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STAGE : A New Life for Broadway Classics : Off the stage for years, the music of Burton Lane, the Gershwins and others finds an audience via new recordings and reissues

November 25, 1990|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is a regular contributor to The Times. and

Can it really be that Burton Lane, composer of "Finian's Rainbow" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1971, can't find even one eager angel willing to support his return to Broadway?

"I'd love to do a show a year. And I could do one a year, easily. But no one's asking me," Lane said in a phone call from his New York apartment.

"I keep looking, and I'm an optimist. And I keep writing even though my songs are not recorded. But it's a very tough world right now for people like me and Jule Styne. The guys who call themselves producers these days just aren't interested in what we can do."

When one compares the small handful of pre-packaged productions that represent Broadway's current musical theater with the multitude of shows overflowing the pre-World War II seasons, Lane's observation seems justified. His music, in fact, has not been heard on Broadway since 1979's short-lived "Carmelina," a collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner.

Still, Broadway producers may argue that times have changed and audiences do not exist in sufficient numbers to support new productions of classic musical theater. But there has been a growing awareness in the record business that such aficionados do represent a significant niche market. MCA Records recently issued a set of Decca original cast recordings ranging from "The King and I" to "Wonderful Town." And CBS's current installment in its continuing reissues of the MGM film musical soundtrack library includes, among others, "Kiss Me Kate" and "Silk Stockings."

Elektra Nonesuch has taken the process a step farther with two new albums--each the first in a series--that provide bold new perspectives on both American popular song and the musical theater.

The first is a collaboration between Lane and Michael Feinstein--the gadfly jack-of-all-musical trades--on "Michael Feinstein Sings the Burton Lane Songbook, Vol. 1." Lane plays piano and Feinstein sings a program of material reaching across a five-decade span from 1938 ("Moments Like This" and "How'dja Like to Love Me?") to 1990 ("I Can Hardly Wait").

The second new release is a bright, new production--a kind of contemporary original cast album--of George and Ira Gershwin's 1930 hit musical, "Girl Crazy." It is the first in a series of recordings produced by Nonesuch in association with Leonore Gershwin's (Ira's widow) Roxbury Recordings that will chronicle the complete Broadway musicals of the Gershwin brothers with new recordings of carefully assembled original scores.

"Girl Crazy" opened at the Alvin Theatre on Oct. 14, 1930, one of the early high points of a remarkable season that would hear such classic-to-be songs as "Body and Soul," "Love for Sale," "Something to Remember You By" and "You're Driving Me Crazy" and see such performers as Fanny Brice, Fred Allen, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Eleanor Powell, Clifton Webb and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.

Like many other shows from the period, "Girl Crazy" was tailored to the talents of individual performers--in this case, the ethnic-accent comedy of Willie Howard, the singing and dancing of the fast-rising young star Ginger Rogers and the astonishing voice of Ethel Merman, who was making her Broadway debut. The songs included four that were to become classics: "I Got Rhythm," "Bidin' My Time," "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me." To top things off, the pit orchestra sparkled with such jazz luminaries as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Red Nichols.

There was no such thing as an original cast album in 1930, of course, and many of the individual elements in the production--music sheets, scores, scripts, etc.--either disappeared or were modified and changed as they found their way into piano sheet music and theatrical rental libraries.

When Tommy Krasker, Roxbury Recordings' vice president in charge of production, set about assembling an authentic script score for the new recording--which features Frank Gorshin in the Willie Howard role, Lorna Luft in the Ethel Merman role and Judy Blazer in the Ginger Rogers role--he was confronted with a jigsaw puzzle in which a number of important pieces were missing.

"Fortunately, 'Girl Crazy' is a show that has continued to be performed, and certain materials have survived," Krasker explained. "The Tams-Witmark Music Library in New York had a third- or fourth-generation set of orchestra parts. That gave us something to work from. And Ira Gershwin had retained many of his lyric sheets and some of George's manuscripts as well.

"The earliest script we could find turned up at the UCLA Theatre Arts Library. Apparently a stage manager from the original New York company had sent RKO a script in 1932 when they were considering filming the show. It was marked up with all sorts of handwritten notes and corrections, including things like, 'Willie Howard sometimes says the line this way' under a certain piece of dialogue."

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