Sound Advice Reviews
Lost Broadway and More ... and more: More, #4; Only a Kingdom ; Scott Alan's songs
Here's a theatrical haul: First, there's no happier find for an avid musical theatre lover/collector than intriguing recordings of long-lost songs from the history of the genreor a score lost in the shuffle of the many lower-profile projects produced around the country. Here we have a treat in each category, with a notable overlap of eight tracks from a musical concerning one of history's greatest love stories. Then, love is also on the table with composer-lyricist Scott Alan's latest multi-performer showcase from a live concert.
Another edition of the Original Cast Records series of Lost Broadway and More brings more than a treasure chest full of recovered gems that shine with loving care by a talented and diverse group of singers. Material surveyed is as old as the year of the Great Depression, 1929, and as recent as the current economic downturn, with a 2008 regional theatre production. In between Depressions, there's little that's depressing emotionally, but rather much that's heartfelt or peppy to steer a musical theatre maven to a haven of happiness and romantic heavenly bliss.
The focus here is on female songwriters (sometimes with male co-writers, such as Kay Swift who lived well into her 90s, ever linked to her professional and personal relationship with the Gershwins, who wrote with her husband James Paul Warburg, who wrote under the name of Paul James, and others). Let's look at the several Swift pieces first. Amidst the rarities, the set includes the well-known "Can't We Be Friends?" as a kind of bonus, Steve Ross giving it a twist of wistful rue. Although there are recordings available of the scores of Fine and Dandy (represented by just one track here, "Nobody Breaks My Heart," evocatively expressed by sisters KT and Heather Sullivan) and Paris '90, things heard here from the the latter show don't appear on that available souvenir of Cornelia Otis Skinner's 1952 one-woman engagement encompassing a mix of songs and spoken material.
A medley of a waltz from that project with "Moonlight Memory," a collaboration with Edward Heyman, is shared by KT and cabaret's longtime elegant singer-pianist Steve Ross in his most appealingly yearning/bittersweet mode. He solos on an especially touching and nostalgic would-be visit to "The House Where I Was Born." Other Swift pieces benefit from the presence of a regular on this album series who was also a close friend of the writer in her later years: MAC Award-winning pianist/singer/songwriter Bill Zeffiro. His fondness for the material is apparent in his performances, as is his natural ebullience and entertainer's savvy. With Steve, he shares the delightfully cheery wink called "The Circus Is a Family Affair," an independent song. The two gents join the Sullivan sisters for a moving paean to hope and optimism, the life-affirming philosophical adviso, "Look Skyward" from Hunter's Moon" with Swift's own lyrics ("Forget about tomorrow/ Leave yesterday far behind ... Receive the magic while the light is shining down ... for there's a bright full moon above the town"). It's the kind of time-stands-still, thoughtful performance that feels like a balm and renewal.
Marian Grudeff (1927-2006) is represented by work with collaborator Ray Jessel (still happily with us, performing in cabaret on both coasts and recording at age 84). Their 1965 Broadway score for Baker Street is sampled from their old work tapes with (mostly) material that was cut. An abandoned project of the writing partnership, a musicalization of the girl-and-horse story of National Velvet, makes one lament its never having seen the limelight as both songs are solid and attractive: Steven Wilde burst forth with the confidence-builder "I See It in You" and real-life mother and daughter duo, Joan Crowe and Marie Pruitt, turn in a winning and warm look at a child who does not relish "Growing Up." The Grudeff/Jessel work on Hellzapoppin' '67 is heard with the irrepressible then-as-now Ray zipping through "Montreal" (it had been written for the Expo in that city) and he plays piano for a very perky if seemingly inconsequential but likeably catchy trio "Umbrella" (with Wilde, Crow and Pruitt).
Turning to this century's musicals, the recent Little House on the Prairie, produced regionally, is heard from on two chipper tracks with two of its cast members, Kara Lindsey and Kate Loprest, accompanied by Michael Lavine at the keyboard (a prime force in the development of this series, along with Original Cast Records producer/owner Bruce Yeko; Michael's liner notes helpfully and succinctly give us the histories and credits).
Perhaps in the interest of variety and flow, the numbers mentioned above are not clustered by show, so listening to the bulk of the album is a bit of a hopscotch experience. Recording quality is quite good, with the caveat of the Jessel/Grudeff vintage work tapes being old and not recorded with the intention of commercial release, but audibility is fine. The exception to the mixed tracking concept is the first cluster of songs: eight from one score; in an unusual move, they are all also on the revised cast album of Only a Kingdom. That CD is reviewed just below, so I'll leave the details to that review if you'll just scroll down to it, rather than repeat the comments. It's a big overlap for those collectors considering both purchases, but given the quality and rarity of this album's contents, and the fact that it has 22 tracks including the eight repeats, it's still a full album's worth of music without them. And suffice to say, the classy and interesting eight will entice many to want the full score.
