Friday, March 25, 2011

Album Review - Originals – Musical Comedy 1909-1935 [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]

By Sherry Shaffer

Originals - Musical Comedy 1909-1935 is a compilation of songs from the early years of musical theatre; a time when vaudeville was still around and musical “comedy” could mean a revue, an operetta, or just a happy ending. So, while some of the songs on the album can be termed “comic” there are several that are safer described as romantic or sentimental. This is a time capsule of songs that are not meant for modern audiences. To really appreciate this album you must first keep in mind that comedy, theatre, and general sensibilities have changed quite a bit in the last 75-100 years.

RCA has done a good job with the restoration; the songs are as sharp and clear as one can hope for century-old recordings. On several of the songs you can still hear the crackle of the original master and that tinny sound so often associated with the era, but since I expected no less, I was inclined to find it quaint rather than annoying.

If you’ve ever taken a class or are interested in theatre history you’ll probably want to listen to this album at least once, if not own it as an integral part of your collection. There are few people still alive from when these songs were performed – let alone anyone who actually witnessed them – and many of the performers and performances were not captured on film, especially in their heyday. The singers on this album are some of the crème de la crème of early Broadway; among the more famous names are Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Cole Porter (yes, Porter sings.) But by all means, research anyone you haven’t heard of and you’ll discover some heavy hitters like Beatrice Lillie – more recently known as Mrs. Mears in the 1967 film, "Thoroughly Modern Millie" – or Noble Sissle – African American singer, songwriter and sometime collaborator with Eubie Blake. I looked up every unknown (to me) singer and act on this album and was very glad I did. I would never have known that Elsie Janis was a singer, writer and producer or that Jack Norworth wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

As I said before, these songs were not intended for today’s audience, so there might be a few that raise some eyebrows. “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean,” performed by Ed Gallagher and Al Shean, is a vaudeville number from Ziegfeld Follies of 1922 that doesn’t translate well into today’s idea of comedy. The men were huge stars in their time and this song is their signature classic. Be aware of minstrel show-style performances like Elsie Janis’ “Fo’ de Lawd’s Sake, Play a Waltz” (which she penned herself) that are most definitely frowned upon these days. “Manda” by Noble Sissle is a great bit of early jazz, but oh my, the title of the show is Chocolate Dandies – that’ll make anyone cringe. My advice: view the album as a history lesson and take context with a grain of salt. Briefly set aside your modern sensibilities so you can enjoy the songs guilt-free.

On the whole, I thought this was a delightful album with much to be discovered and enjoyed. For those of us who have only seen Barbara Streisand as Fanny Brice, it is a real treat to finally hear the original sing “Second Hand Rose” from Ziegfeld Follies of 1921. And I honestly never thought I’d hear Cole Porter perform one of his songs, let alone “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes – my husband, a big Porter fan, was listening in and exclaimed he’d never heard one of the verses on the recording. Eleanor Powell does a nice job with “What a Wonderful World” from At Home Abroad – though I never like to listen to tap-dancing in the middle of a song; I don’t get the point. “Hungry Women” performed by Eddie Cantor from Whoopee is corny, but actually pretty funny. And Beatrice Lillie was a wonderful surprise with her charming rendition of “Like He Loves Me” from Oh, Please! There are a couple of songs that grate a little, mainly because of style differences that I don’t quite appreciate – “You and the Night and the Music” from Revenge with Music performed by Libby Holman reminds me a little too much of Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again," or more accurately, as Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles." I laughed, but for the wrong reasons.

The Tin Pan Alley style of singing and outdated humor may not appeal to the casual listener used to the likes of Idina Menzel or Mandy Patinkin, but for those of us who are theatre geeks, it’s a little slice of heaven. I recommend Originals: Musical Comedy 1909-1935 for anyone who wants a fun and pleasurable peek into the rich past of American musical theatre.

Originals - Musical Comedy 1909-1935
Release Date: 01/18/2011
Label: RCA Catalog #: 82405
Composer: Maurice Scott, Nora Bayes, George M. Cohan, Elsie Janis, Harry Tierney,
James Hanley, Ed Gallagher, Eubie Blake, Vincent Youmans,
Milton Ager, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz

Performer: Blanche Ring, Jack Norworth, Nora Bayes, Al Jolson, Elsie Janis, Edith Day, Howard Rattay, Fanny Brice, Ed Gallagher, Al Shean, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Beatrice Lillie, Vincent Youmans, J. Harold Murray, Louise Groody, Charles King, Frank Banta, Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, Cole Porter, Libby Holman, Eleanor Powell

Conductor: Rosario Bourdon, Nathaniel Shilkret, Leonard Joy, Richard Himber, Tommy Dorsey

Orchestra/Ensemble: Orchestra, Chorus, Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey Orchestra

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