My father was an inveterate book buyer, a habit, alas, he passed on to me. Many of the books he bought, mainly in used bookstores, were of little interest to me. But I can still remember being excited by the arrival of a volume in a bright yellow binding with an absolutely bewitching cover drawing.
That drawing was my first encounter with the work of Al Hirschfeld. The book, entitled Westward, Ha!, was by his friend S.J. Perelman. It was my first taste of his exhilarating prose style. One of the privileges of my life was that I got to know both men, and it seems significant that my first contact with them was a chronicle of a vacation to the South Seas they took together to recuperate from having made the mistake of writing the book for a Broadway musical, Sweet Bye and Bye.
The book in fact begins with Perelman's recounting of their first meeting -- in Paris. Perelman is sitting at an outdoor cafe, and Hirschfeld, through an intermediary, asks permission to do a caricature of him. They met by accident back in New York and Perelman proposed writing the show. It all ended in a Philadelphia hotel room when the collaborators realized the problems of the show were unsolvable and the lyricist went off to his own room "to hang himself with a dangling participle."
My own copy is inscribed "For Howard Kissel, this melancholy account of what can result from a flop musical." In retrospect I can't believe my cheekiness in bringing a large shopping bag full of his books I had collected over the years to his suite in the then genteel Gramercy Park Hotel.
He was gracious enough to sign all of them -- my favorite inscription was to a collection of pieces he had written for the New Yorker, "Chicken Inspector No. 23." It read "This garland of dried flowers from their florist." I remember being touched when he told me that he was always ill at ease after submitting a piece to the magazine until he received a phone call from William Shawn praising it. By the time I knew him he had long been acknowledged as one of America's great humorists, but he still had his insecurities.
Sweet Bye and Bye has always been a legend. Its parentage was extraordinary -- he and Hirschfeld wrote the book, Ogden Nash the lyrics and Vernon Duke the score. If Broadway operated like the Preakness that pedigree should have been surefire.
Apparently there were endless problems on the road. I remember Hirschfeld telling me how astonished he was when he would get advice on rewrites from chorus girls. "No one stands over my shoulder telling me how to draw."
Duke, still an undervalued composer, was able to recycle some of his songs into other shows. But the show itself has long been a tantalizing object of curiosity.
No longer. There is finally an excellent complete recording of the score on PSClassics with a stellar cast.
Listening to this extremely pleasurable score, one can see why it didn't gel back in 1946. Clearly it did not fit the mold created three years earlier in Oklahoma! The audience was not necessarily expecting a "book show" the way we do today. But it sounds like a collection of jokes and skits in different styles, full of wit but with no emotional content to hold it together. it was too ambitious to be simply a revue but not structured enough to carry an audience through its many zany complications.
Still, Duke and Nash wrote a rich score, starting with the lilting title song. The humor still works (as in "Our Parents Forgot to Get Married") There are ballads that still move you (the haunting "Round About.") Some of them are are familiar -- producer Tommy Krasker used several n a gorgeous album of Duke songs with Dawn Upshaw a few years ago -- I hope it's still in print.) There's a great song called "Just Like a Man," which if I didn't know better I would have attributed to Rodgers and Hart. (It is sung eloquently by Marin Mazzie.)
Part of its appeal is the youthfulness and high spirits of both the lyrics and the music. Krasker has assembled an impressive, spirited cast, and the music is conducted with finesse by Eric Stern. An actual revival or even an Encores! presentation might seem as cumbersome as the show seemed 65 years ago. Here you have everything that made it noteworthy and you can listen to it in a comfortable chair.
I am pleased to see that there is an apparent market for these venerable scores. PSClassics has also released a splendid recording of a pivotal early Gershwin score, "Strike Up the Band." Might we also have an updated recording of the Duke-Nash "One Touch of Venus?" (The original cast recording, with Mary Martin, has long been out of print.) Or how about . . .?
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