Will the well of wonders unearthed in Secaucus in 1986 ever run dry? Here, 25 years later, we have a brand new “World Premiere Recording” of the score of a 1946 musical! Who knows what gems remain to emerge?
The story of the rescue of this score from ignominious oblivion is fascinating. And it is well told by the recording’s producer Tommy Krasker in a seven page essay in the cd’s booklet.
The score was by Vernon Duke, who had his big hit some six years earlier when his Cabin in the Sky set drew enough praise to earn a four month run and a movie version with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. Here he is teamed with light verse master Ogden Nash who contributed lyrics to Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus which had Mary Martin in a rather contemporary treatment of the Pygmalion myth.
The book was by S. J. Perelman, famous for his humorous pieces in The New Yorker, and Al Hirschfeld who was and is famous for his unique caricatures which chronicled Broadway for three-quarters of a century.
In his informative essay on the show, its score and the way this recording came about, record producer Krasker makes it clear why it is appropriate to discuss the team who wrote the score separately from the team that wrote the script. Says Krasker, “It is clear that Perelman and Hirschfeld were writing one show, Duke and Nash another. ”
Krasker relates the saga of the failure of the show without pulling any punches. Had he made up these stories, he’d get a nomination from someone for humorous fiction. But, he didn’t make up the leading lady suffering a nervous breakdown, attempting suicide and being committed to a sanatorium! Nor did he make up the legendary first night of the first tryout in New Haven starring Gene Sheldon in what was supposed to be a speaking/singing role for the banjo playing vaudeville mime. Sheldon, in what must have been an excruciating case of stage freight, didn’t play the first scene as written but, rather, did his vaudeville act. Krasker tells the story too well for paraphrasing so here it is as he writes it:
“When Sheldon came off stage, Perelman grabbed him and threw him against a wall; Sheldon’s head collided with a brick, and he fell to the ground, unconscious. As an ambulance carted Sheldon away, the stage manager advised the audience that Mr. Sheldon had been taken ill with an attack of appendicitis and that he himself would be playing the role, script in hand, for the rest of the performance. The following day, and for the remainder of the New Haven run, Sheldon’s role was assumed by the show’s choreographer, Fred Kelly.”
It turned out that no one had to learn the role’s lines for a Broadway opening. The show closed out of town, never to appear on a Broadway stage.
Krasker’s essay also relates how the score of this show that never reached Broadway and certainly never had an original Broadway cast album, is now receiving its world premiere on a disc from PS Classics, the label Krasker runs. He had spent 1986 cataloguing the contents of the Warner Brothers warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey, where over 20,000 musical manuscripts had been discovered. Some of George and Ira Gershwin’s scores have been restored to us as a result of Krasker’s effort, as has Con Conrad and Gus Kahn’s 1920’s gem Kitty’s Kisses.
Now we get Sweet Bye and Bye, of which the piano/vocal score as well as some of the composer’s manuscripts were in a box in Secaucus. Krasker has led the effort to track down scripts to allow a recreation of the score in something like a playable format and to bring it to life with full orchestrations (by Jason Carr) and with a cast that includes such notables as Danny Burstein, Philip Chaffin, John Cullum, Georgia Engel, Rebecca Luker and Marin Mazzie.
What exactly was Sweet Bye and Bye? It was an effort to comment on the state of then-contemporary American society by looking back from an imagined future. While it is interesting to look backward at an effort to look forward, in this case it is the score and not the sociology that seems worthy of note. It is the wit of Ogden Nash and the richness of Vernon Duke’s music that will reward repeated listening.
The booklet helps put it all in perspective. In addition to Krasker’s essay, the dramaturg Robert Edridge-Waks provides a succinct synopsis that places each song in context and then the full lyrics are available. The booklet also offers some interesting illustrations such as a Hirschfeld caricature and some terribly amateurish-looking production photos from the original and only production.
There’s no indication of the source of the cover illustration or of the back page of the jewel case’s insert featuring a silicone chip circuit board that could not have been envisioned with such detail when the show was being written. But you can ponder that conundrum while you listen to this intriguing score.