In March of 2001, Scott Siegel, best known as a theater/cabaret reviewer and author (usually with his wife, Barbara), started a series of concerts at Town Hall that focused on recreating a snapshot of Broadway musicals year by year. Three of the concerts have been released on CD so far (I'll cover the most recently released, Broadway Musicals of 1940, in an upcoming column).
The first, appropriately enough, is the recording of the first of the concerts: The Broadway Musicals of 1943. The album provides a captivating, if somewhat depressing, snapshot of what was playing on Broadway in 1943, and the narration by Siegel is oftentimes hysterical and always historical.
Featuring performances by Jason Graae, Heather MacRae and Sally Mayes, the CD contains songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Oklahoma!), Cole Porter (Something For The Boys),Rodgers and Hart (A Connecticut Yankee), Kurt Weill (One Touch Of Venus), and Lerner and Loewe (their first musical, a big-ol'-flop entitled What's Up?). While the album contains many a familiar number, it is the obscure songs, some of which are receiving their premier recordings, that captivate. Sally Mayes gives a winning performance on a trio of love songs: "My Last Love" (What's Up?), "To Keep My Love Alive" (Connecticut Yankee) and the hysterical "By The Mississinewah" (a duet with MacRae from Something For the Boys), and Jason gives an equally delightful performance on "You Wash and I'll Dry" (What's Up?).
The second album, The Broadway Musicals of 1933, is even more engaging, focusing as it does on shows and numbers more obscure and forgotten. While the CD contains an echo-chamber sound not present on the first (which is correctable by tweaking one's stereo settings: oddly enough, having my stereo set to its "rock" sound field cleared it right up), the performances and song choices make up for any sound deficiency.
This time around, the composers are Irving Berlin (As Thousands Cheer), Jerome Kern/Otto Harbach (Roberta), the Gershwins (Pardon My English and Let Them Eat Cake), and Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht (The ThreePenny Opera, which had its disastrous premier in 1933). The 1933 album contains even more premier recordings than the 1943: "Never Fear" (from Champagne Sec, a version of Strauss' Die Fledermaus), "Ooh I'm Thinking" (a cute number from Strike Me Pink, by Lew Brown/Ray Henderson, that could have been lifted from Ain't Misbehavin'), "Swapping Sweet Nothings With You" (Hold Your Horses), and the original translation of "The Legend of Mackie Messer" (a very dark version of "Mack The Knife" from Threepenny Opera, which better illustrates the power of the original German and is expertly delivered by Mark Coffin). Standout stars are Mary Testa (a fantastic "I'll Be Hard To Handle" from Roberta), George Dvorsky (a thoughtful and tender "If I Love Again" from Hold Your Horses by Ben Oakland/J.P.Murray) and Mark Coffin ("Mackie Messer "and Let's Call It A Day" from Strike it Pink). Other singers featured on the album are Anne Runolfsson, Mary Bond Davis.
The first, Life Upon The Wicked S.T.A.G.E. , showcases (as you might well imagine) the songs of Jerome Kern while the second CD set celebrates Kurt Weill. Both are incredibly orchestrated albums featuring a plethora of songs and singers on each of their two discs. While past S.T.A.G.E. albums have featured a few too many TV/film personalities who obviously hadn't used their singing voices in quite some time, both of these albums contain many a fine performance (due, in no small reason, to the inclusion of more Broadway and cabaret performers into the mix).
It is hard, indeed, to pick out the stronger of the two album sets (so you might as well get both). However, disc one of the Weill disc is decidedly the strongest of the lot. Charlotte Rae starts the proceedings with a bang with a superb rendition of "Pirate Jenny" (no surprise, as she was in the 1954 Broadway production of Threepenny Opera). Other highlights include Jodi Stevens' "I'm A Stranger Here Myself," Norm Lewis' "Apple Jack," a hysterical "Lullaby" by Kathryn Skatula and Mary Van Arsdel (from Street Scene, and the only truly enjoyable song with lyrics by Langston Hughes on the discs) and Rod McKuen's "September Song" (his ragged voice adding poignant depth).
