“I’ve always wanted to be a Broadway leading lady…”
The 1968 television special TCB starring Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations was a breakthrough program for both groups and for Motown; it proved to the world once and for all just how charismatic and talented these Detroit performers really were, as they effortlessly filled an hour with elegant harmonies, dazzling choreography, and a bold glamour. Their powerful performances of “The Impossible Dream” and “Somewhere” could arguably be counted among the most eloquent arguments for racial harmony of the entire decade, and the endless parade of hit songs a reminder of what a potent force Motown was (and still is) in popular music. The special was a smash hit with audiences, and the soundtrack album a #1 hit on the Billboard 200; in its wake, Diana Ross appeared solo in the Dinah Shore TV special Like Hep (airing in April, 1969) and The Temptations headlined their own one-hour special in July, The Temptations Show.
Finally, Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations re-teamed for G.I.T. On Broadway, aired in November of 1969. This time, there were no Motown hits featured; the setlist was composed entirely of Broadway standards, Broadway-themed songs, and silly skits similar to those seen on the then-popular show Laugh-In (which was produced by George Schlatter and Ed Friendly, who also co-produced this special). The focus on Diana Ross was also heightened this time around; her imminent departure from The Supremes was officially announced the same month that the program aired on NBC-TV. The standout of the special and resultant soundtrack album is a “Leading Lady Medley” performed entirely by Diana Ross; designer Bob Mackie later remembered, “With every costume I designed for her in that medley, Berry told me to try to create the impression that she originated the role on Broadway. I got the impression that he and she both wished she had” (Diana Ross: A Biography, 204).
Not surprisingly, this “Leading Lady Medley” is the only time On Broadway (the G.I.T. — which stood for Gettin’ It Together — was dropped on the album title) really comes alive; even without the benefit of seeing those eye-popping costumes, Diana’s talent and enjoyment of the material rings through loud and clear. The rest of the album is dreadfully laborious, an exercise in forced enthusiasm and dated humor that doesn’t translate to a sound recording at all. The success of the TCB soundtrack is that it sounds like an event; there’s an excitement woven into the fabric of the record. Without the benefit of any hit songs or magical collaborations, On Broadway plods along like a mediocre episode of variety television. Beyond that, if a major goal of the project was to definitively prove that Diana Ross was capable of transcending music and conquering Broadway and film, she’d already done that with her superb reading on the 1968 LP Diana Ross and The Supremes Sing & Perfect “Funny Girl.” So what’s left is an album that feels like a cheap way to milk a winning combination.
1. G.I.T. On Broadway: Whereas the title track to TCB was a jazzy, energetic tune that set the tone for a glitzy evening of entertainment, “G.I.T. On Broadway” it a snoozer of a song that unfortunately portends the dullness to come. Capturing very little of the excitement of a Broadway opening night, the song sounds more like a commercial jingle for fabric softener, with vague lyrics referencing famed restaurant Sardi’s and “David Merrick parties.” Diana Ross and The Supremes and The Temptations trade-off lines, with each group singing in unison; without any of their trademark harmonies or even much enthusiasm evident in their voices, the entire opening falls fairly flat. Perhaps it’s unfair to harshly judge such a brief introductory number, as its intended purpose was really as much a visual as a musical one; still, “T.C.B.” managed to stand on its own as a piece of music, something this track doesn’t accomplish.
2. Broadway Medley: The opening number immediately leads into a medley of songs about The Great White Way, including the standards “Broadway Rhythm,” “Give My Regards To Broadway,” “Broadway Melody,” and a snippet of the 1963 Drifters hit “On Broadway.” The strength of the medley comes at the beginning, as Diana Ross and The Supremes take on the classic “Lullaby Of Broadway,” which is set to a pulsing Motown beat; Diana sings the song as though she’s recording a Holland-Dozier-Holland original, injecting it with a surprising style and modernity, and Mary and Cindy prominently back her up with sweet sophistication. It’s all downhill from there, however; the manic arrangement doesn’t make a bit of sense, with little bits and pieces from numerous songs strewn throughout without any sense of order. The singers do their best to keep up, but The Temptations in particular never even get a chance to demonstrate their interpretive skills. Aside from Diana, Mary, and Cindy getting a few good moments in on “Lullaby Of Broadway,” this is a mess.
