'Tis the season to haul out those holiday albums and add to the mix of old favorites some new CDs to brighten up the holidays. Once again, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has released a CD that features the casts of various Broadway musicals performing holiday tunes, earning money for a worthy cause in the process. This year they have outdone themselves with Carols For A Cure: Volume Five, a two-disc set that features twenty songs representing just about every musical that has appeared on the Great White Way this season, and it is the strongest volume to date. While every year's offering contains a mix of traditional carols and usually irreverent special material, the ratio of standout material to largely harmony free filler was decidedly tipped towards the latter. This year, however, every number is a keeper and is well performed, orchestrated and harmonized.
From Big River's traditional but stirring "Silent Light," to Rent's gospel/R&B infused "O Holy Night," the holiday standards are well represented, with highlights being Idina Menzel's (Wicked) folky "I Saw Three Ships" and Liz McCartney's (Taboo) beautiful rendition of the Bach/Gonoud "Ave Maria." As delightful as the standards are, the true highlights are the special material numbers. The cast of Hairspray is delightfully irreverent performing South Park's "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" (by Marc Shaiman, of course). Gypsy's company retells the Christmas story in a Once on this Island-sounding "Sing Out" that incorporates elements of their show (including having the strippers appear as the wives of the wise men). And Rod from Avenue Q gives a holiday cabaret medley (performed at "Don't Tell Daddy's," of course) that sets carols to Broadway vamps. This year's edition also features numbers by high profile stars: Antonio Banderas and the cast Nine in the driving "Los Peces En El Rio" and Hugh Jackman and the cast from The Boy from Oz in the Peter Allen-esque disco number "Wrapped Up Nice."
The Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS website not only features the entire Carols for a Cure collection but also last year's incomparable Home For The Holidays and holiday albums by a variety of Broadway performers (many of them available in signed versions as well).
It's hard to believe that it has taken until 2003 for legendary Broadway and cabaret performer Barbara Cook to finally release a holiday CD, Count Your Blessings. Giving us plenty to be thankful for, Cook and her arranger/conductor Wally Harper have put together an intimate album that closely resembles the great holiday albums of the late Rosemary Clooney with its subdued instrumentation and simple vocals. While the album is comprised primarily of familiar holiday standards, the standout number is Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven," which is performed solely with Harper's piano and Cook's vocals. Also highly effective is an a capella rendition of "I Wonder As I Wander," which segues into a down-home version of "He's Got the Whole World in his Hands" that starts spare and builds to include harmonica and banjo.
Award winning pianist/conductor/arranger/composer Peter Nero has joined forces with the Philly Pops and Ann Hampton Callaway for Holiday Pops!, a delightful collection of pops-orchestra/jazz-piano/vocal holiday numbers. From the piano driven "White Christmas" and the touching "Christmas Lullaby" (written and performed by Callaway), to the jazzy "Jingle Bells" and "Sleigh Ride," to the pops-symphonic carol medley "A Christmas Festival," Nero, who is the conductor and music director for the Philly Pops, has crafted a perfect accompaniment to snowy December nights and various festivities this season.
If you are looking for a more high-octane holiday album, you can't go wrong with Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas. Performed by the Broadway Inspirational Voices, a gospel ensemble founded in 1999 by Michael McElroy (The Wild Party, Rent, Tommy) that is comprised of actors performing on and off Broadway, Great Joy is a high energy gospel romp that features thrilling gospel vocals married to orchestrations that support and never overwhelm. Featured soloists abound and all are highlights (but for sake of space, we'll only mention Gavin Creel on "Some Children See Him," Billy Porter's "Infant Lowly, Infant Holy," and Sara Ramirez & Michael McElroy's tender take on "Away in a Manger").
Minneapolis based performer Jennifer Grimm has released a holiday album: A Christmas with Family and Friends. As the title suggests, the album is a family affair with support given throughout by various family members. It is also an old-style jazz holiday album, with smooth, smoky vocals provided by Jennifer and B3 organ accompaniment by brother Trey giving a nostalgic touch throughout the album. Highlights include a simple piano jazz accompanied "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," a rendition of "Christmas Island" complete with steel guitar and ukulele, and a jazzy instrumental version of "Skater's Waltz." For more information and to preview tracks, visit www.jennifergrimm.com.
