NEW RECORDING OF "NEW GIRL" RECOMMENDED . . . BUT WITH RESER
J. T Waldmann | Carmel, IN, home to the fabulous new Regional Perf | 01/13/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Eileen Barton's 1950 recording of "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked a Cake" was songwriter Bob Merrill's very first pop hit, and he went on to create such pop classics as Rosemary Clooney's "Mambo Italiano," Guy Mitchell's "(There's a Pawnshop on a Corner in) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" and Patti Page's mega-hit "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" However, Merrill's major claim to fame (infamy?) was writing ". . . one of the most recognizable, most parodied, and (for non-Streisand fans) most irritating lyrics of all time: People/People who need people/Are the luckiest people in the world." (Marc Steyn, in an article posted on slate.com, dated April 9, 1998) Furthermore, writes Steyn, "Merrill is the man who single-handedly produced the worst songs of the decade and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it had no moral authority to resist rock 'n' roll."
Well, excuuuse me, Mr. Steyn. I, among millions of others growing up in the 50s, really dug Bob Merrill's novelty songs, and I also thoroughly enjoyed the songs he wrote for his first Broadway score, NEW GIRL IN TOWN. How can anyone resist such rousing, toe-tapping, full-throated ensemble numbers like "Roll Yer Socks Up," "At the Check Apron Ball," "The Sunshine Girl (Has Raindrops in Her Eyes)," "There Ain't No Flies on Me," and "Chess and Checkers"? Novelty songs? Yes, and so are Marthy (Thelma Ritter) and the girls' reminiscences about their youthful "Flings" and Anna's (Gwen Verdon) recounting of her introduction to the wayward life by her Minnesota uncles and cousins "On the Farm." Merrill's score also includes a couple of lovely ballads: Mat's (George Wallace) "Look at `Er," Anna's "If That Was Love" and "It's Good To Be Alive," later reprised by Mat. Anna's father, Chris, (Cameron Prud'homme) sings the poignant "Anna Lilla" and with Anna leads the revelers in "Ven I Valse." In his liner notes, Victor Lewis complains that some of the songs ". . . are of a one-size-fits-all brand, and could have come from any up-beat musical." Who cares? They're terrific!
All the performances are terrific as well, earning for both Verdon and Ritter the 1958 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical (a tie) and a Best Featured Actor nomination for Prud'homme. The marvelous Robert Russell Bennett/Philip J. Lang orchestrations are a far cry from today's pathetic pared-down synthesizer/drum machine-dominated pit bands. Hal Hastings directs the whole thing with a seasoned hand.
So why doesn't this recording get a five-star rating? Well, it might have if Flare, in addition to Lewis' comments, had included the original CD booklet. Missing is a synopis of the musical and a cast listing; atleast the cover art has been faithfully reproduced. James Irvin's remastering has cleaned up much of the original RCA CD's muddiness, but at the same time has introduced a brightness that makes the tape hiss more apparent. On the positive side, now and again there is evidence of the three-dimensionality often associated with RCA's Webster Hall recordings. `Tis a pity Sony/BMG didn't reissue NEW GIRL and remaster it with the same attention to detail as they did with the Lincoln Center KING AND I and the 2oth anniversary revival of MY FAIR LADY. What a smashing recording this might have been.
Highly recommended - anyway.
Gwen Verdon "sings" Eugene O'Neill...
Byron Kolln | the corner where Broadway meets Hollywood | 05/04/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It seems that red-headed singing and dancing sweetheart Gwen Verdon could do no wrong when it came to starring in Broadway musicals. Earning Tony Awards for her sizzling performance in 1953's CAN-CAN, and as devil's assistant Lola in 1955's DAMN YANKEES; she netted her third award in 1957, playing Anna Christie in the musical version of Eugene O'Neill's celebrated play, re-titled NEW GIRL IN TOWN.
NEW GIRL IN TOWN is the tale of Anna Christie, a girl with a cloudy past who returns to her hometown in order to help her ailing father, Chris, in his ferryboat business. Anna falls in love with the ship's stoker Mat, although their relationship is to be tested by the revelation of Anna's previous life... "Anna Christie" was famously adapted for the screen as Greta Garbo's very first 'Talkie' vehicle, simultaneously filmed in English and German-language versions. Marie Dressler co-starred as Marthy.
