Sound Advice Reviews
... Devil, Dee & Demon:
Better late than never as the score of a 1924 Gershwin/DeSylva Broadway show finally gets recorded: Sweet Little Devil. "Smoke! Smoke! Sign of the Devil!" the Beggar Woman warns neighbors (and audiences) in Sweeney Todd, but the only warnings needed about the latest cast album are that some songs are absent and scary moments are very present in the twisted tale of The Demon Barber. And is Dee Snider of the metal/rock band Twisted Sister and Broadway's Rock of Ages taking on traditional Broadway songs (!?) a little twisted, a little sweet, a little devilish, or all of the above?
SWEET LITTLE DEVIL
George Gershwin is having a pretty good year, despite having left us so many years ago at so young an age. His melodies are very much in the air at two Broadway theatres around the corner from each other (resulting in new cast albums for Porgy and Bess and Nice Work If You Can Get It) and the classic songs continue to be sung in concerts and cabaret and on disc. You'll find a few on Leslie Uggams's new CD and a full set by Boston-based Krisanthi Pappas, and there are recent and upcoming items: new and reissued, from classical to karaoke, all the fascinating rhythms and such ever appealing to singers and instrumentalists and audiences.
Gershwin's music has never been absent. But you'd have to look very hard over the years to find remnants of his early Broadway score, 1924's Sweet Little Devil, with lyrics by Buddy G. DeSylva, with whom he wrote songs for the series of revues George White's Scandals, including in 1925 a one-act jazz opera set in Harlem, Blue Monday, kind of a forerunner to Porgy and Bess. Later, while the composer spent most of the rest of his career with brother Ira as his lyricist partner, DeSylva stuck with the Scandals as part of the songwriting trio DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, going on to pop success and scores like Good News. The good news here is that the score of Sweet Little Devil, usually relegated to a few lines in Gershwin books and bios, is quite the wonderful discovery, and not just for historic/curiosity reasons. Perfect casting to spearhead the project as producer is PS Classics's Tommy Krasker, who has given us other loving-restored and interestingly explored studio casts of early Gershwin scores over the years, the most recent being his second undertaking of Strike Up the Band. He's had this on his wish list for some time, and it's easy to see why. George Gershwin's music is quite bright, bouncy, sprightly, spiffy, springy delight and, to paraphrase Cole Porter, so is the work of the lyricist: it's delightful, it's delicious, it's DeSylvaat his best. There's fun in the rhymes and language choices"We have a boss who sits alone, apart/ And gives us orders like a Bonaparte" sing the disgruntled chorus girls vowing to "Strike, Strike, Strike" with the "slogan we have planned on:/ 'Without these legs, The Follies wouldn't have a leg to stand on.'" When name-dropping stars of the day his character claims are enamored of him, a smooth operator brags, "both the Gishes think I'm delicious" as he advises the chorus girl he is dating, "You're Mighty Lucky."
Historical tidbits to know and note include the fact that a couple of songs were subtracted/added, the lyrics to "Our Little Kitchenette" are co-credited to Ira Gershwin because it began as a song cut from an earlier show, revised here by DeSylva to be used for a less straightforward reason, and a couple of jokes not surviving from the script are borrowed from another play. There's a helpful synopsis of the convoluted plot, including unraveling what the characters claim and what is actually true. Also, we get a lengthy background on the production itself and historical perspective, courtesy of the knowledgeable and devoted Mr. Krasker. (The label has spoiled us in the past with fatter booklets with more photos and all the lyrics: disappointingly, we have just a few photosthere may not be many existingand no lyrics to follow. A few lines here and there may be tough to catch, but it's worth leaning in and pricking up one's ears.) A glossary gives explanations of dated references used in lyrics, such as explaining that the song title "Under a One-Man Top" refers to a certain Ford convertible car. This cheery duet and "Virginia (Don't Go Too Far)" are the two songs we searcher/collector types have known for years as they showed up on one of those ... Revisited LPs put out by Ben Bagley, bringing to light otherwise lost songs by the great theatre writers. (The latter was recorded there with a rather different but splendid approach by Elaine Stritch; here, it's smoother as Virginia admonishes herself.) Virginia was the character the original was built around, as a star vehicle for billed-above-the-title movie actress Constance Binney, but hearing this CD, it feels like an ensemble piece. A title song, by the way, once existed and was one of the cuts all those years ago.
