Just when you think, as a Broadway fan, as a song fan, as a talent fan, that maybe there's nothing more to be mined from the past (and the present), you get a gift -- beautifully wrapped, lovingly assembled -- of a show just heard about, one with a tantalizing title, one that always seemed out of reach.
Well, PS Classics has just released "Life Begins at 8:40," containing the score of the 1937 revue with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E. Y. Harburg. Theatre fans, rejoice.
It must be so much fun to be Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin, unearthing smudged and crumbling manuscripts and bringing them back to life, to live forever (we hope) on CD and whatever new technology is coming down the pike.
Dare we mention them again? Arlen. Gershwin. Harburg. The greatest.
"Life at 8:40" joins other CD recreations of Broadway revues ("Ziegfeld Follies of 1936" [Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin] and "As Thousands Cheer" [Irving Berlin]) that give us a window into the musical make-up of this moribund art form. (TV has usurped it as the place for political and cultural satire.) "Life" has a helpful glossary of names and products referred to in the songs. (I was shocked when The Sondheim Review published a glossary of the references made in "I'm Still Here," but one has to realize that the popular links to the past are quickly waning, and that somebody might as well do it for musical comedy fans being born right this minute.)
Not all of the material is as amusing as it once was, performed in '37 by Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Luella Gear and Frances Williams. It's possible that no one, even Brad Oscar, can make a song like "Things" funny, as it was tailored for Lahr and who the hell is like him today? He was just one-of-a-kind. But Oscar is hilarious as Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Faith Prince very grand as Eleanor Roosevelt in the show's finale, "Life Begins At City Hall."
But there are four very choice numbers -- beautifully played with original orchestrations restored by the amazing Larry Moore -- "You're A Builder-Upper" (popularized by Ethel Merman's recording at the time), "Fun To Be Fooled," "What Can You Say In A Love Song? (That Hasn't Been Said Before?)," and "Let's Take A Walk Around The Block." Plus there are some newbies to most listeners that are very pleasing, namely "Spring Fever," "Shoein' The Mare" (particularly the dance music), "It Was Long Ago," and "I'm Not Myself."
Thanks to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust and the Library of Congress, this recording joins the long line of "high-fidelity" recordings of shows that began when, in the 1950s, Columbia Records czar Goddard Lieberson began to create albums of songs from 1920s and 30s musicals that never had original cast albums. These didn't use original orchestrations, which has marred them a bit, but they utilized the talents of the time -- Mary Martin, Jack Cassidy, Portia Nelson, Barbara Ruick and many others, customarily under the baton of Lehman Engel.
Then came Tommy Krasker's Gerswhin Trust-funded recordings of early Gershwin shows, Michael Tilson-Thomas' "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let 'Em Eat Cake," Evans Haile's "Babes In Arms" and "Fifty Million Frenchmen," John McGlinn's recordings of "Brigadoon," "Show Boat," and other shows, and all of the Encores! recordings, most of them under the supervision of Rob Fisher -- all of them with crystalline sound and utilizing the Broadway talent of the day (or at least the talent that should have been on Broadway more often, if musicals were still being written for them), including David Carroll, Brent Barrett, George Dvorsky, Howard McGillin, Christoper Fitzgerald, Jason Graae, Debbie (Shapiro) Gravitte, Paige O'Hara, and the amazing, thrilling Rebecca Luker, among many others.
Musical theatre fans would be at a loss without these invaluable recordings, which also include, as a sidebar, a series of recordings by Shadowland/Rialto that featured songs from old shows and films -- (see "Early Kern," "You Can't Put Ketchup on the Moon," and "Life's A Funny Present" on Amazon) -- as well as Scott Siegal's "Broadway By The Year" and "Broadway Unplugged" series (these have nothing to do with authenticity, but they do revive great and obscure songs from their various eras).
"Life Begins at 8:40" is conducted by Aaron Gandy, who did similar honors with PS Classics' "Fine And Dandy," and it features Rebecca Luker, Faith Prince, Christopher Fitzgerald, Kate Baldwin, Montego Glover, Jessica Stone, Graham Rowat, Philip Chaffin, and the aforementioned Brad Oscar. All acquit themselves admirably; Luker is a marvel. (What can I say? I love her when she does show tunes.)
Thanks to all involved for this wonderful piece of scholarship -- down to the many photos and excellent notes by Christopher Caggiano. They've all just made something that was once ephemeral now happily tangible. Let's hope there is an audience eager enough to demand, "Keep 'em coming!"