The second Weill disc is more uneven as it starts off with the weakest songs on the discs (both from Street Scene) and the two subsequent numbers (one of which is also from Street Scene) do little to get the album back on track. Once the album gets back to Lady In The Dark land, things get better thanks to Jack Noseworthy's "Tchaikovsky" and Carole Cook's superb "The Saga of Jenny" (with a wonderful tinny honky-tonk piano accompaniment). While having Tim Curry sing "Surabaya Johnny" in German is fun for the first couple of minutes, one wishes he had switched to English at some point (as it is a 5:22 song). Loretta Devine ("Mack The Knife") and Brock Peters ("Lost In The Stars") end the disc with an appropriate big finish.
While some of Kern's material hasn't aged as well as Weill's, Life Upon The Wicked S.T.A.G.E. is one of the best orchestrated and best sounding live albums heard in a long time. Jamie Anderson starts off with a beautiful "The Song Is You" and from then on there is nary a weak moment on either album. Lee Lessack delivers a winning (and wonderfully understated) "The Folks Who Live On The Hill." Lea Thompson has great fun with "Shimmy With Me" (and sounds good doing it). Bruce Vilanch talks through "They All Look Alike," a hysterical number that deserves some looking into (my only serious complaint with both releases is the lack of documentation as to where the songs come from). The second album starts off with a wonderfully arch rendition of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" sung by the incomparable Charles Busch, followed by a surprisingly well-performed version of "Long Ago (and Far Away)" by Pam Dawber. Other highlights: Joan Ryan ("Yesterdays") and Valerie Pettiford ("Can't Help Lovin' That Man").
Webster's Dictionary defines 'musicality' as meaning: 1) sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music and 2) the quality or state of being musical. Both definitions are amply demonstrated by The JAY Records Musicality Series, which has released CDs featuring the music of Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Lerner and Lowe, Jerome Kern, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The albums mainly contain material previously released on other JAY albums, but as they encompass quite a number of albums (some of which are out of print), they make for wonderful collections. While one's enjoyment of each album will depend on one's preferences for any given composer, they are all enjoyable and would make a wonderful introduction an unfamiliar composer.
The Sondheim album was my personal favorite, thanks to a stellar lineup
of songs and singers. Highlights include: Judy Kaye ("Wait"), John Barrowman
("Anyone Can Whistle"), Carolee Carmello ("Broadway Baby"), Sean McDermott
("Loving You"), and Susan Egan ("Sooner Or Later").
Oddly enough, while Irving Berlin would be my next favorite composer in the series, it was the least enjoyable of the albums, due to a long stretch of songs in the middle of the album that lacked energy and sounded too similar. The album is redeemed, however, by Judy Kaye's "Moonshine Lullabye" and Elisabeth Welch's "When I Lost You."
The next strongest album would be that featuring the music of Jerome Kern . While it is more operatic in nature (and thus may not be as palatable to those raised solely on pop-musicals), it is a delight, especially its fantastic version of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" as sung by George Dvorsky with a fabulous orchestration that quotes La Boheme ala "La Vie En Rose."
While the Lerner and Lowe CD is the most predictable (no surprises in regards to its song choices), it is worth getting for some oddball singer/song pairings (especially for Christopher Lee's "Wandrin' Star" and Bob Hoskins's "Get Me To The Church On Time"). For sheer beauty, there is Gregg Edelman's "How To Handle A Woman."
The Lloyd Webber album is surprisingly enjoyable, and reminded me that, when paired with a good lyricist, he can be quite the engaging tunesmith. Highlights include Paulette Ivory's killer version of "Macavity," Kim Criswell's "As If We Never Said Goodbye," and some great renditions of little done songs: James Graeme's "Whistle Down The Wind" and Sally Ann Triplett's "Our Kind Of Love" (Beautiful Game).