3. Malteds Over Manhattan: This is the first of the special’s comedic skits, introduced by Diana Ross as “the story of a little girl behind an ice cream fountain, who soda jerks her way to stardom.” In essence, this is a parody of the classic movie musicals in which unlikely young ingenues suddenly find themselves thrust into Broadway stardom (i.e. 42nd Street), which sounds like a terrific idea until you realize it’s really just a lengthy medley of songs involving ice cream puns. Here, The Temptations must suffer the embarrassment of singing “We’ll take banana/And sarsaparilla from a vat” to the tune of “Manhattan” while Diana croons, “Hot fudge sundae, it’s got me/Everybody dance!” to the melody of “Broadway Rhythm.” The only real fun here is hearing all three Supremes do a little acting; even if their lines are ridiculously juvenile, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong sound as comfortable with the comedic dialogue as Miss Ross. Aside from this, the segment goes on for far too long, and without the benefit of the visuals, there’s just no real point to its being here.
4. Leading Lady Medley: This is the heart of On Broadway, a ten-minute sequence featuring Diana Ross taking on some of the most famous female roles in Broadway history. In his book Diana Ross: A Biography, J. Randy Taraborrelli quotes writer Billy Barnes (who helped put together the medley) as recalling, “She was a genius in the way she pulled it off. She could do anything, really, and do it well” (204). Indeed, Diana’s performance here almost makes the rest of the album worthwhile; her vocals are fresh and alive, and it’s exciting to hear her take on theatre classics that she’d otherwise never recorded. After singing a dreamy introduction proclaiming “I’ve always wanted to be a Broadway leading lady,” Ross begins the segment with a swinging version of “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” from Annie Get Your Gun. Ross certainly doesn’t sound like an Old West sharpshooter, but she really isn’t required to, as the song is given a rollicking Motown makeover; in this context, she sounds great, effortlessly keeping up with the hurried pace. Next up comes a far funkier version of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” than any Nellie Forbush ever got the chance to sing before in South Pacific; Diana is so convincing in her slinky delivery that the song sounds like it could have been a hit for her and The Supremes. A brassy rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady follows, giving Ross a chance to show off her considerable (and underrated) range, and it leads directly into a tune Ross was already very familiar with, “People” from Funny Girl. Diana Ross and The Supremes had already tackled the songs of Funny Girl in a full-length LP the year before, so it’s no surprise she performs the show’s signature song with gusto here; her belting while singing the final “People who need people…” is incredibly powerful, and very much worthy of a Broadway leading lady. One of the stranger song choices surfaces next, as Diana takes on Mama Rose with a danceable “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” — certainly the 26-year-old Diana Ross couldn’t have been further from Gypsy‘s ultimate stage mother, but the singer acquits herself well. Finally, Ross brings it on home with another song she’d been performing for a while; the title song from Mame had been part of a medley performed in concert by The Supremes (see: Live At London’s Talk Of The Town), and Diana is absolutely fantastic here, belting out the song with ease. It’s a perfect way to wrap up the medley (although there is a brief reprise of the introduction), because it really does drive home the message that Diana Ross was more than capable of being a leading lady in “a great, big Broadway show.” What this segment does more than anything else is demonstrate the astounding versatility of Miss Ross as a vocalist and entertainer; the fact of the matter is that very few (if any) of the singer’s contemporaries could have pulled this medley off as effectively. This is what makes Diana Ross such a unique presence in popular music; what Mr. Barnes said about her ability to do anything is absolutely true.