Those musical theatre fans not schooled in "old school," who think "silly" is a sin, burdened with a strong allergy to zippy, zingy (OK, dopey) old musicals of the '20s and beyond may not be converted. But those borderline types (you know who you are) who sometimes can be convinced to go along for the bouncy ride should take note: the sugar content here is majorly counter-attacked by the joys of snarkiness and cynicism. Company numbers "Matrimonial Handicap" gives the long odds against happily-ever-after wedding bliss and "Hooray for the USA" actually mocks as much as it praises or waves a flag half-heartedly ("It isn't so good, but it isn't so bad").
As usual with their studio cast albums, PS Classics has corralled today's singers who have a flair for period pieces' style to feel authenticbut without sounding overly quaint or precious (or, worse yet, condescending to the 1920s sensibilities and trademark writing/performing sensibilities). Regulars Philip Chaffin, the label's A&R director and other half, is again an ambassador of musical goodwill with his positive energy and clean sound as an innocent-type sincere leading man Tom, who's come to meet the woman he thinks he has been corresponding with. He thinks his lady of the letters is the chorus girl Joyce, played by Rebecca Luker with her customary glorious tones and no-nonsense breeziness. Her character is more concerned with that strike and striking it rich because Tom has money. But the letters have been actually written by her devious sweet little devil of a cousin, Virginia (Sara Jean Ford, a real, involved asset here). Joyce's erstwhile and self-satisfied beau of sorts, Sam, is played with his own terrific sense of devilish by Danny Burstein, who's spent the last year impressing as Buddy in the revival of Follies. And, of course, it's always a neat thing to latch onto the chemistry between Luker and Burstein, married in real life, as they grouse and gripe together, couple up and de-couple and, in "You're Mighty Lucky," sing in counterpoint. Sally Wilfert, a frequent presence in New York theatre projects and works by new writers, is welcome as a feisty, down-to-earth friend contrasting with the two aforementioned more blatantly self-centered ladies. Vocally, these three females make for a mid-range soprano-heavy kind of casting, but Bethe Austin spices up the mix as the fourth woman, playing the maid with a piercingly nasal voice and chipper air strongly reminiscent of Shirley Booth as the old TV sitcom character (in Hazel) and her musical theatre roles. Jason Graae, ever reliable for spunk and a double-shot of adrenalin that is the aural equivalent of espresso with foam that tickles your nose while you drink, and a wink you can sense, completes the set of seven principals. It's a great group, especially when they team up on group numbers.
The cast is supported by a singing ensemble of nine and a ten-piece band including the marvelous pianist/conductor, Sam Davis. The orchestrations are vintage, created for the post-Broadway tour by that giant in the field, Robert Russell Bennett. There are instrumental sections and underscoring, with an overture that immediately gets us in the mood with the kind of solid, strong melody lines that jump out at you and become instant friends, even before you know what the songs themselves will be about. (Picking out the insistent mock dance craze number there, "The Jijibo," should be a no-brainer.) It all sounds like the old mountain of nostalgia's missing link as if you'd just temporarily forgotten an old favorite. Spot on new vocal arrangements are by the resourceful David Loud.
We also hear generous samples of the dialogue by Laurence Schwab (original producer) and Frank Mandel, giving a sense of the silliness and broadness: the sneaky shenanigans and duplicity (pretending she knows her way around the kitchen as the correspondence indicted, Joyce casually says, "You know, I was just about to roast a ... rice pudding"); the trading of insults and quips ("I'm not really crazy for Tom, but I'm a working girl and sort of figured that marriage is the easiest kind of work"; Peru, where they travel to, is "one of those countries where one day you run for President and the next day you run for your life"); and Virginia's limited talents as a hack romance novelist ("a love that coursed through her veins like molten lava") .
A page in the booklet shows snippets of newspaper clippings of the day, characterizing the show as "fluffy," "graceful," "good entertainment," and "a fine little show" with "humorous bits." That seems right on the money to also describe this much-belated, should-be-celebrated recording.
