Most dedicated theater music fans are well aware that there was a momentous shift in the evolution of what we now think of as a “musical” in 1915 when Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton, in the cogent description of Steve Suskin, “concentrated on making comedy and song spring directly from situation and character” with their first hit in the Princess Theatre, Very Good Eddie.
What many of us don’t really understand, however, is just what musicals were like before Kern and Bolton’s innovations took hold. What was the point of departure from which the changes seemed so remarkable?
In the nearly 100 years since Eddie opened, the technology for and the concept of the cast recording has given us the opportunity to follow developments from Eddie to the very latest new musical on Broadway. (That was Lysistrata Jones. There is word that there might be a recording of that now-closed musical. If one is released, I will review it here.)
It is the shows that pre-date Eddie that are hard to come by. Oh, sure, all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fabulous comic operas are on disc and they certainly conform to the idea of “song spring(ing) directly from situation and character.” Some of the great operettas of the day, which were great hits, have been revised.
But just what was the “run of the mill” like before either Eddie or original cast recordings? How can we come to understand not just what the huge hits of that earlier time were like, but what the entire genre had to offer?
One source that receives less attention than it should and, therefore, isn’t as widely known as its catalog deserves, is the work of the Comic Opera Guild, a semi-professional lyric theater company in Michigan. For nearly 40 years, COG has given voice to a genre that once was ubiquitous, but which has become more and more difficult to find.
COG is under the leadership of Thomas W. Petiet who founded the company in 1973. As a “semi-professional” company, their productions feature both professionals and amateurs.
The amazing thing about this particular semi-professional company is that they record every one of their productions and make them available on CD. That’s 40 years worth – over 70 shows!
Some of the recordings are music only, while others are the full show including dialogue. Indeed, many of the shows are offered in both versions so you can order the “M” version with music or the complete “C” version.
Most are live recordings, so those shows that had full orchestra have that sound, while those accompanied by piano (or twin pianos) will only have the piano approximation of the orchestration of the original work. Which is which is easy to figure out since they include an “O” or a “P” in the recording’s catalog number.
The sound is closer to an archival recording than a fully professional studio job and the performers, as a mixture of amateurs and professionals almost all of whom must have day jobs, are capable without being distinguished. Still, when you want to hear what the score of Victor Herbert’s 1908 hit show Little Nemo was like, where else can you turn?
What, other than Little Nemo is in this catalog?
There are 30 shows by Victor Herbert. Yes, you read that number correctly! Thirty shows by the composer of Babes in Toyland including such familiar titles as Mlle. Modiste and Naughty Marietta but also titles that were new to me such as Her Regiment, The Idol’s Eye, Old Dutch and The Velvet Lady. There even is a recording of Herbert’s Wonderland which played the Majestic in 1905 for 73 performances, over twice as many as the Wonderland by Frank Wildhorn which played 106 years later just two blocks to the northeast.
The catalog also features 15 shows by Jerome Kern including that genre-changing Very Good, Eddie. Some well known titles include Sally, Oh, Lady, Lady and Leave It To Jane, but there are also lesser known works here like Good Morning Dearie and Stepping Stones. There are song collections as well from “The Night Boat” and “The Bunch and Judy.”
There are also shows by Rudolf Friml (High Jinks, Katinka,) Gustav Luders (The Prince of Pilsen) and Louis A. Hirsch (The Rainbow Girl.) You can even find Karl Hoschna’s 1908 Three Twins which gave him one of his biggest hit songs: “Cuddle Up A Little Closer.”
For the big hits, the choices are wider. For Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, you can buy their 1984, 1990 or 2004 complete two-disc versions, or a 1976 studio recording of just the music, all featuring full orchestra. There are two versions of his Orange Blossoms and two of Sousa’s El Capitan.
The company doesn’t limit itself to the American catalog, although it constitutes the bulk of their offerings. There are European operettas and light operas by Jaques Offenbach, Strauss, Lehar and even Mozart as well as a few gems from England. They have a musical reconstruction of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis as well as a few by Gilbert without Sullivan and Sullivan without Gilbert.
All in all, if you are intrigued by this aspect of musical theater, you may find you need a larger theater shelf.