Sound Advice Reviews
How Sweet it is ...
It's my sweet duty to report on two musically tasty treats. In the better-late-than-never category, there's a recording of the delightful score for a show from the 1940s. Then, we let the good times roll on with Sweet Spot, a feel-good vocal CD by jazzy Mark Winkler, spot on for a relaxed, non-indulgent, accessible jazz.
SWEET BYE AND BYE
The plot, soon to thicken goofily, begins with a time capsule being unearthed and brought to light after many years, yielding a surprise as well as looks at older days and ways. The same might rightly be said for PS Classics' producer Tommy Krasker's discovery and resultant disc: the history-tickling excavation of the musical Sweet Bye and Bye, beleaguered and in a league of its own. It's a mad and somewhat maddeningbut somehow endearingmix of tones: one moment broadly campy, then sincere; by (sudden) turns, it can be sharp and stinging in satire or silly, far-fetched farce. The fascinating historical background provided in the accompanying booklet explains whyit reads like its own comedy of errors worthy of a stage piece itself, maybe crazier than the musical's actual script(s), where writers taking different paths end on the road to ruin while on the road with the show. It never got to its intended road, Broadway. Versatile Vernon Duke composed the music with Ogden Nash as the lyricist, while the uber-wacky story was a collaboration of S.J. Perelman and Al Hirschfeld (yes, the man famous for decades as the caricaturist capturing Broadway stars and shows).
Knowing the trial-by-error trials and tribulationsincluding drastic changes in cast, plot and songs, a nervous breakdown and breakdowns in communicationgoes a long way toward engendering patience and appreciation for the puzzling jigsaw puzzle being put back together from different pieces of different drafts from the score. Those abandoned puzzling pieces were discovered in very scattered pieces in warehouse trunks a couple of decades ago. With loving care and the luxuries of hindsight and time, they made the mishmosh mesh. Almost. Pieces that had been written and rewritten or discarded at various stages were sifted through, selected, with sections of explanatory or amusing dialogue chosen to include. Orchestrations were ordered up to capture the quirky charms of the material and its spunky soul, with Jason Carr in the driver's seat; Duke's surviving vocal arrangements were employed, with Carr and David Dabbon doing some latter-day work on that front, with the estimable Eric Stern on board as conductor. Then it was given to a group of performers up to (and for) the challenge, and everyone stepped back into the past for this play which happens to take place in the future.
What ultimately counts for listeners, besides those who are curious collectors and completists, is this: Is it satisfying and entertaining the way we want an old-school musical comedy cast album to be? Is it pleasingly musical with tunes and words that tickle the ear and tickle our fancy? Very often, it is. It's more than just a quaint curiosity piece or lower-drawer footnote in almost-Broadway history. It's a ball. You may have to leave hopes for reason and cohesion behind, and just enjoy. Remember, it's a farce, with some moralizing and message intended. And if the sum of the parts is not the perfect show, some of the parts are really nifty or nutty.
Sweet Bye and Bye's score is not wholly unfamiliar; the wistful lament "Round About" has been taken on by numerous singers, Bobby Short recorded the title song, Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel picked up on "Born Too Late" (a song which got a second life with a second melody in The Littlest Revue) in her CD of theatre songs not long ago, and Dawn Upshaw's memorable Vernon Duke album included three of the numbers. "Just Like a Man" was recycled, with some different lyrics, for Bette Davis to "sing" in Duke and Nash's revue Two's Company. But those weren't the only fruits of the Duke/Nash output worth the plucking: there are some splendid songs more tied to the plot, and all are done with relish or get riotous renditions here. If the secret of making a comedy number worth frequent listens once you "get the joke" is a strong melody, then Duke succeeded with sturdy and catchy music that would stand on its own and pleases even if some lyrics strike the ear and mind, as they pile up, as being too silly, not very varied variations on a one-joke theme, or trying too hard to be adorable. (Still, they have craft and polish and some zingers and pluck.)
Danny Burstein is amusingly all bluster and bellowing as a big business bigwig who's easily frustrated, full of himself and full of baloney. In his satisfying showpiece of self-satisfaction and self-aggrandizement, "Ham That I Am," is a buoyant tour de force. He's a high-energy hoot as he tries to play his cards right with a simple, shy, bewildered tree surgeon named Solomon who inherits a fortune and controlling interest in the company. Solomon is played and sung cannily by Philip Chaffin, who doubles as co-head of PS Classics and one of its leading vocal lights on their studio cast albums and his solo CDs. He brings a nerdy naïf's fish-out-of-water wonder to the role in the early sections, making what could be just a cartoony lost soul surprisingly soulful. His "Round About" has great range, with tenderness, frustration and an explosion of rage. Marin Mazzie struts with splash in the brash "Diana," selling herself confidently as the person ready, willing, and super-able to polish Solomon into a hard-nosed corporate sharpie.
