Operetta Research Center
9 December, 2018
The effect of Ivor Novello’s music on me was immediate: I remember the first time I heard his songs on an old Music-for-Pleasure-LP that I bought in London, back in the 1980s, at a sale in a record shop under my apartment in Rathbone Street. I had no idea who Novello was and what these shows were about (there were highlights of four different shows on two discs). But I fell for those opulent melodies, their quaint lyrics, and for that impressive portrait of the composer on the cover; and I sensed that there was something spectacular hidden in there. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it yet. One of the songs I most related to, from the very beginning, was “My Dearest Dear,” because I lived with a girlfriend who I liked but didn’t want to have sex with. She was a soprano, and I played the piano to her rendition of “If I could say to you, in words as clear, as when I play to you…. you’d understand how slight the shadow that is holding us apart.” Okay, being gay is not a “slight shadow,” but still. It reverberated. The words and situation spoke to me (or us, rather). And when I heard the famous recording in which Novello himself speaks the words of composer Rudi Kleber and Mary Ellis sings the tune (“not a big moneymaker”), I was smitten. The short dialogue scene between these two stage legends was so theatrical, I imagined a whole play based on this brief moment. And I always wondered what the actual full show would be like?
Well, now there is – for the first time ever – a complete cast album with all the music, on a double disc. But it’s a bit like with Truman Capote and “Answered Prayers.” They can be a mixed blessing, and this recording on JAY Records certainly is a very mixed blessing.
It’s not that the hit songs from the show had not been available in the past in very good recorded versions. There even is a movie from the 1950s that sort of gets the basic plot across – but not the magic, alas.
Many years after my initial Music-for-Pleasure encounter I learned that the story of this operetta is actually about an Austrian composer who comes to Vienna in 1911 and later has to escape from the Nazis after they annexed Austria in 1938. His music is suddenly black listed and cannot be publicly performed anymore. He is arrested and put into prison by the fascists who are hunting down ‘Jews.’ But he escapes, very last minute, thanks to the help of his former operetta prima donna Maria Ziegler. It’s a finale not unlike The Sound of Music, only that Rudi Kleber doesn’t visible climb every mountain as the curtain comes down, though the rousing finale music could easily compare with the Rodgers & Hammerstein hymn.
Having spent many years researching the real life history of operetta in Nazi times, and the effect post-1933 cultural politics had on the operetta business in Germany and Austria after 1938, I was fascinated that there was an actual show about the whole situation, written in 1939, i.e. reflecting the immediate situation at a time when many operetta composers fled from Austria to England (like Mischa Spoliansky) or to the United States (like Emmerich Kálmán). It couldn’t have been more topical. And relevant. And heart breaking.
Originally, The Dancing Years had actual actors in Nazi costumes on stage. I remember seeing a photo and being stunned. The harsh political realities of 1939 and the in-your-face-story being told put the lushness of the romantic music into an eerie perspective. Which for me makes it more effective, and deeply touching. Because there’s always a hint of ‘more’ going on.
I started longing to hear and see the whole show in that ‘original’ version, before the Nazis were taken out in post-war productions and The Dancing Years became “just another love story” with a nostalgic Novello touch. It’s also the time when there was The Dancing Years on Ice. (Maybe Mel Brooks could have made that work with the Nazis kept in place…)
When JAY Records recently announced a full cast album of The Dancing Years I thought: wow, finally! The CD cover might seem a little bit generalized and certainly not pointing towards actual historic events of 1938/1939, but one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, nor should one do that with a CD. Certainly not when the booklet offers various glorious pictures of the original Drury Lane production, including the arrest scene, minus the Swastika arm bands.
While browsing through the booklet I saw that the recording was made in October 1995, at Abbey Road Studios. Which explains why soprano Valerie Masterson as Maria Ziegler is in such excellent voice. But it made me wonder why this recording – which must have cost a fortune, since it includes full orchestra, full chorus, a full set of soloists – only comes out now. Why wasn’t it released right away, like the other recordings made with conductor John Owen Edwards? (Remember his Student Prince, Bitter-Sweet or Kismet, all of which came out on TER Classics at around that time, “produced for record by John Yap” who is also the man behind JAY Records and this Dancing Years project?)
Admittedly, I’d never been a big fan of these recordings, the casts were not my cup of tea, and I found the Owen Edwards style too unspecific and lethargic. (“Edwards might have brought a little more urgency to the tempi,” writes Marc Miller of his Student Prince in The Theater Mania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, while Gerard Alessandrini says about Kismet: “[T]he performance is stodgy and lacks presence. […] John Owen Edwards’ conducting is rather sloppy and never bouncy.”)
