|About this Recording
8.120847 - WRIGHT / FORREST: Kismet (Original Broadway Cast) (1953)
Baubles, bangles and B-movies.
That's the best way to describe the crazy cast of characters – onstage and off – which led to the ultimate creation of the 1953 Broadway musical known as Kismet.
Take a quixotic producer with a penchant for operetta, a composer-lyricist team adept at plundering the classical catalogue, a librettist used to Hollywood power games and a leading man anxious to score another hit.
(We won't even get into the sado-masochistic choreographer or the ambitious director with the even more ambitious wife!)
Fling them all together, shake vigorously during a tense series of out-of-town tryouts and finally open in New York during a newspaper strike.
A sure recipe for disaster, right?
Wrong. Kismet rode on to triumph, scoring 583 performances, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical and even placing a couple of tunes onto the Hit Parade.
A clear case of 'kismet' (or 'fate', in Arabic) triumphing over alllogical preconceptions.
It also goes to prove one tried-and-true axiom of musical theatre: if you've got a great score, you can be missing a lot of other things and still have a success.
Edwin Lester was the gentleman who started it all. He ran the popular Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and had a taste for two things: operettas and Broadway.
Over the years, he tried to bring many of his cross-bred confections to the Great White Way. Most were forgettable failures (Gypsy Lady, Magdalena) but there were a few triumphs along the way.
He struck pay dirt the first time out with Song of Norway, when he got the unemployed songwriting team of Robert Wright and George Forrest to dip into the works of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and use them as the basis for a lush operetta-ish score inspired by Grieg's life.
War-time Manhattan loved this mixture of whipped cream and Aquavit and kept it running for 860 performances from 1944 to 1946.
After a few disastrous attempts to recreate its success, Lester came upon what he thought was a very solid idea. He took the highly popular 1911 Edward Knoblock warhorse Kismet, which had been a huge stage hit for Otis Skinner in New York and Oscar Asche in London, not to mention two film versions (silent with Skinner and talkie with Ronald Coleman).
It told of a beggar in ancient Baghdad who achieved wealth, power and the hand of the Caliph for his daughter – all in the space of twenty-four hours.
When Lester approached Wright and Forrest with the assignment, they had a pure stroke of genius in deciding to find their musical inspiration in the works of Alexander Borodin.
This mid-19th century Russian composer was mostly unknown outside of classical circles, but his work had an exotic, 'Arabian Nights' feel to it and also contained passages of lush melody, ripe for the picking.
And Wright and Forrest certainly picked the best. To this day, musicologists love to debate what song came from where – a debate which is intensified by Wright and Forrest's often-misleading interviews on the subject – but this would seem to be a general guide of the provenance of the score:
Sands Of Time – from In the Steppes of Central Asia.
Rhymes Have I – Wright and Forrest; written late in try-outs; explanation follows in notes.
Fate – first movement of Second Symphony.
Bazaar of The Caravans – finale of Second Symphony.
Not Since Nineveh – from the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.
Baubles, Bangles And Beads – Scherzo of Second String Quartet.
Stranger In Paradise – also from the Polovtsian Dances.
He's In Love! – still more Polovtsian Dances!
Gesticulate – a combination of an aria from Prince Igor and the finale of the First Symphony.
Night Of My Nights – Serenade from Petite Suite for piano.
Was I Wazir? – one melodic motif comes from the Second Symphony, but the rest is Wright and Forrest.
Rahadlakum – Wright and Forrest.
And This Is My Beloved – a combination of a theme from Prince Igor and the Nocturne from the Second String Quartet.
The Olive Tree – Trio from Prince Igor.
Zubbediya, Samaris' Dance – a combination of a duet from Prince Igor and yet one more theme from a Polovtsian Dance.
Bored –written for the film version by Wright and Forrest.
With all this in place, Lester put the rest of the pieces together. He hired Hollywood screenwriter and power broker Charles Lederer to write the book (a decision he would later regret!) and signed up Broadway leading man Alfred Drake for the leading role.
The next two came as a team: up-and-coming young director Albert Marre and his wife, the buxom, belting Joan Diener. Add the hot-tempered choreographer Jack Cole and you have quite a mix.
Things were tense from the beginning and the show's various pieces didn't really fit together in Los Angeles. On its way to the San Francisco tryout, librettist Lederer took over as producer, determined to knock the property into shape.
Juvenile lead Glenn Burris was replaced by the stronger Richard Kiley, with whom Marre had worked on Broadway in Misalliance. Kiley never thought of himself as a singer, but – ironically – his performance here made him one of the most sought-after of musical leading men. He would go on to triumph in shows like Redhead, No Strings and, most memorably, Man of La Mancha.
Another major change involved transforming Drake's character of Hajj from a mere beggar to a POET who also happened to be a beggar. This fit Drake's flamboyant personality better, but it also necessitated a fair bit of rewriting, including the Act I number called Rhymes Have I, which was added so late in the try-out that it didn't appear in the listing of musical numbers in the opening night programme.
That opening night, 3 December 1953, was somewhat dimmed by the presence of a newspaper strike, which meant no reviews initially appeared.
But in a way, that proved to be a blessing, because audiences had a chance to discover the show itself and build it into a hit before they could read such judgements as Brooks Atkinson's in the New York Times: 'Kismet has not been written. It has been assembled from a storehouse of spare parts.'
Or Walter Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune: 'It's the sort of show that would sell its soul for a joke, and the jokes should be better at the price.'
Nevertheless, Kismet scored a solid run, won the Tony for Best Musical and was made into a lush 1955 MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli.
This recording lets you sample the delights of the original cast recording, including Drake's mellifluous tones, Diener's sonic-boom delivery, Kiley's virile charm and Doretta Morrow's lissome soprano.
Also included are Bored from the movie version, with Dolores Gray proving splendidly sultry and a zesty rendition of Bazaar of the Caravans from Percy Faith and his Orchestra.
There are also four 'cover' versions of tunes, all recorded in the months before Kismet opened on Broadway, back in the days when publishing companies started plugging show tunes as soon as the properties opened on the road.
Danny Kaye's Night of my Nights is a bit of a stretch for this essentially comic performer, but Peggy Lee delivers just the sizzle you thought she would on Baubles, Bangles and Beads.
Ralph Flanagan and his Orchestra provide an appropriately romantic rendition of Stranger in Paradise, but the big surprise comes from Ross Bagdasarian doing Not Since Nineveh, accompanied by Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra.
The Armenian Bagdasarian was encouraged to give an over-the-top 'ethnic' performance of the tune, in keeping with the styles of the times. He changed his name soon after to David Seville, becoming rich and famous for other equally outrageous (but non-ethnic) performances on his hit songs "Witch Doctor" and "The Chipmunk Song".
How else can you go from Baghdad to Beverly Hills? Only with the help of Kismet.
Kismet (Original Broadway Cast 1953)
Night Of My Nights
Baubles, Bangles and Beads
Stranger in Paradise
Not Since Nineveh
Bored (From film soundtrack)
Bazaar of the Caravans
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