With our readathon of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend complete and an extra Sunday this month, I thought there would be no better time to compare and contrast different recordings of the show for Musical Theatre Sunday School. Before I seriously started looking into recordings of The Boy Friend, my impression was that there were only a handful of recordings. For that reason, I was rather surprised to see that CastAlbums lists fifteen recordings of the score in their database. This was quite delightful to see, as finding a solid recording of the show is easier said than done. Nonetheless, I am going to focus on the five recordings of the score that I find most satisfying, all of which are linked to stage productions of the show.
In some ways, the original 1954 London recording, featuring Anne Rogers and Anthony Hayes, is still the one to go for. While it is shorter than most other recordings, with “The You-Don’t-Want-To-Play-With-Me Blues” and “Safety In Numbers” as well as verses of some songs and some reprises absent, it reflects most accurately the tone of the piece. Rogers is a delightfully unaffected Polly and Hayes makes one swoon as much as she when he croons his verses of “A Room in Bloomsbury” and “I Could Be Happy with You”. One of the big pluses of this recording is Violetta’s more restrained take on Hortense. Many of the subsequent actresses who take on the part soar over the top, screeching their way through “Nicer in Nice”, their all to frequent squeals making the song rather unbearable. If there’s something on this recording that doesn’t quite land, it has to be Bobby and Maisie’s big duet, “Won’t You Charleston with Me?”. Although Denise Hirst is a personable Maisie, Larry Drew sounds like one of her chums rather than the forward American you’d expect him to be. It’s also quite difficult to find a Mme Dubonnet who is completely satisfying and, while Joan Sterndale Bennett’s interpretation of the numbers glistens with nostalgia, her warbling vibrato takes its toll on the ear all too soon. That said, this recording is disarming and will win you over with its charm.
Similar interpretations of the material can be found in the South African cast recordings of the material from 1957, which are presented as two medleys – “Selections from The Boy Friend 1” and “Selections from The Boy Friend 2” – on the CD pressing of Wilson’s The Buccaneer. Although these two medleys really offer only a whirlwind tour through the songs, the soloists are solid, particularly when it comes to supporting roles such as Mme Dubonnet and Lord Brockhurst.
I would imagine that most people’s go-to recording of The Boy Friend is the Original Broadway Cast Recording, which preserved the Broadway debut of Julie Andrews for posterity. Andrews is an ideal Polly and the album sports more polish than the earlier London album, as well as an orchestra. It is also a more complete rendition of the score, with only “Nicer in Nice” and the Act I and II finales missing in their entirety. John Hewer is a solid Tony, even if he sounds a little less dreamy than Hayes. Of the supporting players, the most successful are Geoffrey Hibbert (Lord Brockhurst) and Dilys Lay (Dulcie), whose take on “It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love” is delightful. One of the marked improvements on this album is Ruth Altman as Mme Dubonnet, particularly in her delivery of “Fancy Forgetting”. (“Poor Little Pierrette” suffers a little due to the harsh tone brought about by age, but there’s not much that can be done about that, is there?) Perhaps the least satisfying cut on the disc is Ann Wakefield’s “Safety in Numbers” which, after a lovely introduction, descends into a charmless shouting marathon that is painful to endure. Nonetheless, this recording continues to be popular almost 60 years on, and for good reason.
The Boy Friend returned to Broadway in 1970, with Judy Carne as Polly and Ronald Young as Tony. Less satisfying than Rogers or Andrews in the role, Carne is an adequate Polly and Young is a typical Tony. Outshining them by far are the supporting players, notably Sandy Duncan as Maisie. Indeed, Duncan and Harvey Evans offer the most successful take on “Won’t You Charleston with Me?” on a recording of the show. If that weren’t enough, this recording also features the best Mme Dubonnet of the lot, Jeanne Beauvais. “Fancy Forgetting” and “Poor Little Pierette” are beautifully delivered and Beauvais manages the comedy in of “The You-Don’t-Want-To Play-With-Me Blues” without sacrificing her lovely tone. David Vaughan and Simon McQueen also deliver a very solid – if less effusive than their earlier Broadway counterparts – “It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love”. While the chorus has the right sound for the most part, their delivery lacks energy, which means that you can do better elsewhere if you are looking for good recordings of the ensemble numbers. But I think you’d be hard pressed not to purchase at least the tracks featuring Duncan, Evans and Beauvais for ideal versions of those songs from the score.
The final recording I’m going to discuss today is the 1984 London Cast Recording of the show. You can hear the shift that had taken place in musical theatre between earlier productions of this show and this one. The approach to the material is somewhat less subtle and at times a little too tongue-in-cheek. Jane Wellman and Simon Green play Polly and Tony straight down the line, which makes them all the more appealing, and Rosemary Ashe is fun as Hortense. But you can hear Linda-Mae Brewer struggling with the period persona of Maisie and sometimes the character voices, like that of Peter Bayliss’s rather rum Lord Brockhurst, feel as fake as they are. Too much of what gets done here feels put on instead of lived in. This is in line with the perception of how to make The Boy Friend and other old shows work in our more cynical times, but the line is a fine one to tread and balance is not always achieved here, which is a pity.
The Boy Friend is not the kind of show where you are going to get away with owning just one recording if you want to be able to hear the score at its best. My recommendation, if you aren’t a hardcore fan or a collector who is going to buy multiple copies, is to find the artists you like, buy individual MP3s and compile your own recording. To that end, you’ll probably do best working from the 1954 and 1970 Broadway recordings – but I still think that the London original is indispensable, if only for the sense of authenticity it brings to the numbers.