THEATRE / MUSICALS: All singing, all dancing, all over: Not every flop is forgotten overnight. John Lyttle reports on fans for whom old shows are the best shows

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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL NELLIGAN, the manager of Dress Circle, London's specialist record shop, patiently clarifies the equation again. The current Holy Grail of hardcore musical buffs is a show called Clownaround, right? 'Right.' Directed by Gene Kelly, the show opened and closed in LA during 1972, right? 'Right.' You charge between pounds 250 and pounds 275 for a mint condition copy, right? 'Yes. RCA had already pressed the original cast album before the show failed. The copies were melted down, but somehow a dozen or so managed to escape.' So Clownaround is a neglected classic, right?

Wrong. 'Oh no,' Nelligan splutters. 'It's terrible. The score is appalling.' So how come you charge the earth for the damn thing? 'Because it's rare. It's out of print, a magnet for collectors. We're not talking about quality. We're talking about obsession. Understand?'

No, but I know a man who does. The musical archivist Richard Krupp, an avid collector of 30 years standing, explains: 'Anyone can own a hit. The hits are always with us. My first original cast album was South Pacific. Big deal. Who doesn't own South Pacific? Or Phantom or 42nd Street. That's when the flops, the forgotten and the obscure beckon. Falhooley. New Girl in Town. Redhead. Bootleg copies. Backstage recordings. Old 78s. Ten different versions of the same show. What starts as an interest develops into. . . what can I call it? - an addiction.'

'Addiction' seems an accurate description. Addictions tend to be expensive. Connoisseurs are willing, indeed, eager, to pay big bucks for what audiences avoided and critics dismissed. For instance, the 250-copy limited edition of Ziegfeld, about as lighthearted as a trip to the morgue, retails at around pounds 75, while Jerry Herman's Parade, out of circulation for three decades, costs between pounds 150 and pounds 250. Still, these are titles that 'completists' (train-spotters who can carry a tune) must have. How else will they be able to argue their merits and flaws, thereby proving their taste, expertise and knowledge? A musical smash is a mysterious thing - why did all those unstable elements and egos gel this time around? - but success steamrollers argument. A flop, however, begs endless speculation. When aficionados cluster, they will chorus: If only there had been more variation in the numbers for The Education of Hyman Kaplan] If only Shelley Winters' star turn hadn't unbalanced Minnie's Boys] If only Carrie had never been thought of] If only, if only.

Yet these are debates based on a fundamental, if inadvertent, deception. Cast albums contain only the score. Scores are seldom the real cause of discordant musical disaster (in fact, many a hit has got by with toe-tapping musical mediocrity: consider High Button Shoes and I Love My Wife). If exposed to, say, the original recording of Truman Capote's near-mythical House of Flowers, replete with 'A Sleepin' Bee' and 'I Never Has Seen Snow', you immediately want to know how this masterpiece could have possibly failed.

The ephemeral stuff, the live, organic, perishable magic of the form, has been stripped away: the book, the staging, the dancing, the direction, the performances. Only the strongest component survives - from the Fifties most Broadway shows were routinely committed to vinyl - and thus begins the legend of the Fabulous Flop.

And there are so many duds to choose from. Musical success is not only a mystery, it's also rarer than the Komodo dragon. Flops are not the exception but the norm. For every ride on the Carousel there is a poisoned Sherry], a plucked Bring Back Birdie and an unplucked Twang], Lionel Bart's Lincoln- scream Robin Hood catastrophe. Since the Seventies galloping production costs, coupled with the public's increasing appetite for spectacle, have meant that musicals must instantly achieve mega-smash status or limp along until the closing notice is posted. Those economic facts also mean less and less tuneful fare, each project having now become a high-risk corporate affair. Indeed, Martin Mafheter, manager of the record shop 58 Dean Street, a devotee's paradise, no longer stocks New Shows in a section of their own. 'The product wasn't there. Enthusiasts are looking increasingly to the past and to favourite flops because that's where the future is, so to speak - in revivals and reissues.'

The reissues are arriving thick and fast on CD and playing havoc with creative pricing. A year ago a pristine copy of Chita Rivera's 1964 gypsy-scam bust Bajour would have cost the fanatic around pounds 50- pounds 70. Now issued on the freshly minted Sony Broadway label, mastered 'using 20-bit technology for 'high-definition' sound', Bajour retails for pounds 8.99. RCA is also getting into the act: the previously deleted Christine (Maureen O'Hara sings]), Barbara Cook's The Gay Life, the experimental No Strings and the highly touted fantasy satire Falhooley are promised. Meanwhile, EMI UK threatens the lost Norman Wisdom vehicle Where's Charley? and Frankie Howerd's mounting (ooh-er) of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to The Forum, amongst others.

