What attracts young singers to songs written long ago instead of the pop and rock music of their generation? Why do they make it their mission to sing this material in clubs and record it? Do they sound so comfortable with it because they are "old souls" or just good researchers with good taste and good voices? Let's look at a couple of very young singers who know whereof they sing, plus one young-at-heart entertainer who's been writing his own tunes since before they were born. All three came to the attention of MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs when it came to nominations for excellence. We'll also look at NEO, a recording with the new generation of musical theatre writers and performers. Also, one of Broadway's newer stars turns to a very, very old subject, and veteran songwriters honor an ageless childhood favorite with a movie career bump (and a jar of honey). The column ends in its very young tradition of spotlighting talent "Under The Radar." But, before all that, we start off with a new cast album based on a play by a theatre writer whose shows are always being revived, revised, and musicalized. His name is William Shakespeare.
You could probably do a twelve-night festival of the different musical versions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and have a different one each evening. Even the current All Shook Up borrows a bit of the cross-dressing, crossed-messages confusions. The plot has been jazzed up (1997's Play On! with Duke Ellington's canon), rocked out (Your Own Thing in 1968) and had Shakespeare's verses set to music by Rusty McGee (What You Will) and others. Illyria, named for the story's island setting, does an admirable job and stays quite true to the original ever-thickening plot and comic sensibility. Wouldst thou prefer Shakespearean language? Forsooth, 'tis not to be. But a certain quaintness and charm remain in the modernization, with some very clever lyrics indeed. Both words and music are by Peter Mills, who created a few musicals for Manhattan's Prospect Theatre Company where this show began. This well done recording represents the production by Madison, New Jersey's Shakespeare Theatre at the end of 2004.
Musically, the score has a little bit of everything: a couple of pretty ballads, a dash of English music hall, a Gilbert & Sullivan kind of number with lots of words and notes per square inch, some fine pieces which show a synthesis of modern musical theatre styles and one rowdy drinking song (you won't be able to get its melody out of your head, for better or for worse). Especially note-worthy are the arrangements and orchestrations: they are skilled, very "Broadway" and add significantly to the impact of the songs. They emphasize emotions and add accents nicely to both the ardent and amusing passages. "If music be the food of love," these orchestrations are the attractive plates on which it is served. Daniel Feyer cooks up those orchestrations, and my compliments to the chef, musical director F. Wade Russo. Groundbreaking? No. A masterpiece? No. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly enjoyable with many strengths. Peter Mills shows flair with both his melodies and his lyrics, and also wrote the dialogue. That is heard in many short exchanges between sections of songs. His partner in adaptation (and the Prospect Theatre and in marriage) is Cara Reichel, who also directed the New York version.
Joel Blum (Tony-nominated as Supporting Actor in Show Boat and Steel Pier) as the jester turns in a strong, entertaining performance without going over the top. His songs "Silly Little Syllogism" and "The Lunatic" (in which he plays three characters at once) are comic gems. There are good, solid musical theatre voices in the cast, especially Elena Shaddow as Viola who has an especially attractive solo, "Olivia." Also making a strong impression is Chris Peluso as her twin brother who is presumed (by her) to be drowned. His number, "The Lady Must Be Mad," is a charmer.
Lovers of Shakespeare and of the lovers he created will be pleased, methinks. So will those who love good rhymes. How can you not like rhymes such as: "She gave that brat a gem/ A stratagem to show me how she felt." Or Viola, disguised as a man, "praising" her adopted gender with, "Our turmoils and torments are mostly performance." The performances here are fine, and so is the gender-bending and genre-bending.
NEO: NEW, EMERGING...OUTSTANDING!
Illyria's songwriter Peter Mills is one of many whose samples from recent or yet-to-be-produced musicals light up the recording (to be released May 1) of the 2003 concert called NEO which stands for "new, emerging ... outstanding!" It's an overflowing treasure chest of fine composers, lyricists and strong musical theatre performers: a 2-CD set with 23 songs. The Peter Mills contribution looks back in time, centuries before Shakespeare, being the funny vaudeville-style tale of an "artistic" caveman who proclaims he is "Way Ahead Of My Time" from Mills' produced show The Taxi Chronicles. The song is done spectacularly and with a big wink by Bryan Batt who also is the host, introducing each number.
At this live concert, Bryan told the audience the credits of each performer and writer before every song. Certainly this was appropriate and helpful at the time, but having it all included on the recording becomes tedious. Thankfully, the spoken sections are tracked separately, so it's easy enough to press a button and get on with the music; I would have preferred all the bios to be in written in liner notes, plus more information on the shows so the songs would have more context. Since the recording is being released almost two years after the concert, it would be interesting to have an update on shows which may have since been optioned for production, etc. You can see why they would be: there's a lot of talent here!
