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GOLDEN BOY in a Golden Age of Broadway: An Original Cast Recording Review

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Golden Boy. Book by Clifford Odets and William Gibson; Music by Charles Strouse; Lyrics by Lee Adams. With Sammy Davis, Jr. (Joe Wellington); Paula Wayne (Lorna Moon); Billy Daniels (Eddie Satin); Kenneth Tobey (Tom Moody); Johnny Brown (Ronnie); Terrin Miles (Terry); Lola Falana (Lola). Capitol Records, 1964.



When it comes to Broadway musicals, there are hits, there are flops, and there are hits whose popularity fades as years pass. With certain examples of the latter—e.g., 1959’s Fiorello!--the lack of large-scale revivals is hard to understand; with others—e.g., 1964’s Golden Boy—it is somewhat easier. Unlike Bock and Harnick’s smash about New York’s Mayor LaGuardia, Strouse and Adams’ successful musical version of Odets’ 1937 play Golden Boy is set during the time it was produced and is tied, thematically, to that time. Joe Bonaparte, the Italian-American violinist of the play, became Joe Wellington (see what they did there?), an African-American medical student who hopes to be a surgeon. Like Bonaparte, Wellington grows impatient with the dead-end hopelessness of his young life; pushes himself to fast fame as a bantamweight prizefighter; falls in love with his manager’s girlfriend; is spoiled by success; ruins his hands so that he can no longer play his instrument; accidentally kills his opponent in the boxing ring; and speeds off in a fast car to his death. Updating Odets’ Depression-era tragedy to the era of Civil Rights lent it a relevant “edge” and made it an ideal vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. “What do you get the man who has everything?” remarked Ed Norton of Ralph Cramden in an episode of The Honeymooners. The apparent impossibility of replacing the uniquely charismatic man who could do everything (sing, dance, act, mimic) in entertainment was surely the reason Davis alone played the title role throughout Golden Boy's two-year run. It has also posed a challenge in casting small-scale revivals of the musical.


Arguably more of a challenge has been the show’s “tied to the early sixties” quality. Much of 1964 Golden Boy's plot hinges on the "taboo" interracial romance between Wellington and Lorna Moon (played by an actress, Paula Wayne, who physically resembled Davis’ wife at the time, May Britt). With interracial marriages much more common now than they were in ’64, it might be genuinely hard for the younger viewer to appreciate the significance of the plot thread involving Lorna and Joe: Why must their relationship be hushed up? The libretto and lyrics also contain references to the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E), Adam Clayton Powell, “the soothing tones of Malcolm X,” and even Dean Martin. The first two are no longer household names, and the humor of the last two (Malcolm X’s rhetoric was hardly lulling, and “Dean” was Sammy’s Rat Pack cohort) might get lost. Apparently, the appeal of the show was epitomized by one of its liveliest songs, “Don’t Forget 127th Street,” in which Joe says goodbye to his neighbors before leaving Harlem for a tour which will make him famous and rich. Here Strouse’s music imitates both gospel and jazz, and Adams’ wryly clever lyric spells out the horrors of life in "our dandy little ghetto" and includes choice lines like “Ronnie…now that I’ve seen you dance, I am firmly convinced we ain’t all born with it” and “Harlem/The place that white folks think we love.” On the whole, it seems, Golden Boy was like this number: edgy yet entertaining, and well-tailored to Davis’ talents. Given current events and the availability of Davis, the musical was an inspired idea. To succeed today, it needs a star in the lead of the caliber of Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), who played Joe at City Center in 2002.

Ironically, there has always been a place in the Broadway musical for stars who can’t sing. Increasingly in the sixties, however, audiences wanted to hear singers. The trend may have begun in 1962 with the hit London import Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, a vehicle for Anthony Newley. Like that show’s score, Golden Boy's probably seemed, at times, like an extension of its star’s nightclub program; but with ballads like “What Kind of Fool Am I?” in the former and “Night Song” in the latter, this was—and is—not a bad thing at all. As heard on the original Broadway cast recording of Golden Boy, Davis’ was a voice without obvious mannerisms; his singing had no equivalent to Newley’s strong, Cockney accent or his vowel shifts. (It’s telling that, when the two friends sought to mimic each other on TV in 1976, Davis succeeded in sounding just like Newley, while Newley could only imitate Davis’ physical mannerisms.) And yet, like all great singers, Davis could belt out a song, seemingly off the cuff—tone and words emerging as if conjoined—and make the rendition sound improvised when it was, in fact, artful. He does just this in “Colorful,” Joe’s wittily sarcastic response to a reporter’s gaffe about the young, black prizefighter’s story making for “colorful copy.”



