Sound Advice Reviews
Heard First in ... 1959 ... 1960 ... 1961
If you strolled down Broadway late in 1961, among the shows playing were How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (which opened that year), the previous year's late entry, Do Re Mi, and a classic with a song that happened to have the same title as that show: 1959's The Sound of Music. All reappeared in New York again in the 1990s, with the first back with us again now (well, until this weekend). Here are post-original cast looks at each scoreplus singer Mark Nadler's CD of songs from 1961, including show tunes and more.
Star power and pop fame brings a 5-song EP featuring very entertaining and solid performances spotlighting appealingly bright-voiced Nick Jonas in How to Succeed, succeeding Daniel Radcliffe and Darren Criss as the ultra-ambitious corporate ladder climber. His savvy, polished vocal renditions are substituted on these tracks with material done about a year ago for the full-length cast album. With his enthusiasm and vigor in the opening lines of the title song, his joyfulness jumps out right away. Ebullience is mixed with a sense of keen observation, and self-awareness lies smack between the more boyishly sweet and innocent Radcliffe pluck and the far more conniving and nervy characterization Robert Morse imprinted on the role in the original production and film version. One misses that fierce determination and brashness, the fully convincing conniving, but Jonas does come off as a man on the mission stated in the show's title.
There's bounce in his opening solo section of "Brotherhood of Man" before the company joins in, but again it's perky with little evidence of a sly guy or any hidden agenda. Likewise, his juicy but quite straightforward crooning of "I Believe in You" has more of the kindliness and affection one hears in pop versions of the number, presumed to address someone else, rather than the show's broad comical context of a man singing to himself. Still, it's pleasing to the ear and a couple of strong high notes right at the end come as a very happy bonus.
"Rosemary" is lovely and lively, but sometimes feels distractingly studied and careful in the diction and pronunciation of some words. Perhaps that results in a sense that he's not fully bursting, breathlessly, overwhelmed with love, or singing with abandon. It's not an outsized characterization: he's happy rather than gleeful, cheery rather than goofy, a bit sneaky instead of snarky or snickering. In "The Company Way," Finch's attitude towards the cautious, tow-the-line co-worker is more amused curiosity, facts duly noted, instead of suggesting mocking or judging. What seems on disc to be a more gentlemanly side to what could be a cad may be smooth where others would find edge or silliness, it sounds like he's jumped in with both feet and having a ball.
I would have loved to have had the other numbers Finch sings on. He gets a good handle on the eager beaver quality. And I'd surely be eager to hear Nick Jonas tackle another Broadway role.
DO RE MI
Back in 1961, two days before How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying first opened on Broadway, another of the Great White Way's still-running shows about succeeding (or not) in another kind of businessthe music business (also with some questionable tactics and doings)landed in London. Do Re Mi has its own hapless hero. The lighthearted musical comedy was based on a novella by Garson Kanin and he wrote the show's book and directed it, bringing in none other than playwright Thornton Wilder to punch up the script. The score is the work of prolific writers who brought many projects before and after: composer Jule Styne and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Although few would argue that it's their most notable work, Do Re Mi has their breezy, brash trademark style, some broad shtick (the original stars were comedic pros Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker as a married couple), sturdy romantic ballads, mock shlock pop songs, and one sincere piece of advice and philosophy that became a standard: "Make Someone Happy."
This finally-on-CD recording of the London castwith half a dozen bonus tracks of alternate pop versions of a few songs, capped by demos of two songs cut from the scoreis well worth a listen. The release reviewed here is on the invaluable British-based label, Sepia Records. Also on the market is a CD from Stage Door Records, also with the 16 tracks by the British cast, but with its bonus tracks all by Polly Bergen, taken from her album. The British cast performances sometimes feel labored or skimming the surface of emotionseasy to do when the characters are rather cartoony or cardboard-y, posturing or puffed-up, or pushing pop product. Using a now-popular musical theatre classification in a more literal way, this was the first "jukebox musical" in that the plot concerns making a buck in the jukebox business. That leads to "All You Need Is a Quarter," by a glib vocal group, and the long-suffering wife pleading with her scheme-chasing husband to settle down and "Take a Job." Both numbers bring out the screechier aspects of the score's sound, the latter with Maggie Fitzgibbon kvetching in a blaming-of-the-shrew mode. Strutting irrepressibly with pluck and game good spirits, as his British music hall sensibility mixes with what almost passes for real-deal schlemiel, the high-energy performance of veteran Max Bygraves (who turns 90 this year) is key. Working the gags and bits (and movie star impressions in the set piece "The Late, Late Show") as his character works the angles, he brings showmanship, but it doesn't seem to all flow and float with a light touch. Desperation creeps in and kills some would-be/could-be joy, though the more blithe and bouncy bits deliver.
