Monday, August 23, 2010
Rethinking Ringling ‘56: Music Added Strings, Favored Frank Loesser Hits, Rocked and Rolled, Too!
Ringling’s last season under canvas was so fraught with high drama, somebody should turn it into a movie and NOW.
For most Ringlingphiles (I plead guilty), anything about that sad tumultuous tour captures the imagination, stirs the heart, makes one cry out, “Why did it ever have to happen!?!?!?!>!” And you can’t stay away. Some are still in denial.
Now comes, belatedly published in the latest issue of Bandwagon, an account of nearly the last two weeks by Faye O. Braathen, who followed the show with her husband, Sverre, staying in hotels along the way, spending most of their time jack-potting in the backyard and sometimes taking seats, or just standing, to watch the show, part of it not all. They were "with it" almost to the end. And they sensed somehow that the end was near.
This account, informally written, with an emphasis on friendships with circus folk, is what sent me back into ‘56 revisit mode. This time: music.
I pulled out a tape of the production music, made somewhere along the route. The performance that season had a markedly new look and sound. Prior year desertions, among them ringmaster Harold Ronk and bandleader Merle Evans, resulted in replacements, Preston Lambert blowing the whistle, Izzy Cervone, with violins added, directing the band. As well, North had integrated a great many Frank Loesser hit songs into the score.
In the spirit of North's controversial bent to shake up traditions (a bent blamed by many for the show's early closing), director Richard Barstow, himself an advocate of keeping the program fresh and modern, crafted an elephant romp that literally rocked and rolled.
Which brings to the forefront a valid question: Who delivered a better sound from the bandstand, Merle Evans or Izzy Cervone?
Not an easy answer. Despite those who hold Cervone in higher regard, I tend to defer to Evans. While Cervone fostered more orchestral color and perhaps more varied and exciting dynamics, however roughly rendered (a mark of virtually all tent show bands of the era, including the hip Boom Boom Browning) Evans on balance brought in a smoother, more sonorous sound — I think.. But, keep in mind, this comes from listening to tapes made many years ago. Also, both this and the ‘55 score were orchestrated by longtime North favorite Samuel Grossman, so there are similarities, such as the dramatic inclusion of fanfare type exaggerations for dramatic effect that I have ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to the Merle Evans style..
Here is what I hear in the four production numbers from 1956:
Say it With Flowers, spec: Plenty lively, including Evans type fanfares. On the tricky basis of an old tape recording, Cervone seems to have delivered a livelier, more boisterously happy sound, with zippy contrasts.
Mexicanorama, aerial ballet: the music here is a real winner. Introductory refrains draw from sensual Latin rhythms, with Loesser's hit “Like a Woman in Love” getting a variety of tempo treatments throughout, from a tango to a waltz. But Pinito Dl Oro, the featured aerialist, does not get much musical juice from the sentimentally dull “Dolores” and “My Darling.” I wish they’d have given her a big Loesser hit, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” from Guys and Dolls, at a heightened pace..
Preston Lambert, it might be noted, articulated strong clear announcements, but, as a vocalist, he sings in a rather schmaltzy and sluggish manner, not always exactly on key. Both Harold Ronk and Ricky Dawn, from 1955, were superior crooners..
Ringling Rock N' Roll, elephants and girls: Great! Repeat: Great! This one starts off quoting familiar riffs from possibly the finest piece of original music ever composed for a Ringling romp, Henry Sullivan’s darkly primal “Jungle Drums” (from the 1950 closer). Lone drums pound. An "elephant band" of eleven pieces pumps more rock into the rock. Trumpets blare. Even a few in the cast scream wildly. Then comes what was likely composed by stager-director Richard Barstow, a title song addressing the theme with captivating force -- “Rock! Ringling rock and roll!” Looking back, this mod scoring surely gave Ringling-Barnum a very hip with-it look for the times; In 1956, rock and roll was hardly yet a known rage. Only the previous year had Blackboard Jungle, the first movie to feature a rock song, ("Rock Around the Clock") been released. And Elvis Presley did not make his ground-breaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan TV Show until September, six months after Ringling first rocked at Madison Square Garden. How I would love to have seen this production.
Hoop Dee Doo, ensemble finale, featuring (from what little detail I have) girls swinging on ropes between elephants, the entire cast and band marching around the track. The whole thing sounds bright and friendly and zippy fresh, and it clocks in (if all of it made it onto the recording I have) with remarkable brevity, unlike earlier Barstow finales that went on probably too long, rehashing featured tunes over and over. A welcome last frame. During exit, you can hear a man’s voice, “I loved it!” Interesting to note that the Braathens make reference, on at least two occasions in the article, to they’re watching the show and leaving just after "Ringling Rock N' Roll," display 22 on a program of 27 displays.
Three days after they left, Pittsburgh arrived. And that was the last finale.
Next: Costumes by — no, not Miles White; by french artist Vertes
[photos, from top, stagers Edith and Richard Barstow; Frank Loesser; Izzy Cervone; Preston Lambert]