ON THE RECORD: LPs not on CD, Part Three—Off-Broadway Shows

By Steven Suskin
September 28, 2009

We finish our survey of cast albums that we would like to see transferred to CD with a stop Off-Broadway. Riverwind, anybody?

Let's examine two especially strong scores for long-forgotten musicals. Both were written by first-time composer-lyricists, who came to town with these highly impressive showings. Both musicals had decent runs for the time, after which the two songwriters in question all but disappeared.

When I went to store away my LP collection for the final time, I noticed Man with a Load of Mischief [Kapp KRL 4508] still unsealed (with a $1.99 remainder sticker). A six-character 1966 musical set in the early 1800s based on a negligible two-week failure of a 1925 play, Mischief had all the markings of an excessively dreary listen; and the "antique" cover artwork was so unpromising that I simply never bothered to split the seam and put it on. Back in 2003, the York Theatre presented a concert version of the show for a benefit, leading one to wonder — Why? When I went to review the resulting recording, though, I was surprised to find an infinitely worthy score. I decided it was worth my while to track down the original LP, and was rewarded: Man with a Load of Mischief quickly made it onto my most favored list of '60s musicals. Nobody seems to do the show, nobody seems to know it (except highly discerning collectors). Put this one on CD, I say.

The story tells of six people in a country inn: a Lady, fleeing from her lover (the Prince, who is spoken of but not present); a traveling Lord, who stops to help and tries to seduce her; their servants, one each; and a married pair of innkeepers. What makes this all not only palatable but exhilarating is the work of one John Clifton, who wrote the music and is credited as co-lyricist with librettist Ben Tarver. Where Clifton came from, and where he went, I don't know; but he provided a wonderfully inventive and, in places, wonderfully romantic score. (Actually, a jaunt around the Internet tells us that Clifton came from Pittsburgh; played an early summer stock tour of The Fantasticks that featured Liza Minnelli and Elliott Gould; and wrote Mischief while serving as rehearsal pianist for Man of La Mancha. Subsequent theatre work included composing new songs for Phyllis Newman's My Mother was a Fortune Teller and writing the music for the 1981 Off-Broadway failure El Bravo.) Leading the way are two soaring beauties, "Come to the Masquerade" and "Make Way for My Lady." The surprise of the LP, along with the excellence of the score, is the identity of the tenor who sings them so persuasively in the role of the servant who gets the Lady: Reid Shelton, of all people. We know him from his chorus days ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly," in which his doctor recommends a quiet summer by the sea) and from his Tony-nominated turn as Daddy Warbucks in Annie. But as a romantic lover? Here, Mr. Shelton is very convincing.

Singing opposite Shelton in what is probably the leading role of this ensemble piece is Virginia Vestoff, best-known to theatre fans for her Abigail Adams in 1776. She is very good here — actually, it seems like she was always very good — and helps make this such a special piece of Mischief. Alice Cannon, as the Lady's maid, scores with "Once You've Had a Little Taste," while Mr. Clifton gives some of his most charming numbers to the old folks ("Any Other Way," "What Style"). Playing Mr. Shelton's master, and not exactly standing out, is Raymond Thorne, who later joined Reid in Annie as FDR. There is also the touching "Lover Lost," the lovely "A Wonder," an atmospheric "Hulla-baloo-balay," and a grand sextet called "Romance!"

Man with a Load of Mischief opened on Nov. 6, 1966 — between The Apple Tree and Cabaret — at the Jan Hus on the Upper East Side and ran for seven months, which was not bad for Off-Broadway at the time. The original cast album, on Kapp Records (which also recorded Man of La Mancha) is, indeed, quite wonderful. The recent studio cast recording [Original Cast OCR 6100] has expanded material and composer Clifton singing the role of the tavern keeper; it is hampered, though, by the synthetic sounds of a synth. The original 1966 production featured Clifton's fine orchestrations for piano, flute, clarinet and cello.

How did Mischief manage to slip out of the collective memory and disappear? Don't know, but here's a score that you'll want to search out.

(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)