “Being gone, I am a man again” when Banquo’s ghost exits) as humorous asides. There is not an ounce of the poetry that makes Shakespeare worth doing. I have seen many a bad production of this play by amateurs, but I never expected to see one this bad by professionals at the restored Globe. Perhaps this director will have a future staging ludicrous versions of operas, which seems to be the fashion nowadays.

Perhaps the Director had this couple in mind

The cauldron scene is done without a cauldron and no ingredients to drop into it. Just  lot of the smoke to annoy the audience sitting close by. And if Macbeth, as I said, gets more laughs than the drunken Porter, that is also because the Porter gets no laughs at all! Who allowed this production to go through?

And although the notes on the jewel case say there are subtitles in several languages, there are none.

Broadway and British Musicals Music

Show Boat


An American Masterpiece Gets a Full Production in San Francisco

A-Show BoatIf you are to purchase only one more DVD this year, make it “Show Boat” on the EuroArts label! Having seen but forgotten the details of the telecast of this monumental musical by the Paper Mill Playhouse many years ago, I had only the two film versions to go by and the complete EMI recording on CDs.

It is said that when the opening night performance ended in 1927, the audience was stunned. But after reading the reviews, the public lined up to see this totally new concept in musicals that had a serious plot, race relations, racial epithets never spoken in a Broadway musical before, and even a hero who deserts his family.

IMG_20150726_0001_NEWBut now the San Francisco Opera has videoed its recent production of “Show Boat,” with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Jerome Kern. This is the video closest to the original 1927 version, except for some (welcome) cutting in the dialogue. As conductor John DeMain explains in a brief interview, the original dialogue revealed too much of what the following song would do. And he reinstated two songs that I have never heard except on the CD set.

Yes, most of us can name “Ol’ man river,” “Bill,” “Can’t help lovin’ dat man of mine,” “You are love,” “Make believe,” and even “Life upon the wicked stage.” But you will be as surprised as I was with the songs that are never included in “highlight” recordings nor done in the films.

Patricia Racette as Julie, the role created by Helen Morgan

The cast is a strong one with Heidi Stober (Magnolia), Michael Todd Simpson (Gaylord), Bill Irwin (Captain Andy), Morris Robinson (Joe), Angela Renee (Queenie), Kirsten Wyatt (Ellie May), and John Bolton (Frank). A special treat is Patricia Racette, seen on the Metropolitan Opera Stage, as Julie. Harriet Harris, in the speaking part of Parthy, is too shrill in her dialogue; and Wyatt’s squeaky voice becomes tiresome at times.

The scenery is not meant to be realistic and this helps the many scene changes considerably. The choreography under Michele Lynch is fabulous, the chorus work under Ian Robertson is excellent, and the entire production is a credit to director Francesca Zambello. My only real complaint is that Gaylord does not get a single gray hair over all the years. Oh, well.

raw_file_urlGood for EuroArts for giving subtitles to both lyrics and dialogue. The entire 144 minutes of the production are on a single DVD, while a second disc holds a tiny 33 minutes of interviews. But for once, they are worthwhile. After all, “Show Boat” is not your run of the mill musical.






Music Popular songs

Van and Schenck

A-ARCH-Van and Schenck

I first heard the team of Van and Schenck on a very old recording of “Mandy.” Then I saw them again on a DVD devoted to short films made by vaudeville stars. And now Archeophone Records, those marvelous restorers of vintage recordings to CDs, has hit gold again with “Van and Schenck: Pennant-Winning Battery of Songland, Breakthrough Recordings, 1916-1918.”

Among the hundreds of “two-man piano acts” in Vaudeville, this duo was at the top, “not far behind Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor” (as the customary full Archeophone program notes put it). The high tenor voice of Schenck was a good selling point for the act, to which Variety gave high praise. Their full names, by the way, are Gus Van and Joe Schenck. It is, also by the way, Joe at the piano.

dlc_victor_18443_02_b21298_02_160Judging from the 28 selections (3 of which are longer versions of the piece on the previous track), we can see that the team specialized in comic songs, some of which had nonsense lyrics, such as “Yaddie kaddie kiddie kaddie koo” and “In the land o’ Yamo Yamo.” In fact, the only titles that were familiar to me were Irving Berlin’s “Dance and grow thin,” which I have on another CD, and “For me and my gal.”

A closer look at the duo

So to name a few more of the songs, we have “That’s how you can tell they’re Irish,” “Mother, may I go in to swim?” “I don’t think I need a job that bad,” “Southern gals” and “Beans beans beans.” There is a strong influence of the great Bert Williams in “I wasn’t skeered but I thought I’d better go,” which is sung-spoken by Van in a minstrel show “black” voice.

Many of the songs reflect the times, some (like “Me and my gal”) have universal themes. Many more are parodies, such as “I miss the old folks now,” in which the rosy recollections of Van are contradicted by the not-so-rosy ones of Schenck.

This is all, of course, living history. Having contemporary singers reproduce these songs is of little value when we can hear them sung in the style of the times in which they were written by the very artists who often helped in creating the songs. Add to this the sound of the old acoustic discs, and there is nothing to beat these Archeophone restorations. And please look at their website ( to see their amazing full catalogue of what I call “audio time machine” recordings.

Essays Production values

The Question of Revivals

 The Question of Revivals

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Recording of 1999 “revival” with many changes from original

While two writers were taking me to task for calling Glenn Gould a vandal, which I never did, one of the responses to my article brought up the question of revivals. He said that when any work of (theatrical) art is “revived,” it should have “new life breathed into it” even if that means changes to the original. Now this gentleman is a professor of music at St. John’s University in New York City and knows of what he speaks. But while I agreed with all the rest he wrote, I cannot agree with his attitude towards revivals. This is, of course, not a question of right and wrong, but one of definition..

To “re-vive” is to “live again.” That is the denotation. Unhappily there are many connotations. To me, a pure revival should be done in the same form in which it was done in the past. No, I am not claiming it should be PRODUCED as a clone of the original, but it should at least follow the original script. I also feel that the acting style should be appropriate to the period of the original, but that is treading on dangerous ground.

So if a play is “revived”–as was (say) “Annie Get Your Gun” at Lincoln Center back in 1966 –with a subplot removed and a song along with it, a new song added, and its treatment of the American Indians totally “PC’d”–and again in 1999 with even more “improvements” or as is the revival of “Flower Drum Song” which is less stereotypical of the Oriental characters (they claim), these cannot be called “revivals” as much as “adaptations.”

Hey, how about a “Richard III” in which he is the kindest man in England and kills only in self defence to avoid showing a handicapped person being evil because he is handicapped? And then call it a revival? (Or did I just give some lunatic director an idea?)

1994 recording of “revival”

When “Damn Yankees” was revived, the only real change was to give “Two lost souls” to Lola and Applegate rather than to Lola and Joe. This was merely a sop to the actor playing Applegate, despite the fact that the Devil would certainly not sing those lyrics while Joe certainly would. But all else remained untouched and we can safely call it a revival. When “Bye, Bye, Birdie” was redone on television, the title song from the film version was used and a very good song was given to the Mother. All else was left intact and we had a revival with additions.

Faithful to the original with two extra songs

Very often, the complete score will be kept but the book will be rewritten. This happens mostly with operettas in which the original books and most of the dialogue are truly poor. But if one went to see “The Merry Widow” revival and found it was about a rich woman who has become a Marxist and is trying desperately to give away her fortune to the masses while her government is trying to get it for themselves, even if every song is left intact one could still complain the audience was not getting the product as advertised.

When one goes to see a film version of “Hamlet,” one really does not expect to hear every word of the play as it has come down to us. Olivier gave us about half of the dialogue with the scenes pretty much in the order Shakespeare put them. The Mel Gibson vehicle gives us considerably fewer lines spoken in some sort of random order. The Branagh epic gives us every single line (which many found stultifying). I say nothing about the production values because they have no bearing on my main thesis.

