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by Michael Portantiere

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  • Mary Martin


    I wasn't a bit surprised that, in response to my column of two weeks ago, several readers came up with more examples of Broadway stars who had pop hit recordings of songs from their shows. It's difficult to thoroughly research this sort of thing unless you haul your butt to the library, which I did not do. (Google only gets you so far, especially when it comes to esoterica). The matter is further complicated by the exact definition of a pop hit. For example, if a record made the Easy Listening charts, does that count?

    I specifically asked for instances in which a performer had a hit with a song from a musical while he or she was appearing in the show. I cited Barbra Streisand's studio recording of "People" from Funny Girl and a few other examples from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, but Christopher Connelly sagely pointed out that we should look back to the first few decades of the 20th century for more.

    "Helen Morgan's 1928 recording of 'Bill' [from Show Boat] was a hit," Connelly wrote, "although I don't have my notes in front of me to tell you how high up it got the charts. It was however, ultimately included in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Morgan's cover of 'Body and Soul' from Three's a Crowd climbed to number 16 on the charts; but the song's B'way originator, Libby Holman had an even bigger hit with her version of it. Morgan also had success with one or both of her Sweet Adeline recordings, 'Why Was I Born?' and 'Don't Ever Leave Me!,' as well as her 1932 recording of her two Show Boat songs. I don't know how you would research this, but I'm sure Fanny Brice's original recordings of 'My Man'/'Second Hand Rose' and many of Jolson's stage performances -- especially from Sinbad -- made the charts. Ditto Ruth Etting's 'Love Me or Leave Me' (Whoopee!) and both Ruth and Nora Bayes' recordings of 'Shine On, Harvest Moon' [from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1908]. Bert Williams' Follies recordings were also hugely popular, and Helen Kane's star-making recording of 'I Wanna Be Loved By You' (Good Boy) certainly climbed the charts. Ditto Eartha Kitt's star-making turn, 'Monotonous,' in New Faces of 1952." Whew! Thanks, Chris!

    I noted in my article that Ethel Merman had made a pop record of "I Get a Kick Out of You" from Anything Goes, though I wasn't sure how big a hit it was. According to Skip Koenig, The Merm deserves a place in the pop record pantheon for another effort. "Merman had a charted hit in January '33 with 'Eadie Was a Lady,'" says Skip. "Variety charts her both in N.Y. and L.A. The chart is confusing as it has separate rankings for Brunswick, Columbia, and Victor." Given that Skip did the complete discography and contributed heavily to Caryl Flinn's Brass Diva: The Life and Legends of Ethel Merman, due from the University of California Press this November, I'll take his word for it.

    Mike Dworchak, who used to work at the Rodgers and Hammerstein office and now is with USA Networks, wrote: "Mary Martin [pictured above] had a Top 10 hit in early 1939 with 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy' from Leave it to Me. She recorded a version of the song with Eddy Duchin's Orchestra." I should have remembered that, as the performance in question was included on an old LP that was in my parents' collection when I was growing up, and I played it constantly. If you ever want to know why Martin became an overnight star in Leave It to Me, track down this recording and give a listen.

    Other examples of pop hit recordings of songs by the self-same people who performed those songs on Broadway? Stuart Soloway wrote, "I thought of two, and they are both from the same person: Steve Lawrence!" He cited Lawrence's single of "I Gotta Be Me" from Golden Rainbow as having received a lot of airplay, though he allowed that "Sammy Davis had the bigger hit" with that tune. Stuart also pointed to Lawrence's popular recording of "A Room Without Windows" from What Makes Sammy Run? (This is a good place to mention that Lawrence's wife, Eydie Gorme, had a huge success with "If He Walked Into My Life" from Mame -- though, of course, she did not appear in the Broadway production.)

    Finally, Richard Wall, Tina M. Sheing, and Chris Connelly all pointed to what may be my most grievous omission: Murray Head's recording of "One Night in Bangkok" from the Chess concept album. Head didn't appear in the show on Broadway, but he co-starred with Elaine Paige in the earlier London production. I'm not sure if the song was still getting major airplay when Ches opened, and I didn't really deal with British shows and songs in my article, but let's not quibble; the important point is that folks across the pond had the rare and thrilling experience of going to the theater and hearing a song sung live in the context of a musical by the performer who had very recently made it a pop hit.

    So, do you think there's a chance that Roger Bart, Shuler Hensley, Megan Mullaly, Sutton Foster, or someone else in Young Frankenstein will chart with a number from that score? And if "Putting on the Ritz" once again becomes a hit, would that count? Let's see what happens!

    Published on Tuesday, August 28, 2007

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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