If you're at all like this listener/audience member, every time it comes time to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," the chills, chagrin, and chucklesand great admiration for the writingcome anew, even though we know so well every twisted twist and turn of events and turn of phrase. Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterwork about revenge and desperation in the darkest of times, with its stunning frequent flashes of beauty and dashes of humor, is very much alive and thriving in its newest incarnation.
Now playing in London, the city where the sordid saga is set, this year's West End production, a transfer from Chichester, has produced yet another cast album. I wish I could report that it is a two-CD set, since that would be needed to contain the full score. It's not that the production has heartlessly wielded a knife, Sweeney-like, to cut up the score in presenting it on stage, but not all of the songs have made it to the released recording. There are 20 tracks, which is the bulk, and there's a bounty of blood-curdling thrills and entertainment. But this piece being slicing up for disc disturbs the delicate balance of comic relief and character revelations that allowed more respite and reflection. Newcomers to the piece will be poorer without Johanna's one solo, "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," in which the locked-away girl yearns for freedom, her situation compared to the caged birds (and the just-ended plight of her imprisoned father). With this version's playing up the humor and frantic pacing of her panicking at every noise while stealing romantic moments, she's reduced pretty much to not-very-pretty-sounding shrieks and urgings, the sympathetic set-up aspect gone. And totally gone is the character of Pirelli, with the big set piece of the braggadocio shaving contest not included, more's the pity that Tobias's sung promotion of it being musically recycled when he later promotes the notorious pies to passers-by being lost, too. And the amusing "Parlor Songs" segment for the Beadle and Mrs. Lovett, while she takes to killing time to prevent him from sniffing around about the other kind of killing afoot, is a treat not to be had here. Nor do we get the Bedlam sequence or much "breathing room" we might find with the luxury of instrumental transition music or much dialogue from Hugh Wheeler's book (there's some in key moments and within numbers).
Also cut down to size, somewhat, are the characterizations and vocal swaths. We aren't regaled with as many majestically soaring, roaring or operatic voices as some versions of Sweeney Todd have brought us. That's not entirely a bad thing. While it's not by any means like the more close-up, mutteringly vocal-challenged style of the movie version, this is a more human-scaled rendition. Accessible and coming off as more conversational, with bigger, bolder strokes less brazenly taken and blazing, bravura turns fewer, the proceedings are not on as consistently grand a scale. However, when the high drama or explosive moments comeand, boy oh boy, they dothey stand out in high relief to startle and stop the heart. Prepare for a scare. It's there. Often enough. Yes, even if you know what's coming and if you're missing what's missing. At the end of the (slightly shorter) day, the characters may kill and be killed, but it seems you can't kill the impact of this story and score and its thought-provoking messages and metaphors, morality or amorality, unsettling motivations. It remains a churning river of rage and regret.
Fascinatingly flexible, Sweeney Todd seems quite adaptable to different styles and actors' interpretations, and this newest look, directed by Jonathan Kent, shifts focuses in its own way, shining new lights on lines in songs. It sparks (and sparkles) with the performers' chemistry in this mammoth powder keg. The two leads have charisma and turn in assured performances with bold strokes. In comparing the performances of all players, even those with a passing familiarity with the piece will note places where they follow the paths previously laid out and when they go off in a new direction and then return to the familiarly tried and true. Inevitably perhaps, there are opportunities missed and glossed overbut also compensations: phrasing, pacing, new emphases, and acting choices that are refreshing for their unique flavors. If each cast album of a score slavishly copied the first, only to fail to recreate the magic created by unique talents of original stars, what would be the point? To borrow some descriptive assessments from the show's brilliant song "A Little Priest" (a tasty highlight, with its often playfully sarcastic spin, as performed here): we wouldn't want "something paler," but can be intrigued by "something subtler."
