Bernstein dow 63581

Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004)
How Now, Dow Jones – A New Musical Comedy
Book by Max Shulman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
Original Broadway Cast
rec. 17 December 1967, Webster Hall, New York City
Presto CD
RCA VICTOR 63581 [37]

Hear the phrase “Bernstein on Broadway” and it is fair to assume that you will think of Leonard and West Side Story.  However, in this instance that would be wrong with instead Elmer – of The Magnificent Seven fame [1960] – lured by the glamour of The Great White Way.  How Now, Dow Jones might well be a forgotten show today but when it opened on December 7th 1967 on paper at least it looked like a strong show.  Produced by David Merrick – one of Broadway’s biggest producers – the creative team included director George Abbott [as show doctor – he was not the original director], lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (who wrote the pop standards Witchcraft and The Best Is Yet to Come amongst much else but was famously “tricky”) alongside Bernstein, sets by Oliver Smith, musical staging by Gillian Lynne (latterly famous for her work on Cats and Phantom of the Opera) and a similarly strong and experienced music department.  The show was one of seven musicals to open that year but the one that has endured – Hair – points towards the ‘problem’ with How Now, Dow Jones.  In essence this was an old-fashioned/traditional but topical musical-comedy [my italics] written at a time when musical theatre was beginning to metamorphosise into something that could still be comedic but not as formulaic.  The critical reception could be deemed “cool”; Clive Barnes wrote that the show could have been called “How to try in business without really succeeding” [after the recent hit show “How to succeed in business without really trying”] and Walter Kerr felt the show was “shy of a few things, such as an amusing book, melodic songs, lyrics with life to them, and dancing”.  The show ran for a reasonable, but not “hit” 220 performances and did receive a nomination for 1968’s Tony Awards – it did not win.  But that said the actual winner Hallelujah! Baby has not remained a household name either – but it did have the very experienced writing team of Styne, Comden & Green.  Perhaps a better indication of the way the creative wind was blowing is the 1967 winner – Cabaret….

This is the first Presto ‘reprint’ disc I have seen or reviewed and as such it is excellent with the liner booklet and original cast recording lovingly and accurately reproduced.  I would imagine that a 36:32 complete cast album of a forgotten/flop show retailing around £12.75 is something of a niche product.  So how does this album and the music it contains measure up nearly fifty five years later to the innocent ear?  Worth remembering that by the time Bernstein came to write this show he had exactly fifty film scores under his belt but this would be his first (and only) Musical – he did collaborate on another failed show called Merlin fifteen years later but that was more of a musically staged magic show than a traditional book musical.  Bernstein’s 50th film score was Thoroughly Modern Millie – the hit film starring Julie Andrews for which he won his only Academy Award for the best original score – he did not write the songs.  But you do wonder is being around this type of piece with the likes of André Previn supervising the songs gave him a taste for musicals.

The album presents fourteen tracks – the longest a combined number running 4:53.  Most of the rest hover around the three minute mark which suggests that for the album any extended dance breaks have been cut.  The plot tries to find a topical and parallel linkage between the vagaries of the Stock Market and Love.  The booklet (luckily) includes a plot synopsis since its full of typical and convoluted ‘hilarious’ in-and-out-of-love shenanigans which are too complicated but ultimately inconsequential to address here.  As ever with a show album – the songs and musical numbers need to be able to stand free of the plot or staging.  The qualities of the performances here belie that show’s overall status.  The sound, singing and playing is bright and peppy with quite a bit of harshness/distortion to the close-up vocals that is very common on this kind of recording of this period.  Bernstein’s score is likewise energetic and alertly apt – how could it be else from a composer so steeped in linking music to action.  The music has a 60’s groove and Leigh’s lyrics are tricksy and tongue-twisting but more often clever than genuinely funny let alone moving – the self-conscious topicality of many references does not help the piece age well either. 

I was not familiar with any of the songs but according to the liner the Act I Step to the Rear [track 9] used to turn up on TV Variety Shows – it has a kind of Music-Man/Sweet Charity marching-band brio.  The feel of most of the numbers is pretty standard “cut-time/upbeat” but track 5 A Little Investigation mixes its metres in an unusual and rather fun way.  Throughout there are many echoes of earlier shows from the likes of Guys and Dolls, The Bells are Ringing, Pajama Game and even On the Town to name but a handful.  And therein lies the enduring issue for this show – and probably what was the problem when it originally opened – there is a sense of everyone having to work just a little bit too hard to make up for the basic unoriginality of the piece.  Walk Away is quite an attractive number where one character laments not being able to just “walk away” from a brief romantic encounter.  But again other shows have treated exactly this idea more memorably.  But as a memento to old-school Broadway-belting its hard not to enjoy the sheer skill and style of the individual performances.  The vocal technique is quite different from the bulk of modern musical theatre which is based on pop-style singing and amplification.  Bernstein’s music is efficient but notably Peter Howard is credited not only with the Musical Direction but also the dance and vocal arrangements and Philip J. Lang with the orchestrations and of course they are the elements that make a show ‘sound’ like a show. 

This is not the first show to try and get away with a true love song/ballad/engaging love interest but without one the result is something rather unrelentingly upbeat so the concept of emotional arc or light and shade are wholly absent.  So ultimately something of a curiosity and really of interest to Broadway buffs only.  Fun to have heard and good to know about the show but not hard to understand why Bernstein went back to doing what he knew best – scoring for Hollywood.

Nick Barnard

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Cast and crew

Producer – David Merrick

Director – George Abbott

Scenic Production – Oliver Smith

Costumes – Robert Mackintosh

Lighting – Martin Aronstein

Dances and Musical Numbers staged by Gillian Lynne (Michael Bennett uncredited replacement)

Anthony Roberts – Charley

Marlyn Mason – Kate

Brenda Vaccaro – Cynthia

Hiram Sherman – Wingate

Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Peter Howard