What a pleasure to have this series' latest entry in our hands with so much talent heard from and such lovingly performed examples of these women composers. The next CD in the series is already well in progress, with more sessions this summer, so look forward to another edition that turns the spotlight to the great writers Jule Styne and Betty Comden & Adolph Green and their respective trunks.
ONLY A KINGDOM
As a musical, the highly romantic true story of the man who gave up a life as the King of England in order to marry his true love, a "commoner" who was an American divorcee, demands a highly romantic score and it gets one. Composer-lyricist Judith Shubow Steir, who also wrote the book, brings a fresh sweetness that does not cloy for me on initial or repeat listenings. Those similarly willing to believe that maybe those fairy tale writers had it right all along and that perfect true love is real and is all that matters may, likewise, melt. Knowing that the story comes from well-documented history (with a non-regretted price to pay) helps convince and sweep one along. Unabashedly and unapologetically devotional, balanced with a kind of formality of language and attitude that suits that trademark British reserve, Only a Kingdom revels in its just-right tone. It has dignity and is full of elegance in its musical structures and language choices, with singer-actors who take the seriousness seriously and fervently without being at all mawkish, never winking, fleshing this out with warmth and rich singing that allows for heart-on-sleeve vulnerability.
The earnestness might have led to a stodgy, cardboard operetta pastiche, but the melodies are so gracefulinstead of flamboyantly floridand the singing on love declamations comes off as sincere, so that we have more of a real feel, albeit drenched in a "Love Conquers All and Nothing Else Matters" convinced mindset. The appropriately articulately tender lyrics of devotion and confidence swirl and flow and are balanced by some welcome comic relief from various characters and gossip and bewilderment that went along with the developments that led to the Prince of Wales's abdication of the throne.
An earlier CD issue of this score, directed by Scott Schwartz, with actors from a production at the Pasadena Playhouse, had escaped my attention. Although I did not see a Developmental Lab Production at NYC's nurturer of musicals, The York Theatre in midtown on the East side, I was introduced to the score when invited to some of the recording sessions. I was happy to have my ears reunited with its pleasures upon the release and to hear the Pasadena cast tracks for the first time. This mix of old and newnine from the earlier cast and eight from the York (non-consecutive, so as to be in show order)is not as distracting as one might expect, even though Pasadena had an eight-piece orchestra and those playing the leads in each cast don't sound like clones of each other. Even the first and reprise versions of the love ballads not sung by the same leads is not overly disconcerting.
The newly recorded tracks have in their lead roles, the formidable skills and soaring sounds of Max von Essen and golden soprano of Jill Paice (both in the cast of Death Takes a Holiday around the time of this recording). The strength and emotion of their vocals are a wonder to behold in the most passionate sections of their duets and they shine separatelyin her lovestruck reveling in "In Wonderland" and his vibrantly virile proclamations and pensiveness in "David's Meditation" and his decisive sum-up of what counts: "Home Is Where the Duchess Is," which she later joins in on. They also have a cute flirtation number together, "Uh-Uh," which, depending on your love for the style of innuendo as innocence, also might risk flirting too much with coy. But it's a nice change from the uber-heartfelt. Donna Lynne Champlin is a bright hoot as Elsa Maxwell, tossing about quips on society's obsession with youth, slimness and beauty in "Fashion Rules," wherein she sings with the leading lady and Becky Barta. Steven "Mo" Hanan (Cats and known for his channeling of Al Jolson) adds colorfully distinctive comic panache as Lord Bellimore, joined by Michael Marcotte on the strutting, deliciously hammy "A Most Reliable Guide." And the most reliable musical guides for accompaniment are pianist Milton Granger (whose regular job is over at Mary Poppins), bassist Ray Kilday, and percussionist Barbara Merjan. As noted above, the eight York tracks also appear on Lost Broadway and More, Volume 4.
The Pasadena tracks have Stan Chandler as Prince Edward and Kaitlin Hopkins as his beloved Wallis Simpson with a large ensemble. Peter Mansfield is the arranger (for both versions) and producer of the earlier tracks, with James Vukovich as musical director. Highlights are the lovers' exploration of their priorities, "What Would You Give for Love?," the feistiness and busybody attitudes of Elsa Maxwell, played by Mary Pat Gleason, and company in "What Does He See in Her?" and her joining the ensemble on the opinionated, trigger-judgment bustling "Unfit to Rule," which add spice and sizzle and heft to the proceedings. Occasionally one has to strain a bit to hear words in the denser ensemble singing with busier instrumentation, and occasionally a singer strains for a challenging high note, but such moments are quite brief. It's mostly an absorbing whirlwind for the attentive listener, with the buttery love songs woven in as stalwart opponents to the hurricane of objections and public opinion (and resistance from other royals).
