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

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."

The script turned out to be a vital link in deciding how certain musical numbers were presented, and how jokes were varied from night to night.

"The hardest part," continued Krasker, "was determining which passages were sung, which passages were danced, what lyric should be sung at certain moments, trying to find George's original vocal arrangements, and insert those."

As a show whose roots were firmly embedded in vaudeville, "Girl Crazy" left plenty of room for individual star turns. For example, Howard's reprise of "But Not for Me" was a bit of special material devised for his special comedic style that was not recorded on paper.

"All we know," said Krasker, "is that the script says Gieber--the character he plays--comes out and does a chorus as Al Jolson, then he does a chorus as Eddie Cantor, then he does a chorus as Maurice Chevalier.

"Well, that's fine, but it didn't tell us what lyrics he might have used, and it didn't tell us exactly how he did it. So we decided to take a similarly vaudevillian approach and devise something for the performer we had, who was Frank Gorshin. We took four of his impersonations and combined them into one refrain which, I think, captured the essence of the moment without having to be slavishly and artificially authentic."

The next project in the Gershwin series will be a double CD set of the two different versions of "Strike Up the Band." Staged first in 1927, its tough, biting satire didn't register well with Jazz Age audiences. The revival three years later was, according to Krasker, about 70% rewritten.

"We decided," explained Krasker, "that rather than try to present one version or the other, it would be more fascinating to present record new performances of both versions, complete, side by side, with one on each CD."

"I think this project is as important to me as anything I've ever done," said Feinstein of his collaboration with Lane. "Burton is one of the most neglected of the major songwriters, and he is still writing and playing with incredible subtlety and beauty."

The easy interaction on the recording between the two performers, separated in age by four decades, belies some of the doubts Lane had about the collaboration. First introduced to each other by Ira Gershwin when Feinstein served as the late lyricist's secretary, they had always, in Lane's words, "seemed to breathe together musically. It's as though we feel the same vibrations."

But Lane, whose estimation of his own piano playing skills is modest, at best, did not view himself as a proper accompanist (a surprisingly short-sighted estimation, in view of the fact that he both discovered and accompanied Judy Garland for her 1934 audition at MGM).

"Let's just say I was concerned," laughed Lane. "After all, Michael plays the piano very well for himself. Fortunately he insisted and, to tell you the truth, I'm delighted that he did, because I think it came out very nicely."

Feinstein's view of Lane's performance is a bit less close to the vest: "He's just amazing. He never plays anything exactly the same way twice. It's always improvisatory and spontaneous. It was hard to pick a take in some cases because he would do one thing on one, and one thing on another. I kept wishing there was a way we could combine them all.

"Occasionally, I'd hear Burton do something in a rehearsal, and when we got to the studio, I'd say, 'Well, do that thing you did before,' and he'd have no memory of it. I'd even play it for him on the piano, and he still couldn't duplicate it, because to him it was just an improvisation," explained Feinstein, whose bubbly performance persona has sometimes obscured the importance of his work as a serious archivist of popular songs.

Feinstein described the duo's recording of "How About You," from the 1941 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film, "Babes on Broadway." "In the movie," he explained, "Mickey and Judy sing the verse and two choruses. Then they sing a counter melody--(singing) 'I'm so delighted and excited . . . '--a whole lyric that they toss back and forth between each other, obviously as a countermelody. But in the movie, they never put it together with the original melody.

"So when we did the album I told Burton I'd like to do 'How About You' with the countermelody. And he said, 'I don't remember the countermelody. I remember that I wrote one, but I don't remember what it is.' I had to persuade him to do it, but first I had to get the conductor's score from MGM and a tape of the soundtrack, so he could learn it all over again."

Feinstein's archival inclinations surface on several other tracks: "Babes on Broadway" and "Anything Can Happen in New York" have never been commercially recorded before; "And Suddenly It's Christmas" (1986) and "I Can Hardly Wait" (1990) are the first recordings of relatively new Lane efforts; "How'dja Like to Love Me" and "If This Isn't Love" both include previously unrecorded lines of lyrics.

"The thing that I love about this record, and the whole series," said Feinstein, "is that having the composers perform their own numbers shows how alive and breathing these songs really are. People tend to treat classic American pop songs too clinically these days--like classical lieder--and that's not what they're about. Doing a record like this, with the composer at the piano, is the best possible evidence of the life and freedom that still exists in the songs."

Forthcoming installments in Feinstein's Songbook series will include Volume Two from Burton Lane and recordings featuring the work of Jule Styne and Hugh Martin.

Is it possible that this rush of recordings might stimulate audiences to demand more new quality musicals? Probably not. Broadway has become a grazing ground for producer/entrepreneurs who see the theater strictly as a business venture.

"They want to play safe, and they don't want to take chances," said Lane, with a sardonic chuckle.

But Lane keeps hope alive for a richer Broadway musical future.

"Oh, I'm an optimist," he said. "I keep writing even though my songs are not recorded. I've written so many now that I have a wonderful medley I do called 'Private Hits for Private Homes'--tunes that only see the light of day when I write and play for my friends.

"The bottom line, I suppose," concluded Lane, "is that it's my love of what I'm doing that keeps me going. It must be that, because otherwise why would I keep on doing it?

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