On The Dancing Years you immediately notice the lushness of the sound and the orchestrations by Charles Prentiss. But the orchestra never takes off with this ¾-time music through accelerandos that take your breath away. (Listen to people like Emmerich Kálmán conduct his own waltzes at an NBC concert in New York in 1940 and you know what I mean, the flexibility of the tempi creates the soaring effect.) Here, the National Symphony Orchestra never strays from the narrow path of correctness. Which quickly becomes boring, to my ears, at least. (The YouTube link below gives you the full Kálmán concert, but the wrong year.)
But hey, I could live with a just-okay orchestra if the singers and singing actors were to put a stamp of extraordinariness on this project. Unfortunately, they don’t. Valerie Masterson as the central singer sounds lovely, throughout. But there is not a hint of shading or drama in anything she does. And there is no distinctive personality in the role. Unlike the Novello/Ellis recording where you can practically grasp the tension between the two characters and immediately feel that there is a story between them. Here, there is nothing to grasp and feel. It’s just lovely singing. And it all sounds more or less the same, whether you hear “I Can Give You the Starlight,” “Waltz of My Heart,” or “My Dearest Dear” without the dialogue introduction.
And then there is endless orchestral music with no dialogue on top of it. (This is in contrast to the various other Owen Edwards recordings.) So you really have to guess what is actually going on in the in-between bits of The Dancing Years.
A narrator (Janie Dee: very good, I might add) offers brief snippets of text written by Kurt Gänzl. It’s an elegant text, and great to hear. But it doesn’t really substitute for the story, or any sense of theatricality, and it doesn’t mention the Nazis at all.
So the many effective scenes of the original play with music are simply drowned out by yet another track of incidental music that should have been utilized in a different way: in combination with dialogue. (The incidental music with its endless repeats is certainly not meant to be listened to, like here, as a concert piece.)
And even the great operetta rehearsal scene, i.e. the play within the play, is devoid of any sense of theatricality. There are no atmospheric sounds to suggest a rehearsal, or even people doing something. You just hear the lovely Masterson voice, as you hear the equally lovely Katrina Murphy as Gretl elsewhere. But she doesn’t bring any sense of fun to her rendition of “Primrose” (a song I’ve always loved, ever since I briefly lived on Primrose Hill back in the 80s). And there is simply no sense of anything when Tyroleans and other country folk are supposed to fill the stage in act one when Rudi and Maria first meet “at dawn” in a small village where Ivor Novello originally wore lederhosen and Gretl pranced around in a dirndl. (It’s very White Horse Inn; minus the jazzy bits.)
Maybe something went wrong with this project back in 1995 and that’s why the dialogue wasn’t recorded? (The “Leap Year Waltz” wasn’t recorded till 2016, the booklet says, and it’s conducted by Craig Barna instead of Mr. Owen Edwards.) But presenting the whole thing in this way cannot seriously be a substitute for the stylistically more outstanding older versions already available on disc. Most notably that is the 1969 June Bronhill recording, “although the lady had to put up with second-rate orchestrations and a weak supporting cast, including an over-the-top tenor who sounds like a caricature of Mario Lanza,” as Kurt Gänzl writes in Musical Theatre on Record. Still, Gänzl adds, “[Bronhill] rattles off her numbers with inimitable style.”
I feel like such a spoil sport saying so many negative things about the new recording, especially because so many friends of mine got so excited about this release and posted announcement after announcement. I got excited too and couldn’t wait to hear the new album. Now that I’ve heard it, I feel deeply frustrated that the chance to present this unique “Austrian Anschluss” operetta in a recording that could do for The Dancing Years what John McGlinn did for Show Boat back in 1988 with his EMI full recording was wasted.
I doubt that anyone will try again anytime soon, which is even more frustrating.
If you just wish to hear the famous songs in yet another good version – after Bronhill and Marilyn Hill Smith – then this might be a recording for you. If you want a version of The Dancing Years to sweep you off your feet and make you understand why this show is so singular and worthy of revival today – especially in Germany and Austria where no comparable operetta exists that deals with Nazi politics on stage – then this JAY Records release will not suffice. Not even if you listen to it with a lot of imagination. (And I did bring the utmost willingness along to imagine ‘the rest.’)
In the end, I shall return to my beloved Novello/Ellis snippet, look at the amazing photos from 1939. And I will re-read the articles about the original production, e.g. the essays by Richard C. Norton or Kurt Gänzl. It’s a more gripping experience. And hopefully closer to what Ivor Novello had in mind when he wrote The Dancing Years. And possibly as moving as the version of “I Can Give You the Starlight” as sung by Jeremy Northam, playing Ivor Novello in the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park.
Still, it must be said that this release by a major label is an important stepping stone in the history of a show like The Dancing Years. As such, it deserves full attention and a full critical discussion.
For full cast details, and to order the CD, click here.