In the title role, Michael Ball might seem an unlikely choice, if you know his past work. In interviews, he's said he's longed to play Sweeney, and he jumps into the part. His proven strong suits of warmth and pretty voicing become assets in his arsenal to find his own take on the man sometimes dismissed as just the creepy "mad man," which can certainly dwarf other aspects of what is also a troubled, tormented, wounded soul. Ball nearly gets it all. He builds to the bursting point, rather than be seething and sinister from the get-go, and the wall around his heart and hurt is not as impenetrable. Rather than just pity him, we can more directly care as he seems a bit more human. Understandably glum rather than out-and-out blisteringly bitter, he is not pure and simple nefarious. Because he holds back, and because the singing can be so attractive and less threatening, when he becomes more the monster we are more taken aback. The fear factor used judiciously becomes potent. It's a dynamic performance and might scare the hell out of you even if you know this path to hell very, very well. (And if you don't, there's no chance of your eye reading ahead on the lyrics in the booklet, because there are no lyrics in the booklet and, in fact, there's no booklet and no plot synopsis either in the meager packaging.)
Imelda Staunton's recipe for playing Nellie Lovett uses many ingredients, mixed well. Blithely nutty without being cluelessly silly by any means, she bubbles, bristles, bustles about, alternately patient and placating, then testy and troubled. As the plot thickens, so do her character's selfishness and determination. Singing brashly, grandly goofy as she flirts in "By the Sea," a formidable presence rather than deferring partner, she's a force to be reckoned with.
Others have fewer colors in their voices and hardly seem cast for vocal luster or range. Emotions may ring true, but rarely with ringing voices to flatter or favor the melodic structures of this piece. Don't look for golden tones or anything remotely radiantly operatic. But there is sufficient drama and tension and excitement in the characterizations, and the Sondheim brilliance glows even when voices setting it are not jewel-like. Some moments feel perfunctory or rushed, and those impatient with a more "actorly" way of presenting interaction, with a thinner musical broth, may grow impatiently for the two stars to return. But, as Anthony and Johanna "meet cute," there's fun and good timing in their rapid-fire furtiveness with an ear to the ground, so bravo for that to Luke Brady and Lucy May Barker (yes, it's a fun fact that Lucy Barker would also be the name of Sweeney's wife). And James McConville has some good, welcome energy as Tobias, even if his "Not While I'm Around" has more self-confident pluck than tender plucking of the heartstrings from presumed devotion.
You may have heard that this production has re-set the time period to have the ensemble telling us the story from their perspective as citizens experiencing the Great Depression of the 1930s, but that's rather inconsequential for the audio recording (and no photos of the set's more modernly lit pie shop or period costumes distract to remind us of thatwe just know that Mr. Todd is bearded in a photo used twicenor are there new instrumental references to reflect another era). But, despite the unkind cuts and kind of skimming of the surface in some numbers, those great and brilliant original Jonathan Tunick orchestrations as musical architecture command attention and respect. There's a 15-member orchestra, with some musicians playing more than one instrument. The singing ensemble numbers one person more at 16, in addition to the 10 individual dramatis personae listed. Sound is quite good and generally crisp and alive; it's interesting to note that the leading man co-produced the CD with Nigel Wright (known for along association with Andrew Lloyd Webber projects and pop) and right at their side as associate producer with conductor Nicholas Skilbeck was Sondheim himself, who remains the star of the endeavor now and forever.
If you thought Sweeney Todd was alarming and leavened by odd, knowing comic content, wait 'til you hear Dee Snider, best known as front man for the metal/rock group Twisted Sister, go wild going Broadway his way-out way. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" is just one of the pieces gone electric or gone mad or gone a reinvigorated, exciting, alt-genre way, depending on your perspective, and if you have your mind and ears open or if such blaring identity theft makes you cover your ears. The in-your-face sense of danger, rage, rampage and edge actually suits a fella like the knife-brandishing, glint-eyed Sweeney Todd. In its own way, the CD embraces show tunes and their big emotions, splash and strut. (In his liner notes, Mr. Snider talks about being fond of and familiar with theatre songs and theatricality and the assured jump into the pool does not sound like someone in totally foreign territory in tempi, phrasing, or the characterizations under the musical dressings.) Geographically, at least, he's been at home on Broadway, having appeared on stage in Rock of Ages recently, the panorama featuring old pop classics and anthems. Material and guest stars reflect other recent/current Broadway traffic.