With this being the year of the Richard Rodgers centennial, and with the Kennedy Center doing a Sondheim Summer, it is surprising that nobody is doing a production of their sole collaboration: the 1965 flop, Do I Hear A Waltz? Luckily, we do have a new recording of it to help fill the void: the Fynsworth Alley release of the recent production at Pasadena Playhouse that starred Alyson Reed (Leona), Anthony Crivello (Renato) and Carol Lawrence (Fioria).
With a book by Arthur Laurents (based on his play, The Time Of The Cuckoo) the show tells of an American woman, Leona, who travels to Venice and discovers love with a married Venetian. The show is as much about the clashing of cultures as it is about love and the inevitable clashes that the emotion brings. Despite the fact that open warfare erupted amongst the creative team (specifically between Rodgers and Sondheim), there is a lot to like about the show. Listening to the score, one really is hit by how Rodgers was a musical chameleon, changing his musical style and vocabulary to match his collaborators. Indeed, many of the tunes he fashions in Waltz sound as if they could have come from Sondheim's pen and work nicely with Sondheim's lyrics. It is also interesting to note the myriad themes and examples of word play found in Waltz that crop up in Sondheim's later works.
While the Original Cast Recording is impossible to beat, featuring as it does an incredible cast of singers, the cast on the new album is largely up to the challenge. Alyson Reed gives a winning performance as Leona and shines on a song added for the production, "Everybody Loves Leona." After an absence of four decades, it is a pleasure to hear Carol Lawrence, who sounds wonderful as the landlady of the pensione, Fioria. She displays a fine wit on "This Week Americans" (and its previously unrecorded follow-up, "Last Week Americans") and a touching sense of pathos to "Moon In My Window." Although Anthony Crivello is no match for the original Renato, Sergio Franchi (and it's hard to think of who would be), and sounds much too young for the part, he brings a sense of desperate longing to "Thinking," although one wishes they had retained "Bargaining" to give him more to do.
Collectors will appreciate the newly recorded overture, the addition of dialogue to facilitate understanding, and a restoration of Sondheim's original lyrics for "We're Gonna Be Alright" (supposedly axed by Mrs. Rodgers, who didn't appreciate the dark tone given the problems her marriage was going through at the time).
One of the oddest re-releases to hit the CD shelves is the Broadway Cast Album of The Nervous Set, part of DRG's Broadway Collectors Series. If you have not heard of this show, you are not alone, as it ran only 23 performances in 1959 (and had the sense of timing to open the day after Once Upon A Mattress and a week before Gypsy). You probably have heard a song from the show, however, as "The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men" has becomes a jazz and cabaret staple.
The Nervous Set, with music by Tommy Wolf, lyrics by Fran Landesman, and a book by Jay Landesman (based on his novel), was billed as the first beatnik musical (or at least the first to hit the Great White Way) and the Playbill even contained a glossary of beat terminology. Essentially, it lampooned both the beat set and the established upper class with virtually no story to speak of: Brad, an editor for "Nerves" magazine, devoted to publishing the works of 'beat' writers, marries upper class Jan. Their relationship is tested by Brad's bohemian chums, but love wins out in the end. The show plays more like a "National Lampoon" or "Mad" magazine sketch with songs and the cast is largely unremarkable, although one member (Larry Hagman) achieved success outside of musicals.
When the music focuses on tweaking or exploring the beat set, it is surprisingly good and holds up well. The orchestrations on those numbers have a timeless jazz sensibility and sound like something one would hear on the radio today, (indeed: a number of the songs would be worth looking into by jazz singers today, specifically "What's To Lose" and "I've Got A Lot To Learn About Life"). The songs that poke fun at the establishment, however, have not aged well and one even verges on the offensive ("Max The Millionaire," in which the gang spoofs a poor sucker they are bilking of funds, smacks of anti-Semitism, with its Fiddler On The Roof-esque tonic structure).