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Memorial Day Special: The Andrews Sisters and the Sherman Brothers, “Over Here!”

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We interrupt our regularly-scheduled Memorial Day hiatus to bring you this surprise holiday feature!

It was 1972, but 1959 was all the rage.  Grease was the word then, as it is now.  The little musical from Chicago’s Kingston Mines Theatre had opened on Broadway where it would garner seven Tony Award nominations, run for a then- record-breaking 3,388 performances and spawn a massively successful film version.  Grease was the toast of New York, launching the careers of Adrienne Barbeau, Barry Bostwick and Walter Bobbie, among others.  But its producers, Kenneth Waissman and Maxine Fox, naturally wondered how they could top their hit.  How about doing for the 1940s what Grease did for the 1950s?  The result was Over Here!, a light-hearted romp billed as “America’s big band musical.”  On Memorial Day 2011, we celebrate this nostalgic wartime musical in tribute to the courageous and heroic servicemen who have given their lives for their country. 

Waissman and Fox enlisted a veritable Grease army for their new production.  Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt, costume designer Carrie Robbins, vocal and dance arranger Louis St. Louis, choreographer Patricia Birch and director Tom Moore all returned to the fold.  This team was joined by the top-billed Andrews Sisters, a young actor from a Grease touring company named John Travolta, writer Will Holt and two very special gentlemen of whom we’re very fond here at The Second Disc: Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.

Known for their scores to countless classic Walt Disney productions (from films to theme park attractions), The Sherman Brothers were both veterans of United States military service, Richard in the Korean War and Robert in World War II.  Hired directly by Walt Disney as the company’s first staff songwriters, the Shermans contributed countless songs to the fabric of Americana, including “It’s a Small World,” often considered the most performed song in history, and the Academy Award-winning score to Mary Poppins.  After Disney’s passing in 1966, they continued working inside and outside the company, and in 1971, they premiered the score to their first stage musical.  Victory Canteen had its debut at Los Angeles’ Ivar Theatre starring Patty Andrews, of The Andrews Sisters.  Robert told Didier C. Deutsch, “[Waissman and Fox] had seen Victory Canteen…and thought it might be a good idea for Broadway,” and Richard continued, “They decided it wasn’t big enough in scope, so they brought in a new writer, Will Holt, a very talented guy with a lot of theatrical experience.”  Holt replaced original writers Milt Larsen (co-founder of Hollywood’s famous Magic Castle) and Bobby Lauher, and while the Sherman Brothers were retained, they fashioned an entirely new score to match the new script.  Holt’s story depicted Pauline and Paulette DePaul, entertainers en route to Europe to perform for U.S. servicemen.  They’re seeking a third voice to fill out their harmonies, and find the ideal voice in Mitzi.  The only problem?  Mitzi is a German spy!  And she’s equipped with lipstick that’s really a radio transmitter! 

Let’s meet at the canteen after the jump!

Patty Andrews joined the new production as Paulette and enticed her sister Maxene to come on board as Pauline.  (LaVerne Andrews, third member of the group, had died in 1967.)  The presence of The Andrews Sisters immediately lent Over Here! a degree of verisimilitude and attracted a substantial amount of publicity.  At first modeled on The Boswell Sisters, the trio came into their own in 1937 with their hit Decca recording of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,”  a Yiddish song (translation: “To me, you are beautiful”) rewritten by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin and given a quasi-German title.  The Andrews Sisters’ recording earned them a gold record, the first ever by a female vocal group.  For many servicemen abroad in the Second World War, the Andrews Sisters were the voices of the girls back home, and they helped found the famous Hollywood Canteen, a club for servicemen.  They also performed at New York’s Stage Door Canteen and entertained Allied forces around the world while racking up hits like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Rum and Coca-Cola.”  Their history would inform Over Here!.  Despite intermittent breakups, The Andrews Sisters continued recording for labels like Capitol and Dot until LaVerne’s death.  The show marked a comeback of sorts for Patty and Maxene, whose profile was also raised by Bette Midler’s hit re-recording of their “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” on 1972’s The Divine Miss M.  The single went Top Ten pop and hit pole position on the Easy Listening chart.

The Andrews Sisters were joined by Janie Sell as Mitzi, who completed the three-part harmonies.  Also among the cast were a number of future stars: not only John Travolta (who got a chance to shine on The Sherman Brothers’ “Dream Drummin’”) but Samuel E. Wright, later the voice of Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid, Ann Reinking, Marilu Henner and Treat Williams. 

Opening on Broadway at The Shubert Theatre (today, home to Memphis) on March 6, 1974, Over Here! was greeted warmly by the critics.  It didn’t take itself too seriously, and embraced a tongue-in-cheek quality, much like Tom Moore and Patricia Birch’s New York production of Grease did.  Clive Barnes in The New York Times found that “against all the prompting of what would normally have been my better judgment, I warmed to the show enormously” while Richard Watts in The New York Post affirmed that “Maxene and Patty Andrews have to share the triumph with something we haven’t heard for quite a long time.  It is one of those big-time bands, and an extremely good one…it makes delightful and exhilarating listening.”