CD's invasion at least means that a moribund market no longer has to lean on sporadic mini- trends such as those caused by the death of Sammy Cahn (Dress Circle already notes an increase in demand for the Cahn back catalogue) and the repeat of the Kurt Weill TV bio-doc, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. But it's also caused the panic dumping of once esoteric collections as fans switch from vinyl to duplicates captured on the indestructible silver disc. 'Yes, some are trading rare records for CDs,' Michael Nelligan says. 'It depresses prices. It takes away from the specialness of collecting, makes it too available.'

You can't have a forgotten musical if everyone can trot out, buy it and hum the score. But Martin Mafheter is looking on the sunny side of Dean Street: 'CDs get deleted too you know. Besides, people who collect flops . . . if they had 'em all they'd have to buy a gun and shoot themselves.'

JULIE WILSON

Cabaret singer who has performed in Showboat, Jimmy and Bet Your Life, currently appearing at Pizza on the Park:

'Oh, Cole Porter's Out of this World which came after the success of Kiss Me Kate and is about Jupiter taking on mortal form to seduce a general's wife. I thought it was charming but the critics went after it for being old-fashioned; a girls, gods and gams show. As if there were something old-fashioned about beautiful girls and having fun] They didn't like the 'theatrical' humour either. But it's one of Porter's most wonderful scores. I saw it again 17 years later in a tiny Chicago theatre and you know what - it was still wonderful. It worked first and second time around.'

GILLIAN LYNNE

Director and choreographer. Credits include Cats and Phantom of the Opera:

'I'm going to choose one I directed and choreographed. Love on the Dole was unusual material for a musical in as much as it's about the Jarrow Marches and the emancipation of women - social matters. I especially remember 'Beyond the Hill', a wonderful ballad, and staging a clog dance without music, a cheeky conversation between a bookie's assistant and the town done in dance. Dole was authentically working-class and audiences responded. Brilliant reviews too. Why didn't it transfer? The muck of a producer was an American who said he had the money. He hadn't. He's dead now so I can say what a monster he was.'

IAN MARSHALL-FISHER

Producer of the London Barbican Centre's Forgotten Musicals season:

'My choice is Rodgers and Hammerstein's Allegro. It's an original idea tracing a life from birth to middle age. Rodgers and Hammerstein break all their own rules here. There are no sets, no props, just slide projections. It defies conventional morality - there's a wife who sleeps around to help her husband's medical career. But post-WWII audiences wanted to be entertained and Allegro criticised them. The second act opening number, 'Ya Ta Ta', is set at a party where the doctor 'hero' sucks up to wealthy hypochondriacs. . . all too cynical for mass appeal. It influenced Sondheim - he was the tea-boy during the show's run.'

KIT HESKETH-HARVEY

One half of the cabaret duo Kit and the Widow and lyricist of Which Witch:

'I saw Merrily We Roll Along during Broadway try-outs. It was possibly Stephen Sondheim's biggest bomb, despite containing his most accessible score, 32 bar standards, lollipops, the lot. There's an achingly beautiful number entitled 'Not a Day Goes By' guaranteed to cause goose bumps. What confused originally was the construction - it begins at the end and runs backward. Merrily has been extensively reworked since 1981, most recently in Paul Kerryson's Leicester production, with the composer assisting. Now it's in full, lean trim. As Sondheim is 10 years ahead of the public, they should just about be ready for a revival.'

RUTHIE HENSHALL

Female lead in the forthcoming production of Gershwin's musical Crazy For You:

'Lord, do I want to play silent movie comedienne Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel (the Mack is director Mack Sennett)] It's legendary in the business because of the music and because it flopped, even though it had Robert Preston, Bernadette Peters and direction by Gower Champion. I was in the chorus of the London concert performance about five years ago and rehearsed for the American stars before they came over. I sort of half-hoped that they wouldn't be able to make it. I wanted to sing 'Time Heals Everything', a simply brilliant song. If I did play Mabel, Robert Lindsay would be the perfect leading man.'

NED SHERRIN

Co-wrote Cindy-Ella and The Mitford Girls and directed Side by Side by Sondheim:

'There's The Crystal Heart - a Gladys Cooper musical - that opened and closed instantly in 1957. She had a terrible line in the second act: 'It's the bird] It's the bird]' - which the gallery duly gave her. I would like a recording of something I did with Caryl Brahms called Liberty Ranch, a Wild West version of She Stoops to Conquer that ran for a month in 1972. We made the mistake of having an amplified orchestra but no mikes for the performers. Well worth going back to is Sandy Wilson's Divorce Me Darling, a sequel to The Boyfriend that looks at the same characters 10 years on. It was cumbersome on stage but the songs are good.'

Dress Circle, 57-59 Monmouth Street, Upper St Martin's Lane, London, WC2H 9DG (071-240 2227). 58 Dean Street, London W1V 5HH (071-734 8777). A 'Forgotten Musicals' season opens at the end of May at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (Box office details available in April: 071-638 8891).

(Photographs omitted)

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