Heidi Blickenstaff scores with personality and panache, coming on strong and seductive but goofy in "The Sea-Gull and the Ea-Gull" with our shy hero. Among other welcome participants are Graham Rowat dutifully leading the blind faith explanation "My Broker Told Me So" and the likeable Telly Leung blithely leading the exuberant advisory, "Let's Be Young." In a small but spot on speaking role with her uniquely memorable voice, Georgia Engel as a dutiful if daffy secretary.
There's a generous amount of dialogue, the longer sections separately tracked. Lyrics are included in the booklet, along with nine pages of background information. There are buoyant numbers, high-flying comedy character pieces, choral sections featuring a 16-member chorus, and a ready-made standard-issue musical theatre ballad called "Too Enchanting" which isn't exactly that, but sturdy and of its era.
For those with a taste for silly, Sweet Bye and Bye is a dilly, and its smarter moments have punch, such as the presentation of executives worshipping religiously ("the checkbook is our Lord") or bragging, "Three prominent louses are we." And when Diana realizes that a man to love is "the only thing the A&P can't can," one might agree. Now all that's left to be done is for some smart producer and theatre company to put it on stage and bring what was once left for roadkill further back to life.
Whether singing old favorites or songs with his own lyrics (he's worked with numerous collaborators), Mark Winkler has "a way with words." And that way is a happy path to follow him along on, easy-going and easy to like, with dashes of humor and non-sticky open-heartedness and vulnerability. Sweet Spot is a tasty CD, unpretentious and relaxed, with fine instrumental accompaniment, although on a few of the longish instrumental breaks that don't quite match the tone and flavor set by the vocal, I start to miss Mark and get impatient for his return.
The jazzman includes his own version of the paean to pleasures of a genre, "Jazz Is a Special Taste," from the score of the intriguing musical about jazz folk and gays in the less gay-friendly 1950s Play It Cool, which is finally getting an Off-Broadway run beginning this fall after a run in Los Angeles that produced an attractive cast album. This slinky number, with a lithe and languidly seductive melody by Phillip Swann, is shown to great advantage, as Mark's voice warmly embraces both the song and the ideas and elusive attractions of the style it eloquently examines and demonstrates. Jazz performers' day-to-day livesor I should say night-to-night livesare comically skewered in "Somewhere in Brazil," which appears in two versions, the "bonus track" album-closer substituting "in New Jersey" for the original setting of the saga "in the valley" on the West Coast where laidback Mr. W. is based. The very amusing song is written to articulate the inner thoughts of a bored jazz singer unhappy with his mundane gig, boss and customers, thinking he's too good for them, escaping to Rio in his head. Meanwhile, his pianist, in lines sung by the actual pianist on this and many of the CD's tracks, Eli Brueggemann, mocks and bemoans the singer's misplaced confidence and misplaced vocals. ("He can't scat" as Mark scats cluelessly and clumsily.) Brueggemann co-arranged this with Mark's co-writer on it, Jamieson Trotter.
The CD's title song was written with another cool cat of a singer, Geoffrey Leigh Tozer, but the singer invited to duet is Barbara Morrison. Without veering into the leering style too much, but putting the sexy card in for play, Winkler winks at lusty pleasures with his slow-sizzle sassy partner. More serious singing/writing come with "After Hours" (written with Dan Siegel) and "Some Other Sunset" (with writing partner David Benoit), both understated, classy affairs. On his own, Mark created "This Side of Loving." But it's a sentimental song by another jazz songwriter/performer whom Mark did an earlier full CD tribute toBobby Troupthat brings the sweetest moment on Sweet Spot. The disarming and sentimentally rhapsodic "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" shows Mark in a moving, heartfelt performance, stripped of any hipster gloss and aloofness. It's simple and simply yet strongly sung, accompanied just by Anthony Wilson on guitar.
The Gershwins' "But Not for Me," often done as a poor-me pity party is taken briskly, incorporating an arrangement and extra lyrics, both created by the singer Georgie Fame, with the new words set to a once-upon-a-time solo by the late, great jazzman Chet Baker. Certainly this evergreen, which debuted on Broadway a little over 80 years ago, is resilient and flexible, and its lament factor works with a quicker tempo. Today's Broadway show of the same name bears no relation to the original song "Catch Me If You Can," except that it references an elusive fellow hopscotching all over the globe. In this case, he's not running a step ahead of the law, but rather not wanting to settle down, geographically or romantically. It's written with the aforementioned Eli Brueggemann. Broadway does get a nod of sorts on the oldie but goodie, "On Broadway," with a zingy vocalese insert crafted by our singer.
The CD is a rosy, retro mix of original material and brushes with the past, like "Like Young," the old André Previn/ Paul Francis Webster song that reminds us of "slanguage" before the word "like" became annoyingly ever-present in inarticulate young people's sentences. Mark Winkler is like hip and like wow and makes old jazz seem like young. I like. Sweet Spot hits the spot.