Once upon a not so long-ago day of vinyl and velvety vocalists, non-rock music aimed at grown-ups, encompassing the Great American Songbook standards and newer material that grew from that tradition with its theatre roots, was found in record stores and record charts in a category called "Easy Listening." Some was light and gentle breezy listening, easygoing, easy-on-the-ears white bread, non-demanding fluff stuff with strings and sweetness in love songs abounding. Some was watered-down cover version territory of bolder originals. Well, no one would have put songwriter Scott Alan's work comfortably in that category had he been around then. There's little "easy" or "easygoing." The one-to-a-customer singers covering the material on his Live concert album are mostly powerhouse performers with voice to burn and/or go-for-the-heart approaches. He'll never be accused of eschewing emotion of holding back in his writing, and the vocalists follow suit. He's more often a voyeuristic or explosive oroccasionallypainfully fragile. But what his work does not feel like is fake or pat or manipulativeit's gutsy and gritty and bone-deep raw or intelligently articulate in its sometimes torrential cascades of confessional words and soaring melodies. Perhaps he's never met a modulation or musical build he didn't likelikewise, throbbing heartbreak in a lyric or an open wound is familiar territory. Hearing 27 of his very packed songs in a row on a 2-CD set (including two song pairings) with driving emotion is a bit like the exhausting experience of sharing a rocky road with both a steamroller and a dump truck. A roller coaster comes to mind, tooexhilarating, rattling and riveting. So much for easy listening.
The majority of the numbers (assigned to other performers) are among the tracks of his three previously released collections which I'm well familiar with and I've heard some done in person, too. A few of the artistsand the musical director/pianist and his co-producer, Jesse Vargasare return collaborators. Having the material performed live ups the ante of in-your-face/direct-to-the-heart lifeline style and the electricity of that works to advantage. Many of the high-powered laments or diary-like expressions are quite effective. However, I tend to be even more taken with the atypical tracks where there is more calibration or the phrasing/arrangements lets the song "breathe" more to take it in at the rate it is poured (rather than shot or shouted) outlike sister Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway's exquisite "Home" or Sierra Boggess and Jane Monheit's ethereal combination on "Always" and "Goodnight." The writing style is so dense and intense that the last thing they need is complex, busy arrangements, as that can result in seeming overstatement. There's so much glorious vocal talent here, much of it from Broadway or other musical theatre-related avenues, that the singer's ranges or colors so fully on display may command attention and awe that some of the wordier lyrics may not be absorbed in full-at first. Call it an embarrassment of riches.
Natalie Weiss's delightfully exuberant "I'm a Star" starts things off with a truly exciting and excitable pow that gets things off to a grand start. In a similar fashion, Stephanie J. Block is dynamic on disc two's opener, "Watch Me Soar." Alexander Sage Oyen, a very young performer/writer I recently caught up with at his own show, secured his place by winning a contest and having Scott Alan create a song for him. Appropriately titled "I've Already Won," and joined by a choir of voices, he impresses with a likeable burst of optimism and determination as he beams out, "'Cause even if the mountain's out of reach, I'll be conquering a thousand hills/ 'Cause it is not how far uphill you get, but how passionate the climb/ And even if takes a thousand years, trust me: I will do the time." It's immediately followed by one the writer's strongest pieces, a number employing the same image, but in a literal way, about a burdened gay soldier going off to war: "Over the Mountains." It presents a more fragile character brought heartbreakingly to life by Ben Frankenhauser and making good use of the orchestra in this concert recorded at NYC's Birdland in the theatre district. A masterfully shaped interpretation, with welcome restraint, comes with Lea Salonga's treatment of "Look (a Rainbow)" with a spare beginning and laser-beam exploration (again mentioning mountains: "and if it feels too hard to climb alone, I'll be right there by your side").
The CD ends with a couple of bonus studio tracks, one with the songwriter himself on "Ignited by a Dream" showing his very affecting voice and personality. This and a few other lyrics are hampered by the occasional false rhyme, although there's rarely a sentiment that rings false even if something may hit some listeners as cliché or overwrought. I don't doubt the sincerity and passion here, which is echoed in the booklet's song-by-song commentary by the singers who use words to describe songwriter Alan and his work that include "haunting," transcendent," "genius," "raw and palpable," "beautifully inspiring," and "reaches out to your heart and soul and comforts you." I suspect many listeners will find themselves agreeing.