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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIN: Call Me Madam (Original Broadway Cast) (Studio Recording) (1950)
Call Me Madam
Original Broadway Cast, Studio Recording and Radio Broadcast 1950
Film Soundtrack 1953
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
When George S. Kaufman quipped that 'Satire is what closes on Saturday night' he should have added 'unless you've got Ethel Merman in the show'.
Call Me Madam is the kind of musical they don't write anymore – and barely did back in 1950, when it opened on Broadway.
In many ways, it almost seems like a show from the 1930s, with its topical premise, lightweight political satire, speciality dance numbers and starry leading lady.
Still, it managed a substantial run of 644 performances, toured, went to London and was later turned into a film as well.
It all began with a woman named Perle Mesta. Born in 1889, she was the daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oilman who married into even more money with manufacturer George Mesta. He left her a widow at the age of 36 and she moved to Washington D.C., where she became active in social issues like the Equal Rights Amendment and was a tireless campaigner for the Democratic Party.
But it was as a party-giver that Mesta really shone. Her spectacular soirées defined glamour in the U.S. capital in the 1940s. She made a speciality of inviting people from all sides of the political spectrum and every level of government.
She even wound up on the cover of Time magazine in 1948, but her comment about that was a typically saucy, self-deprecating one: 'Any bitch with a million dollars and a nice dress can be a great hostess in Washington'.
One of her biggest favourites was Harry S. Truman and after he won the presidential election in 1948, he rewarded Mesta by making her Ambassador to the small European country of Luxembourg.
That appointment caused a lot of snickering at the time and it was bound to emerge as a satirical target for someone.
Playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were best known for their long-running comedy Life With Father, but they had tasted political blood with their successful dissection of the presidency in State of the Union and they were anxious to revisit the scene of the crime – only this time as a musical.
They decided to turn Mesta into a brash arriviste widow named Sally Wilson and soon realized the one person who could play it was Ethel Merman.
With a career that stretched back to her debut in 1930's Girl Crazy, Merman was a bigger star than ever, thanks to her turn in Annie Get Your Gun.
She usually got what she wanted and the first thing she asked for was Irving Berlin to write the score. He adored 'the Merm' and eagerly complied.
George Abbott was signed to direct, Jerome Robbins to do the choreography and the flamboyant Raoul Pene du Bois to design a spectacular version of the fictional 'Lichtenburg' where the show took place.
The suave romantic movie star Paul Lukas was cast as the Premier of Lichtenburg, with whom – of course – Merman would fall in love. And there was also a quirky young performer named Russell Nype, who played her aide.
When they got into rehearsals, everyone realized this wouldn't be a well-made musical in the style of South Pacific or Kiss Me Kate or even Annie Get Your Gun, but a slick commercial package that had to work, even at the expense of logic.
There were bizarre novelty numbers (The Ocarina), generic plot songs (Welcome To Lichtenburg) and political rousers (They Like Ike), nestled alongside Berlin retreads from other shows ("Mr Monotony", cut from Easter Parade and Miss Liberty), character comedy ditties (The Hostess With The Mostes') and good old fashioned show tunes. (It's A Lovely Day Today).
The Lindsay–Crouse book tried to have something pertinent to say about the post-war relations between the U.S. and Europe, but director Abbott kept pruning 'that political stuff' away to make for a lean, entertaining hit.
On the road, "Mr.Monotony" was cut yet again, as was a patriotic anthem for Merman called "Free" (which later surfaced as "Snow" in White Christmas; Berlin recycled years before it was popular).
Something To Dance About was added, but the score still missed something. 'Let me sing a song with the kid', begged Merman, referring to Russell Nype.
Berlin withdrew to his hotel room and came back with one of the best of his famed 'quodlibet' numbers, where two seemingly unrelated tunes fit together magically.
This one was called You're Just In Love. It stopped the show every night and pushed Call Me Madam over the line into the 'hit' category.
One amusing problem occurred, however, when Berlin tried to fix a 'dummy' lyric that Merman had been singing all along in The Hostess With The Mostes', while the songwriter waited for final inspiration to hit.
When Berlin came in to her dressing room on the last night on the road and presented Merman with a finished lyric, she promptly showed him the door.
'Forget it, buddy', she told him. 'Call me Miss Birds-Eye. The show is frozen'.
When it finally opened on 12 October 1950, the Broadway critics were largely upbeat, with most calling it things like 'a good natured show', 'a smash hit' and 'a rocket to the moon'. A few complained about the feeble satire of the book, but they were soon shouted down.
Of course a hit like this would have to be turned into a cast album, but a peculiar set of circumstances led to a pair of versions being issued, both recorded within a month of opening.
RCA Victor was one of the show's primary backers and the logical choice to do the original cast recording. The only problem was that Ethel Merman, the show's star was on an exclusive contract with Decca.
