This time we explore musical theatre material with the spotlight on the young. Several recent releases have childhood front and center. Here are some items which can be appreciated on different levels, depending on your age. Those who are still growing will enjoy them, and the grown can listen without groans. With multiple listenings, they've all been growing on me. From The Little Prince to A Little Princess and more than a little in between, there are some interesting CDs that adults will find nostalgic and which make fine introductions to musical theatre for the next generation.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
Rich, ethereal, philosophical, metaphysical - all of these words describe the 1946 French story The Little Prince. It is also profound and simple, tender and satirical. No wonder attempts to turn it into a musical and keeping all the layers and tones of this fragile piece have never been fully successful. It's like trying to catch a butterfly in the dark. Various stage and film versions have been attempted, footnotably the last score written together by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. That film version met with mixed reaction, as did other writers' efforts, including a short-lived Broadway musical, despite the best of intentions and love for this emotionally powerful story of basic human truths. For the uninitiated, the plot involves a pilot whose life is changed and re-prioritized by meeting a child prince from a tiny planet. Life lessons concerning personal responsibility, love and friendship are illustrated beautifully through their adventures and conversations. Travels to different planets inhabited by odd characters represent human folly and foibles.
This version is an opera, but, appropriate to the tone of the book, it is mainly gentle and tender, as opposed to big and bombastic. Some pieces sound more like art songs. Choral pieces and a few lively numbers, one for dangerous singing baobab trees and one for hunters, add welcome variety. Known for composing sweeping instrumental scores for motion pictures such as Cider House Rules, The Adventures Of Pinocchio and the Best Score Oscar-winner Emma, Rachel Portman has a gift. Elegant, lyrical, and rhapsodic, her music catches much of the sweetness, yearning and sorrow of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's book. Less of the humor, irony and characters' frustration comes through, as the prettiness of the melodies works against these comic situations, especially when one is listening to the CDs alone.
Watching the DVD after repeating listenings to the 2-CD set is a revelation, as the visuals compensate. Facial reactions, movement, and absurd costuming of the odd characters on their planets make for a more complete and satisfying experience. Note that this is not a taping of a stage performance in a theatre. It is a film and takes advantage of the medium, but retains some of the theatrical devices from its Houston Grand Opera stage premiere. Also retained are the imaginative costume designs, the fine lead adult performer, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the pilot, and piloting both versions: director Francesca Zambello. Eleven-year-old Joseph McManners has a heartbreakingly pure boy soprano and shows subtlety and skill in his acting. Extremely photogenic, his reaction shots carry the story, as it is crucial that we see everything through his eyes. And his eyes show worry, curiosity, euphoria and disillusion as necessary. Opera diva Lesley Garrett is splendid as the fox who teaches the prince about commitment and caring for another. Unfortunately, she has only one song, but it is one of the best in construction and performance. A large children's chorus is employed effectively to voice roses, stars, birds, etc. You may need the lyric booklet occasionally to catch some words if your ear has a little trouble with high voices with British accents. Nicholas Wright's words are worth catching: much of the libretto is a close adaptation of the original text, paraphrasing and substituting words to make things rhyme. Other numbers are more wholly original.
The DVD includes an interesting behind-the-scenes documentary showing auditions, rehearsals, etc. Hopefully, the more formal aspects of opera singing will not be distancing for audiences. It's a sumptuous production on all counts: color, cinematography, glorious symphony orchestra, all done with respect, professionalism and loving care.
(NOTE: A co-production of the BBC and WNET, the film is being broadcast on public television. The New York City area date is April 6.)
Yet another Disney movie turned into a stage musical? Yes indeed, and the new London cast of Mary Poppins sounds terrific on disc. If the 1964 movie had more than "A Spoonful Of Sugar" too much for your tolerance of sweetness, you may be happily surprised by this take, which is slightly more tart. If so, you can be grateful to Pamela (P. L.) Travers. She was less than thrilled with the way her classic book was translated to film and did not relish the thought of a stage version when producer Cameron Mackintosh inquired about the stage rights 25 years ago. He persisted, she resisted, he insisted. Eventually she gave in, provided that British writers come in on the project. This explains the overhaul, including several new songs not by the Sherman brothers who penned the hit movie score. Miss Travers died at age 96 before the new writers were chosen.
The new songwriting team consists of composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe, who first made some noise with Honk! (which beat Disney's own The Lion King in the award for Best Musical in London). They drew on past styles to adapt several children's classics into stage musicals, so they seem to be a logical fit. Their songwriting is skilled and their contributions do not try to upstage, duplicate, or work against the grain of the retained movie songs. In a few instances they add additional music and lyrics to the originals ("Jolly Holiday," "Step In Time" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," in which the cast now not only has to pronounce the word but also spell it out). These are successfully woven and add new, specific ideas. Their fully original numbers are generally fun to hear, especially the over-the-top performance by Rosemary Ashe singing the maniacal "Brimstone And Treacle" as a nanny who makes even Mary Poppins seem like a pushover. "Practically Perfect" serves as a fine introduction to the title character. In that role, Laura Michelle Kelly sounds just dandy, prim but prime. Recently seen as one of Tevye's daughters in the current Fiddler On the Roof, she had also been a replacement in the leading role in the most recent British production of My Fair Lady, so this is not the first time she's stepped into a musical role created by Julie Andrews.
