PS Classics founder Tommy Krasker specializes in reassembling the musical parts of vintage stage musicals to create new studio cast recordings, often of shows that never had recordings before. Krasker worked early on efforts by such masters as George Gershwin, and lately has looked to entertaining if minor shows like the 1926 musical Kitty's Kisses. Life Begins at 8:40 is a cross between the two; it's certainly a lost show, which ran for a healthy 237 performances after opening on August 27, 1934, but produced no cast recordings (composer Harold Arlen did cut a couple of singles of songs from it) and is virtually forgotten. On the other hand, its creative team, in addition to Arlen, included collaborating lyricists Ira Gershwin (killing time while his brother worked on Porgy and Bess) and E.Y. Harburg, and it starred Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (who five years later reteamed with Arlen and Harburg in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz). And it produced several standards: "Fun to Be Fooled," "You're a Builder-Upper," and "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block." So, why did it disappear? Probably because it was a musical revue, not a book musical, consisting of songs and topical sketches, largely dependent on its broad performances -- including Bolger's rubber-legged dancing and Lahr's hamming -- and timely references that would be unfamiliar to subsequent generations. Indeed, this album helpfully provides a glossary of some of the more obscure names in the lyrics, although one is expected, for example, to know not only who Fiorello La Guardia (at the time, the mayor of New York) is, but also something of his personality, when he turns up, along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and disgraced former mayor Jimmy Walker (who is in the glossary) in the finale, "Life Begins at City Hall." Krasker's cast, consisting of contemporary Broadway stars such as Rebecca Luker and Faith Prince, walks a fine line of comic overplay, with tongues held firmly in cheeks. Brad Oscar has the unenviable task of trying to compete with -- or at least, convey the sense of -- Lahr in his showcase number, "Things." It's hard to top a classic clown, especially performing only on an audio disc, but Oscar manages a good representation of the style. And that's typical of the actor/singers here, who play this comic period piece straight, without updating it or looking down on it. In so doing, they have helped Krasker "restore" another piece of musical theater history.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann