This week, we look into some things that you might have thought have already happened. Not quite. There's a cast album of a show that opened at the end of the last century, but was never recorded until now. And, since James Van Heusen composed quite a few standards and non-standards with melodies that singers just love to wrap their vocal cords around, you might have thought a singer who loves composer tributes would have already recorded a Van Heusen album - especially a singer who's celebrating her 50th year of recording. Better late than never. Likewise, there are some miscellaneous tracks by other vocalists that have been in the air but weren't collected before. Now they have been. All in good time. Each will provide you with a good time.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
Some things take more time than others. When novelist Jay McInerney gave permission for his novel Bright Lights, Big City to be turned into a musical, composer-lyricist Paul Scott Goodman went to work. He had 20 songs written in a mere six weeks, but it's taken six years after opening night for a cast album to appear. This rock musical has seen some changes since it played at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop where it was, unsurprisingly, compared to Rent, which also premiered there with the same director, Michael Greif.
In this belated cast album, Patrick Wilson (The Full Monty, Oklahoma!, Phantom Of The Opera film) returns to play the leading role he originated. He's a Manhattanite in the 1980s who loses his job, his mother and his marriage, and he tries to drown his troubles in liquor, drugs and sex. To say Wilson dominates the album is an understatement, as he is in 22 of the 29 numbers. Fortunately, he is dynamite. Singing and acting with passion, anguish, tenderness and flashes of humor, he presents a very troubled and very human character. The character and his life may be spinning wildly out of control, but the dynamic Wilson is in full control.
The studio cast includes major Broadway players in significant roles: Gavin Creel (La Cage Aux Folles, Thoroughly Modern Millie), who gets to be angry instead of sweet; Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn); Jesse L. Martin (Rent); and, best of all, Sherie Rene Scott (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as the leading character's new love. Scott's spectacular voice and warmth are a big, big plus on this or any album. Here, she adds romance and gentleness to a few songs that provide a break from the hard-driving rock sound. Christine Ebersole scores as the boss. Celia Keenan-Bolger (... Spelling Bee) is haunting in a brief appearance, and you'll even hear Kelli O'Hara (Light In The Piazza) as part of the chorus which is heard on about one-third of the tracks. Everett Bradley (Swing!) is entertaining as both a blues singer and TV reporter Chuck Bean ("Chuck Bean on the scene"). Sharon Leal as the wife has some strong moments, especially in a solo, an ode to her chosen career as a model.
Some moments are fairly effective storytelling, but not necessarily stand-alone songs that will make you press "repeat play." There's a heavy dose of anger and rage that may seem relentless, but there are enough changes of pace (humor, beauty, sarcasm) to get through it. The score has a pulse that won't quit and it's truly exciting in large measure, the rock sound totally appropriate to the time, the milieu and the characters' angst. It's rather difficult to believe that all the music comes from a five-man band; it's led by Roger Butterley who did the arrangements and plays guitar and keyboards. The vocal direction and vocal arrangements are by Ann Marie Milazzo who is part of the chorus, in addition to returning to her 1999 role as the mother. She turns in an emotional and thoughtful performance. Some of the tracks are shorter pieces, acting as conversation "links" to tell the story, rather than full-fledged numbers.
I hope the rock style won't turn away people who resist blast and bombast. The music is very, very theatrical. There is tremendous emotion in the score as sung and played. It's hot. If you think you might still be resistant, I've saved the best news for last. Composer Goodman's lyrics hold many joys. There is wit and he loves to rhyme: multiple rhymes in close proximity, unusual but in-character rhyme choices and some fun slang. (A couple of favorites: the boss scolding, "You're terminally unpunctual. Your work is quite dysfunctional," and in the comic rant "I Hate The French": "I'd rather have the English with their tea and Judi Dench. Marie Antoinette, bench that wench. I hate the French.") There are also some words that may offend, and this is my first review of a CD which has the "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" label. Yes, this is an adult musical about adult life. But the label I'd put on it would read: "Warning: Content may stimulate emotions and make you think, cry, or dance. Do not attempt to listen without an open mind."
Any songwriter would smile, breathe a sigh of relief and be safe from worry if he heard Barbara Lea had decided to make an album of his songs. This is a lady with taste, intelligence and tremendous respect for both melody and lyrics as originally written. She doesn't use tricks. She doesn't swoop or holler or embellish or show off. In a long career, she has never done those things.
This time around, she's celebrating composer Jimmy Van Heusen. He has been saluted in album collections from other vocalists who sing with a jazz flavor: particularly successful collections by Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, Sandra King (with Richard Rodney Bennett) and an especially fine one by Stephanie Haynes, plus a new one by Rebecca Kilgore. So, I wondered how different this could be, since all cover many of the same songs, and Barbara doesn't aim for reinventing and changing the original intents.
I should have known hers would sound fresh and familiar at the same time. Somehow, she always manages to sing as if she's "discovering" the song and experiencing it in the moment. She phrases so well, with subtle changes rather than broad strokes that would upset the apple cart of expectations. It's especially nice that she sings the introductory verses to the songs, some of which are rarely done, but are quite wonderful.
The album is subtitled "Leacock Sings Babcock," referring to the given name she shortened, Leacock, and the composer's birth name, Chester Babcock. The program is nicely varied, with choices from jaunty film title songs with Sammy Cahn lyrics, like "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Come Blow Your Horn," to romantic standards "But Beautiful" and "It Could Happen To You" (both with lyrics by Johnny Burke), done with restraint and elegance without being at all dispassionate.
It's interesting to hear how her voice has changed and deepened over the years. It's not as light and airy; it has deepened and become more interesting. Her alto remains warm and throaty and she luxuriates in the melody, glorying in the patterns and chromatic progressions. The tracks I keep going back to include an especially rich and regal "Heaven Can Wait" which, like the title song, has a lyric by Eddie De Lange. I also especially like the sprightly and spry "Sleigh Ride In July."
Barbara's pianist is Dick Miller, and Jon-Erik Kelso is the only other musician, with his trumpet especially fun and a propos for the opening song, "Come Blow Your Horn." But her real co-stars are the songs. Even if you know the melody or lyric, she makes you really listen and drink it in because she is such a presenter and an advocate. It's as if she's saying, "No, no, don't listen to me; listen to how this phrase goes into that one and how deliciously this word sits on that note." Somehow, with her expertise at doing this, you end up appreciating her vocal quality, her diction, and her charm all the more ... that is, if you don't take all that for granted. She probably wishes you would, but I can't.
Barbara's graceful and gratifying singing can be sampled on the web. You can hear bits of this recording at CD Baby and 13 of her earlier albums can be found at CD Universe. She also has her own website, www.barbaralea.com. Because of her laser beam kind of focus on lyrics, she's one who's been called a jazz vocalist, a "singer's singer" and is very much at home in a cabaret setting. Don't worry about the labels; just enjoy.
SO, WHAT ELSE IS NEW?
There's always something new ... or partially new ... or so long out of circulation it seems new, or might as well be, especially for people who haven't been listening to show tunes and standards for that many years. Collections can be tricky, involving the new and the old. Here are a few recent entries, briefly noted.
The "All That" of the album title refers to the fact that this is a compilation of eight tracks previously issued on various CDs on the Fynsworth Alley label on which Susan was a participant, and the "More" refers to two more cuts only available on this set, and one is titled "More."
Although there are no songwriter credits on the outside of the CD, if you're hoping "More" is the song written for the movie Dick Tracy, you'll be glad to know it is indeed. This was one of her numbers on Broadway when she appeared in the Sondheim revue Putting It Together. The high-energy, showy number is a good match for Susan's vivacious performing personality and belt voice. The second "newly recorded" tune is a sweet character piece about an adolescent girl's crush on classmate "Joshua Noveck." The talented writers are Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell. This charmer is from a show called Showing Off and it let us see Susan showing off her skill in telling a story and stepping fully into a character.