Happily, the two children sing very well, and it's a bright, professional and very theatrical affair all around. Dance and vocal arrangements are by the composer. The orchestrations by William David Brohn are strong, fun, detailed, and very Broadway. It's as interesting to listen to what the orchestra is doing as it is to enjoy the vocals.
A generous booklet with many color photos gives a good sense of the costumes and sets. Deprived of these, the special effects and the award-winning choreography, the CD still feels like a big, fat, joyful musical theatre experience, with many bits of dialogue within songs retained. The tender moments, such as "Feed the Birds" and new material for the parents are effective and understated. The mother is played winningly by Linzi Hateley who had the distinction of playing the title role in the legendary Carrie. Curmudgeons should be warned, and may want to duck when Mary or the other coming Shermans-scored show, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies overhead, but if the kid inside of you wants to smile, you will.
CHILDREN'S LETTERS TO GOD
You might think a show called Children's Letters To God would be full of angels and angelic tots, with moments of great reverence, heavy-handedness, and holier-than-thou proselytizing. Forget it. This is a lot of fun. The musical has played at a few theatres, including a recently ended run at the Lamb's Theatre Off-Broadway. That cast recorded this album in September, 2004. The five-kid company is energetic and professional. These are real actors, well directed (by Stafford Arima, who also directed Altar Boyz) so there are nuances in the characterizations and they mine the lyrics for humor with good comic timing. They know when to pause an extra second, change vocal character, or spit out a selected word for effect.
Gerard Canonico is especially successful: both funny and vulnerable as the teenager questioning God when his parents break up. He and another fine performer in this cast, Jimmy Dieffenbach, also starred in the recent The Prince And The Pauper: same theatre, same record label, different musical flavor. The characters are modern and believable, not idealized innocent children. Libbie Jacobson is entertaining as it falls to her to question God about death (her pet turtle has passed on). Occasionally, things get a bit shrill and bratty; a few more quiet and reflective moments would provide respite and balance.
Children's Letters To God is based on a couple of best-selling books with the same title, collections of actual letters actual children were asked to write to God before they assumed He'd have E-mail. The letters range from heartbreaking to hilarious. In the musical adaptation, sad is avoided. Much of the humor comes from the naivety of the questions asked or the casual tone in addressing the Almighty (who does not sing, by the way). Composer David Evans and lyricist Douglas J. Cohen have captured the sound of contemporary kids without at all resorting to aping current music styles or peppering the lyrics with pop culture references. The vocabulary fits; it feels right having a song with the word "dork" in it.
The small band is bright and bouncy and the sound is as crisp as the pages of a new Bible. There are 19 tracks, including one number that was cut. Each cast member has a couple of chances to take the vocal spotlight, but more than half the numbers involve all five. Yes, there are some touching moments, but you won't need the large box of tissues, if any. You'll spend more time chuckling, and certainly teens and pre-teens will easily identify with the frustrations and struggles the characters sing about here. It's just like their own thoughts and words, except they all rhyme. And pretty cleverly.
WHEN I GROW UP
With her variety shows, live and on cable TV, Jamie de Roy has long been one of New York cabaret's best friends. An idea she once had about doing a children's album has "grown up" into a whole series of CDs - this is the sixth. They all have songs reflecting on childhood, often sung from the wistful perspective of adulthood. Kid-friendly, they appeal at least as well to adult ears. Like the previous five, this volume features well-chosen songs (known and new) and great voices from Broadway and cabaret who don't (yet) have many (or any) solo albums. In this category, Julia Murney, Sal Viviano and Kerry Butler are welcome participants. Songs from musical theatre include two especially heartfelt renditions: "It's Possible" from Seussical sung by Eric Michael Gillett and a lovely Emily Skinner performance of Herbert Martin's touching lyric to "My Pa" from The Yearling. A standout is Kim Cea's well-phrased "I Don't Want To Live On The Moon" which comes from Sesame Street. For humor, you can't beat the simmering mischief of Debbie Gravitte's take on the Disney tune "Cruella De Vil" or the delightful Emily Loesser hilariously pouting and protesting her way through "I Don't Want To Be A Tree (In The School Play)," written by Allan Bellink and one of two talented men sharing pianist/arranger duties throughout the series, Lanny Myers. The the late Rod Hausen, longtime arranger/ musical guide, made his final three contributions with this volume. Two feature the voices of young performers.
The title tune is a likeable one. It was penned by Kim Oler and Alison Hubbard, the team first hired to write the score for Broadway's Little Women before the final team was brought in. Like their score for The Enchanted Cottage, it shows their skill and very little women will relate to this number. Jamie de Roy contributes with enthusiasm on three cuts: two lively group numbers and a sincere solo. I'm hoping she'll also use her skills as a comedienne next time around and tackle a funny character tune. These CDs are not geared for the pre-school set, but they would make great "family" gifts for those with older kids. For the most part, the series should be thought of more as just good "various artists" albums with the childhood theme being secondary.
