BERLIN: Call Me Madam
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Call Me Madam
Original Broadway Cast, Studio Recording and Radio Broadcast 1950
Film Soundtrack 1953
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
When George S. Kaufman quipped that 'Satire is what closes on Saturday night' he should have added 'unless you've got Ethel Merman in the show'.
Call Me Madam is the kind of musical they don't write anymore - and barely did back in 1950, when it opened on Broadway.
In many ways, it almost seems like a show from the 1930s, with its topical premise, lightweight political satire, speciality dance numbers and starry leading lady.
Still, it managed a substantial run of 644 performances, toured, went to London and was later turned into a film as well.
It all began with a woman named Perle Mesta. Born in 1889, she was the daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oilman who married into even more money with manufacturer George Mesta. He left her a widow at the age of 36 and she moved to Washington D.C., where she became active in social issues like the Equal Rights Amendment and was a tireless campaigner for the Democratic Party.
But it was as a party-giver that Mesta really shone. Her spectacular soirees defined glamour in the U.S. capital in the 1940s. She made a speciality of inviting people from all sides of the political spectrum and every level of government.
She even wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, but her comment about that was a typically saucy, self-deprecating one: 'Any bitch with a million dollars and a nice dress can be a great hostess in Washington'.
One of her biggest favourites was Harry S. Truman and after he won the presidential election in 1948, he rewarded Mesta by making her Ambassador to the small European country of Luxembourg.
That appointment caused a lot of snickering at the time and it was bound to emerge as a satirical target for someone.
Playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were best known for their long-running comedy Life With Father, but they had tasted political blood with their successful dissection of the presidency in State of the Union and they were anxious to revisit the scene of the crime - only this time as a musical.
They decided to turn Mesta into a brash arriviste widow named Sally Wilson and soon realized the one person who could play it was Ethel Merman.
With a career that stretched back to her debut in 1930's Girl Crazy, Merman was a bigger star than ever, thanks to her turn in Annie Get Your Gun.
She usually got what she wanted and the first thing she asked for was Irving Berlin to write the score. He adored 'the Merm' and eagerly complied.
George Abbott was signed to direct, Jerome Robbins to do the choreography and the flamboyant Raoul Pene du Bois to design a spectacular version of the fictional 'Lichtenburg' where the show took place.
The suave romantic movie star Paul Lukas was cast as the Premier of Lichtenburg, with whom - of course - Merman would fall in love. And there was also a quirky young performer named Russell Nype, who played her aide.
When they got into rehearsals, everyone realized this wouldn't be a well-made musical in the style of South Pacific or Kiss Me Kate or even Annie Get Your Gun, but a slick commercial package that had to work, even at the expense of logic.
There were bizarre novelty numbers (The Ocarina), generic plot songs (Welcome To Lichtenburg) and political rousers (They Like Ike), nestled alongside Berlin retreads from other shows ("Mr Monotony", cut from Easter Parade and Miss Liberty), character comedy ditties (The Hostess With The Mostes') and good old fashioned show tunes. (It's A Lovely Day Today).
The Lindsay-Crouse book tried to have something pertinent to say about the post-war relations between the U.S. and Europe, but director Abbott kept pruning 'that political stuff' away to make for a lean, entertaining hit.
On the road, "Mr.Monotony" was cut yet again, as was a patriotic anthem for Merman called "Free" (which later surfaced as "Snow" in White Christmas; Berlin recycled years before it was popular).
Something To Dance About was added, but the score still missed something. 'Let me sing a song with the kid', begged Merman, referring to Russell Nype.
Berlin withdrew to his hotel room and came back with one of the best of his famed 'quodlibet' numbers, where two seemingly unrelated tunes fit together magically.
This one was called You're Just In Love. It stopped the show every night and pushed Call Me Madam over the line into the 'hit' category.
One amusing problem occurred, however, when Berlin tried to fix a 'dummy' lyric that Merman had been singing all along in The Hostess With The Mostes', while the songwriter waited for final inspiration to hit.
When Berlin came in to her dressing room on the last night on the road and presented Merman with a finished lyric, she promptly showed him the door.
'Forget it, buddy', she told him. 'Call me Miss Birds-Eye. The show is frozen'.
When it finally opened on 12 October 1950, the Broadway critics were largely upbeat, with most calling it things like 'a good natured show', 'a smash hit' and 'a rocket to the moon'. A few complained about the feeble satire of the book, but they were soon shouted down.
Of course a hit like this would have to be turned into a cast album, but a peculiar set of circumstances led to a pair of versions being issued, both recorded within a month of opening.
RCA Victor was one of the show's primary backers and the logical choice to do the original cast recording. The only problem was that Ethel Merman, the show's star was on an exclusive contract with Decca.
This led to two completely separate recordings. The RCA Victor recording is actually the closest to letting you hear what the show is like - except it doesn't have Merman. They brought on popular singer Dinah Shore to fill in her tracks.
And in one other interesting change, the original Broadway orchestrations of Don Walker are 'improved' by additions from Hugo Winterhalter whose more syrupy style was employed during some of Ms Shore's selections.
Decca came back with their answer: Ethel Merman: 12 Songs from 'Call Me Madam', which provided just that, except that they were unable to use the original orchestrations and turned to Gordon Jenkins to provide new ones.
This recording you hold in your hands tries to provide the best of both (and several other!) worlds.
Wherever possible, the Original Cast Recording has been used, i.e. in numbers that didn't involve Ms Merman.
However, on those selections David Lennick has artfully managed to blend both recordings. Sometime you'll hear Dinah Shore start to speak introductory dialogue, but by the time the vocal kicks in, it's Ethel all the way.