The other cuts include two from the studio cast album of Drat! The Cat! and the Stephen Schwartz opus "Meadowlark." The songs, though not preconceived as a collection, do show the performer's versatility. Especially good at capturing innocence without being cloying, Egan can carry off a medley of two songs from stage and full versions of Peter Pan and characterizations that are brazen or pensive.
Ten songs isn't much on a CD, and one can't help but wonder why there couldn't have been more of the "More." This is now issued on the LML label, and is in stores, after having been available at concerts. A likeable live performer, she comes across well on disc.
The England-based label Sepia has been putting out some early material, both vocal and cast albums. Quick flashback: "long-playing" 12-inch vinyl records came along mid-20th century. Some Sepia reissues predate that, so some are collections of "singles" or combinations of a couple of cast albums (and maybe a couple of extra odds and ends) on one CD.
This Dream Team set features Johnny Mercer, successful as a songwriter, pop singer and a founder of the Capitol record label. These recordings are mostly from the 1940s. Many Mercer collections available on CD are his own recordings of songs he co-wrote. Only three are heard here ("Dixieland Band," "Duration Blues" and "At The Jazz Band Ball"). The tunes range from sweet and sentimental to daffy ditties. There are 28 in all, some by Mercer alone, some by The Pied Pipers and some combining forces. June Hutton was a member of that vocal group and she takes solos in the last five cuts.
This is mostly a lighter-than-air affair. Even the blues are non-troubling. There are a few standards such as "Embraceable You," "St. Louis Blues" and even "Yes, We Have No Bananas." The sound is pretty good and it's a perky, smooth stroll through the past when a typical romantic song title was "I Had A Little Too Much To Dream Last Night," one of the June tunes.
The orchestras of Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl are featured and it's a fun grab-bag of stuff, especially because of Johnny Mercer's easy, breezy, never cheesy way with a song that makes you want to smile.
UNDER THE RADAR
Every week we bring your attention to an interesting CD that previously escaped our attention and deserves yours, but we don't usually find it in the classical music section with the artists' name in a foreign language. But there it was. Would you believe a group of a dozen musicians, all of whom are playing the cello? Yes, that German name above means "The 12 Cellists of The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra." It's a beautiful, sometimes exquisite recording masterfully produced with clear-as-a-bell (if I may refer to another instrument) sound. In addition to a bass player added for some tracks, they very occasionally allow a non-cellist to enter the recording studio briefly, to add variety. There's a cameo clarinet and a "temp" trumpet. For the finale, more strings thanks to a harp. But mostly, we've got celli and it's either heavenly or surprisingly jaunty.
Opening with Carol Channing's Broadway theme song "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the album is a real pleasure. You'll also hear another tune written for The Great White Way, the 1920s ditty "Tea For Two," not a song you'd think of for a roomful of cellists. There's even a song currently being performed on Broadway: "Love Me Tender," now jukeboxed into All Shook Up. The CD calls itself a collection of movie songs, and these melodies were heard in films along the way, even if not (like those mentioned) written for movies. The title song originated in a stage show called The Great Magoo, but as time goes by, it's best remembered as a song heard in the motion picture Casablanca. All those strings sound ravishing in themes from La Strada and Schindler's List. Even The Titanic doesn't sink under the weight of this treatment, and Oscar winner "The Windmills Of Your Mind" is another highlight. There's one vocal. Of all things, it's a Disney song, "The Bare Necessities" from The Jungle Book. The cellists know how to have fun!
When all is said and done, it's the elegiac playing and arrangements that make this a keeper. Two themes from veteran and prolific film composer Ennio Morricone are, expectedly, pleasures for the ear with such high-quality playing. The 12 men have ventured beyond the classics for gang-cello playing before. They have a collection of Beatles songs called - what else? - Cello Submarine.
In the midst of the the heat and humidity, there will be cool music to add to your summer, so please check in every week: we'll be listening for you.