Also see Jonathan's reviews of Holiday CDs
This holiday, three theater-related DVDs are guaranteed to be on everyone's gift list (whether 'tis better to give or receive them is up to you).
First up is the second entry in the Broadway's Lost Treasures series, Broadway's Lost Treasures II, which once again compiles musical numbers featured in Tony Award ceremonies throughout the years. And, once again, it only whets one's appetite for what remains in the vaults. The clips, grouped in categories such as Leads (with highlights being Patti LuPone performing "Anything Goes" and Angela Lansbury lighting up the stage with Bea Arthur in "Bosom Buddies"), All Singing, All Dancing (which preserves Brent Barrett and Michael Jeter's breathtaking "We'll Take A Glass Together" from Grand Hotel) and the catch-all Revivals and Record Breakers (which gives viewers a chance to compare original performances from Chicago and La Cage aux Folles with their currently running counterpart revivals).
While the majority of the eighteen clips were seen on a PBS telecast, the five bonus clips make owning this DVD far superior to any TIVO or VHS-ed copy one may already have. Indeed, the highlight of the entire disc is a clip from Coco (featuring Katharine Hepburn) that is nearly fifteen minutes long, making it the longest clip in Tony telecast history, per host Lauren Bacall (who managed to eradicate any trace of smugness she may have felt over the fact that she beat Hepburn for the Best Actress In A Musical Tony in 1970).
PBS also broadcast the almost six-hour-long mini-series, Broadway: The American Musical, recently released on a 3 DVD set. The six-part mini-series breaks down the history of the Broadway musical from its roots at the turn of the 20th century to its hits from last season. While it has its flaws, from not being overly comprehensive (six hours could be spent covering the Golden Age of the '50s and '60s alone) to the woeful lack of documentation with its clips, to its presentation of 'facts' that are questionable in nature (largely due to its reliance on interviews that give the interviewee's opinion and memory of events an aura of accuracy not always deserved), the series serves as a wonderful introduction for newcomers to the genre who can use the show as a jumping off point for further research.
It is actually one of the few DVD sets where the extras outweigh the feature itself. Each disc is a gold mine of additional performances and interviews, which, when combined, almost double the length of the series. Bonus performance highlights include early vaudeville films from the Library of Congress Variety Stage collection, Eddie Cantor's tailor shop routine in the 1929 feature film Glorifying the American Girl that gives a rare look at his comic stylings (which remain remarkably fresh after nearly eight decades), "Hostesses of the Stage Door Canteen" (a number from Irving Berlin's wartime revue This Is the Army that rivals anything seen in La Cage), a nearly 12-minute television performance of "If I Loved You" from Carousel performed by John Raitt and Jan Clayton that illustrates why it remains one of the best written scenes in musical theater, an interview with Stephen Sondheim and the original cast of Pacific Overtures that includes a performance of "Someone in a Tree," and a clip featuring Jonathan Larson performing his Sondheim homage, "Sunday." (The amount of time devoted to Wicked, which includes rehearsal footage of "For Good" and a featurette on its road to Broadway, is a bit of an overkill, making one think that the producers jumped the gun in thinking Wicked would win the Tony last year, especially given the lack of coverage given to 2004's actual winner of the Best Musical Tony, Avenue Q)
The 'must-have' DVD of the season, however is Broadway: The Golden Age , Rick McKay's archival labor of love that features interviews with 100 Broadway performers. While calling them "the greatest stars ever to work on Broadway or in Hollywood" is admittedly overstating things, since most of the true Broadway legends had sadly passed on by the time McKay started work on the film, McKay is to be commended for committing at least a portion of Broadway's collective memory to film. While some have decried its lack of narrative structure, the fact that McKay was content to simply allow an oral history be created, rather than impose an overarching 'theme' on his subjects, is its greatest achievement, for in letting the subjects simply reminisce, astonishing throughlines emerged. Whether it be shared remembrances of hanging out at Gray's Drugstore, the joys of 'second acting,' or recalling theater's legendary stories, (such as Brando's explosion on the scene in A Streetcar Named Desire, Shirley MacLaine's rise from understudy to overnight stardom in The Pajama Game, and the one actress who seemed to influence everyone interviewed in the film, Laurette Taylor (who was the original Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and has been largely forgotten), a great sense of community arises throughout the film. Of course, there is archival footage galore featuring rehearsals and performances of classic shows like Camelot, Bus Stop, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, West Side Story, and Damn Yankees that add to the pleasure.
