The Golden Apple

Two weeks ago I received my long-awaited copy of a full-length recording of Lyric Stage’s production last year of The Golden Apple. And not long-awaited merely in the sense of my having wanted it since hearing last fall that it was coming, but long-awaited in the sense of my having craved a full-length recording ever since first learning about the show some thirty-odd years ago, back in my college days.

This is the first complete recording of the greatest musical you’ve probably never heard of. It was a big hit off Broadway in 1954, then moved to Broadway and bombed, probably due to very poor promotion as much as anything. The show is fully sung, with no spoken dialogue, so the one-disc original cast album preserved less than half of the music and didn’t give much of a sense of the piece as a whole. The sound quality of the original cast album is also not all that good.

But not long after coming across a used copy of the LP in the late 1970s, I also found a used copy of the libretto (which Random House had published) and I quickly got to love the show, or at least as much of it as I could get to know.

In the last decade I’ve also gotten copies of the piano-vocal score and a bootleg recording of mediocre quality of nearly the whole show (both gifts from Dave), and through those I had gotten something of a sense of what the entire score is like. (There was also a semi-staged production by 42nd Street Moon some years back that Dave and I went to two performances of; it was a welcome chance to hear the whole score, but with piano accompaniment only, and unfortunately the company didn’t seem to really understand the piece, either musically or dramatically.)

It is insane that such a great musical has had to wait sixty years for a complete recording of good quality. This last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling grateful to have lived long enough to listen to it.

Despite being so little known, The Golden Apple seems to me to be one of the most influential musicals ever. You know the often-used (and much overused by now) device of writing the score to a musical as a pastiche of one or more distinctive popular styles that are in some way related to the period and/or setting of the story? Like the way Bernstein wove a series of pastiches of national musical styles into Candide to reflect Candide’s travels around the world? Like the way Sondheim wove a series of pastiches of bygone popular song styles into Follies? Like the way Kander and Ebb wove a series of pastiches of Kurt Weill-esque numbers into Cabaret? The Golden Apple did that first, and brilliantly.

The recording is taken from live performance, rather than being recorded in a studio, so it isn’t always completely polished. However, the performers are terrific (the chorus is a little sketchy here and there) and they get it: they get the show, get their characters, get the words that they are singing. The orchestra sounds wonderful. The musical direction is intelligent and sympathetic, and the orchestra sounds very good.

The Golden Apple is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey in the style of American folklore and folk humor, as though the story took place in a small agricultural town in Washington state in the early 1900s. Helen is a farmer’s daughter, and Paris is a traveling salesman from the big city on the other side of the mountains. Minerva, Juno, and Aphrodite become the town’s most important and socially influential women — respectively the town librarian, wife of the town’s mayor, and wife of a general. Ulysses is a captain in the army, just back from the Spanish-American War. When Helen runs off with Paris, Ulysses leads his men to the big city to bring her back, and gets caught up in a series of big-city snares — Madame Calypso is a leader of society, Scylla and Charybis are tycoons manipulating the stock market, and so on.

Most of the score is written with the flavor of American folk music (Moross was part of Copland’s circle, and his music has a similar feel to Copland’s — later, Moross would go to Hollywood and basically define for us all what Hollywood Western film music sounds like), but Ulysses’s mishaps in the big city are written as a series of vaudeville turns (in some cases based on actual vaudeville numbers, just as in Kander and Ebb’s score for Chicago, though as with Chicago, we are now so far from vaudeville that I’m sure not one person in a thousand nowadays gets any of the specific references). So there’s a sharp contrast in the second act, where suddenly the music sounds like you’ve slipped into a different show.

I don’t know of any earlier musical that contained anything like this vaudeville sequence. And if it wasn’t a direct inspiration for the pastiche numbers in Candide (Latouche was the original lyricist for Candide, by the way) and the Loveland sequence in Follies, I will eat my laptop.

After several listenings, I don’t think most of the performances on the new recording have quite the richness of those on the original cast recording. But they are very good all the same, and imbued with a deep understanding of who the characters are and what they want. A lot of care was taken, both by the singers and the musical director, to make sure the words were clear and meaningful. The quality of the recording is so much better than that of the original cast recording that I am hearing all sorts of details in the music that I hadn’t noticed before.

Dave (whose knowledge of recording history is vast) has pointed out to me that the poor quality of the original cast recording was probably a matter of unlucky timing. The show was probably recorded shortly after its Broadway opening on April 20, 1954. (Recording the show soon after opening was and still is the usual practice. Curiously, the liner notes don’t give recording dates, though they do list two different conductors, which may mean the show was recorded in two or more sessions. In any case, it can’t have been recorded during the off-Broadway run, because the recording includes Charlotte Rae, who wasn’t in the show until it moved to Broadway.)

The show, however, had the bad luck to be recorded by RCA, which was not focusing much attention on musicals at that point. If it had been recorded by Columbia, where Goddard Lieberson was a strong advocate for recording musicals, it probably would have gotten better treatment. But RCA was focused on classical music, and in fact in mid-March 1954 had begun experimenting with stereo. During the next few months, RCA recorded among other things Toscanini’s final two concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, concerts by Reiner with the Chicago Symphony and by Munch with the Boston Symphony, and a studio performance of the Franck Symphony by Cantelli with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Dave suspects, then, that RCA’s best sound engineers would have been working on the experimental stereo recordings during that period, and that RCA would have assigned a second-rank recording team to The Golden Apple.

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