CD Review: SOMETHING FOR THE BOYS (2018 Studio Recording on PS Classics)

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by Tony Frankel on January 20, 2019



A studio recording of Cole Porter’s 1943 boisterously farcical musical Something for the Boys has just been released, and producer and PS Classics co-founder Tommy Krasker has done it again. Since the early 1990s, he has helmed the making of studio cast albums of early Broadway musical scores that languished in near obscurity until he dusted them off and gave us replicas of what audiences would have heard when shows like Oh, Kay!, Girl Crazy, and Kitty’s Kisses first appeared on the Great White Way. Now, he’s assembled a 26-piece orchestra, marching band, Broadway talent, and original charts to bring us a delightful snapshot — including dance breaks! — of just how wafer-thin shows could end up wildly entertaining. Even with some reservations about casting, I can’t recommend this effort highly enough.

The 21 tracks — and Krasker’s crackerjack liner notes — offer a fascinating look into a time when Broadway was about to undergo significant changes from silly book musicals into classier fare. Even though Porter’s score didn’t contain one hit song, wartime audiences ate up the perfectly agreeable, top-drawer tunes and the outlandish book by Dorothy and Herbert Fields. “It doesn’t matter much what you personally think about it,” Burns Mantle wrote in his Daily News review. “It is a perfect sample of the sort of musical comedy entertainment that 98 per cent of the playgoing populace revels in.” When a little show called Oklahoma! opened two months after Boys, audience’s attitudes would forever change; still, with the help of a feel-good experience and Merman in the lead, Boys still packed them in, running 422 performances.

I saw a revival at 42nd St. Moon in San Francisco (with just piano accompaniment), so I can say that the super-slaphappy script seems to have been scribed only to distract audiences from the harshness of World War II. The tale: Three distant cousins — each unknown to the other — inherit out of the blue 4,000 acres of Texas land containing a dilapidated manor house (the plot-setting opening, “Announcement of Inheritance,” is done to droll-Brit perfection by Drowsy Chaperone‘s Edward Hibbert). Upon arriving to claim their prize, the trio discovers that soldiers — led by butch big-band leader Rocky (Philip Chaffin) — have been eyeing the domicile as housing for their girlfriends and wives. The cousins — brassy Blossom (On the Town‘s Elizabeth Stanley in the Merman role), faux-elegant Chiquita (In the Height‘s Andréa Burns), and lowbrow Harry (Fiddler and Follies‘ Danny Burstein) — agree to turn it into a boarding house. Misinformation and complications ensue, including allegations that the renovation is for a bordello. The show’s most famous plot point arrives when Blossom discovers that she can receive radio signals through the fillings in her teeth!

It’s this kind of silly fare that the Fieldses. a brother-and-sister team, cut their teeth on in the 1930s when shows were constructed piecemeal — a comic star here, a songwriting team there, whoever was available, really. The typically preposterous plot (did I mention the fillings?) — chockablock with dubious groaners (a few which made it on this album) — is practically designed so that songs could be plopped in willy-nilly, but who cares about sophisticated plots when it’s Cole Porter writing the tunes?

With all the raves for La Merman (this was her fifth and final Porter show), a few critics noted that Porter was no longer the composer he once was, which frankly was true at that point — yet to come were Kiss Me, Kate (1948, 1,077 performances) and Can-Can (1953, 892 performances). Up until the late-1930s, the urbane and ridiculously witty composer/lyricist had introduced on Broadway some of the greatest standards we will ever know, some from long-forgotten shows: “Let’s Do It” (Paris, 1928); “Love for Sale” (The New Yorkers, 1930); “Night and Day” (Gay Divorce, Fred Astaire’s last Broadway musical, 1932); and “It’s De-lovely” (Red, Hot and Blue, 1936). Who wouldn’t be spoiled by this output?

Yet when you hear Something for the Boys, it will resonate as far more pleasing than most of the substandard fare from today’s Broadway scores. I listened to a few tracks today, and dang it if those tunes aren’t still clanging around in my head: “He’s a Right Guy,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “The Leader of a Big-Time Band,” and “By the Mississinewah” are a few. And since swing was in full swing, four of the so-called Twelve Major Orchestrators of the Golden Age — Robert Russell Bennett, Hans Spialek, Don Walker and Ted Royal — had a field day with the brass. (Conducting the oh-so-tight band are Constantine Kitsopoulos and Greg Jarrett.) Merman was so fond of the title song, that she even recorded it on her captivating but shocking disco album.

As with most musicals B.O. (Before Oklahoma!), the scores were relegated to the dust pile after the show closed, and the Original Cast Album wasn’t yet a commodity (again, changed by Oklahoma!‘s OBC recording, which was the first time an album was released of a musical’s entire original cast with full orchestra and full orchestrations, and with the show’s original conductor — printed on 6 heavyweight 78rpm discs, no less). Since Boys disappeared from public life after its monumental run, all we had was a 1943 radio recording with Ethel and some original cast members — but not Betty Garrett and Paula Laurence — and 42nd Street Moon’s piano outing; but this version blows them both out of the water (not the best WWII allusion, I know).

Krasker fascinatingly explains how the original score was rediscovered in the info-packed, lyric-filled, 32-page booklet. The only missing part of the score, we find, was the overture. Instead of transcribing it from the 1943 radio broadcast, arranger John Baxindine used it to jump off a rock-solid diving board into a pool of rhythmic, happy-feet swing. Also a highlight is “Betty-Jean’s Specialty,” tap-danced to perfection by Kathy Calahan. Mixed with startling clarity by Bart Migal, each track sounds amazing.

There are two drawbacks — if you can call them that. First: Some of the actors aren’t using the burlesque-type idiosyncrasies to make the groaner material slapstick funny (Hibbert, Burstein and Burns are the closest to the 40s’ feel of the show). Second is casting in two roles: No doubt no one wanted the lovely Ms. Stanley to imitate Merman, but she’s so far from brassy that she’s an ingenue, a misinterpretation given the songs were written for Merman — wasn’t Klea Blackhurst or some other bold and blaring broad available? (I can’t help but notice that all of the actors had worked with PS Classics before.) On the radio recording, you can hear Staff Sgt. Ronald “Rocky” Fulton played by the original actor, the hunky Bill Johnson, a lyric baritone in the vein of Alfred Drake; his aggressive, cocky sound would have been preferable here. Philip Chaffin sounds amazing in the role, but he verges on operetta-like tenor, which makes me picture a pink-faced boy in red-and-white stripes with a newsboy cap and a box of candy. But he is the co-founder of PS Classics, so… And could someone explain the photo on the CD cover? Yeah, I get the filling reference, but it’s uncredited in the booklet and not from any show..?

42 Street Moon co-founder Greg McKellan wrote in his company’s program notes: “If Oklahoma! signaled an exciting new direction for the Broadway musical, Something for the Boys represented the old-style, songs-and-gags musical romp in a state-of-the-art presentation. It aspired only to entertain you … [giving you] … a smile on your lips and a Cole Porter song in your heart.” I couldn’t have said it better for this new release.

Something for the Boys
2018 Studio Cast Recording
PS Classics
21 tracks | 74:12 | released December 14, 2018
available at iTunesAmazon and PS Classics

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