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Stage Musicals By Film Composers

By Scott Bettencourt


Lyrics by Hal David
Ryko RCD 10750
17 cues, 44:42

Billy Wilder's The Apartment was one of the few romantic comedies to win the Best Picture Oscar and was a highly atypical entry in the genre, with its pivotal suicide attempt and a plot revolving around the use of an apartment for furtive, unromantic sexual assignations. The intimate scale of the story made it highly suitable for a stage adaptation, and the musical version, Promises, Promises, premiered on Broadway eight years after the movie's release and played for over three years, racking up an impressive 1281 performances. Jerry Orbach is best known today for his recently concluded starring role on Law & Order, but for decades he was a major performer on the musical stage, with leading roles in Annie Get Your Gun, Carnival, The Fantasticks and the stage adaptation of 42nd Street, and his lead performance in the "Jack Lemmon role" in Promises, Promises won him a Tony Award.

One of the main things that makes a film music fan love a particular composer is that composer's distinctive musical voice, which can make it hard to recommend that composer's stage musicals since -- possibly due to the utterly different styles of film scores and stage musicals -- that voice is often hard to hear in their stage work. However, this caveat does not apply to Promises, Promises, for it is unmistakably the work of Burt Bacharach and his lyricist Hal David, who were responsible for many of the 1960s most delightful pop songs, usually sung by Dionne Warwick, and two of those songs originated in Promises, Promises -- the title song and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." (Surprisingly, the 80s hit "Always Something There to Remind Me" is actually a cover version of a Bacharach-David-Warwick song).

That distinctive Bacharach sound is both the Promises score's strength and its greatest weakness. The music is catchy and energetic, and even the worst song, "Turkey Lurkey Time," sounds like it could fit in the middle of Bacharach's delightful Casino Royale score. Unfortunately, that sound seems ill suited to Wilder's melancholy storyline, and watching the Wilder film it's hard to imagine the characters bursting boisterously into song. Still, if you love Bacharach, this disc is definitely worth a purchase, but if you don't like him it's likely to give you a splitting headache.


Lyrics by Trevor Peacock
Sony West End SMK 66175 (import)
15 cues, 52:06

Barry's first stage musical, from 1965, was a boisterous sex comedy based on the novel by Rosalind Erskine (which was later filmed in Germany in 1978 with Nastassia Kinski) about a group of girls hoping to lose their virginities to the boys at a nearby school, and among its youthful cast were Nicky Henson, Francesca Annis (of Krull and Polanski's MacBeth), Shirley Valentine Oscar nominee Pauline Collins, and Jane Birkin, who was married to the composer from 1965 to 1968. Despite his many wonderful movie songs (especially his James Bond title tunes), Barry may not have been suited to the dramatic demands of the musical, as the songs from his shows (and the film Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) tend to feel a little static and the meld between music and lyrics can be awkward, though that may ultimately be the fault of his lyricists.

Passion Flower Hotel has energetic charm and infectious energy, despite the fact that many of the songs sound more like they're shouted than sung by the youthful cast. For Barry fans the highlights may be such numbers as "A Little Hammer" and "The Syndicate," which feature brassy interjections evoking the Goldfinger sound, and Trevor Peacock's lyrics are much better than Don Black's for Billy, though in the title song for some reason "Flower" is pronounced with three syllables.

Lyrics by Don Black
Columbia 472818 2 (import)
15 cues, 48:13

Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar, about an unhappy young Englishman who retreats into a fantasy world, became a play, a John Schlesinger film (with Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie), a television series and John Barry's most successful stage musical, which proved a big success for star Michael Crawford (who would later have an even bigger success with Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera) in 1974, but never crossed the Atlantic from England to Broadway.

Though John Barry is one of my all-time favorite composers (fourth on the list, to be precise), and I'm also a fan of stage musicals, Billy is probably one of my least favorite Barry works. It's just as boisterous as Passion Flower Hotel but without as much charm (or as much 60s brassiness), and overall it's more obnoxious than delightful, though I only know the score from the cast album so it may be more pleasing in the context of the show.

Fans of Barry's film music may have as hard a time listening to this one as I do, though one can imagine the melodies of some of the gentler songs, especially "I Missed the Last Rainbow" and the lilting "Any Minute Now" as themes from his film scores, and the show's signature song, "Some Of Us Belong to the Stars," has an appealing catchiness.

Barry has writtenthe scores for three additional stage musicals: for Lolita, My Love, based on Nabokov's classic novel, he collaborated with master Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gigi), and John Neville played the protagonist Humbert Humbert. The show closed on the road before reaching Broadway, and the only cast album is an iffy sounding LP of more than questionable provenance, though the Polydor CD The Best of John Barry featured an instrumental rendition of the song "Lolita." In 1982, he wrote the score to The Little Prince and the Aviator with his usual lyricist Don Black, but what Not Since Carrie author Ken Mandelbaum described as "one of Broadway's most-difficult-to-sit-through musicals ever," starring Michael York as the aviator, closed in previews the day before its scheduled opening. His latest musical, based on Graham Greene's gritty novel Brighton Rock, is about to open in England.


Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
RCA Victor 09026-63581-2
14 cues, 36:32

One would have thought that in 1967 Elmer Bernstein would have been much too busy with television and film work (like his Oscar winning score for Thoroughly Modern Millie) to take time off to write his first Broadway musical, and How Now Dow Jones managed to rack up an impressive advance though it ultimately closed after less than a year. William Goldman theorized in his superlative non-fiction book The Season that it was an odd combination of factors, including the comedic title and the fact that the Wall Street subject matter might have helped it appeal to husbands as well as wives, that led to its big advance, but the lack of stars and an utterly improbable storyline doomed its ultimate success.

While Dow Jones is no classic, and it's hard to hear the distinctive Bernstein voice in its song score, the cast album is an extremely entertaining listen, helped by Carolyn (Sweet Charity) Leigh's clever lyrics. The songs are energetically performed by leads Marlyn Mason, future Woody Allen staple Tony Roberts, and Brenda Vaccaro (though the harshness of her voice is exacerbated by the iffy CD transfer of the original tapes) and Bernstein's melodies are delightfully charming and varied. "Shakespeare Lied," detailing how all the romantically tragic endings in classic literature are pure B.S., is cleverly conceived and executed, "They Don't Make 'Em Like That Anymore" and "Touch and Go" are especially catchy, and "Step to the Rear" is a fine addition to the run of parade songs in 60s Broadway.

In 1983, Bernstein collaborated with Don Black (fresh off of The Little Prince and the Aviator) for the Broadway musical Merlin, produced by Ivan Reitman and starring magician Doug Henning and Broadway great Chita Rivera, and which ran for 199 performances. No cast album was ever released, but there was a sheet music collection of eight songs from the score including "Satan Rules" ("Satan rules/We both know it/You're a fool/And I'll show it").

IN FUTURE INSTALLMENTS: The cast albums of Hamlisch, Legrand, Mancini, Moross, Rosenthal, Shaiman, Shire, and Williams, plus lists of musicals based on movies and film scores by stage composers.

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