As the ingénue, Jan Waters is the most blatantly British-sounding of the cast. Of course, old school musical comedy, plotted with short-cut style, needs instant romance chemistry, and what could be more telegraphable for that than a duet titled "Fireworks"? Ironically, it doesn't quite catch fire here and build, despite its soaring musical architecture and breathless tempo. Otherwise, romantic stoker of the flames Steve Arlen fares well. Also heard from in the musical Cry for Us All, and over two decades later in La Cage aux Folles, billed as Steeve instead of Steve, he's a solid male musical theatre heroic-voiced fellow here, ably soaring on those rich melodies. I wish he found more thoughtfully nuanced phrasing to mine the much-needed emotion in the two more articulate lyrics he declaims rather than digs deeply into. With "I Know About Love" and the now famous "Make Someone Happy," he gets two shots on two of the score's rare glimpses of heartthe cast album and pop versions in the bonus tracks, each of those shorter and without their introductory verses, but interestingly looser and more flesh-and-blood believable, despite their more obviously commercialbut thankfully lush rather than tacky or transparently hard-sellarrangements by Ken Thorne. These were recorded the July before the October opening and, although not drastically different in tone and by the same singer, have sufficiently "new" feel to make them feel like true bonus tracks rather than footnote filler slight variations. (The cast album version of "Make Someone Happy" includes Jan Waters singing part of the lyric and the number is also heard in the overture and the brief finale where Bygraves begins it before the company joins in.
I'm happy to report that the other four bonus tracks are even more delightful, interesting and rare. There are two more versions of "What's New at the Zoo?," the silly bit of nonsense about crowded animals presented as a nightclub number for Tilda and chorus in the show proper. It is filled with Comden and Green's goofy, kid-friendly novelty tune rhymes (ouch!/pouch; zoo/gnu; "'Hey, Bill, you're stepping on quill!' said the porcupine to the swine"). We get Bygraves's cheery take and then the legendary madcap legend Beatrice Lillie having a ball squeaking and eeking, irresistibly gleeful. The CD ends with demos of two likeable but not major-league discoveries deleted during the Philadelphia try-out, sung here by demo/studio veteran Rose Marie Jun, whose refreshing, clean sound and well-rounded tones some musical theatre fans know from demos belatedly released as First Take, the LP called Harold Rome's Gallery, and the 25th anniversary studio cast album of the same songwriter's Pins and Needles with a 19-year-old newcomer named Barbra Streisand. Here, the Jun voice sounds terrific sailing through two numbers addressing the frustrations of love. First, the lively (after a gentle verse) burst of irritation: how attraction is often maddeningly not mutual and puzzling, summed up in the titular adviso, "Don't Try to Figure It Out." Then, there's a warm serving of yearning and hindsight as she spins the attractive ballad "Life's Not That Simple," compared to youthful days, missing "a world of black and white, where things are always the way they seem," bemoaning how "Love has fooled me." Too heartfelt for a show that didn't want to linger in real feelings or have a "downer"? Or would it have fit in somehow and deepened things? We'll never know, but you can figure on getting some worthy bits of history and perspective in the booklet. Despite this being the later, London cast, we're told the basics of the American version's genesis in fits and starts as well as the bumps along the way for the Brits. Additionally, there's a plot synopsis, credits and a few black and white photos from the English production. And the sound is pretty good. Putting the tempting comparisons bred in hindsight aside, so are the score and these performers.
THE HARRY ALLEN QUINTET PLAYS MUSIC FROM
If I were forced to sum up this next recording bluntly, in as few words as possible, I'd just borrow one of the song titles: "Something Good." But that would not allow me to state how genuinely enthused and impressed I am by the talent and creativity at work on the new coat of paint for the score of The Sound of Music, dipped in jazz. Tenor saxophonist and arranger Harry Allen and the other members of his group have brought a fresh sound to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, music relished, respected, re-thought, tickled, and affectionately shaken from its more formal stance. The vocals by Rebecca Kilgore and/or Eddie Erickson are gently hip, thoughtfully phrased, and sprinkled with new emphases as different settings and tempi reveal words lost in the sugary shuffle before. There's a sense of the musical corset being loosened, those ties that bind set free to let freedom bring small pleasures of new looks at very familiar material.