Once again, the extras add mightily to the overall whole and include additional performance clips (including Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon performing "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees), a seventeen-minute alternate ending exploring the current state of Broadway, and a thirty-five minute sneak peek of the upcoming sequel, Broadway: The Next Generation, featuring interviews with 'newcomers' like Patti LuPone.
Listening to the Motion Picture Soundtrack of The Phantom of the Opera, I was struck by what lay behind the titular character's motives: his goal is not to catapult a talented soprano with whom he is smitten from the ranks of the chorus to the heights of fame she deserves. Oh no, it is to completely eradicate legitimate singing from the stage, be it on Broadway or at the opera. Or at least that is the impression this reviewer received listening to the soundtrack. While the film by Joel Schumacher may pack a visual punch (but as it doesn't open until December 22nd, that awaits to be seen) and thus do the show justice on some level, as an auditory experience the soundtrack is sorely lacking, and is insulting on many levels. Given the pulse-quickening overture, newly orchestrated by its original orchestrator David Cullen for a beefed-up hundred-piece orchestra (yet retaining all the flavor of the original arrangement), one expects the performances to soar to the top of the Paris Opera House and swing from its iconic chandelier. Instead, one gets watered down, wispy, off-key performances that are lacking in vocal presence, character or tone.
While Emily Rossum may be appropriate age-wise for Christine Daae, the object of the phantom's obsession, her voice is so small that one can hardly imagine it reaching the footlights, much less crossing them and filling an opera house (or surviving one elimination round in American Idol, for that matter). On moments in "Think of Me" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" that require a singer to reach bravura heights, she is overwhelmed by the orchestra and chokes on the emotions rather than releasing them. As the Phantom, Gerard Butler gives the worst rendition of "Music of the Night" (or any of other song, for that matter) this reviewer has heard on the number's dozens of recordings. With all the electronics capable of turning any pitchy (but busty) teenager into a pop music sensation, it is astonishing the same couldn't fix the myriad pitch problems demonstrated in his vocals (and the less said about the gravely shouting in "Down Once More" the better). Even Broadway leading man Patrick Wilson seems to be undersinging and holding back on all of his numbers. And, given that Minnie Driver had her vocals dubbed for her portrayal of the diva Carlotta, couldn't a better operatic soprano have been found? Driver does get to sing on the end credits/'quest for Oscar' number, "Learn To Be Lonely" (that, for the record, isn't a patch on the Comden/Green and Grossman penned tune of the same name from A Doll's Life), and displays a throaty, highly emotive quality that connects with the material far better than it has any right to.
Adam Pascal has released a surprisingly listenable and captivating follow-up to his harder-edged debut album, Model Prisoner. Entitled Civilian, Pascal's new CD was inspired by his children and by the effects 9/11 had on his family and on the world. Written primarily by Pascal (with a little help on some tracks from Glenn Sherman, Matt Gallagher and Jim Abbott), the songs are by turns driving, engaging, thoughtful and insightful - qualities that greatly surprised this rock-phobic reviewer. Vocally, Pascal sounds better than ever, with enough of his trademark hoarse raspiness to enhance the emotions contained within the song (but not so much as to affect pitch or delivery). Highlights include the highly radio-friendly "Something of Ours" and the tender (in a rock sort of a way) "I'm With You."
This year's Back Stage Bistro Award winner for Outstanding Vocalist of the Year, Stevie Holland, has released a delightful jazzy album entitled Restless Willow (the title is inspired by its opening number, "It Might As Well Be Spring," which Holland delivers with restrained joy). While the majority of the album consists of jazz standards, such as "Summertime" (given an ever increasingly exuberant guitar-driven arrangement by Gary William Friedman), "Lush Life" and a version of "Here's That Rainy Day" that tosses in a touch of Jobim (plus a sprinkling of "Soon It's Gonna Rain" for good measure), the real highlights are the lesser known numbers: a very Brel sounding "Love Is Stronger Far Than We" (by Francis Lai and Pierre Barough, with English lyrics by Jerry Keller) and David Frishberg's "Zoot Walks In." Throughout, Holland displays a sure but light touch and an emotional honesty that is enthralling.
