July 10, 2012

As we continue our look at works by and about George Gershwin on the 75th anniversary of his tragically early death, we are fortunate to have a first class world premiere recording of an obscure early work of his to savor.

It comes as no surprise that the name Tommy Krasker graces the credits for PS Classics’ recording of Sweet Little Devil, the Broadway show that launched Gershwin’s big year, 1924. We have Krasker to thank for the bulk of the recordings of Gershwin’s shows which cause many of our theater shelves to groan under the weight of box sets of scores which track the growth of this American genius.

He’s given us, among others, irreplaceable recordings of Girl Crazy, Lady, Be Good!, Oh, Kay!, Strike Up the Band, Tell Me More and Pardon My English

Sweet Little Devil ran for three and a half months starting in January of 1924. That may not sound impressive today but at the time, the hope of every firstnighter was for a show that would run for the balance of the season. This one did.

But it was just the beginning of a year that would convert George Gershwin from a well-thought-of professional to a rising star in the world of American music – popular, theatrical and even the concert pieces written for halls that usually featured Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

February of that year brought the premiere of his first concert piece – the classic Rhapsody in Blue. April had him performing the Rhapsody at Carnegie Hall! Then he crossed the Atlantic to open a West End musical, Primrose. By December he was back on Broadway with his first mega-hit, the Fred and Astele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good!

You can track the continued growth in his craft over the course of that year and on for nearly another fifteen years. That progress was to reveal itself in concert works like first the Concerto in F and then American in Paris, Second Rhapsody and The Cuban Overture.

More striking, however, was his improvement as a theater composer. His scores became more sophisticated without becoming less popular or less pleasing. But to track a growth curve, one must begin with a starting point and Sweet Little Devil provides just that point at the bottom of the left hand side of the chart.

It is the last of the scores Gershwin would compose that fails to rise much above the level of his contemporary colleagues. That was, of course, a fairly high bar and clearing it was no small achievement. But, while every Gershwin score had a song or two (or three or four or more) of note, this was the last score that, as a whole, didn’t rise much above the competent.

That is not to say the score lacks either charm or beauty. Just listen to the overture – so well recorded here that you feel as if you might be sitting in an orchestra seat at the old Astor Theatre at the corner of Broadway and 45th Street, having just walked under its three lantern-like chandeliers where the Marriott Marquis now sits having displaced the Astor, the Morosco, the Bijou, the Follies Bergere and the Gaiety.

“You’re Mighty Lucky” offers a lilting melody that ends up winding itself around a central point as it becomes a charming counterpoint duet. “The Jijibo” is one of those “here’s a new dance that’s sweeping the nation” kind of romp. The lyric that Buddy DeSylva wrote for “Quite a Party” has enough references to brand names that, had it been written in the age of product placement payments, could have financed the entire production. His “Just Supposing” is clever and Gershwin came up with a catchy setting for it.

All of this is performed before a ten piece pit band playing the original charts prepared by the legendary orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. Here we get a treat from Brian Miller’s flute on the delightful flourishes Bennett provided for the flowing melody of “Someone Believes in You.” Tony Kadleck’s trumpet taking a solo spot in the nearly five minute long overture is another notable moment. This was also an early example of Bennett’s work, and the recording provides a chance to base a study of his growth as well. He went on to chart such landmarks as Show Boat, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Camelot.

The amount of music in the score is a bit slender by today’s standards. It totals just about 50 minutes. Krasker has fleshed out the recording with enough dialogue to place the songs in context. After a first listen, you may want to program your machine to skip over the two tracks that are just spoken (Tracks 7 and 13) but you will still get a few passages of talk, some with underscoring. All told, the disc runs 56:33.

Collectors of show records will recognize some of the cast that Krasker has assembled here including three-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein (The Drowsy Chaperone, South Pacific, Follies) and his wife, the incandescent Rebecca Luker who is also a three time Tony Award nominee (Mary Poppins, The Music Man, Show Boat). The lead male role is sung by PS Classics co-founder, the silver throated Philip Chaffin, while the side-kick role is the province of the always enthusiastic Jason Graae.

The female lead, a role written for the then-famous, now-obscure Constance Binney, is voiced by a suitably sparkly Sara Jean Ford.

If you don’t already happen to have the recordings mentioned in the third paragraph above, you might want to order them before you get to this one. Indeed, you should also order Michael Tilson Thomas’ recordings of Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Then, add this one along with Pardon My English, Tip-Toes and Tell Me More.

That should make your theater shelf slump a bit at the “G” section.

Sweet Little Devil
PS Classics Catalog PS-1207
Running time 56:30 over 18 tracks
Packaged with notes and synopsis
ASIN: B00702LIB2
List Price $15.95

Other score recordings of note:
Girl Crazy – Label: Nonesuch ASIN: B000005J0J
Lady, Be Good! – Label: Nonesuch ASIN: B000005J1V
Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘Em Eat Cake – Label: Sony ASIN: B0000026H7
Oh, Kay – Label: Nonesuch ASIN: B000005J3C
Pardon My English – Label: Nonesuch ASIN: B000005J2N
Strike Up the Band 1927 Version – Label: Nonesuch ASIN: B002LBCAT0
Strike Up the Band 1930 Version – Label: P.S. Classics ASIN: B004YOECTI
Tip-Toes and Tell Me More – Label: New World Records ASIN: B00005RGM8 

Sweet Little Devil - World Premiere Recording