September 18, 2012
Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain
First Night Records really should have packaged their two new releases as one box set – if you want one of them (and you really should) then you will definitely want them both. Unfortunately, they haven’t released them for sale in the US yet, but you can order them now either from the company’s website at www.firstnightrecords.com or from Amazon’s British site, www.amazon.co.uk.
Both are cast recordings of shows that opened this year and are still running in London’s West End. Both are based on classic Hollywood musicals. Both coincidentally happen to have as the female lead one of the two Strallen sisters.
Scarlett Strallen has the role played in the 1952 MGM Technicolor musical extravaganza Singin’ In The Rain by Debbie Reynolds. In Gene Kelly’s role is Adam Cooper as the silent film star who falls in love with her in 1927, just as the movies find their voice with the premiere of The Jazz Singer.
Scarlett’s sister, Summer Strallen, has the Ginger Rogers role in the stage production based on Top Hat, the 1935 black and white RKO musical that relied more on style and sophisticated grace, two things that Fred Astaire brought to all of his films. On stage, his role of the tap dancing star who falls for a beautiful model is played by Tom Chambers.
None of these performers bring notable voices to their parts, although each does an acceptable job on songs that most of us know so well in the voices that first sang them. Chambers’ slightly nasal twang doesn’t bring to mind Astaire’s slight but oh-so-well-articulated voice that made as much as could possibly be done with a lyric, but Cooper’s sound is quite Gene Kelly-ish.
No, the real stars of these two albums are the songs themselves, and these three men: Chris Walker, Larry Blank and Larry Wilcox. They are the arrangers/orchestrators of the scores and their charts have just what anyone remembering the movies from which these shows spring has enshrined in memory – sparkle!
Walker handled the arrangements and orchestrations for Top Hat. His charts, played by an orchestra of 24, are a marvel, especially in the writing for brass and reeds. He makes the orchestra sound like one of the famous swing bands that played major dance clubs in the 1930s.
Top Hat had to draw from the work of the film’s composer/lyricist in order to make a full score for a stage show. The movie only had five songs, but what songs they were: the title song plus “A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “No Strings” (which most people remember as “Fancy Free”) and the pastiche of Italian romance songs, “The Piccolino.” The composer/lyricist happened to be Irving Berlin, so the trunk to which the show’s authors turned was a bountiful one indeed. They pulled well known ones – “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “Lets Face the Music and Dance” – as well as songs that may not be quite as famous today but are just smashing. These include “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Wild About You” and “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.”
Berlin’s lyrics sit on his melodies with a grace that made Astaire very happy – almost. He was happy with four of the five songs in the film. He tried to get Berlin to change the lyric for “The Piccolino” to make it a song about a dance craze rather than about a popular Italian song. Either way, the pastiche is high quality – but that doesn’t make it one of the great Berlin songs.
The other four, however, were top notch, and they weren’t drawn from Berlin’s trunk. John Franceschina, in his biography of choreographer Hermes Pan “The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire” (Oxford University Press 2012) reports that Berlin had intended to re-work his song “In the Birdhouse at the Zoo” for the first big dance number for Astaire and Rogers, but the script was changed to put the scene on a bandstand in a thunderstorm. He wrote a new song with a superb lyric that fit precisely the needs of the scene.
As marvelously reminiscent of the 1930s as is the sound of Walker’s charts for Top Hat, Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank’s orchestrations for Singin’ in the Rain capture MGM’s silkily sumptuous sound that Conrad Salinger and his colleagues Wally Heglan and Skip Martin perfected for the movie.
When Betty Comden and Adolph Green adapted their own screenplay for the stage version of Singin’ In The Rain they didn’t have to add songs because the movie had ten musical numbers. If you think “jukebox musicals,” those shows created around songs from a single catalog like Mama Mia! assembled from ABBA’s songs, are a recent phenomenon, consider that Singin’ In The Rain was built around the catalog of songwriters Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The title song was written twenty years before the movie and debuted in a Broadway show called The Hollywood Music Box Review in 1929.
Comden and Green adapted their screenplay for a London production back in 1983. It is well remembered for the torrent of water used for the title number danced by Tommy Steel. The show was a hit there, but a Broadway production two years later could only run for a single season.
Now, its splashing again in London.
The strange thing is that this recording’s version of the title song, one of the greatest tap numbers and certainly the greatest splash number in movie history, doesn’t include the sound of rain, or taps or splashes. When the original London stage version was recorded, the sound of Tommy Steel’s dance was not on the recording. I’m not at all sure why John Yap of JAY Records decided to record a similarly dry version when he did his recording with Craig Barna, and now the 2012 London version is on disc without the sound of Adam Cooper’s drenched dance.
In case you want to see and hear just how the splashing works in the number, check out the You Tube clip from a live rendition at the 99th Royal Variety Performance. It is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f-CqwYsyQc. Be warned, however. It may make you want to book a flight to London to catch the show in person rather than just buying the recording.
(There is also a clip of Gene Kelly in the film at www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdxCx7GilbQ.)
Top Hat: The Musical
2012 London Cast Recording
First Night Records
Running time: 49 minutes over 18 tracks
Packaged with notes (by Ted Chapin) but no synopsis or lyrics
Nine color photos
Singin’ in the Rain
2012 London Cast Recording
First Night Records
Running time: 58 minutes over 19 tracks
Packaged with no notes, synopsis or lyrics
Nine color photos