Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Free! [an updated, more "post-like" version]

• Updated again: We've got the Frankie Howerd "Free"!
• And one last bonus update: "Comedy Tonight"
• Okay, one more thing, or actually two: Let's hear Zero
do "Comedy Tonight" too (twice, in fact)

"Free": "Oh, what a word!" sings Pseudolus (the great Zero Mostel, 1915-1977)

Zero Mostel (Pseudolus) and Brian Davies (Hero), vocals; Original Broadway Cast recording, Harold Hastings, musical director. Capitol, recorded 1962

Frankie Howerd (Pseudolus) and John Rye (Hero), vocals; Original London Cast recording, Alyn Ainsworth, musical director. EMI-DRG, recorded 1963
[Note: More of Frankie Howerd's Pseudolus to come at the end of the post]

by Ken

Yesterday I missed a walking tour (of Brooklyn's Bensonhurst and Bath Beach neighborhoods, not something that comes along every week), one that I'd not only paid for but that I wanted to do badly enough to have registered for it even knowing that it would knock out all afternoon possibilities for the Saturday of Open House New York Weekend.

But for the first time in I-don't-dare-try-to-calculate-how-many years, it wasn't because of the obligations of daily blogging. Which no doubt accounts for the fact that out of the mass of music rattling around my head, this song from Burt Shevelove, Larry Gilbert, and Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has been singing in my head.

I had planned to offer you Frankie Howard singing "Free" as well, from the London cast recording, but so far that plan remains a victim of the software revolt I cited in an earlier version of this post. I would need to dub it from LP, and so far my audio editing software isn't working with the years-delayed computer OS upgrade I just installed.

Meanwhile, here's Zero Mostel, as the Roman slave Pseudolus, contemplating being "Free" with his young master, Hero (Brian Davies), from the Original Broadway Cast recording of Forum (the first musical for which Sondheim wrote music as well as lyrics). [UPDATE: As noted up top, and as heard above, in a tiny triumph of human over technology we've now got the Original London Cast version of "Free"!]


It's sung by the innocent but sentenced-to-death Colonel Fairfax in Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard. In Act I the handsome and gallant colonel, convicted of crimes concocted by envious relations who not only sought to punish their kinsman but hoped to inherit his worldly goods, was sprung from his cell in the Tower of London where he was awaiting execution. But that hasn't freed him from his death sentence, not to mention the marriage he undertook to an unknown woman in Act I, to foil his relations' hopes of profiting by his death.

GILBERT and SULLIVAN: The Yeomen of the Guard: Act II, Colonel Fairfax, spoken dialogue and ballad, "Two days gone" . . . "Free from his fetters grim"
COLONEL FAIRFAX: Spoken dialogue (full version)
Two days gone, and no news of poor Fairfax. The dolts! They seek him everywhere save within a dozen yards of his dungeon. So I am free! Free but for the cursed haste with which I hurried headlong into the bonds of matrimony with .  . . Heaven knows whom! As far as I remember, she should have been young; but even had not her face been concealed by her kerchief, I doubt whether, in my then plight, I should have taken much note of her. Free? Bah! The Tower bonds were but a thread of silk compared with these conjugal fetters which I, fool that I was, placed upon mine own hands. From the one I broke readily enough — how to break the other!

Free from his fetters grim,
free to depart,
free both in life and limb,
in all but heart!
Bound to an unknown bride
for good and ill;
ah, is not one so tied
a prisoner still, a prisoner still?
Ah, is not one so tied
a prisoner still?

Free, yet in fetters held
till his last hour,
gyves that no smith can weld,
nor rust devour!
Although a monarch’s hand
had set him free,
of all the captive band
the saddest he, the saddest he!
Of all the captive band
the saddest, saddest he!

[including a shortened version of the spoken dialogue] Kurt Streit (t), Colonel Fairfax; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips, recorded May 1992

[song only] Leonard Osborn (t), Colonel Fairfax; New Promenade Orchestra of London, Isidore Godfrey, cond. Decca, recorded July 18, 1950

[song only] Richard Lewis (t), Colonel Fairfax; Pro Arte Orchestra, Sir Malcolm Sargent, cond. EMI, recorded Dec. 10–14, 1957

[song only] David Friedsend (t), Colonel Fairfax; New D’Oyly Carte Opera Company Orchestra, John Owen Edwards, cond. TER-Sony, recorded Dec. 4-10, 1992

[song only] Neil Archer (t), Colonel Fairfax; Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Charles Mackerras, cond. Telarc, recorded Apr. 18-May 1, 1995

As I’ve noted before -- most recently in an April "Snapshots" post in connection with Fairfax’s great song “Is life a boon?” — one thing I really, really hate is for any of the G&S tenor leads, and especially the gallant, existentially challenging Colonel Fairfax, to sound namby-pamby or whiny. So once again I would go with Leonard Osborn, with his genuine vocal substance, vocal eccentricities and all. Then I guess I’d give Richard Lewis credit for good intentions.


British comedy legend Frankie Howerd, OBE (1917-1992), c1971

While I was grappling with slightly different versions of the audio editing software I use on two different computers, trying first to get either to work, and finally to get both to work, since the Original London Cast recording of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was still at hand, I plucked it out of the sleeve again and did a dub of the show's inimitable opening number, "Comedy Tonight," which I think gives us a better feel for Frankie Howard's comic style, much beloved of British audiences. It's such an exhilarating number that I thought I'd throw that in here.

SONDHEIM: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
"Comedy Tonight"

Frankie Howerd (Pseudolus) and company; Original London Cast recording, Alyn Ainsworth, musical director. EMI-DRG, recorded 1963

(I could have sworn that we've heard "Comedy Tonight" from Zero Mostel and the Original Broadway Cast, and was all set to throw it in here -- but I can't find any trace of such an audio clip. Hmm.)


So, with the technology functioning again, let's hear him in both the Original Broadway Cast and Original Film Soundtrack recordings. Isn't it interesting that back when the song was new, it was taken at a noticeably more gradual pace?

SONDHEIM: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum:
"Comedy Tonight"

Zero Mostel (Pseudolus) and company; Original Broadway Cast recording, Harold Hastings, musical director. Capitol, recorded 1962

Zero Mostel (Pseudolus) and company; Original Film Soundtrack recording, Ken Thorne, musical director. United Artists, recorded c1965

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