Each listener will have his or her own favorites among these. I was especially struck by "Know My Heart" by Brad Howell Houghton, interpreted by Max von Essen, and "Richard" (Mary-Mitchell Campbell/Leslie Becker), a very entertaining end-of-relationship lament with a twist sung with flair by the reliable pro, Barbara Walsh. Kate Shindle does the sensitive and passionate "For No Apparent Reason" by the super-talented and prolific Brian Lowdermilk who was 20 years old at the time of this recording and has won a few major development awards and a following. Another Shakespeare update called Like You Like It is the source of the sweet and swell "Be With Me" (Daniel S. Acquisto/ Sammy Buck) in the good hands of Matt Cavenaugh.
I won't pretend to be madly in love with all the material here and indeed have heard other songs by some of these writers which I like quite a bit more. There are a few pieces that take some getting used to or would probably be more appreciated in the context of the shows for which they were written. To name-drop a bit on performers, musical theatre fans will be glad to find Kerry Butler, Deven May, Mario Cantone, Darius DeHaas, Laura Benanti, Tonya Pinkins, Laura Bell Bundy, Christiane Noll and Judy Kaye here. Some will be buying this for the fine performers but will find themselves being introduced to new songwriters whose names we'll be seeing again (and again). You likely already know the names of some: David Friedman, Christopher Durang, Amanda Green, Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy).
The past, present and future of musical theatre are nurtured by tireless John Yap who produced this and so much more - as well as the treasured York Theatre where this was recorded, where some of these writers were given readings and for whom this concert was a benefit. A bow to music director Mark Hartman who is on piano giving pulse and panache to more than half the selections.
Winning the San Francisco cabaret competition and getting a MAC nomination this year, Shawn Ryan (still in his twenties) is something to shout about. But he doesn't like to do any shouting on his debut album of old standards. No, it's not a blast from the past; it's mostly a feathery let-me-sing-gently-into-your-headphones kind of thing. He swings, and swings well, but with a light touch. There are times you might wish he'd use a little more voice, sustain notes more, and show some more oomph, but he is slightly oomph-resistant this first time around. Nonetheless, his sound is appealing and immensely charming. He seems comfortable with the old standards. He doesn't sound like someone dipping his toe in those waters, nor in over his head. He phrases naturally and conversationally, with no signs of awkwardness.
What's most impressive about Shawn's choices is that he's not afraid to present himself as vulnerable and even fragile. Two of the most effective cuts, "Bewitched" by Rodgers and Hart and "Somewhere Along The Way" show a man with his defenses stripped by having let someone get under his skin and into his heart. Without wallowing in self-pity, Shawn fully wraps himself up in the emotions of these situations. No surprise that he started off as an actor. Also daring in its surrendering of emotional control, he gives a sensual reading of "Do It Again." It's real make-out music. It's one of three classic melodies by George Gershwin on the disc, this one with a Buddy DeSylva lyric, the others with lyrics by Ira Gershwin: the upbeat "I Got Rhythm" (he does) and "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
The only tune written after the 1950s is from the mid-1990s, the Oscar-nominated "A Wink And A Smile," written by Marc Shaiman and Ramsey McLean and introduced by Harry Connick, Jr. It's bright and breezy and doesn't feel out of place with its seniors. The arrangements, by Shawn and his pianist/producer Kelly Park, don't aim to add new gimmicks or put a new "spin" on the standards. I would have welcomed a few, but as is, the recording is more than worth a spin. Shawn is clearly still growing and challenging himself (his second album is almost finished and a little preview I've heard leads me to report this good news). When you visit his website, www.shawn-ryan.com, you will see performance video clips of some of the tunes slated for that CD. You can also hear a taste of this first one, too. The more I hear it, the more I like it and appreciate some of its understated charms and the musicianship. Not a show-offy singer, he won't knock you off your feet ... but he might very well sweep you off your feet.
LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING
WITH SWEET DESPAIR
If you didn't know better, you'd think someone had invented a time machine, gone back to the 1920s or 1930s, and brought back the purest, sweetest-sounding girl singer and pushed her onto today's stage, vibrato and gown perfectly in place. That's the feeling you can get when you hear Maude Maggart sing. She's more than just in love with the songs, singing style, and sensibility of that bygone era; she can recreate it without being the least bit condescending, camp or coy. It's a rare experience.
