Gifts come in many forms: Wrapped in boxes, sealed in envelopes, and delivered by florists. They usually commemorate some special occasion and are rarely a surprise and even more rarely are they the right "size" or "color." Hence the uncomfortable and awkward customs of re-gifting, store returns, and cluttered closet shelves.
But every so once in a while a gift comes unexpectedly and that in itself is a delight. And on even more rare occasions, the gift itself is a source of profound value and pleasure.
I recently made a new friend at a quiet little bar on 10th Avenue, the appropriately named Xth Avenue Lounge. Ken and I had met through my blog, discovered we were both creatures of Hell's Kitchen and shared several common interests — Broadway and Bush-hating among them — and agreed to meet for drinks.
Ken gave me a surprise gift to commemorate our meeting. It was a small thing, a CD that he had produced himself, a recording of an obscure Broadway show from the early 60s, All-American. I vaguely recalled that it had been a flop. But I already knew that Ken is one of the leading experts on Broadway history so my interest was piqued. There had to be something special about it, and boy was there ever.
As it turned out, the CD is one of the most fascinating, entertaining, and engaging gifts I've ever received (and that's a bold statement from a man of a certain age who has survived the gift giving assaults of many a clever suitor, confused friend, and misguided relative.)
In fact, Ken's gift is up there with some of my all-time favorite gifts including my Santos de Cartier, my platinum fountain pen, a home-made Sacher Torte shipped all the way from Vienna and a night with a particular porn star.
So what's the big deal about an original cast recording of an obscure Broadway flop? The recording is even more original than an original Broadway cast recording and even includes several songs that never made it to the stage.
In fact, it's an astonishing and illuminating window into a world that has all but disappeared. Ken and his associates have acquired the rights to several Live Backers Audition sessions from the Golden Age of Broadway (1943-1968) and All-American is the first to be released.
Once upon a time the creators of Broadway musicals would bring together potential investors, known as Angels, and walk them through the story and the music in the hopes of opening their hearts and their check books.
These sessions were often recorded but never with the intent to make them public. In the case of All-American (1962,) the very new and relatively unknown writing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, fresh off an unexpected sleeper success called Bye Bye Birdie (1960,) assembled a room of potential backers and narrated and sang their way through the show.
This remarkable insight into the creative process, the selling of a Broadway show and the promise of a hit that would end up as a flop proves to be a fascinating and profoundly entertaining experience for anyone who cares about Broadway, the creative process, and even American history.
In no time at all, you have the sense of being there, and not just in the room. Through the jokes, the asides, and the notes you will get a strong taste of the world of 1961, a world before the horrors of Vietnam, a world full of Kennedy promise, a world where we still believed in the American Dream and the great Melting Pot, a world in which the All American icon was Rock Hudson and Doris Day was the perennial virgin, and a world where gay didn't yet exist (officially.)
Now that's a hell of lot for a CD to deliver, but it does. And more.
The recording session is rich in rather sentimental and often hysterically funny gay sub-text, some of which was likely deliberate and much of which is born of listening to these 1961 conversations and songs from the vantage point of 2006. And the gay sub text is greatly enhanced by listening to two men, Strouse and Adams sing love duets intended for a man and a woman, as well as slightly erotic songs that were written for a woman about her own sexual desires for a man.
As a result, not only will you learn much about Broadway history and the creative process, you will also have a very funny campy experience that if enhanced by a few cocktails in the company of queers will likely have you rolling on the floor and screaming like a queen.
Strouse and Adams will conjure up a New York of two young men admiring a third man's suitcase: "What a chic handbag, dear." They will deliver such lyrics as "Back to school again and suddenly the world is gay," sung by pirouetting football players.
Early on in the show, a young college jock serenades a much older man, his engineering professor:
"I can't quite believe that we've just met, that we've spoken so few words and yet…we speak the same language…we feel the same way…"
Of course, he's singing about their shared passion for architectural erections. (I'm not kidding.)
The student then goes on to reveal his novel engineering designs to the older man who is amazed to see that such a young man understands "a method that will provide twice the usual horizontal thrust."
"We speak the same language, we feel the same way."
And then among the love duets, intended for a woman but sung by a man on this recording:
"Once upon a time, it seemed the world was painted gold. And then there was a man and oh I loved him so… but that was once upon a time… very long ago.
"Once upon a hill, we sat and talked until the dawn…. all the things we said and all the plans we strung…
"How the breeze ruffled through his hair…"
Animal Attraction: written for a woman and then sung by a man on this recording:
"I desire his body. Animal attraction. You've got such an animal attraction. When ever I think about your velvet skin, think about your manly chin."
"You've got a well-developed brain, but still your well-developed brain is not what I'm attracted to. Oh, you animal, you."
Of course, hearing these lyrics delivered by a man was not only funny, it was also quite romantic and stirring, and it reminds you that love is love, regardless of the genders involved.
Sadly, All-American closed after only 80 performances. And as you come to understand the road from promising hit to flop, you'll learn much about the uncomfortable but often successful relationship between art and business and old school and new school. Sometimes it works; in this case it did not.
Strouse, Adams, and the man who wrote the book for All-American, an unknown newcomer by the name of Mel Brooks found themselves subject to editing and censoring decisions made by older and "wiser" traditionalists, so their edgy vision never made it to the stage.
The CD notes detail how the show was altered and "fixed" by the director, a fix which likely led to the show's untimely demise. But even though it was a flop, All-American plays a little known but extremely important role in Broadway history that on its own makes this CD more than worth the listen.
Flop that it may have been, the All-American experience provided the inspiration and material for Mr. Brooks' next misadventure, an offbeat and terribly inappropriate script that he turned into his first feature film as a writer, actor and director, The Producers (1968.)
So when you read the All-American album notes, think about the gay sub text, the role of the director in taking this show to the stage, and the content of the lyrics and the book, you will easily see how Mel Brooks' unique sense of humor mixed it all up to lay the groundwork for The Producers.
Again, a master class lesson in the creative process. And all of this from one little unexpected gift over cocktails.
Ken Bloom is currently looking for a new distributor so the CD likely won't be in stores until the end of this year. However, if you'd like to purchase an advance copy you'll find details at the Proceed at Your Own Risk blog.
Additionally, Ken and his partners hope to issue several other backers auditions recordings including Carnival In Flanders, Milk &Amp; Honey and Sunday In The Park With George (post Golden Age, but, hey, it's Sondheim!) Encourage them to do so!
These recordings, including All-American are to Broadway history what King Tut's tomb was to Egyptology. Kill to get your hands on them. Alternatively you can just go through Ken.