By not presenting the songs in show order, we're immediately able to get away from thinking about the storyline or anyone in our cast of two presumed to be any character. In fact, the disc begins with "How Can Love Survive?," a number quite different in flavor and attitude from most of the score, usually seeming lost among the big numbers and those focusing on the lead character. (Indeed, it's cut from the film and some productions.) Wisely placed as the opener, this tongue-in-cheek lyric, with sophistication and sarcasm, sets the tone of an invitingly casual and zingy experience. No hypoglycemic carnival of cuteness here. It also establishes the palpable ease that these two unpretentious but enormously skillful, very musical vocalists have with each other and the material. The tenderness of their singing and the band's playing, even when they veer sharply off the beaten path for a phrase or much more, erases any thought of a cavalier attitude. Although the performances showcase their formidable abilities and inventiveness, everything serves the material, nudging its inner secret identity awake in new ways rather than slapping it shockingly with ill-suited new garments and colors. If you thought you knew these songs inside out, just wait 'til they are turned inside out and the stoic and bouncy rhythms given a musical chill pill.
The extremely prolific Mr. Allen, who's been heard in many aggregations, as soloist, duet partner, leader, sideman with vocalists (his work with John Pizzarelli and kin is especially notable) is at his multi-faceted best here. First of all, as the album's arranger, his ideas that make this so special can't be overestimated. Only three of the 14 tracks are without vocals. The most intriguing of these is "The Lonely Goatherd" wherein Allen and the band really shine. They take the sinuous and insinuating melody line and make it pure delight, absent the boisterous flavor and steel-belted drive of the melody as in the show. Without the yodeling and increasingly revved-up brisk cheer of children that is its most memorable quality in the musical, it's endearing as an instrumental exercise. The melody (and its expanded experimenting by players) courts you instead of bombarding you. The marvelous slow, sleepy beginning to the band's "So Long, Farewell" made me wish it didn't pick up in tempo so soon. It could have been splendidly eye-opening to experience it fully as a drowsy lullaby. The quick-paced section is much less interesting, but it's a treat on its own terms. Joe Cohn on guitar is consistently captivating in subtle touches, striking solo spots, and rhythmic undercurrents. Likewise, pianist Rossano Sportiello commands attention when playing sparingly to accent drama or create tension, or cutting loose in sprightly sprees that are pure pleasure. Along with the spot on work on bassist Joel Forbes and the discreet drumming of Chuck Riggswith flashes of personality and spunkthis is showcased playing where no one overstates the case or upstages anyone. It all feels like conversation and teamwork.
With seemingly effortless whipped-cream vocals and sublime intonation, Rebecca Kilgore is always a pleasure, but her airy vocals and modest approach seem to be increasingly blessed with even more dynamics and personality. She could always agreeably float across a melody and graced any material. But now she seems less just one of the musical passengers going along for the ride and more in the driver's seat. And that's all to the good. She pulls off quite a feat when she solves the problem of taking "Maria," a piece for the nuns' chorus and individual voices, into a solo without it seeming shortchanged, silly, or very different views and arguing, different personalities awkwardly squashed into one. Instead, she convinces us that someone perceptive might view the character of Maria as multi-faceted, being all those many seemingly contradictory things at once. Eddie Erickson's "Edelweiss" (closer to the tone of the original than many of the pieces) is wistfully wonderful, but inevitably it's even more refreshing to hear a couple of these songsespecially the title songin a male voice. His "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in a laidback manner may have an uphill battle to seem like its philosophy would hold up without the usual urgency and, while it's a nice change of pace, the "pensive" path doesn't quite make it. When the singers' voices are voices intertwined, singing non-unison lines/notes, the blend is quite striking, especially at one point when they begin a cappella.
This generous feast includes the two numbers written for the film version with Rodgers' own lyrics (included in some latter-day stage productions): "I Have Confidence," a sunny, serene reading by the radiant Rebecca; and Eddie Erickson thoughtfully phrasing "Something Good" as if the realizations and awe seem coming to mind as they are sung. On this track, Allen dazzles with separately layered playing of various tenor sax lines, making for a mystical mix of multi-sax tracks.
Appreciative liner notes by jazz critic and author Will Friedwald are insightful and have a dash of his irrepressible humor. And appreciation for this adventurous and successful tour of the score will likely send satisfied customers out in search of more by [most of] this congregation, including their looks at two other Broadway giants: South Pacific and Guys and Dolls. Keep an eye out for their coming together again, as Miss Kilgore and Mr. Allen will do at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in NYC this summer; earlier, the instrumental group with guest players is there June 10. Individually, these folks are all over bringing the sounds of music. But I think open-minded theatre fans will welcome them in their own homes via recordings like this embrace.
