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Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: SWEET CHARITY

Ben Rimalower revisits favorite musical theater recordings as he digitizes and declutters his collection.

Like the rest of you, I've spent this week obsessing over "Fosse Verdon" on FX and especially Gwen Verdon, played brilliantly on the series by Michelle Williams, in a performance that makes you want to reinvestigate what made Gwen so great. Sweet Charity is the perfect place to start. Gwen became a star and won her first Tony in a featured role in Can Can and she gained worldwide acclaim (and number 2 in a total of four Tonys) as Lola in Damn Yankees on stage and screen and of course there were many other shows and movies and TV appearances, but Sweet Charity was the show Bob Fosse (and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon) created just for her. She may have lost the Tony to Angela Lansbury in Mame, but Gwen got that iconic poster and all those songs.


Yes, the Sweet Charity score is one that infiltrated our mainstream pop culture. I guess the most recognizable song is "Big Spender," memorably covered by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Beverly D'Angelo (in "European Vacation") and probably singable by just about anyone you know.


There's also "If My Friends Could See Me Now," which rode high atop the late 20th Century wave of showtunes still mattering to the world at large and then, caught a ride on a Kathie Lee Gifford Carnival Cruises commercial to just barely make it into another Millennium.


Then there are a handful of truly first-rate theater songs, "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Baby, Dream Your Dream," "The Rhythm of Life" and the soulsearching ballad "Where Am I Going" that have found extensive lives beyond the show itself, within a tunestack that does its esteemed composer and lyricist proud.


Part of what's so cool about Gwen Verdon is that, while she was unquestionably one of the old school, nearly grotesque "freaks" that made an impression across the unamplified footlights alongside Ethel Merman, Zero Mostel and Carol Channing, she is 100% palatable today. You don't have to like old movies or whatever to enjoy Gwen Verdon. There's an innate vulnerability and somehow always a delicate touch, even when she's telegraphing some over the top stage business. She's eminently imitable and people always do the same Katharine Hepburn with laryngitis croak, but actually she sounds lovely. Yes, there's a tremor in her voice, but she's quite musical and never not completely invested in her character. What you get is a direct line to the sweetest soul. In the dictionary under charisma, there should be a picture of Gwen standing still, just effortlessly twirling single finger. That's all she had to do.


Besides the ginormous gift of Gwen, the original Broadway Sweet Charity album also benefits from Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver, as Charity's pals, Nickie and Helene, and John McMartin as nebbishy Oscar. Helen Gallagher also understudied and eventually replaced Verdon as Charity. There's a tradition of Nickies and Charitys cross-pollinating as National Tour Charity Chita Rivera went on to play Nicky in the movie opposite Shirley MacLaine.


And Bebe Neuwirth, (in her first Tony-winning role) as Nickie opposite 1986 revival Charity Debbie Allen, also understudied the title role. When Allen left the production, however, Bebe's future Chicago co-star Ann Reinking was brought in to replace as Charity. And many of them shared the role at once in the legendary one-night-only 1998 concert presentation, where Gwen made her final stage appearance.


An undeniable pleasure provided by all the various Sweet Charity cast albums is listening to all Nickies and Helenes sing "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Baby, Dream Your Dream," but the same cannot be said of their respective Charitys.


I don't want to hear Juliet Prowse on the London cast album (good as she sounds) or Debbie Allen in the 1986 revival (who also sounds good, although the souped up "80s" orchestrations are inferior to the original) or Shirley MacLaine (who sounds fine on the movie soundtrack), let alone Christina Applegate (who wasn't awful onstage) in the 2005 revival.


It's funny I should feel so proprietary about Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity, one of the least distinguished singing performances in Broadway history. She legendarily took to cutting "Where Am I Going" on nights when her vocal stamina wasn't up for it. But maybe that's just it. I live for Patti LuPone's singing in Evita. Elena Roger in the revival couldn't hold a candle. But I continue to enjoy Elena Roger's performance on its own terms, for what she brought to it. I guess with Gwen in Sweet Charity, because what she brought to it (on the cast album) can only really be appreciated at all on her own terms and is certainlynot about the singing, there's no other ostensibly superficial layer to pull away. Give me Gwen Verdon or give me death.

Watch, next week on "Verdon Fosse" (oh, sorry, is that not the title?), they'll focus on Juliet Prowse and I'll come crawling back to change my tune. Ah, but my CDs will already be in the trash.

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BEN RIMALOWER is the author and star of the long-running solo plays Bad with Money (The Advocate’s #1 of 2014) and Patti Issues (New York Time Critics Pick, M.A.C. and Bistro Awards, Official... (read more about this author)


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