BERNSTEIN: Wonderful Town.
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; Sir Simon Rattle, cond. Cast includes Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald, Thomas Hampson, Brent Barrett, Rodney Gilfry, and Karl Daymond.
{DDD]  TT: 66:46

It began with Ruth McKenney's New Yorker stories about the comic misadventures of herself and sister Eileen, escapees from Columbus, Ohio, in the Greenwich Village of 1935. They were collected and published in book form as My Sister Eileen, which Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov adapted for Broadway. Produced by Max Gordon, directed by George S. Kaufman, and costarring Shirley Booth and Jo Ann Sayers, it opened on December 26, 1940—just four days after real-life Eileen and her novelist-husband, Nathaniel West (Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust), died in a California car crash. It played for 864 performances, and was bought by Columbia Pictures for Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair as the two sisters. The film was released in 1942, and won Russell her first Academy Award nomination.

Fast forward 10 years. Producer Robert Fryer bought the property for a projected musical version called Wonderful Town, which Fields and Chodorov adapted. The indefatigably inventive and energizing George Abbott (who lived to be 101) signed on as director. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote lyrics before the show had a composer. Enter Leonard Bernstein, their On the Town collaborator back in 1943.

In one month's time he wrote 18 cues, including an overture and entr'acte, which Don Walker orchestrated. With Rosalind Russell again as Ruth (although 45 by then) and Edie Adams as Eileen, it opened February 25, 1953 to money reviews, ran for 553 performances, and won eight Tony Awards, including best musical, best actress, best director, best composer, best book, best dÈcor, and best choreographer (Donald Sadler). A national company toured the next season with Carol Channing as Ruth, who was even funnier than Russell (as well as 12 years younger). A London production followed on February 24, 1955 that ran for 208 performances.

The first free weekend after opening, American Decca recorded the original cast for an April release on mono LP—stereo was just a-borning-—which MCA re-released on CD in 1990. In between, Columbia Pictures remade My Sister Eileen as a widescreen musical, but balked at buying the Broadway score. Jule Styne and Leo Robin turned out something pedestrian, and the filmed tanked. At Thanksgiving 1958, CBS presented a TV recreation starring Rosalind Russell (post-Auntie Mame and by then 50), recorded it in stereo, but the heroine was plainly too old and unlimber, and everyone else on the small screen seemed spooked by the hazards of live TV. Now, as the century nears its end, bygone Broadway is being rehabilitated, and Wonderful Town turns up in a recording from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) that offers the entire score: 21 minutes more than Decca's "Broadway Gold" CD.

Some of it is excellent, especially Kim Criswell as Ruth, and Thomas Hampson as Ruth's publisher, Robert Baker, who gets to sing the best Bernstein love song ever, "A Quiet Girl" ("Maria"? forget it). Conceded, the show runs out of steam near the end—well, not steam (no Abbott musical ever lacked pizazz) but a level of invention that distinguishes the first act and a half. "Ballet at the Village Vortex" and "Wrong Note Rag" are anticlimactic after gems likes "One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man," "Ohio," "Conversation Piece," and "Conga!"

The best of Comden & Green's lyrics hark back to the halcyon era of Lorenz Hart, (before Oscar Hammerstein Jr. neutered Richard Rogers' muse)—sassy, funny, sharply characterful as well as characterizing. And Bernstein's score is second only to Candide, which followed in 1956 (but only just managed to survive the dead-weight of Lillian Hellman's heavy-handed, unfunny book). West Side Story in 1957 was his third musical of the '50s, and the most popular, but surely the most clichÈ-ed of his works for the stage before the double disasters of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and A Quiet Place near the end.

In this Brit version of  Wonderful Town, Sir Simon tries to do for Bernstein what he did for Gershwin in Porgy and Bess, but misses the period flavor the sheer zest of Lehman Engel's conducting of the original. As Eileen, Audra McDonald is one very savvy, in-your-face, Broadway-style performer. She has studied Rosalind Russell's inflections ("I was re-reading Moby Dick the other day [dead silence]….It's about this [beat] whale"). But nothing comes out quite the same. Russell wasn't really a Broadway singer (I know, she did Rose in the film version of Gypsy, but damn near scuttled it, trying to milk the role for sympathy), and that was part of her charm; Audra McDonald, on the other hand, is Broadway, and comes off as slightly but still off-puttingly pushy.

Hampson does "A Quiet Girl" and "It's Love" superbly, only occasionally (and deliberately) reminding us that he's this opera star. A brochure photo of Brent Barnett looks like Wreck—the ex-football pro who, while ironing family laundry in the courtyard, sings of his former gridiron triumphs—but he doesn't fill the role with enough voice. I have to confess, however, that I saw Wonderful Town at least a half-dozen times—twice with Russell, at the beginning and the end of her Broadway run, and four times with Channing, who played without the exaggerations that became entrenched during a decade-plus as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I can remember Cris Alexander's geeky drug store manager and Dort Clark's sleazy reporter as vividly as last week's episode of Law & Order, Special Victims' Unit. From Birmingham's counterparts I remember nothing.

I'm grateful, though, to EMI Classics for sending me back to the Decca/MCI original, mono or no mono. I'm keeping the new one for Criswell's Ruth and Hampson's Robert Baker, but I'll play the old one for zest and all the rest. Sound, by the way, is scrumptious on the new CD, and the program book as fine as they make 'em these days.

R.D. (Nov. 1999)