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Review: Original Cast, “Half-Past Wednesday”

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Anyone have a little love for Rumpelstiltskin?

The Brothers Grimm popularized the story of the mischievous imp in the early part of the 19th century, but he has never received the same kind of commercial fame as many of the Grimms’ other creations. No wonder, then, that Rumpelstiltskin was so ornery when he appeared as the villain of Shrek Forever After.  And how many indignities did he survive as the titular character of a 1996 grade B horror film!  Rumpelstiltskin has had a few moments in the spotlight, however, and one of the most unlikely of them has been revived on CD and digital download by Sony’s Masterworks Broadway division.  Take a look at how wild-eyed the little guy looks on the cover…

Half-Past Wednesday opened off-Broadway in New York City on April 6, 1962, which was a Friday.  It closed that Saturday, April 7, after its second performance.  So why was Half-Past Wednesday recorded by the prestigious Columbia Records the following month of May over three days?  Perhaps album producer Clifford Snyder saw something in the musical’s score by Robert Colby and Nita Jones, though it’s hardly spoken of in the same breath as, say, Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle.  That show was one notable for being preserved by Columbia President and leading cast album producer Goddard Lieberson, post-closing.  (The unconventional Whistle folded after nine performances in 1964.)  In fact, Half-Past Wednesday has barely been spoken of at all, and the title of the show is all but forgotten even on its own LP jacket, where “The New Musical Version of RUMPELSTILTSKIN” dominates.  And its obscurity makes us all the more grateful that Masterworks Broadway has given a new life to this footnote in off-Broadway history, perhaps most notable for the presence of a young actor named Dom DeLuise.

The little, five-person musical retells the familiar story of the Miller’s beautiful daughter (Audre Johnston) who strikes up a deal with a devilish elf (David Winters).  In exchange for his help turning straw into gold, he is promised her first-born with the Prince (Sean Garrison), and the only way out of the bargain if she can discern his name, represented in the show by musical notes played on an xylophone.  Dom DeLuise played the greedy King who threatens Erelda if she can’t spin straw into gold, and Robert Fitch (the future originator of Rooster in 1977’s Annie) completed the cast as Erelda’s father, the miller.  The show’s title was derived from the bargain with Rumpelstiltskin: “if by half-past Wednesday they cannot think what name his [musical] notes stand for, he will carry the baby away with him to the forest to keep him company forever,” according to Curtis F. Brown’s original liner notes, reprinted in the new reissue.

Hit the jump to meet me on Wednesday!

The cast is uniformly delightful, with DeLuise a standout long before he became a regular on The Dean Martin Show, a favorite of director Mel Brooks, and an accomplished chef.  He charms on his “What’s the Fun of Being King (If the King is Poor)?” and a duet with the nimble Fitch, the vaudeville-styled “Grandfather (Ev’ry Baby’s Best Friend).”  (“They dance a funny little dance” during this song, according to the notes!)  David Winters’ Rumpelstiltskin evinces considerable character on disc, his pinched vocals sounding a bit like those of Steve Franken (recognizable from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and guest spots on many programs including Bewitched). Rumple’s “To Whit – To Whoo,” in which he catalogues all of the mean and devilish things he’d like to do, is alas not nearly as effective as, say, “Those Were the Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees, another showtune from a humorously wicked character we love to hate.  (“You’re never lonely with…”) “Companionship” for Rumple is another soft-shoe-styled number that brings a smile as he imagines what a baby could provide for him (“A squirrel needs a squirrel to call his own/So he won’t have to ever eat his dinner alone”).  Audre Johnston exhibits a winsome soprano as Erelda, and she’s matched by Sean Garrison’s Prince, but their songs are simply standard-issue love melodies. 

The score by composer/lyricist Robert Colby and lyricist Nita Jonas shows some imagination and a few felicitous melodies, but isn’t from anybody’s top drawer.  Jonas’ other credits include writing some lyrics for the young Burt Bacharach (“Cryin’, Sobbin’, Wailin’,” the unrecorded “More and More”) as well as a handful of Disney songs like “Goofy the Toreador.”  Colby counted among his other collaborators Floyd Huddleston, Marion Evans, Joe Darion (Man of La Mancha) and Jack Wolf.  Julian Stein, who earlier gave The Fantasticks its unique sound on piano, served as musical director for Half-Past, contributing a basic orchestration for what is actually a small band.  There’s a similar lightness of touch to his work on The Fantasticks, but that show’s immortal score by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not that Tom Jones) is much, much stronger.

There’s still much to offer.  It’s significant that the cast album to Half-Past plays like a radio play, with a liberal amount of dialogue (presumably from Anna Marie Barlow’s book) sprinkled throughout.  It gives a flavor for the show itself, but goes against the acknowledged practice of Columbia chief Goddard Lieberson.  It’s impossible not to smile at Rumpelstiltskin bounding from speaker to speaker in a demonstration of Columbia’s trumpeted “360 Sound” stereo as he proclaims, “I hate the human race/Loathe ‘em to the fore/They’re naturally imperfect/And naturally a bore!”

The jaunty if minor Half-Past Wednesday was reissued on LP by Columbia’s budget label Harmony, aimed squarely at the children’s album market.  It certainly is family-friendly and the musical itself might have fared better if that audience had been tapped into while the show was running.  (It took many, many more years for kids to be actively courted as theatergoers with the emergence of the “family” musical and proliferation of Disney on Broadway.)  The Masterworks Broadway reissue reprints Curtis F. Brown’s original LP synopsis in full, which is handy for following along with the score, although (as is standard for this reissue series) there are no new notes putting the show in historical perspective or shedding light on the largely-forgotten creative names attached to it.  DeLuise certainly went on to a bright career on the big and small screens, and Fitch is still an active performer today, having made a great impact in musicals such as Annie, Coco, Flora the Red Menace and Mack & Mabel.   A listen to the cast album offers few explanations as to why the show was so incredibly short-lived.  While Half-Past Wednesday isn’t a lost classic, I promise that you’ll want to play this fun and agreeable album at least through Thursday!

Written by Joe Marchese

August 25, 2011 at 13:36

Posted in Cast Recordings, Features, News, Reissues, Reviews

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