John Bucchino's celebration of life, "Grateful," has been transformed into an illustrated children's book that features his lyrics paired with the soft-focus crayon/pastel illustrations of Anna-Liisa Hakkarainen. The drawings provide a tender commentary on the lyrical poetry that Bucchino has created on faith and an appreciation of the simple gifts of nature that surround us. Grateful, which was published through the efforts of Julie Andrews, contains a CD single of the song performed by Art Garfunkel and a copy of the sheet music, giving the reader a chance to sing along.
In order to aid the prerequisite gift giving (and getting) of the season, here are some theater related DVDs/videos.
High on the list of any musical theater fan is Broadway's Lost Treasures , a collection of 21 scenes preserving, at least in part, historic performances from the American musical theater as televised on the Tony Awards shows between 1967 and 1986. While the show appeared on PBS earlier this year, the DVD and video include five tracks not seen on TV (although they are still missing the Dreamgirls and A Chorus Line numbers that were pulled at the last minute). Since the majority of the clips came from various compilation medleys, it is more than a little disappointing to have truncated versions (especially of Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera doing a paired down and non-costumed "All That Jazz" and "Hot Honey Rag" and the editing down of "Applause!" is also puzzling). The picture/sound quality is not always the greatest (but it is a treat to see Barbara Harris' performance of "Movie Star/Gorgeous" from The Apple Tree in any clarity) and some of the clips are obviously (and poorly) lip-synced (Angela Lansbury's "Worst Pies In London" from Sweeney Todd being the worst offender). However, these are minor drawbacks when compared to the chance to see John Raitt sing "Hey There" from The Pajama Game, or Patti Lupone, Mandy Patinkin and Bob Gunton perform excerpts from Evita (although seeing just how much time used to be devoted to musical numbers, such as the almost six minutes given to Annie, which preserves the late lamented Dorothy Loudin's turn in "Easy Street" plus a reprise of "Tomorrow" featuring most of the principles and orphans, is an exercise in frustration).
Barbara Cook's incredible solo show, Mostly Sondheim, has been preserved on DVD and videotape. As much a tribute to Cook as it is to Sondheim, the video features Cook and pianist Wally Harper performing nineteen numbers that Stephen Sondheim either wrote or wishes he had written, per a 1996 article published in The New York Times. Recorded live in Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound (on the DVD), the show displays Cook at her warmest and most engaging and still sounding remarkable for any age (while she has retired Candide's "Glitter and Be Gay" from her repertoire, "Ice Cream" from She Loves Me remains as sure and thrilling as always), and the show preserves such classic Cook performances as the aforementioned "Ice Cream" as well "Losing My Mind" (which she performed in Follies in Concert), which is superbly paired with Merrily We Roll Along's "Not a Day Goes By." Bonus materials on the DVD include master class footage from a class she gave at the Kennedy Center and an interview with Cook.
One of the most exciting Broadway shows from the 2001-2002 season has been preserved on DVD as well, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Impeccably filmed in 1.78:1 widescreen ratio (and enhanced for widescreen TVs), this live recording is a necessity for anyone who missed the most honest show ever presented on Broadway, as Stritch candidly discusses at length the three loves in her life: men, the theater, and booze (not necessarily listed in order of importance). In between (and sometimes interrupting) her anecdotes are songs that either made up her career or that impacted her throughout life.
From the opening number, "There's No Business Like Show Business," into which Stritch packs more comedy and personal history than most singers do in an entire evening, to a haunting "Something Good," At Liberty takes one on an emotional roller coaster ride. While last year's CD version of the show provided ample evidence that Stritch was cheated out of a Tony Nomination for best actress (if not for the award itself), the DVD brings to fuller light the level of acting on display in the show. The DVD contains no extras (as if an interview track is necessary), but is presented in both Dolby and dts 5.1 formats and contains material not included on the CDs.
