Welcome to the start of a new week on That’s Entertainment! Today’s Musical Theatre Monday post continues a new series on musicals that came after Oklahoma! (1943), which is often, in hindsight, credited with ushering in the “Golden Age” of the American Musical (which, depending on whom you believe, lasted at least two decades). But interestingly enough, many of the shows from the first few post-Oklahoma! years are largely forgotten. Indeed, the period from about 1943-1948 IS “Golden,” but the shows are not yet conscious of that fact, many of them still struggling to adapt to innovations regarding book and score cohesion. Still, these shows feature excellent tunes introduced by excellent stars. We’ve already covered One Touch Of Venus (1943) and Bloomer Girl (1944). Today we’re in 1945!
1945. Up In Central Park (01/27/45 – 04/13/46)
I warned you last week that following Oklahoma!‘s example, many hit musicals of the mid-’40s were period pieces about Americana and its glory. What distinguishes Up In Central Park is the creative team. The production was lavishly produced by Mike Todd, with a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. But here’s the kicker: while Dorothy Fields wrote the lyrics, Sigmund Romberg — yes, the operetta guy — wrote the music for this, his final Broadway score. And what a score it is! While the book obviously wafers in its resolve to be as dramatically solid as Oklahoma!, Romberg’s score is fresh and new — the right balance to evoke a sense of 1870s while remaining incredibly 1940s.
The plot concerns the relationship between reporter John (Wilbur Evans) who, along with his friend Nast (Maurice Burke), is investigating the shady dealings of Boss Tweed (Noah Beery, Sr.), whose latest scheme has him earning a bundle for a redesign of Central Park. Things are complicated when John falls for Rosie (Maureen Cannon), an aspiring singer and the daughter of one of Tweed’s workers. Meanwhile, there’s a secondary couple — Bessie (Carol Bruce) and Joe (Fred Barry) – around for some distraction. More complications for John come from a rich businessman who offers to finance Rosie’s career. But things end neatly and happily when the final curtain comes down.
The plot is simple enough and there are attempts to keep the drama and the music intertwined. But Up In Central Park still isn’t the fully integrated musical that we’ve come to expect — with songs and dances happening for reasons independent of the story. Similarly, some reviewers at the time, though appreciating the look and scope of the production, found the proceedings boring. Once again, we can attribute the piece’s relative obscurity to — say it with me now — THE BOOK. Aside from a 1948 film that retained bits of the score, productions of this musical have been scarce. In fact, there still exists no complete recording of Up In Central Park. However, in 1948, leading man Evans reunited with secondary ingenue Bruce to record eight numbers. They were assisted by Eileen Ferrell and Celeste Holm, both of whom were not in the original production.
The eight songs that were recorded, even by the performers outside of the 1945 production, are golden. As Romberg’s last score, I would venture to say that this is one of my favorites. He’s able to adopt the 1945 sound without sacrificing the integrity of his operetta roots. The union of styles is very appealing, and these songs are quite memorable. So while we set aside our qualms about the show as a whole, let’s take the rest of the post to appreciate some of the songs from the score. My favorite from the piece is Rosie and John’s initial duet, “It Doesn’t Cost You Anything To Dream.”
Evans soars in the jubilant “When She Walks In The Room,” an excellent showcase for not only the performer, but for Fields and Romberg as well. Masterful.
The secondary couple delighted with the comic duet “Currier and Ives,” a take on the old line, “come up and let me show you my etchings,” which led into an ice skating ballet sequence that was recreated for the film. Here’s Bruce’s 1948 recording.
The most remembered song from the score is the second duet for John and Rosie, the simple “Close As Pages In A Book.” Classic Romberg — a melody that just glides.
Celeste Holm recorded “The Fireman’s Bride,” which is Rosie’s comedic Act One finale, sung at a big celebration in Central Park following her engagement to the businessman. (The first act curtain comes down on silence, as John enters and quietly raises a glass to the now engaged Rosie.)
However, I think the most exciting number is “The Big Back Yard,” which John leads to a glorious crescendo. Talk about a showstopper!
So, my call to action for this musical isn’t necessarily a new production, but perhaps a rediscovery of the material. A complete recording is deserved. The score warrants that, at least; as I said above, it’s one of Romberg’s finest!
Come back next Monday for a musical from 1946! And tune in tomorrow for the best from Season Three of Bewitched!