Musical theater history is replete with lost shows that, for one reason or another, never got to New York. One of these was Busker Alley, until November 13, 2006, when the off-Broadway York Theatre Company put on a one-night-only semi-staged concert performance of the score as a benefit; the next day, the cast trooped into a recording studio and made the show's first-ever cast album. The history of the work dates back to the late '60s, when the sibling songwriting team of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, best known for the movie musicals Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (both since adapted for the stage) teamed up with librettist A.J. Carothers to write what was initially called Piccadilly, based on the 1938 British film St. Martin's Lane (American title: The Sidewalks of London), starring Charles Laughton and Vivien Leigh, about the May-December relationship between a mature London street entertainer and an opportunistic young woman. The show didn't get a staging then, but it came closer in a revised version called Blow Us a Kiss in 1982. Finally, in 1994, Broadway star Tommy Tune became involved in what was now called Busker Alley, and in 1995 he took it on a pre-Broadway national tour that came to an abrupt end two weeks before the scheduled New York opening when he broke his foot performing at the last stop on the tour. That was it for another 11 years, until Tony Walton, director of the 1990s production, persuaded the York to put it in front of an audience, if only for one night. This time, the cast featured Jim Dale, the Tony-winning veteran of 1980's Barnum, with his Barnum co-star Glenn Close brought in as a "special guest star" in what turned out to be almost a cameo as an older version of the female lead (played for most of the show by Jessica Grové) in a framing device at the start and end of the show.
For all the turmoil associated with Busker Alley, it comes off as a modest entertainment, even with an excellent cast. Although they are Americans, the Sherman brothers have always had an evident affection for period British settings, and this is another one. One need only recall songs like "Chim Chim Cheree" and "Step in Time" from Mary Poppins to have a sense of what their take on the cockney style is. (Of course, the influence of My Fair Lady is apparent.) Numerous "H"s are dropped (one song is even called "Where the 'Ell Is 'Ome?"), and the tunes are singsongy and simple. The score features many songs that might be called "production" or "source" songs, in the sense that they are just presented as songs the buskers sing on the street, although there are also plot songs in which the characters express their thoughts and feelings. In neither case is the material, while unfailingly pleasant, more than serviceable, even though Dale (who was 71 years old at the time of the recording and relying more on his phrasing than his old vocal power) and the rest of the cast give it an enthusiastic reading. Busker Alley will interest musical theater fans and, with Mary Poppins on Broadway, may even attract a real production, but it is not a major work.