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A “Gondoliers” with Gilbert’s words and lyrics held in disdain

But a musical is something else again, and Gilbert & Sullivan is something special. Let me repeat an example from a previous essay in this paper. A Canadian and later an Australian production (borrowed from the former) of “The Gondoliers” changed a good deal of the lyrics and some of the dialogue to make references to contemporary situations in those countries. Now since the action is set in the Venice of 1750–and these productions kept the costumes in that period–of what point were the references to things that did not yet exist for the characters? Of course, they caused some cheap laughs, but none of this had anything to do with the work being performed. Gilbert is funny enough on his own and does not need help.

Now there is a case of “vandalism” in the true sense of the word. “Breathing new life into the work” can be done by better acting, livelier singing, imaginative staging. References to “safe sex” and Australian politics in “The Gondoliers” is sophmoronic nonsense.

Now I must be honest and yield to the arguments of with those with a more liberal definition of “revival.” But do you not agree that at least the advertising should warn the ticket-buying public which of the three– revival, adaptation, desecration–their money is going to bring?

Essays Music history

The Trickster in Musical Stage Works

The Trickster in Musical Stage Works

Br’er Rabbit

There is a character throughout world mythology known as the Trickster. Children in this country know him as Bugs Bunny; those of many decades ago knew him as Br’er Rabbit. African tales are filled with these trouble makers. In the Viking tales, he was Loki, the personification of fire, a very unpredictable element that can do great good or great evil.

In some tales, the Trickster wins out. In others, he is himself tricked. The point seems to be that even those who act against society can leave behind some benefits to the society they harmed. Such is Harold Hill, the Music Man himself.

215px-TheMusicManPosterHere the Trickster is a simple con man posing as a Prince, or at least as a band master. Harold Hill’s racket is to sell uniforms and band instruments to the children of a given town, with the promise that he will turn them all into a wonderful town band. Convincing the citizens of River City, Iowa, that the evils of the Pool Hall must be exorcised by the Good Influence of music, he get lots of money but makes a fatal mistake. He falls in love with Marion the Librarian.

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A direct descendant of Br’er Rabbit

Little by little, as is expected in this sort of Americana tale, she brings out the good in him. When the uniforms and instruments arrive, he tries to use the Think Method on the children. That is, if they think about what they wish to play, they will indeed play it! When arrested and told to make good on his promise—I can only assume that all of my readers know the end, so I am not afraid of spoiling things—the children come through! Terribly, but the parents are happy enough; and loud cries of “That’s my son/daughter” fill the room. And no one is more surprised than Harold Hill himself.

Mythical? In a psychological way, because there was a real Prince always at the core of this trickster. So all can end happily. River City is a better place for his having been there, and wedding bells will ring for Harold and Marion.

Loki, the Nordic trickster, and his punishment

The plot of “The Music Man” can be compared to the tale of Jason, if one uses considerable latitude. Instead of sailing off to find the Golden Fleece, Harold Hill takes up a challenge in the train sequence that opens the show. His Golden Fleece will be to fleece the population of River City—known for its xenophobia, which is the equivalent (if you push a little) of the dragon that guards the fleece.

Marion isn’t exactly the ready-to-kill Medea; but in fact she acts as the antagonist when she proves Hill to be a liar. However, she is finally conquered by his charm (a quality certainly lacking in the original Jason) and encourages him to win the “fleece” by convincing the parents that they were not fleeced at all.

Sky in an unusual casting choice

Sky Masterson in “Guys & Dolls” is a sort of trickster when he makes a bet that he could get the lovely but sedate Sarah the Mission Girl to come with him to Havana. He wins it by promising her that he will fill the failing Mission with sinners and so save it from closing. The trickster is tricked and finds himself in love with Sarah, and only an appeal to the gods—or, in this case, Lady Luck (Fortuna)—makes it all possible. The mission is saved and the guy gets his doll.