5. Fiddler On The Roof Medley: The Temptations are given the unenviable task of following up Diana’s tour-de-force performance on the Leading Lady Medley with a collection of songs from the hit Broadway musical Fiddler On The Roof. You have to hand it to the guys; they are sensationally talented and consummate showmen, but this medley is another mess. The first part of the segment is dominated by “If I Were A Rich Man,” which is transformed into a weird piece of funk that never rises above being a novelty. “Sunrise, Sunset” fares even worse; it’s slowed down so much that it ceases to sound like a song anymore, and the harmonies are so strained that it’s impossible to tell if The Tempts are even singing in key. Finally, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” gets an unnecessary Vegas makeover, again dominated by surprisingly discordant harmonies. The Temptations never had a problem delivering stirring renditions of showtunes and/or pop standards; their work on “The Impossible Dream” and “Hello, Young Lovers” from TCB is a perfect example. But nothing about this medley works; certainly there were countless better options for the guys to perform.
6. Student Mountie: On Broadway continues with another skit, this one casting The Temptations as Royal Canadian mounties and Diana Ross and The Supremes as Native American princesses in what I’m assuming is a spoof of operettas such as The Student Prince. This doesn’t work as an album cut at all; thank God for the laugh track, which at least serves as a cue for what’s supposed to be funny. If you can manage to make it through the whole thing, listen for the moment when two of The Temptations sing “Come, boys, let’s all be gay, boys” after the other three men have paired off with Supremes!
7. The Rhythm Of Life: Here’s some good news; after roughly seventeen minutes of total dreck on the album’s second side, On Broadway finally presents Diana Ross and The Temptations doing what they do best…singing. “The Rhythm Of Life” is taken from the Broadway show Sweet Charity, which was turned into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine in 1969. For whatever reason, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong were left out of this production number, but the rest of the singers do a nice job with the upbeat tune. There’s at least some energy here, which has been missing on most of the album, and Diana’s voice nicely plays off of those of the male singers. Interestingly, this song was apparently released as a single in some overseas markets, although not in the United States or England.
8. Finale (Let The Sunshine In/Funky Broadway/G.I.T. On Broadway [Reprise]): A final medley in a special crammed full of them begins with “Let The Sunshine In,” the famous song from Hair which had already been performed by Diana during the Dinah Shore Like Hep television special and included on the Supremes album of the same name earlier in 1969. It’s too bad that there hadn’t been a larger production number built around “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” and maybe some other songs from Hair, as it would have been a better fit for these two groups than much of the actual material chosen. As it stands, while there’s not much of “Sunshine” included here, Diana Ross and Dennis Edwards do both provide very soulful ad-libs as the rest of the vocalists wail behind them. Next up is “Funky Broadway,” which had been recorded by the two groups for their hit 1968 LP Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations. It actually works better here; the studio version was basically a Temptations track with a few lines thrown to Diana Ross, but here both groups share in the song more equally, although Dennis Edwards remains the star, offering up fiery vocals to the song made popular by Wilson Pickett. And finally, there really isn’t a reprise of the title track at all, simply Diana Ross saying farewell to the audience. Which, given how lackluster the title track was, isn’t a bad thing.
It’s too bad that a second television special featuring Diana Ross and The Supremes and Temptations wasn’t modeled more closely on the first; certainly both groups had enough hits that an entirely different show packed with recognizable songs could have put together. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Love Child,” “Cloud Nine,” “I’m Livin’ In Shame,” and “Run Away Child, Running Wild” all could have made awesome production numbers and showcased some of the best late 60s material recorded at Motown. Instead, listeners are left with a limp collection of pure kitsch, an album that never stood a chance at making any kind of real impact and remains perhaps the weakest disc in either group’s catalog. This probably all worked a lot better when it aired on television in 1969…but today, it sounds like a Broadway show worth closing.
Final Analysis: 1/5 (A “Broadway” Flop)
Choice Cuts: Leading Lady Medley, “The Rhythm Of Life”