Big, Bold, Broadway!

I tend to like my entertainment exaggerated. If you’ve seen a big, over-the-top production with enough confetti to fill the Grand Canyon, chances are I would enjoy that show. I would talk about it for weeks. The same goes for music: loud, lots of instruments, very pop, fun. With that criteria in mind, the original cast album for George M! should be right up my alley.

It is not.

That’s not to say it’s not good fun, it just loses me somewhere. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous songs or the criminal underuse of Bernadette Peters. Perhaps it’s sheer exhaustion from listening to all the energy-hemorrhaging songs on the recording. Or the amount of medleys. Or any number of things. Let’s unpack this.

First thing’s first: George M! is based on the career of showbiz legend George M. Cohan, a.k.a. “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” All of the songs used in the show are Cohan’s own hits, making this a jukebox musical (although some of the lyrics for the show were rewritten by his daughter, Mary Cohan). The Broadway musical opened at the Palace Theatre on April 10, 1968. It ran for a full year and originally starred Joel Grey as Cohan. The stage show has never been revived, though NBC did air a television production in 1970. The original cast recording is the only cast album that has been released.

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My first impression based on the overture can be summed up in two words: patriotic fantasia. I was immediately struck with visions of American flags and fire crackers. The familiar tunes of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” both apparently show tunes in their own right, served as fuel for the tacky, glittery salute to the USA I had prematurely choreographed in my mind.

The tracks themselves are largely reminiscent of vaudeville. Or at least my understanding of vaudeville, which comes almost exclusively from old Hollywood movies. A lot of the songs would fit nicely in classic Looney Tunes sketches. That’s great for entertainment value, but it’s not quite what I want in a full-length album. Still, these songs are steeped in entertainment history and that is enough to keep my interest.

The original cast of George M! is also quite captivating. Grey is charming as ever here and shines especially bright on “My Town” and the classic “Give My Regards to Broadway.” My favorite performance on the album has to be “Billie,” sung by Jill O’Hara. Her vocals soar beautifully and it is the rare track that emits any emotion outside of excitement. It is worth mentioning that this was the first successful Broadway starring role for Bernadette Peters, but don’t listen too hard for her on the cast album. Aside from her solo on the second track, she is mostly relegated to the chorus. It’s an understandable shame given how new a star she was at the time.

I listened to this album on headphones and the technique used to record it gave the lovely auditory illusion that the performances were happening all around me. I don’t know whether this was intentional, but it’s an effective technique nonetheless.

I have to critique the amount of medleys included here, especially since so many of the songs could easily have been divided into their own tracks. It leaves the album with the same cluttered feel that soured the original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods.

All things considered, this is a fun cast album that contains a lot of songs that would be at home in an elementary school play. The energy is consistent and the performances stellar. Unfortunately, it does rely heavily on nostalgia and for that reason I don’t think a revival is necessary. I also see no need to recommend George M! to a friend, but at the same time I want to host a viewing party for the NBC production. In the end, this one has left me torn.

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Musical: George M!

Music: George M. Cohan

Lyrics: George M. Cohan and Mary Cohan

Opening Performance: April 10, 1968, Palace Theatre, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1968 Original Broadway Cast

Songs You Might Know: “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag”

Highlights: “My Town,” “Billie,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”

Overall Impression: It plays heavily on nostalgia for vaudeville. While the album is not to my taste, I envision the show as an over-the-top spectacle that I would probably enjoy.

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