Granddaughter of a vaudeville and Broadway dancer of the period, Maude absorbed the stories and did additional research and listening. Mentored by and performing with cabaret royalty Andrea Marcovicci and Michael Feinstein, Maude has shown poise and grace. Singing with a formal and pure soprano, capturing the old-fashioned singing style and look - it's like a reincarnation of not one former singing star, but the best qualities of several. If this young woman in her twenties can't go back to that era, she'll bring that era to today's world. And she has!
Following an introductory album of similar material (no longer available), the songstress has released two CDs which already show some interesting change and growth. On the earlier one, Look For The Silver Lining, Maude sounds exquisite and ethereal. The songs and voice are put on display as if in fragile glass museum cases. It's quite an achievement, but you get the sense she is playing a character (or playing an instrument called "the human voice"). It's glorious and impressive, but also its own prison. In her recently released collection, she takes some steps off the pedestal and shows more real emotion, revealing herself a bit. She sounds more connected to the lyrics. There are more vocal colors shown on the new release, as well as a switch from piano-only-accompaniment to the addition of strings. But both recordings have the advantage of pianist John Boswell, who is the perfect partner and more appreciated with each listen.
Cole Porter songs appear on both CDs: "Looking At You," the little-known "Lost Liberty Blues," and an especially fine "Love For Sale" on Look For The Silver Lining, and the new album has "How Could We Be Wrong" and "Night And Day." A bonus track of "A Sleepin' Bee" (Harold Arlen/Truman Capote) finds Maude harmonizing informally with her sister, pop star Fiona Apple.
Maude is an impressive and disciplined live performer. At the MAC Awards, she was a double winner, honored for her "New York Debut" and as the recipient of the Time Out New York Magazine's Special Achievement Award. The double winner presented a double whammy to the audience with her Harry Warren/Al Dubin medley of "42nd Street" and "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams." She was looser and jazzier and more charismatic than I'd ever seen or heard her. Clearly, she's no one-trick pony.
Maude is currently at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room on Monday nights. I'm very curious to see what direction her career takes her. She's made her mark with the period pieces, so, although I'd love to see her do more recent songs and cut loose, if she strays too far, I'll probably beg her, "Let's do the time warp again." She's so good at it.
After a heavy dose of the pretty-but-pretty-old, a small taste of thoroughly modern Maude can be heard as she guests on a CD by 75-year-old songwriter Ray Jessel. The very contemporary "I'm Outta Here" shows us another side of the singer and lets her take off the white gloves. Maude sings three tunes Ray co-wrote with his wife Cynthia Thompson (one with a little help from Debussy). The others tracks are him singing alone, almost all laugh-out-loud clever songs. Whether mocking his "look-alike" Albert Einstein in "I'm A Genius" or Kurt Weill, he is charming, witty, and silly in the best sense. Performing often at the Manhattan cabaret Don't Tell Mama, the septuagenarian is a real crowd-pleaser. His song that won the "Special Material" MAC Award this year, "The Short Term Memory Loss Blues," is not on the CD, but you won't forget some of the others. Like his friend Maude, Ray also received two MAC Awards on April 25. His second was for Musical Comedy Performer, edging out the aforementioned Shawn Ryan. (But Shawn has a few decades to play catch-up.)
One of more hilarious I-dare-you-not-to-laugh numbers on The First 70 Years is the not subtle "Life Sucks And Then You Die." A change-of-pace serious number is another Jessel/Thompson collaboration, "Whatever Happened To Melody," a beauty also recorded by a great friend of beautiful melodies and this melodist as well, Michael Feinstein. David Campbell also has a version of this nostalgic gem.
Based in California and involved in writing music for TV and film, Ray Jessel's songs have also been heard on Broadway, including four lyrics for Richard Rodgers' last musical, I Remember Mama. A score for the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street in the 1960s yielded the tender "A Married Man," which is included on the CD. As this album was released a while ago, we belatedly salute Ray Jessel, who was born in 1929, on his MAC nomination and on his recording debut. We at Talkin' Broadway always like to encourage young talent.
Kristin Chenoweth has appeared on several cast albums and one previous nifty solo CD, Let Yourself Go, which featured songs from musicals. Some fans may have wanted a similar kind of follow-up, with a big dose of Broadway. However, for her second solo disc, Kristin has gone back to Oklahoma - no, not the musical, but to her childhood roots, growing up in church in that state. Yes, it's an "inspirational" album with mostly religious material.
Kristin says this kind of music is what she cares about and has wanted to do. Change-of-pace religious records were put out by Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Ann-Margret, and Sarah Vaughan. As I enjoy some religious music and count myself as a Chenoweth admirer, you can bet I'm not disappointed or frustrated. But you'd be wrong. I am. However, my reasons are not the choice of genre, but the choices of (some) songs, arrangements, and end results.
