June 18, 2013

A musical theater collection needn’t – indeed shouldn’t – be confined to those timeless hits familiar to all theater aficionados. There are so many fabulous scores that never became standards but deserve to be explored! Many deserve a spot on your theater shelf because of both music and lyrics, while others limp in with one or the other being of note. Some are just interesting because of the history of the production.

Clownaround is somewhere between being notable for its music and being interesting for the way it flopped so quickly that it never got closer than 2,566 miles from Broadway.

Lots of shows never make it, of course. But here’s one that had an album on RCA which itself became legendary. That’s because, while apparently it was on sale in the lobby of the two venues in which the show played its 14 performances, the unsold majority were melted down when the producers ran out of money and closed the show in 1971. Thus, it was never actually released although there is at least one report of boxes of copies being disposed of and sold at a swap meet.

Now, after over forty years, the “original show album” has been retrieved from the vaults and made available by the good people at Masterworks Broadway who are doing a fine job of digging out strange titles to tempt us.

The show was supposed to be a touring circus spectacular with Gene Kelly heading a huge cast. The history is not exactly a repeat of Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo, which Billy Rose couldn’t turn into a hit at the 5,000+ seat Hippodrome in New York in 1935, but something of a pre-Cirque du Soliel spectacle.

Unfortunately (for more reasons than just the show biz ones) Mrs. Gene Kelly was diagnosed with leukemia and Mr. Kelly reduced his involvement in the show to something between directing and simply “presenting” in order to share his wife’s final year with her.

His intended supporting players, Ruth Buzzi and Dennis Allen (of TV’s Laugh-In semi-fame) became headliners as the show opened in (get this…) the Coliseum in Oakland, California. It moved from there across America’s most beautiful bay to San Francisco’s Cow Palace. In all, the show played some 14 performances before the producers ran out of money and shut it down – probably because the cost of moving its massive set and large cast from venue to venue proved unsupportable.

The score that RCA recorded doesn’t have Kelly singing. It may not even have either Buzzi or Allen. There are no credits for performers on the album and only a line or two sound like they might be Buzzi. There are unidentified soloists for a few lines, but mostly it is orchestra and chorus in an insistently up-beat, jazzy score that isn’t exactly Barnum and Bailey-ish. Its Ringling Bros. quotient is lower than its 1960s television variety show feel which shouldn’t surprise anyone who notices that the orchestrations are by Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson. Elliott was the music director on Andy Williams’ long running  TV variety show, and together with Ferguson, composed themes for TV shows such as Charlie’s Angels and Barney Miller

So, what do we hear when we finally get a chance to play this album without having to buy it through eBay for hundreds of dollars? It has twelve songs running a total of just over 41 minutes. It features a very 1970s wide spread stereo for a big orchestra and large chorus delivering catchy tunes that almost, but not quite, compensate for insipid lyrics.

The music is by Moose Charlap, well known among collectors of scores from legendary flops: 56 performances for Whoop-Up in 1958-1959; eight performances for The Conquering Hero in 1961; just one performance – after seven previews – for the suicide musical Kelley in 1965. He’s also the composer of 13 of the 18 songs in the Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard 1954 hit Peter Pan which continues to enchant audiences with Cathy Rigby flying around the country on tour after tour. (Yes, she’s still at it. She played Boston just last April.)

The lyrics for Clownaround are by Alvin Cooperman. This is his only known musical as a lyricist, although as a “booker” for the Shubert Organization, he had a hand in the arrival of many a musical on the Great White Way. He was also well known as a producer in television. Among his credits were the fourth season of The Untouchables and the first season of Shirley Temple’s Fairy Tales. When he died in 2006 the New York Times ran a generous obit, but didn’t happen to mention Clownaround.

Generally speaking, lyrics for musical theater should help tell a key part of the story with a distinctive voice that shows the signs of craft and polish. Unfortunately, the majority of Mr. Cooperman’s lyrics don’t seem to be telling anything very important, and even when they are, as in the number in which clowns lament that they don’t have children of their own, they don’t tell it very well. The key lyric there goes:

Little girls and little boys
are untold joys
for those who understand them.
We who have no children do.
So as we give them back to you
We give them back reluctantly
And say: Here are your children.

Moose Charlap, on the other hand, shows a great deal of craft and gives a unique voice to the score which, on first listen, sounds a bit like a singing radio commercial but has enough catchy rhythms and pleasant melodies to worm its way into your consciousness.

As a result, there are three or four songs that are highly enjoyable, three or four where Charlap’s melodic inventiveness almost compensates for insipid lyrics and three or four where it just seems Charlap has thrown in the towel.

Among the enjoyable ones are the opening “Clowns,” which is more an introduction than an overture. It was probably designed for a grand entrance parade but with a vocal chorus. The song establishes a bright brassy sound which alternates with an equally bright flowing string section spiced up with flute filigrees. Also notable is “Sunny Day” which sounds like the b-side of a big 5th Dimension hit with a great big bass brass sound.

Among the middle group are “Here Are Your Children” with the lyric cited above set to a satisfyingly syncopated melody before turning rather dramatic and “Animal Band” which starts up as a charleston routine but ends with an orchestral riff that stuck in my mind for days. Finally, a friend came to my rescue by pointing out that “it sounds for all the world like the party music from Laugh-In.” Right!

After nine tracks where Charlap’s melodies and rhythms compensate for the weak lyrics, he seems to give up for the final three tracks. “I Need A Ship” wouldn’t make the cut on a Saturday morning TV cartoon show (“Now. Have I forgotten a crew? A Crew! I do believe we’ll need a crew – Don’t you?”) and “Clown Alley” isn’t much better.

Ah, well. The first nine tracks are worth multiple listens, and combined with the interesting history of the effort, make the the album a temptation for collectors. We have Masterworks Broadway to thank for making it available after more than 40 years as a legendary oddity.

The Original Show Album

Available now for digital download for $9.99
or on a physical CD for $12.98
from Masterworks Broadway
or, after July 2, through ArkivMusic.Com
as Sony Catalog #49320

Clownaround - Obscure circus musical emerges from the RCA vault