That exhilarating listening as described by Watts was captured on Columbia Records’ high-octane Original Broadway Cast Recording produced by Charles Koppelman and legendary jazz producer Teo Macero.  The original album was released in both stereo and quadraphonic formats (wouldn’t that quad mix be something to hear today?) and Sony Broadway reissued the stereo LP on CD in 1994.

Original Broadway Cast Recording, Over Here! (Columbia KS-32961/KSQ-32961, 1974 – reissued Sony Broadway SK 32961, 1992)

    1. The Beat Begins (Overture)
    2. Since You’re Not Around
    3. Over Here!
    4. Buy a Victory Bond
    5. My Dream for Tomorrow
    6. Charlie’s Place
    7. Hey Yvette/The Grass Grows Green
    8. The Good-Time Girl
    9. Wait For Me, Marlena
    10. We Got It!
    11. Wartime Wedding
    12. Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie
    13. Where Did the Good Times Go?
    14. Dream Drummin’/Soft Music
    15. The Big Beat
    16. No Goodbyes

The original cast recording remains a testament to the versatility of Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who were as at home in the milieu of World War II as they were in the wild (The Jungle Book), Edwardian England (Mary Poppins) and Mark Twain’s America (Tom Sawyer).  Michael Gibson and Jim Tyler contributed the snappy, brassy and spot-on orchestrations, and while the songs are recognizably Sherman, the swingtime, boogie-woogie sound is distinctly different than that of Irwin Kostal’s big, bold Hollywood style as heard on many of their motion picture soundtracks.

The effervescent score holds up terrifically well divorced from the goofy plot; most of the Sherman Brothers’ songs could pass for genuine 1940s vintage and even lyrically referenced war-era songs like “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” and “Frim Fram Sauce.”  The Andrews Sisters’ opening song, “Over Here!,” could have been the sisters’ joyful theme, and their vocals still sparkled despite aging: “Gee, but it’s great to be back!…We’re gonna sing for the red, white and blue/While the sergeant does the training/We’ll do the entertaining/Over here!”  Maxene’s “Charlie’s Place” was an infectious rouser while Patty’s “The Good Time Girl” allowed the Shermans to have a little risqué fun: “Not every miss is like your sis/In every deck there’s a joker/So don’t take a chance on quick romance/You don’t want to dance the V.D. polka!”   The Sherman Brothers even subtly confronted the military segregation of the 1940s with “Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie,” performed by Samuel E. Wright.  “Where Did The Good Times Go?,” sung by Patty, is a straightforward ballad that deserved a further life outside of the show.  John Travolta took the lead on the brassy “Dream Drummin’,” a showstopper with a touch of Ellington in the arrangement.

The CD is unfortunately out-of-print today, but it is available digitally and also as a disc-on-demand from Sony’s partner Arkiv Music.  For anybody seeking a further foray into Sherman-ia, I can’t recommend three recent releases enough: The Sherman Brothers Songbook (Walt Disney Records, D000457602, 2009) is the most comprehensive overview of the brothers’ career to date, a 2-CD set encompassing some 59 tracks. Many are making their first appearance on CD, and there are even 3 songs performed by the Mike Sammes Singers for the Disneyland label from the non-Disney film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.   This collection was released in conjunction with The Boys, a fascinating and emotional documentary about the complicated and fraught relationship between Richard and Robert Sherman, two men who found it easier to make beautiful music professionally than personally.

Over Here! marked the last great engagement of The Andrews Sisters, closing after 341 New York performances.  In the aftermath of the musical, Patty and Maxene’s sometimes-acrimonious relationship stood in the way of much further music making as a team.  Both sisters performed extensively in cabaret, and they reunited in 1987 to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Maxene died in 1995 while Patty still enjoys retirement from her California home.  MCA (now Universal) made available many compilations devoted to the Sisters’ Decca catalogue including 1994’s double-CD Their All-Time Greatest Hits (MCA 11121) and another two discs compiling their complete recordings with Bing Crosby, Their Complete Recordings Together (MCA 11503, 1996).  It’s still impossible to turn on a Christmas-themed radio station and not hear Patti, Maxene and LaVerne backing Bing on the immortal “Jingle Bells.”  1991’s Capitol Collectors Series (Capitol C2-94078) anthologized their tenure at that label with most tracks recorded by the trio in October 1956 following Patty’s attempt at a solo career.

Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman continued to work together on a variety of projects, returning to The Walt Disney Company on numerous occasions.  The Sherman Brothers almost made it to Broadway with 1995’s Busker Alley, but the show folded out-of-town.  They finally reappeared on the Great White Way with stage adaptations of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2005) and Mary Poppins (2006).  Richard also reunited intermittently with Milt Larsen, most recently to co-write the musical Pazzazz, still in development as of this writing.  Richard remains active contributing songs to a variety of projects (including his delightful Tomorrowland pastiche for last year’s Iron Man 2) and performing live.  Though largely retired, Robert Sherman continues to work with his brother from his home in London.

While every Memorial Day is a solemn occasion and today is no exception, we believe that the bright, optimistic Over Here! reflects the indomitable American spirit.  So pour yourself a rum and Coca Cola, and bask in the sweet sounds of an era that may be gone but certainly isn’t forgotten.

Written by Joe Marchese

May 30, 2011 at 13:21

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