In the opening line of her first album to be released in almost a decade, Melissa Manchester states "I've been walking through the smoke of a thousand burned-out dreams/so hard to shake the ashes of the past from my feet." Not a bad summation of the last decade socially and musically, as intelligent, under-produced and low-volume music has all but vanished from the airwaves. After 1995's disappointing (and over-produced) If My Heart Had Wings, Manchester returns to her storytelling roots with When I Look Down That Road, a collection of a dozen tunes that shine with a restrained brilliance and which can proudly stand alongside her early work. While her voice has lost the brash belt that earned her such acclaim with hits like "Don't Cry Out Loud," Manchester sounds revitalized with a smoky, bluesy quality that works exceptionally well when set against the honest emotion of numbers like "A Mother's Prayer" and "Bend" (written with Wendy Lands), managing to be both heartrending and hopeful. Other highlights include "Lucky Break," a playful number written with Beth Nielsen Chapman, and "Angels Dancing," a catchy tune that brings to life a mystical character named Pearl.
The Oregon-based (but internationally renowned) group Pink Martini has at long last released its second album. Hang on Little Tomato (the title inspired by an advertisement for Hunt's Ketchup found in a 1964 issue of Life magazine) is a follow-up to their highly successful 1997 debut album, Sympathique (the title song of which was recently recorded by Karen Akers). Describing themselves as falling "somewhere between a 1930s Cuban dance orchestra, a classical chamber music ensemble, a Brazilian marching street band and Japanese film noir," the 12-piece mini-orchestra fuses Latin music, jazz, cinematic scoring, and a host of other influences to create a melange of songs that are highly original in nature (most of which are written by members of the group or its extended family). When they do 'cover' pre-existing material, they do a remarkable job of choosing material and collaborators that are not familiar to the world at large. For instance, its first truly Asian-influenced number, a reworking of the Japanese song "Kikuchiyo to Mohshimasu," utilized Hiroshi Wada, the slide guitarist who recorded the song 40 years ago. And "Una Notte a Napoli," a number that would not be out of place in a Fellini film, was written with Alba Clemente, a 1970s Italian stage and television star, and DJ Johnny Dynell from the legendary New York-based nightclub Jackie 60.
Hang On Little Tomato is less kitschy and not as instrumentally layered as Sympathique, choosing instead to be more streamlined and subtle (if such a word is appropriate when talking about a group who performs numbers like "The Gardens Of Sampson & Beasley," a song that would have been perfectly at home in a Doris Day flick, or one whose title tune is a big band clarinet solo and 'lady who sings with the band' driven number). The album was well worth the wait and the group is well worth seeing if you are lucky enough to be on their tour route. For more information and samples, visit www.pinkmartini.com.
Paul Schwartz, who has conducted concerts at Lincoln Center (including a 100th Anniversary Tribute to his father, Arthur Schwartz, who with Howard Dietz contributed greatly to the American Songbook), as well as acted as conductor or musical director for Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, Song and Dance and Rodgers and Hart's On Your Toes, has released the third album in his neo-classical Aria series (the second of which, Aria 2: New Horizon, was the #3 Classical Album in Billboards Indie Special 2000 list). Entitled Aria 3: Metamorphosis , the album once again features Rebecca Luker lending her crystalline soprano to operatic arias given a decidedly Euro/semi-trance edge by Schwartz. As with his previous albums, Schwartz fuses contemporary instrumentation with classic operatic melodies, layering in hypnotic vocals, waves of orchestral sound and driving (but relatively unobtrusive) grooves that combine for emotional and sensual effect. This time around, the songs focus primarily on pre-1750 compositions with three by Handel ("Onbra Mai Fu" from Serse, "Lascia" from Rinaldo and "Furioso" from "Sarabande," the last of which is rendered as an instrumental mix for a bonus track) and one from Monteverdi ("Ascension" from L'Incoronazione Di Popea). Luker's vocals and Schwartz's arrangements give the album a floating other-worldly character that is by turns soothing and enthralling, and three instrumental pieces by Schwartz based on various chapters of Ovid's Metamorphosis add greatly to the beauty of the work.