Many recordings and shows say they "can be equally enjoyed by young and old alike." That's usually a hopeful hyperbolic sales pitch. In this case, it does have that broad appeal. My only complaints are that I find the back-up vocals are sometimes distracting and the use of synthesizers on a few cuts is less than appealing, especially in jarring proximity to arrangements with effective use of solo cello, flute or clarinet. As always, the accompanying booklet adds charm and insight via the personal childhood memories of the singers with photos of them in their toddler/tricycle days. If these songs don't touch your heart, you need an appointment with Peter Pan, because you've "grown up" too much.
GrooveLily is a three-person performing group. Style?: a tough-to-categorize mix of pop, rock, jazz, and this and that, with a smart, hip sensibility. Striking 12 is not your mother's musical theatre, but it's certainly not your kid sister's bubble gum music. The talented trio all sing and play instruments. Billed as "a rewired version" of Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Little Match Girl," the album cover proclaims it is a musical but, hmmm ... the liner notes and spoken introduction/disclaimer protest that it is really a cross between that and a concert. After being developed by a few regional theatres, it was recorded live before an enthusiastic audience.
A contemporary account of a man alone on New Year's Eve, who happens to be reading the Andersen tale, is punctuated with spoken excerpts from the actual story. The songs alternate between those of the penniless girl selling matches in the snow and the man's experiences and thoughts on his own snowy night.
All characters are played by the trio. Violinist and vibrant-voiced Valerie Vigoda, the group's founder, rocks with emotion as both the child and her "match" in the contemporary story: a woman selling holiday lights. There are high-energy, entertaining songs with their share of angst, humor and thoughtfulness. Knowing ahead that this is not a traditional "show" and having an open mind will allow the listener to find pleasure. The lyrics, while competent and listenable, may not be full of brilliant turns of phrase, great wit, or poetic images. However, there are many strong moments, some quite theatrical. The out-of-character comments to the audience interrupt the flow, and a mock protest in by drummer Gene Lewin over his assigned role, while amusing, does the same. Keyboardist Brendan Milburn is the member with a musical theatre background, and he shows flair and good comic timing as the leading male character. He and Vigoda (who are married) created this material with writer Rachel Sheinkin .
April marks the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth, but with its themes of dire poverty and death, "The Little Match Girl" does not cheerily lend itself to musicalization as do his sagas of other "little" girls, such as "The Little Mermaid" or "Thumbelina." Incorporating this tale and its message into a bigger framework is a good strategy to allow different moods while keeping the original story fully intact. It's a cool change-of-pace, brought to us by PS Classics, which seems to be always keeping pace with the newer ideas in musical theatre (and of course "classics" as the name implies). Once again, executive producer Tommy Krasker and A&R director Philip Chaffin bring us fine sound quality and packaging and a chance to open up our ears and be happily surprised.
A LITTLE PRINCESS
Brave, pure-of-heart children facing adversity with hope often find their way into musical theatre. The classic children's book A Little Princess invites dramatization as did The Secret Garden by the same author, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Being unlucky but plucky in a cruel world wins a child protagonist audience sympathy, and in Burnett's stories, as we've seen in Oliver! and Annie, it works better if you happen to be an orphan - or at least think you are. This adaptation has its heart in the right place and is a sincere, respectful attempt. The results are mixed. Some of Neil Minsky's melodies are quite attractive, and a couple are very catchy, with bounce. Rather than build to strong climaxes with drama or new ideas, many of Ed Mintz's lyrics tend to fall into redundancy and some peter out or end abruptly. Some word choices and rhymes feel forced or out of place. Musical accents too often fall on the wrong syl-LAB-le, such as singing the word "attic" with the second syllable accented on a high, held, final note. Still, the intended sweetness and some gentle humor come through when composer and lyricist are more on the same page. Often, the keyboard accompaniment is heavy on the same note-for-note melodic line the cast is singing.
Some of the performers sound more in character than others, especially in the lines of dialogue. This is where they often sound stilted, with more energy put into enunciating than acting. A couple of foreign accents are so exaggerated that they sound like cartoon voices on The Simpsons. Granted, this is a studio cast and no information on any actual staged production is given. There are 16 tracks, including a very brief overture and a reprise of one of the better songs, "I Know You By Heart," a ballad of mutual affection between father and daughter. The emotion comes through nicely in the singing. Overall, "pleasant" is the operative word, but this is admittedly lukewarm praise. Nevertheless, fervent devotees (young and old) of the novel will be curious to investigate, and the fondness for the source material is evident.
For those who enjoy comparing how different writers approach the same source material, there are several other versions. The Wings Theatre housed the Robert Sickinger/Mel Atkey one, the Andrew Lippa/Brian Crawley take has been produced and Matthew Wilder/David Zippel have interesting ideas, too. There are more, such as those especially written for community and school productions. (Not all have been recorded.)
Next time, back to more traditionally "grown-up" fare with recent releases from Lea DeLaria, John Pizzarelli, Natalie Douglas, Kristin Chenoweth, Barbara Carroll, Lisa Asher and some cast albums. We'll be listening for you.