There's nothing overly preachy or schreechy as some have feared. For my tastes, much of it is a little too pop and pat. With more emphasis on musical "hooks" than heart, there's a lot of middle-of-the-road countryish "contemporary Christian music" that comes off as too ho-hum commercial. Kristin gets little chance to show her vocal range, power, or dramatic skill. Why did these songs lead her down a dullish road, a case of the bland leading the blonde? It's not dreadful, not at all. There are some moments that are pretty good and some that are just pretty. Several songs have personal connections to her life/religious experiences, as she writes in the liner notes. However, this opera-trained singer does get to use her range and "legit" voice on a couple of cuts which are a cut above the rest. She gets a crack at a good melody by a guy you probably heard of named Ludwig van Beethoven. The old folk song "Poor, Wayfaring Stranger" is OK, but without the depth of emotion it could have had. The vocals were recorded in New York, the basic instrumental tracks in Tennessee, and the strings were recorded in Czechoslovakia. Somewhere in between, something didn't travel well.
Much has been made of the inclusion of the charming but off-topic "Taylor, The Latte Boy" by the very talented New York songwriting team, Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. It's labeled a "bonus track." Does it fit in? Of course not. Is it well done? Absolutely.
First appearing in 1926, three years before Ray Jessel was born, Winnie The Pooh has weathered the years very nicely, too, despite not having a MAC Award. However, he and his pals from the books have inspired some fun songs in musical films. This Best Of is a sweet-as-honey treat, new songs with the old. The new ones are by Carly Simon (collaborating with lyricist Brian Hohlfeld on two) and the classics from the 1960s are by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. We get six of one, half a dozen of the other.
2005's Pooh's Heffalump Movie has charming tunes with Carly Simon herself singing on all but one of them. They successfully bring out the story's themes of confronting prejudice and embracing friendship. A chorus and the character voice actors of the film join in. There are two tracks from the 2003 Piglet's Big Movie with additional vocals by the pop icon's grown daughter and son, Sally and Ben Taylor, who now have pop careers and albums of their own. Carly and Ben open the album with the classic "Winnie The Pooh" theme song by the Sherman brothers (later performed by a chorus).
With the Shermans' songs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins on the boards and being hummed, it's nice to have some of their perky, punchy Pooh pleasantries around, too. The CD has an additional lullaby by Jim and Chris Martin and an attractive and more grown-up instrumental from Joel McNeely's score for the new film. You'll also be guided to additional internet interaction if you play the CD on your com-Pooh-ter.
UNDER THE RADAR
In this new weekly feature, I happily aim the spotlight on a lower-profile, high-quality recording which might have escaped your attention.
I began this "disc-overy" category last week with Jasper Kump's delightful Sunday In New York, a CD that starts with David Shire and Richard Maltby, Jr.'s "Starting Here, Starting Now." Well, guess what. So does this week's entry, and it really is just a nice coincidence. Neither CD came to my attention because of the tune, even though I've always liked it. Shire and Maltby also have a fine song called "One Of The Good Guys," but that's not the one serving as the title tune for this debut album by big-voiced baritone Marc Eliot. Marc wrote this "One Of The Good Guys" himself. It's the only original in a collection of mostly well-known numbers./p>
Right up front it must be said that some of the selections on this CD are over the top. Marc, who lives and does musical theatre (and flower arranging) on Long Island, has more than a bit of Las Vegas in him. So much about this album is BIG. He's got a huge and strong voice and sings full out. He likes to sing Big Songs with a big band sound. It's good old-school show biz fun and he has a lot of enthusiasm and energy. He sings without holding back and I couldn't hold back in telling you about him.
Did I mention that just about everything about this recording is BIG? His "New York" medley has 14 songs crammed into just under three minutes. There are three Peter Allen tunes, and three movie musical numbers from the pen of Leslie Bricusse. Broadway is represented by "Come Back To Me" from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and the wonderful "Mama, A Rainbow" from Minnie's Boys done in combination with the belty, bravura, dramatic "A Piece Of Sky," the finale from the Barbra Streisand film Yentl. This fellow is loud and proud and the word "subtle" will probably not be used in his reviews.
Sometimes it's great just to enjoy the pulse-quickening excitement of a huge vocal sound where "cheating" or being careful isn't necessary. And this is an exciting album in an old-fashioned, "bang!" kind of way. For proof, try the sound samples at www.marceliot.com. After Marc's hurricane of a performance, you may need a retreat back to Shawn Ryan's cool spring breeze. I get a kick out of both, and variety is a good thing.
Next Thursday, it's curtain up on a glorious glut of cast albums from current Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. We'll be gorging on them, and can't wait to focus on just the sound of them. We"ll be listening for you.