Everything about “Colorful”—from the Las Vegas-style musical arrangement to the comic impressions indicated in the lyric—says “written expressly for Sammy Davis, Jr.”; yet it suits the drama, and the only shame about the recording is the fact that Davis’ tone turns very gravelly shortly after the number begins (a notoriously heavy smoker, he eventually died of laryngeal cancer). Fortunately, there is no gravel in the long lines of the ensuing love duet “I Want to Be with You,” which is all the more a moving highlight of the score for being totally un-cynical. In this song, Davis' golden tone is matched by that of Paula Wayne as Lorna. Wayne, an underrated singer, copes well with solos (“Lorna’s Here,” “Golden Boy”) that resemble, harmonically, the American operatic music of the time. Onyx-voiced recording star Billy Daniels sings suavely as the shadily magnetic Eddie Satin, Joe's handler; he is infinitely better than Kenneth Tobey (as the hapless Tom Moody, whom Lorna leaves for Joe), whose toneless “Everything’s Great” is the low point of the CD.

Ralph Burns’ orchestrations for Eddie Satin’s two numbers, “This Is the Life” and “While the City Sleeps,” and for Joe’s “Can’t You See It,” recall Nelson Riddle’s orchestrations for the classic series of albums Frank Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records in the fifties. By contrast, the musical’s “overture” is not played by the orchestra at all. Strouse described this opening, titled “Workout” on the CD, as taking place in a gymnasium “with boxers just starting to come to life, and there’s the sounds of shadowboxing, the sounds of weight-lifting, the sounds of a punching bag. And we put this together in a kind of fugal form, where all these sounds fit together, and the things that are on the fighters’ minds are said. But we had to play it [on the piano] for Sammy, and there’s no tune!”

Strouse told this story shortly after Golden Boy opened, when he appeared with Davis on an edition of TV's The American Musical Theatre attended by teenagers from the New York City Public Schools. My mom was a teenager when she saw Golden Boy during the 1964-65 season.



She owned the original cast LP and wore it out; today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a younger Broadway fan who owns the currently-out-of-print CD (I just ordered my used copy from Amazon). For anyone who likes Sammy Davis, Jr., Golden Boy is essential listening.

The year 1964 still ranks as one of the most prolific ever for Broadway musicals; between January and October, Hello, Dolly!; Foxy; Funny Girl; Anyone Can Whistle; Fade Out—Fade In; Fiddler on the Roof; Ben Franklin in Paris; and Golden Boy all opened. It was a time when many “young people” cared what happened on Broadway (few did when I was going to shows as a teen from ’92 to ’95; things changed for the better after that). Of course, Broadway in the sixties was financially accessible; in '64, an orchestra ticket to Funny Girl cost $9.50 and my mom, who attended eight musicals between 1963 and 1968, never paid more than ten dollars for a mezzanine seat. The idea that one could have seen Carol Channing, Bert Lahr, Barbra Streisand, Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Zero Mostel, Robert Preston, or Sammy Davis, Jr. for five or six dollars is mind-boggling today: imagine seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda or Josh Groban, live, for such a price! Thankfully, each of those two talents has had his Golden Boy. Would that we had another Sammy Davis, Jr.; but, to quote a lyric from Stop the World—I Want to Get Off, an entertainer like Davis comes along “once in a lifetime” or, more likely, once in a century.


Additional links (note--Sammy is in better voice in the first two):

"Night Song": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwhFxDzYjSo

"I Want to Be with You": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U82VJTdmxfA

"Don't Forget 127th Street": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVj28a99Ru8



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Updated Jul-04-2019 at 13:53 by Bellinilover

Categories
Classical Music , Personal , Non-Classical Music , Recorded Music

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