215px-BellsAreRingingThe Broadway musical has produced one great female trickster, Ella Petersen in “Bells Are Ringing.” Taking advantage of her position of message-taker at Susanswerphone, she knows the needs of her clients and takes several disguises (vocally over the phone, physically in person) to help them fulfill their fondest wishes. So she gets a composer-lyricist dentist to have his show produced, the handsome lead’s writing talents to rebloom—as does her love for him and belatedly his for her—and so on. In short, she is the Trickster of myth that brings great benefits to the community.

Of course, there are so many more tricksters in musical comedies. In opera, Figaro is a famous one; but even he is out-tricked by Rosina. And for those who know their Wagner, Loki is the oldest trickster of them all! But let us save that for another essay.

IMG_20150725_0001Note: An excellent account of the Trickster character in myths can be found in the Teaching Company Great Courses set “Myth in Human History,” taught by Grant L. Voth. Notice how many of these figures are anthropomorphized animals. Yes, Warner Brothers were not the first to have talking rabbits nor was Disney the first to have talking ducks and mice!

Drama TV series Uncategorized

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

It’s Mapp vs. Lucia Again in Acorn Reissue

   downloadBritish humor is something else again. You probably know the character of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Boo-kay”) on “Keeping Up Appearances” and how funny-repulsive her self-centered, social-climbing personality is. Well, picture two of them (minus the slapstick) at war with each other in a small English town back in 1930 and you have a good idea of what makes “Mapp and Lucia, Series 1 and 2” such an entertaining miniseries. It has  been reissued in a 4-DVD set from Acorn Media. However, no subtitles have been added.

E.F. Benson

Based on books by E.F. Benson, this series tells the story of the social leader Lucia Lucas (Geraldine McEwan) who rents from Elizabeth Mapp (Prunella Scales) a modest home in a village called Tilling-on-Sea. When the latter proves to be obnoxious socially, dishonest commercially, and nearly insanely jealous over Lucia’s abilities (real and professed), a series of one-upmanships begins between the two that splits the village into factions and almost always ends with Mapp’s humiliation. Even when a natural disaster binds the two for a long period of time…. But no. You will have to see for yourself.

The first series, I believe, is the more focused one, establishing the rivalry between the two title characters and winding up with the strangest bonding experience (albeit a brief one), thanks to… Again, see for yourself. The second series sees Lucia practically take over the town as Lady Mayor. But the plotting is a bit more scattered than that of series 1; and while charming, it does not bring about as many laughs

McEwan gives us a bubbly Lucia, whose very phoniness endears her to us, mainly because she is so good at it. Scales (yes, it is indeed Mrs. Fawlty herself) is equally perfect as the dowdy Mapp, forever conceding and withdrawing when she sees that Lucia has a temporary upper hand but instantly regrouping and planning revenge even as she gives a toothy smile of friendship.          .

imagesEqually memorable is the Georgie Pillson of Nigel Hawthorne (King George III, Sir Humphrey in the “Prime Minister” series, and countless other character roles). He plays the effeminate friend of Lucia just this side of camp, an utterly lovable old thing whose feelings for Lucia are strongly positive (but sexually ambiguous); but he can still stand his ground when he feels she is wrong. A truly believable character as Hawthorne plays it.

Marion Mathie as another domineering character in the Rumpole series

The other characters in the village are memorable to varying degrees. My favorite is “Quaint” Irene (Cecily Hobbs), obviously infatuated with Lucia and the voice of common sense in Tilling. You might recognize the second actress to play Hilda Rumpole, Marion Mathie, as the wealthy Mrs. Wise, while others supporting players have appeared in several British telecasts and films.

Oh, please do give this set a try. But you must accept the elements of British sophisticated humor and do not look for mugging, silly walks, and men in drag. This is a good wine, not canned beer.

Music Popular songs

Archeophone Presents the Hits of 1918

 A-ARCH-1918Archeophone Presents the Hits of 1918

   That marvelous series from Archeophone Records, The Phonographic Yearbook, has just grown by one more CD, “1918: ‘Like the sunshine after the rain’.”