"Life's Not That Simple," one of the songs cut from the score of Do Re Mi, is sung with passion and palpable disillusionment by singer-pianist-arranger-showman Mark Nadler on his new CD based on his current (summer tour) tour de force cabaret show, Crazy 1961. We also get a memorable number introduced in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Tryingthat Broadway show opened on the day Nadler was born. Inspired and informed by that coincidence, he comments on the awe, hope, and potential brought on a newborn and croons with true sweetness a slowed-down rendition of "I Believe in You" as a parent would address it to such a beloved babe with "that upturned chin and the grin of impetuous youth." It's a winsome and touching way to approach the number written as comic narcissism for a go-getter.
The famous version of the country smash "Crazy," referenced in the title of this generally successful CD, was recorded on the day of his birth. It's attacked here head-on with ferocity rather than sentimental lamenting. We're told these things in the singer's spoken voice on the disc. Although not recorded live, evidence of the impact of the act and its structure and flow are here, with some patter. This includes a rendition of Carnival's gentle and endearing theme, "Love Makes the World Go Round," its simple innocence and hope rattled as Mark's singing and playing is interrupted numerous times by his rattling off cold, ugly memories of news-bite items of the yeardeaths and political upheavals, including the Bay of Pigs. The dramatic juxtaposition workschillingly. Also included are his T.M.I. introductory comments about his being conceived and, later, brief thoughts on his growing up as the unplanned fifth child of his parents or the world "growing up." Liner notes add examples of milestones in that year, from J.F.K. to the U.N. and other F.Y.I. points of context.
As his own effective and prodigiously able pianist and arranger (giving himself a few real instrumental solos as respite and extra added bliss would have been welcome for this listener), Nadler is joined by four other musicians. They are the DIVA Orchestra's dynamic leader/drummer Sherrie Maricle, guitarist Scott Johnson, bassist Robert Sabin, and Dan Willis on clarinet, sax and flute (a few flute sections felt more lobbed on and on a different "page" to me), but generally the teamwork is of a piece.
E.Y. Harburg's lyric to "Adrift on a Star" from The Happiest Girl in the World is cued by spoken memory-joggers about the historic events of the space race. The cheery "Hey, Jimmy, Joe, John, Jack" from the musical Let It Ride is another "thinking outside the box" choice and bubbles up with spunk and spirit. And when was the last time a vocalist plucked a selection from the score of Kwamina? Doing "Ordinary People," the resourceful Nadler surprises again. The title number from Noël Coward's Sail Away, rather than a dreamy ode or winding its way as wistful wanderlust, is a thunderous declaration of independence, proclaimed and self-propelled with guts and intensity. It may seem a bit nervy, a bit extreme, a bit much, but it's a bold choice, and caution is thrown to the wind. All these descriptions can still sometimes describe the go-for-it way Mr. Nadler can go.
A few brief moments of in-the-moment explosiveness go for the jugular or rawness and sacrifice sheen and purity, it's usually a small price to pay. Some strong choices may take some "getting used to" or, for some, may fall immediately into (or stay) in the Mixed Blessings/Disappointment Departments. As I hear them on disc, there are a few: His portrait of the nasty canine-hater "Cruella de Vil" (Disney's 101 Dalmatians) wears out its welcome. It has promise, but its slinkiness and sly humor is not as spot on as I'd hoped, with a taste of a Fats Waller playfulness fading too soon and replaced by a bigger, broader roar, getting bigger. And he chooses to do "What Now, My Love?" in the original French as "Et maintenant ... "but his accent is hardly the smoothest, most convincingly natural you've heard. Still, the anguished emotion comes through.
The grand finale for the grand Mr. Nadler is the ultimate 1961 merrily manic mash-up, taking eight minutes and sixteen seconds. For those who haven't had their fix of rock and pop in the theatre-heavy main feast, it's time to gorge on elisions and/or segued snippets of fifty golden oldies from that year. Of course, this kind of thing is more impressive in person as his self-challenged non-stop Olympic Event of 1961. Still, it's a hoot, and there are a few clever fusings of unlikely musical companions I won't spoil here.
The whirlwind known as Mark Nadler will be whirling around the world with this show for some time to come, along with his Broadway Hootenanny show settling down (as much as he ever can!) for an extended stay in Australia during the summer. Then, it's back to the ride in his year-specific time machine.