The golden touch
by John F. Karr
Here's a pair of new Broadway cast albums: one classic show is reconstructed, while another is deconstructed.
First is a recording I've been waiting for all my life, and I'm not kidding. It's amazing that decades had to pass before a complete recording of The Golden Apple was made (especially when NYC's Encore series has been so suitably well-equipped for the job). The show was a smash in 1954, and you'd better get its OBC [Original Broadway Cast] if you don't know it. You'll find you do know the score's stand-out ballad, "Lazy Afternoon." To fit the constricted length of that vinyl LP, only 45 minutes of the show were recorded. Now we have all 135 minutes, on a double-CD set recorded by PS Classics during live performances by the Lyric Theatre of Irving, Texas. A regional theatre, yes, but with an impressive and thoroughly professional talent pool. The performers may lack the unique eccentricities and quirks of the irrepressible performers heard on the 1954 OBC (how can you beat Kaye Ballard, Jack Whiting, Stephen Douglass, Charlotte Rae?), but the Texas talent are excellent singers who flesh out their characters just fine.
The show was composed by Jerome Moross, whose most famous work is the sweeping theme from the movie The Big Country . And here's the show's gay connection. The Golden Apple has lyrics by John Latouch (pronounced, Latoush), who also wrote lyrics for Cabin in the Sky , The Ballad of Baby Doe , and for Candide (but not for "Glitter and Be Gay," as most people think; that's by Richard Wilbur). Touch, as he was known, has been described as a charmer and a drunk, outrageously out (at least by 1940s standards), and a thorough scamp. I remember reading his scurrilous lyrics for naughty supper-club songs. He was the lover of poet Kenward Elmslie, and died while working on Candide, in 1956, only 42 years old. Officially, from a heart attack, but I suspect that ol' devil, drink.
The Golden Apple tells the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey, reset in a rustic, turn-of-the-19th-century America. For instance, traveling salesman Paris carries off farmer's daughter Helen in a hot-air balloon. And while the setting is novel, it's the show's form that is unique. In the entire history of the musical, there isn't another show completely through-composed in a pop vernacular of waltzes, reels, rags, blues, stomps, and vaudeville numbers. Even the recitative can set toes tapping (I wish Andrew Lloyd Weber had paid some attention while writing the intolerable Phantom of the Opera recit). It's a little overwhelming on first hearing, a tsunami of show tunes. Remember, there is no book, per se; it's all lyrics, and it's all music. A popera.
The first act's "Windflowers" is as tender and lyric a ballad as Baby Doe's "Willow Song." But I veer toward Act II. It's such a wonder, in the sweep and surge of its melodic invention, and the sheer toe-tapping joy of its set-pieces.
When Ulysses' men win the fight to get Helen back, defeated local Mayor Hector plots revenge in a splendid soft-shoe. He'll knock off Ulysses' men one by one, throwing all the lures of the big city at them in the form of a series of music-hall turns. There's Circe, the woman without mercy, and the procuress, Madam Calypso (sung by a performer with the throaty allure of Ann Reinking). There are the con men Scylla and Charybdis (with a Gallagher and Shean routine in which Latouch tickles us with Scylla, villa, chinchilla, gorilla, and sars'parilla), and there are the Sirens, seducing with a Hawaiian spoof ("let's spoon-a, spoon-a, spoon-a, in a goona, goona, goona lagoon").
For Ulysses' ultimate return home, the recording restores the composer's original bittersweet ending, replacing the 1954 reprise of the show's main love duet. The producers back then insisted on the show having a happy ending. The actual happy ending is that we can now hear The Golden Apple in its full, adventurous, and rather fantastic form.
Now, what about the other album's deconstruction? I haven't seen this show An American in Paris, but an uncomfortable listen to its OBC suggests it's a fine souvenir for those who have. As a separate entity, I found its numbers shrill and shredded. Over half the album consists of instrumental Gershwin concert pieces. They're fine to accompany a ballet one is watching, perhaps, but with abridgments, mash-ups, reduced orchestrations and tinny recorded sound, anybody in their right mind would prefer Lenny B. and the New York Philharmonic. That leaves 11 songs that whisk by in 37 minutes. They're mostly the same Gershwin standards that have been recycled and recycled again in a couple of recent shows. In an effort to make them seem fresh, they're subject to convoluted arrangements that switch to another ostensibly novel effect every four or eight bars, with dance arrangements that sound sorely distressed. I doubt I'll ever listen to this clangorous album again. Unless seeing the show makes me want to hear a souvenir.