Flops on CD: S to Y

Reviews by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000, Revised 2003)

Sail Away - Angel

Sometimes I wonder who is sillier – idiotic critics or those ticket buyers who let idiotic critics talk them out of seeing a good musical. Sail Away had words and music by Noel Coward, staging by Joe Layton, and a stellar performance by Elaine Stritch. Critics dismissed the show as too light and amusing – duh? Were they expecting Coward to make like Eugene O'Neill?

The story of romance on an ocean liner gave Stritch some delightful comic opportunities, and Coward's score offers melody and wit to spare. "Useful Phrases" and "The Passenger's Always Right" are gems, "The Little Ones' ABC" is a wicked send-up of "Do, Re, Mi," and "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" echoes the sentiments of many in the service industry. The fine title tune was taken from Coward's unsuccessful London musical "Ace in the Hole." There is nothing wrong with this musical that a better set of critics wouldn't fix. There is also an excellent London Cast recording with Stritch that boasts an additional song, the hilarious "Bronxville Darby and Joan."

Note: EMI has released a fascinating CD of Coward singing the entire score himself, with four numbers from High Spirits thrown in. When he sings "Home Sweet Heaven," you almost get the delicious feeling that the now deceased creator of Blithe Spirit is gossiping from the "other side."

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers - First Night Records

One more case of a classic film that couldn't hope to gain anything from a stage adaptation. The Johnny Mercer-Gene DePaul screen score needed no additions, and the new numbers by Al Kasha and Joel Hirshorn's pale beside the originals. This recording comes from the capable but uninspired London cast. Frankly, you are better off listening to the MGM soundtrack, which has had several CD releases. However, any number of theatre groups with a strong dance ensemble might be interested in this show as a sure-fire ticket seller.

70 Girls, 70 - Sony

Musical buffs have loved this delightful recording for years. The John Kander-Fred Ebb score is melodic, funny and touching, and the story of impoverished senior citizens who take up shoplifting had plenty of entertainment value. But critics spewed ignorant bile at it and audiences stayed away. Mildred Natwick, Hans Conried and Lillian Hayman head the cast of show biz veterans who kick butt in every number.The defiant "Old Folks" opener is a riot, as are "Do We?," "The Caper" and "Coffee In a Cardboard Cup." Highlights include the clich -laden "Broadway My Street," the adorable "Go Visit Your Grandmother" and the joyous "Yes." If you love shameless show music, this is your kind of recording – and theatre groups that can muster a cast of talented seniors should consider it.

There is also a good London Cast recording, but it does not outshine the New York original.

Sherlock Holmes - RCA Victor & TER

This interesting Leslie Bricusse score has had two cast recordings, even though it was a commercial failure. The London Cast on RCA is harder to find but easily the better choice. Ron Moody is quite enjoyable in the title role, as are Derek Waring as Watson and Liz Robertson as the vengeful daughter of the late Professor Moriarty. Highlights include the rollicking title tune, the equally bouncy "London is London" (written for the film musical Goodbye Mr. Chips), and the cockney rhymer "Down the Apples 'n' Pears." The real showstopper is "A Lousy Life," sung to a fare-thee-well by Julia Sutton (who is this hilarious woman?) – originally written for an unsuccessful musical version of Harvey, it gives Holmes' landlady Mrs. Hudson a long overdue moment of glory.

The TER Bristol cast, headed by Robert Powell, is competent but not nearly as interesting. Numerous changes to the score include no audible improvements.

Holmes fans will probably enjoy the Bricusse score, and musical buffs will find a few gems worth savoring. If an American production ever occurs, we'll see if the show has better luck on this side of the pond.

Side Show - Sony

Musical theater buffs adored this show and mourned loudly over its untimely closing – with good reason. Side Show was one of the most adventurous Broadway musicals of the late 1990s, offering plenty of fine entertainment and a perfect cast. Based on the true story of Siamese twins who found stardom in vaudeville, it confused some dimwitted critics and proved a hard sell to ticket buyers. Luckily, the cast recording does the fine Henry Kreiger-Bill Russell score full justice.

Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner are unforgettable as the Hilton sisters, a vocal pairing that delights as much here as on stage. These ladies are equally at home in period style vaudeville turns ("We Share Everything") and soaring contemporary ballads ("I Will Never Leave You"). Jeff McCarthy and Hugh Panaro click perfectly as their love interests, and Norm Lewis blows everything away with his searing rendition of "You Should Be Loved." It took guts to bring Side Show to Broadway, and it might prove a hard sell elsewhere, but it is highly rewarding theatre and makes for remarkable listening.