This led to two completely separate recordings. The RCA Victor recording is actually the closest to letting you hear what the show is like – except it doesn't have Merman. They brought on popular singer Dinah Shore to fill in her tracks.
And in one other interesting change, the original Broadway orchestrations of Don Walker are 'improved' by additions from Hugo Winterhalter whose more syrupy style was employed during some of Ms Shore's selections.
Decca came back with their answer: Ethel Merman: 12 Songs from 'Call Me Madam', which provided just that, except that they were unable to use the original orchestrations and turned to Gordon Jenkins to provide new ones.
This recording you hold in your hands tries to provide the best of both (and several other!) worlds.
Wherever possible, the Original Cast Recording has been used, i.e. in numbers that didn't involve Ms Merman.
However, on those selections David Lennick has artfully managed to blend both recordings. Sometime you'll hear Dinah Shore start to speak introductory dialogue, but by the time the vocal kicks in, it's Ethel all the way.
In the case of Merman solos, they're mostly from the Decca recording she made in 1950.
But just to spice up the mix, there are a couple of additions.
One is a lengthy sequence from a November 1950 episode of Tallulah Bankhead's radio programme, The Big Show. Merman, Lukas and Nype are heard in a freeze-dried version of the musical that's a lot of fun.
And there are also four tracks from the 1953 soundtrack recording, which feature Merman, Donald O'Connor and George Sanders.
Call Me Madam was a delightful but quirky show, patched together by committee. In a way, it's only right that an attempt to put together a 'definitive' recording of it would have to be done the same way.
Original Cast* & Album**, 1950
RCA Victor 14-0001, mx E0-VC-1912-11*
 Mrs Sally Adams
Paul Lukas (spoken) & Chorus
RCA Victor 14-0001, mx E0-VC-1912-11*
 The Hostess With The Mostes'
Decca 27353, mx W 80183-A2**
 Washington Square Dance
Ethel Merman & Chorus
Decca 27356, mx W 80182-A2**
 Welcome To Lichtenburg
RCA Victor 14-0003, mx E0-VC-1914-11*
 Can You Use Any Money Today
Decca 27353, mx W 80184-A2**
 Marrying For Love
Paul Lukas, Dinah Shore (spoken), Ethel Merman & Chorus
RCA Victor 14-0004, mx E0-VC-1915-11*; Decca 27354, mx W 80042-A2**
 (Dance To The Music Of) The Ocarina
Paul Lukas (spoken), Galina Talva & Chorus
RCA Victor 14-0005, mx E0-VC-1916-11*
 It's A Lovely Day Today
Russell Nype, Galina Talva & Chorus
RCA Victor 14-0005, mx E0-VC-1917-11*
 The Best Thing For You
Paul Lukas & Dinah Shore (spoken), Ethel Merman
RCA Victor 14-0004, mx E0-VC-1918-11*; Decca 27354, mx W 80041-A2**
 Something To Dance About
Decca 27355, mx W 80043-A2**
 Once Upon A Time Today
RCA Victor 14-0003, mx E0-VC-1919-11*
 They Like Ike
Pat Harrington, Ralph Chambers, Jay Velice
RCA Victor 14-0002, mx E0-VC-1920-11*
Orchestra conducted by Jay Blackton* / Gordon Jenkins**
Film Soundtrack, 1953
 You're Just In Love
Donald O'Connor, Ethel Merman
Decca 28645, mx W 84042
Orchestra conducted by Alfred Newman
 Scene from 'Call Me Madam', 1950
Introduced by Tallulah Bankhead, with Meredith Willson's Orchestra and Chorus
a. The Hostess With The Mostes'
b. Welcome To Lichtenburg
c. Can You Use Any Money Today
d. The Best Thing For You
e. You're Just In Love
Russell Nype & Ethel Merman
From 'The Big Show', NBC Radio
Film Soundtrack, 1953
 The International Rag
Decca 28642, mx W 84039
 What Chance Have I With Love?
Decca 28644, mx W 84044
George Sanders, Ethel Merman & Chorus
Decca 28641, mx W 84042
Orchestra conducted by Alfred Newman
Tracks 1, 2, 5, 7 (part), 8, 9, 10 (part), 12, 13
recorded 7 & 9 November 1950, New York;
issued in RCA Victor albums OC1 (78), LOC1000 (LP)
Tracks 3, 4, 6, 7 (part), 10 (part), 11
recorded 17 October & 20 November 1950, New York;
issued in Decca albums A-818 (78), DL8035 (LP)
Track 15 from 'The Big Show'
NBC Radio, 5 November 1950, New York
Producer's Note: The distortion audible in the scene from 'The Big Show' is in the original source material. It was felt that the rarity of the broadcast outweighed any technical problems.
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