Yes, much of the singing might be described as "loud, hoarse SCREAMING on pitch," and all that plus the head-banging percussion and wall of screaming guitars can, indeed, be relentless. If you see this as ridiculously disrespectful, you're probably already running for the hills. If you find it merely a novelty, the novelty may wear off from sameness of approach after a few tracks, despite the variety of material and some appealing Broadway pros guesting. It's certainly audacious at least, a cleverly entertaining hoot of a coup at most, or something in-between that can feel like the one-trick pony after a while and after you get used to it. It could be the party album of the year, the one you watch your friends' first jaw-dropping, eye-popping, smiling or gasping reactions to, or it might be, indeed, the ultimate guilty pleasure. Some will think this dressing up of show tunes is the aural equivalent of spectacularly creative costume design that reinvents musical fashions fit for a king. Others will say the emperor has no clothes.
So this raiding the Broadway music file cabinet finds that it's not just the old cabinet itself that can be heavy metalthe songs take on that style's characteristic wail and thrash, throb and grandstanding, with the vocals an attack that brings laryngitis to mind. Is it a winking put-on or a true attempt to go legit and blend the two musical lanes? The notes state that one rule in choosing material was to avoid any theatre material originally written in a rock vein, so as to be really re-shaping. But there seems little doubt that, nose-thumbing or cheekily kissing the cheek of Broadway's classics, Dee is having himself a ball. He's getting a kick out of "I Get a Kick Out of You," from Cole Porter's Anything Goes, a show currently back on the Great White Way. Surely, anything goes on this album. The humor is glib at times, as when he buddies up with a trio of stars from Priscilla Queen of the Desert for "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" from South Pacific. The threesomeNick Adams, Tony Sheldon and Will Swensonjoin in, taking turns with solo lines, using character voices and playing up the joshing. On some tracks, the hard rock and rocking-out is insistent with its wall of sound and intensity, and at other times it comes and goes, for effect, occasionally starting in a quieter, more show-bizzy manner and then pow! The rock factor appears suddenly and full force. Among the solos are two Kander and Ebb classics, both show business-related: the title song from Cabaret and Chicago's sly commentary about the importance of distracting from limitations by laying on the "Razzle Dazzle."
The energy can be its own likeable lightning rod, and sometimes the match of material and kindred spirit guest works with everyone on the same page. For example, he sings with his own son, Jesse Blaze Snider, on "The Joint Is Jumpin'" and it makes sense as the happiest, high-living party song. The star meets his match with two assertive women doing sexy, assertive women songs: playfully confident Cyndi Lauper shares the spotlight, with some adjusted lyrics for Snider to sing in the first person as the "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity; And Bebe Neuwirth keeps a sense of the slinky Devil's assistant, the seductress Lola, which she played in the high-profile revival of Damn Yankees. (Snider's notes insist he thought of her as perfect casting for this number, being totally unaware she'd actually done the role.) In other duets, the vocal contrast seems emphasized, startlingly like rough sandpaper and satin: witness Guys and Dolls's "Luck Be a Lady" with crooning Clay Aiken, where they trade lines constantly. Dee can't resist spoken ad libs, chiding the wandering Lady Luck with a playful "Get back here, bitch!" and more. Yet, when Patti LuPone shows up on the last track for a two-song West Side Story medley ("Tonight"/"Somewhere"), Snider's finally cooling his heels and "clearing his throat," the approach more genuine, even real feeling sneaks in, and wow, Patti belting to the rafters sounds splendid.
Arrangements and production are by Snider with guitarist Bob Kulick (who's worked with Kiss and Alice Cooper, among others), and percussionist/backing vocalist/engineer Brett Chassen (with an eclectic background), with orchestrations by Broadway's Doug Katsoros, keyboardist here, also contributing backing vocals, a guy who knows his way around various styles, being on board for shows like Footloose, The Rocky Horror Show, The Toxic Avenger and has worked with KISS. Rudy Sarzo, veteran of the group Quiet Riot and tours with Ozzy Osbourne, is on bass guitar. This electric shock therapy may seem frightening or foolish, can be exciting if you can buy that irreverence is not a mortal sin, and just maybe it's a bit enlightening: to remind us how the essence of theatre songstheir joy and messagecan survive and thrive even when turned upside down and inside out and shaken 'til all hell breaks loose. And it kinda does here.