State Fair - DRG

Few film musicals adapt well to the stage, but I found this one highly enjoyable. Its brief Broadway run was due to critics who were too insipid to admit that a wholesome dose of Rodgers and Hammerstein could still amount to fine entertainment. A wholesome family musical opening in the same season as Rent? How unforgivable! It is amazing how much fun snobs can talk themselves out of.

The cast included John Davidson, Donna McKechnie, Ben Wright and Scott Wise, and this recording captures them all in top form. Andrea McArdle sings the finest "It Might As Well Be Spring" this picky listener has ever heard, and the handful of trunk songs added to the original score were all neatly integrated into the story of an Iowa farm family's adventures at the annual state fair. "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and "All I Owe Iowa" worked very well on stage, and even the campy "More Than Just a Friend" (farmers sing the praises of their prize-wining hogs) is a heartwarming hoot. I adored "When I Go Out Walking With My Baby," a charming duet cut from Oklahoma. Catchy melodies and well crafted lyrics – gee, we used to call this the stuff that musicals were made of. R&H fans will certainly enjoy this recording, as will anyone who has the audacity to like an "old fashioned" Broadway musical. This show will have tremendous appeal in regional and community theatres, as well as high schools.

Steel Pier - RCA Victor

When I saw this disappointing show, I had a feeling it would sound far better on CD -- and it does! The story of a stunt pilot who returns from the dead to woo a 1930s marathon dancer is so inane that it could prove a stumbling block for any composers or cast. While the score is not Kander and Ebb's best, it has its share of golden moments. Karen Ziemba gives her all in "Willing to Ride" and the less satisfying "Running in Place." Daniel McDonald (who was almost too handsome to be real) lavished his fine baritone on the sweet "Second Chance" and the so-so "First You Dream." Gregory Harrison is perfectly hateful as the ruthless Master of Ceremonies, and several supporting roles were especially well cast. Debra Monk adds vocal punch to "Everybody's Girl," and Kristin Chenoweth made her first Broadway splash singing death-defying trills in "Two Little Words."

As good as the recording makes things sound, Steel Pier simply did not work, but the cast album is certainly of interest to serious collectors.

Thou Shalt Not

Some weak shows (like Steel Pier, above) sound far better in their cast recordings, but even if Jolson, Merman and Garland rose from their graves, they could not make Thou Shalt Not sound good. Some of Harry Connick Jr.'s songs are certainly worth hearing – there is no denying that he is a gifted musician. But this show was a terrible idea, and nobody was on hand to guide Connick in the art of creating a score that serves the dramatic needs of a musical play. While his future possibilities as a show composer are undeniable, it remains to be seen if he will brave the critics again. Two versions of this score have been released on CD, and if you never hear either, you will not have missed much.

Triumph of Love - Jay

A superb cast and a literate concept are not necessarily enough. Triumph of Love's tale of a deposed but over-educated prince regaining his kingdom and falling in love with the princess he must dethrone takes an esoteric approach that is often weighed down by verbiage. Still, this fine cast recording has plenty of pleasure to offer.

A team of Broadway favorites has fun with the score by composer Jeffrey Stock and lyricist Susan Birkenhead. Susan Egan plays the gender-switching princess, and hunky Christopher Sieber is disarming as the prince. They share several good duets, and lead the ensemble in the ravishing "Teach Me Not to Love You." F. Murray Abraham and Betty Buckley have a riotous time playing the prince's vengeful tutors – Buckley stopped the show nightly with "Serenity." Nancy Opel (what a talent!) has some fine comic moments as Egan's wacky maid. Musical lovers will want to hear this cast, and college groups would do well to consider this show – seven characters, a challenging score and relatively simple production requirements.

Unsung Musicals - Varese Sarabande

If you are a showtune collector and do not own this sensational series, you have got to be kidding! Producer Bruce Kimmel gathered some of Broadway's finest talents (affectionately known to buffs as "the usual suspects") to give forgotten showtunes from legendary flops a first-class hearing. The original edition has Christine Baranski singing the fantabulous title tune to Sherry, Jason Graae's rendition of "She's Roses" from Drat The Cat, and fine numbers from Smile, The Vamp and Welcome to the Club – among others! Later editions include songs from The Yearling, Foxy, Carnival in Flanders and other flops that buffs have wondered about for decades. The performers include Liz Callaway, Crista Moore, Davis Gaines, Debbie Gravitte, Rebecca Luker, Lynette Perry – people I would listen to anywhere, anytime. Thanks to the rare material, it is a special pleasure hearing them on these disks.

Hunt this series down – along with the companion Lost in Boston discs that preserve songs cut from successful shows. Every serious fan of the genre will be fascinated – and frequently delighted!

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