I can only hope that the Archeophone people will eventually have one CD for each year from 1900 to 1922; and at this point, they lack a few  years. What an amazing project!

Each CD is accompanied by a booklet packed with information about the times and about each song on the disc, with plenty of photos to make it all the more vivid. The sound, considering the acoustic nature of the technology back then, is surprisingly good; and the tendency of the singers to enunciate (!) each word sets a standard that has been long since ignored.

1918 saw the last days of the war, the armistice, and the deadly flu epidemic. No one, to my knowledge, wrote songs about the latter, but most of the songs recorded in that year had much to do with the war.

downloadThose with direct references to WWI are “Send me away with a smile,” the overly optimistic “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way,” and, as examples of old songs used for new purposes, “The battle hymn of the republic” and “Hail! hail! the gang’s all here.”

In a lighter vein, there are “Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning,” “They were all out of step but Jim,” and “I don’t want to get well” (because the wounded soldier has fallen in love with his nurse). “Oh, Frenchy” is about an American nurse attracted to a French casualty.

hellocentralRecycling the sentimental song about the child trying to phone her mother up in heaven, “Hello, central, give me no man’s land” drew many a tear, as did “Just a baby’s prayer at twilight (for her daddy over there).”

The orchestral “Hindustan” brings to mind the some of the exotic places the soldiers were seeing, and “Roses of Picardy” does the same for some of the beautiful places.

To make a fair representation of all sorts of popular songs, “1918” includes “Darktown strutters’ ball,” “Everything is peaches down in Georgia,” “Tiger rag,” “I’m always chasing rainbows,” and “Smiles.”

200px-OverThereBayesVtEduAmong the singers are John McCormack, Arthur Fields, Billy Murray, Al Jolson, Henry Burr, Van and Schenck, and Enrico Caruso. The latter belts out “Over there” in English and then in French in a most impressive way.

What a wonderful way to liven up a history lesson, you teachers out there!

Broadway and British Musicals Music

“Cabaret Girl” Sparkles in New Recording

1922 Kern Musical Sparkles in New Recording

   A-OLO-Cabaret GirlThere was once a form of entertainment called the Musical Comedy that actually had both delightful music and a good deal of comedy. Of course, the plots were bubble headed and served mainly as a peg on which to hang the songs. One of the masters of the genre was Jerome Kern, a disciple of Victor Herbert, whose influence on Kern is very obvious in his earlier works.

Of course, “Show Boat” dared to introduce a serious plot into the mix and prepared the ground for “Pal Joey,” “South Pacific,” and later much of what passes for musicals today. But back in 1922, musicals like Kern’s “The Cabaret Girl” were much in vogue. Most have deservedly vanished, but with Kern composing the music and P.G. Wodehouse and George Grossmith working on dialogue and lyrics, the show was heads above most of the others.

Jerome Kern

Now cut into the 21st century. The Ohio Light Opera has been producing and recording on CDs a good many American and European operettas, with considerable success, most of which I have reviewed in my columns. Now with “The Cabaret Girl” on the Albany label, they have what I consider one of their finer efforts. Since the recording and program notes include all the dialogue, I will pass over the silly plot.

What is most impressive is that just about every song makes one feel good! The comedy songs find their sources in past operettas (Gilbert and Sullivan’s influence is most apparent) as well as vaudeville routines, in particular those of Gallagher and Shean.

Two of the original cast

Conductor Michael Borowitz brings sparkle to a score that demands it; and even the dialogue flows a little faster than it does in some of the past OLO recordings. Compliments to the leads, among whom are Lindsay O’Neil, Stefan Gordon, Julie Wright, Steven Daigle, and too many others to list here.

The running time of the two CDs is 114 minutes, and for once I wish it could have been longer!

So for lovers of old time songs, students of the American musical theatre, and all who want to revel in things as they used to be—this is a definite Grabbit!

Scenes from the OLO production (2008)