For the musical version of "Anna Christie", pop writer Bob Merrill (FUNNY GIRL, CARNIVAL!) turned in his very first musical theatre score. Tunes like "Roll Yer Socks Up", "It's Good to Be Alive", and "On the Farm" conjure up the world of Anna and her father perfectly. There's a gorgeous love duet for Anna and Mat (George Wallace) entitled "Did You Close Your Eyes?". "Flings" is a charming number for Anna and Marthy (Thelma Ritter, who tied with Ms Verdon to win a Tony Award for her crowd-pleasing performance). Sadly, time restrictions prevented the recording of the climactic "Cat House Ballet" sequence. NEW GIRL IN TOWN opened at the 46th Street Theatre on 14th May 1957, and ran for 431 performances.
Verdon would go on to distinguish herself by winning another Tony Award the following year for REDHEAD (a rare instance where an actress has won back-to-back awards in the 'Best Actress in a Musical' category). Composer Bob Merrill's next Broadway musical would be TAKE ME ALONG, based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!", starring Jackie Gleason and Eileen Herlie.
DRG's new reissue of NEW GIRL IN TOWN comes directly from the original RCA master tapes, and while the early stereo recording is quite muddy in places, as a whole it sounds much better than last year's release on the Flare label (which had a brighter sound but unfortunately exposed more tape hiss and sonic wobble in the process). On the plus-side, Flare's disc boasts some valuable bonus tracks including a fun cover of "Flings" from Carol Burnett and Martha Raye. Buy whichever is cheaper or more convienient.
BOB MERRILL'S HIGHLY ENJOYABLE FIRST BROADWAY SCORE . . .
J. T Waldmann | Carmel, IN, home to the fabulous new Regional Perf | 04/10/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Essential Reading - Marc Styn's "The Worst Songwriter of All Time," posted April 9, 1998 on Slate.com: "In a century of pop music, Bob Merrill pretty much has a hammerlock on the first half of the 1950s. Even then, he wasn't exactly a household name - and, if you beg to differ, chances are your household's mixing him up with Robert Merrill, the great Metropolitan Opera baritone who appeared around the same time. Merrill (Bob) chose the diminutive deliberately to avoid confusion with Merrill (Robert), though it's hard to see why anyone would think a fellow who makes his living singing Mozart and Verdi would go home at night and write 'If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake.'"
According to Styn, Merrill ". . . wrote more determinedly happy songs than anyone in history." Novelty songs like "Mambo Italiano," "Pittsburgh, Pennsylavania," "Sparrow in the Tree Top," "Honeycomb" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" may have earned him a lot of money, but they did little for his reputation. Again, Styn: "To those who love the great American standards, Merrill is the man who single-handedly produced the worst songs of the decade and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that it had no moral authority to resist rock 'n' roll."
Regarded as "too simple-minded to write show scores," Merrill enjoyed modest success on Broadway in spite of his critics. His first musical, NEW GIRL IN TOWN (based on the Eugene O'Neill drama ANNA CHIRISTIE), received a Best Musical Tony nomination (1958) and earned Best Actress Awards for both Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter. And, yes, it's filled with cleverly-rhymed, "determinedly happy songs": "Roll Yer Socks Up," "The Sunshine Girl (Has Raindrops in Her Eyes)," "Flings," "Chess and Checkers," "There Ain't No Flies on Me," "At the Check Apron Ball," "It's Good To Be Alive," "Did You Close Your Eyes When We Kissed?" et. al. Even "On the Farm," the saga of Anna's initiation into the "wayward" life by her Minnesota uncles and cousins, is filled with wry humor: "Uncle Sven was kind of a preacher/Would have made a good school teacher/Studied all the natch-ral habbits/Of the horses, cows 'n rabbits/I was teacher's pet."
So, forget ANNA CHRISTIE (it's a downer) and enjoy NEW GIRL IN TOWN and its spirited, infectious score, masterfully orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang, capably conducted by Hal Hasting, and performed to perfection by Gwen Verdon, Thelma Ritter, Cameron Prud'homme, George Wallace, and the high-energy ensemble. All that's missing is Bob Fosse's choreography.
Thank you, DRG."