Friday, April 10, 2009

And they all go to the seashore!

I've been obsessed with the CD release of Illya Darling. I received the album the other evening and have been unable to listen to anything else. The show was a musical adaptation of the hit 1960 comedy Never on Sunday about a Grecophile from America traveling to Greece in search of a lost ideal, something he finds in a carefree prostitute in Piraeus and tries to reform her. The film was directed and written by Jules Dassin, who also appeared in the film as the American (probably due to the budget constrictions). The film was an unexpectedly huge success, as it was a small independent produced for $150,000 and released through United Artists. The film turned Melina Mercouri into an international superstar and a sex symbol at the age of 40 (suck it, Hollywood!). The score and the Oscar-winning title song were composed by Manos Hadjidakis, which also took on a popularity of its own. Dassin and Mercouri received Oscar nominations; he for writing and directing, she as Best Actress.

The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1967 directed by Dassin and starring Mercouri. Orson Bean was Homer, the priggish American and Hal Linden made his Broadway debut. In an unusual move, two other actors from the film reprised their roles for the stage show: Titos Vandis and Despo (who was playing the earthy, older prostitute named Despo). The show received mostly negative reviews, but managed to play 320 performances based on Mercouri alone (who received nothing short of love letters). The musical was nominated for six Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Actress in a Musical, but went home empty-handed.

The cast album was released on record by United Artists, the company that had distributed the original film as well as the other Dassin-Mercouri smash hit Topkapi. For whatever reason, the songs were placed out of order on the LP, most likely to fit the time constraints (which is why material was left off the album). Well, Illya had remained a vinyl collector's piece for 42 years until this week when Kritzerland released it. There had been word of a release from DRG, but it kept getting postponed and postponed. But now it's finally here. Kritzerland founder Bruce Kimmel has worked considerably on the album, restoring the score to its show order, improving the sound for CD and restoring two cut bits, one of which is the show's opening number. When I first read that "Bouzouki Nights" was not the overture, and wasn't even the real name of the piece, I was a bit disappointed. It's one of my favorite tracks and is one of the most joyous instrumental pieces recorded for an original Broadway cast album.

However, as soon as I pressed play on the overture, a delicate and sweeping paean to the bouzouki (an instrument I just love), I was immediately taken with the new recording. Hearing the subtle nuances of Ralph Burns' masterful orchestrations with such clarity had an unexpected effect on me. I had previously found the cast album on record to be something of a guilty pleasure, but now I was finding myself genuinely enjoying the score. It never achieves greatness but thrives on the music of Manos Hadjidakis and the charming Mercouri. I have never understand why Joe Darion worked as a Broadway lyricist, whose work here is less than stellar. His big show is Man of La Mancha, and don't get me started on the quality of those lyrics... As it turns out, Sondheim himself was brought in to doctor the lyrics while the show was in previews, but none of his work actually appears in the final show. There's an amusing anecdote regarding Mercouri and Sondheim in the liner notes, and the reason why she reverted back to Joe Darion's version of "Piraeus, My Love." Turns out she dropped his lyric because he "didn't go backstage every night to pay homage to his star." I question the validity of this assessment, but it makes for amusing reading, no? Kimmel wrote the liner notes himself and they are concise and endlessly informative.

There are a couple of strong numbers - the song "Never on Sunday" was recycled into the second act (retaining its original character-driven Greek lyric, not that vapid English substitute so widely recorded), a lovely ballad "After Love," the comic "Medea Tango" showcasing Illya's warped interpretation of Greek tragedy (this post's title) and the charming finale "Ya Chara." On the other hand: in Open a New Window, Ethan Mordden's tome on 60s musicals, the author calls "I'll Never Lay Down Anymore" the worst theatre song of the decade. (Like I said, there is not a lot of critical love for the show).

Tangent: The show opened April 11, 1967 on Broadway. Ten days later the Greek military junta took over in Greece. Mercouri became an avid anti-fascist activist almost instantaneously. Being in New York and out of Greece, the junta seized her property and revoked her citizenship. She rallied around the world and became an iconic figure promoting the re-establishment of democracy in her homeland. When asked for comment about the loss of her citizenship, Mercouri said "I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos (who revoked it) was born a fascist and he will die a fascist!" Mercouri spoke out against the tyranny of Greece in speeches world-wide, leading rallies and marches, singing and recording albums of protest. She was subject to several terrorist attacks and even an assassination attempt, which only made her more determined. When the junta fell in 1974, Mercouri became involved in Greek parliament eventually becoming the first female Minister of Culture for Greece. Her contributions on the political level in Greece made her a national treasure. Mercouri died in 1994 and she was given a state funeral with Prime Minister's honors. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks came out to mourn. There is a bust of the actress/politician in Athens, right near the steps leading to the Parthenon, for whose preservation as an archaeological park she worked tirelessly. Truly a remarkable life. End tangent.

It's highly unlikely that the show will ever be revived (even though I was surprised to see it listed on the Tams-Witmark licensing website), so this album remains one of the few links to this rather obscure musical. Here is the song order from both releases to give you an idea how inaccurate the record album was in representing the show. Let me tell you, it makes a difference to hear the score as it should be heard.

The LP release track list:

1. Bouzouki Nights
2. Piraeus, My Love
3. Golden Land
4. Illya, Darling
5. Medea Tango
6. I'll Never Lay Down Anymore
7. Never on Sunday
8. Overture (Entr'acte)
9. Love, Love, Love
10. I Think She Needs Me
11. Dear Mr. Schubert
12. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
13. After Love
14. Yorgo's Dance
15. Ya Chara

The new CD track-list (and proper show order):

1. Overture (formerly Entr'acte)
2. Po, Po, Po (previously unreleased)
3. Piraeus, My Love
4. Golden Land
5. Yorgo's Dance
6. Love, Love, Love
7. I Think She Needs Me
8. I'll Never Lay Down Anymore
9. After Love
10. Birthday Song (previously unreleased)
11. Medea Tango
12. Illya Darling
13. Dear Mr. Schubert
14. Never on Sunday
15. Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This
16. Taverna Dance (Bouzouki Nights on LP)
17. Ya Chara

There were only 1,000 copies of the cast album printed, and the album is almost entirely sold out. But if you're interested, there are still a few copies left. With this and the recently released Anya, Kimmel has hinted there more to come. Both were recorded on the United Artists label, so perhaps I should keep my fingers crossed for a CD release of the original London cast album of Promises, Promises with Tony Roberts and Betty Buckley...

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