This has certainly been a banner year for Hugh Jackman's incarnation as musical theater leading man, with rave reviews coming his way for his performance as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz and the recent American release of the Royal National Theatre's 1999 production of Oklahoma! on DVD. While the Trevor Nunn helmed production finally arrived on our shores last year (after Nunn's failure to convince Equity to allow him to import the RNT's production lock, stock and barrel), this is the first time American viewers (at least those without PAL equipped VCRs) have been able to see the original production on film.
Let me say off the bat that this production is not going to please everybody. Purists will loathe Nunn's tinkering with the book and lyrics, both of which represent Oscar Hammerstein II's freshman collaboration with Richard Rodgers. Nunn also made the show darker and grittier than usual, making it more closely resemble the turn of the century prairie locale it represents (and drawing comparisons to Nunn's previous work in Les Miserables). Also, as is usually the case with non-natives performing a region specific show, the accents tend to stray away from Oklahoma and venture further into the Deep South.
However, as Oklahoma! has always been the top entrant on this reviewer's list of least favorite mainstream shows, I found this version to be the first that I not only could sit through in its entirety, but the first in which I even cared about any of the characters, who were refreshingly more fleshed out and less musical theater caricature than usual. I know I am in the minority, but one could edit out the entire Will Parker/Ado Annie subplot (nothing against Jimmy Johnston or Vicki Simon who do a more than admirable job in the parts) and make me a much happier viewer. Hugh Jackman's portrayal as cowboy Curley, who gives up his entire way of life to woo and rescue the woman with whom he is smitten, is winning and would melt the heart of anyone (as it finally does the hard as nails tomboy Laurey, as portrayed by Josefina Gabrielle). Curley's first confrontation scene with the menacing hired hand/stalker Jud (Shuler Hensley, who won a Tony for his portrayal in the American production) is an exercise in machismo one-upmanship and Jackman's "Pore Jud is Daid" is a masterpiece of backpedaling and covering one's ass after accidentally speaking out loud.
The sound and picture quality on the DVD are crisp and the film does a remarkable job of striking a balance between theatricality and the cinematic. The only flaw with the presentation, however, is the frequent cutaways to a mythic audience (the show being filmed on a soundstage, not during a live on-stage performance) that disrupt the flow of the piece and seem to have been added to cover scene changes or to needlessly remind the viewer that the show is theatrical in nature.
As the show is three hours in length, no bonus features appear on the primary disc. However, a secondary disc is included that features a 30-minute documentary featuring Trevor Nunn, Mary Rodgers (Richard Rodger's daughter), Theodore Chapin (current president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization) and members of the cast discussing the production to mildly entertaining (and occasionally a tad too self-congratulatory) effect.
A DVD of the documentary Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment has been released with additional footage, making it even more entertaining and indispensable. Directed by Richard Morris, the film examines the over three-decades long partnership, both onstage and in life, of singer/songwriter John Wallowitch and the late Bertram Ross, who is best known as Martha Graham's principal dancer for almost thirty years. The two men had performed together as a cabaret duo up until Bertram's passing earlier this year, and the movie features clips of them onstage and around the living room piano where they display a remarkable ease and joyful chemistry.
The documentary is also an important historical document, with Bertram's reminiscences of working with Graham (the DVD features several outtakes not included in the original film, including more material focusing on his years with Graham) and Wallowitch's entertaining and poignant remembrances of caroling in front of Irving Berlin's home (and getting invited to meet the reclusive composer) and of the bygone days in New York City. The DVD, which can be ordered by visiting www.wallowitchandross.com/06.asp, contains extra songs and interviews and comes with a soundtrack to the documentary.
If you or someone you know has been especially good this year, legendary vocal coach, David Craig, has released a nine hour, six video set that represents an entire year of his famed classes at UCLA. The tapes cover six categories: The Lectures, Technique, Subtext, Process/The Ballad, Process//The Uptempo and Performance/Q&A (which includes performances by Sandra Caron, Nancy Dussault, Penny Fuller, Ellen Geer, Earl Holliman, Lonny Price and Whitney Rydbeck). The set also includes a 64-page study booklet to help guide the viewer through Craig's techniques. While there is no substitution for hands on one-on-one feedback and training, On Singing On Stage is an invaluable tool for those looking for coaching, but are not in an area offering such instruction.