A New Brain, which opened this spring at Lincoln Center for a limited run, is the semi-autobiographical story of its composer, William Finn, the two-time Tony-award winning composer of Falsettos. Mr. Finn was diagnosed with brain cancer a few years ago and wrote a musical about his experience. One might think this might make a depressing musical, but it is not. Mr. Finn's music is joyful and uplifting for the most part, never somber.
Those who are familiar with and enjoy Falsettos will most certainly love this show. In fact, I found it to be more tuneful upon first listen than I did Falsettos. The one drawback is that its narrative is not as clear, which may be the reason it did not move to another theater for an open-ended run. Nonetheless, it is a most enjoyable CD and gets better on repeated listening.
A New Brain tells the story of Gordon Schwinn, a composer for a children's show, who gets a brain tumor before he gets the chance to write his big Broadway score. Like Falsettos, A New Brain is mostly sung and features a small cast. There are many fine performances on this disc, and it would be difficult to single out anyone in particular. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention Malcolm Gets, who gives a terrific performance as the ailing composer.
This recording is not quite an original cast recording since Christopher Innvar, the original Roger, was replaced by Norm (Side Show) Lewis for this recording; Mr. Lewis did eventually replace Mr. Innvar during the run of the show. Since I did not see the show, I cannot comment about how Mr. Innvar was in the show, but Norm Lewis does an excellent job and delivers the ballad "Sailing" beautifully.
While some might find A New Brain not as powerful as Falsettos, there are many fine moments in this show. "Gordo's Law of Genetics," "Change," "And They're Off," "Just Go," "Throw It Out" and "The Music Plays On" are just a few of the standout tunes. There are also strong performances by the great supporting cast, featuring Penny Fuller, Liz Larsen, Chip Zien, Mary Testa and Michael Mandell. Michael Starobin's orchestrations are perfectly suited to the material. At 78 minutes, there is little is missing, since the show ran 90 minutes in the theater. This CD is very playable, and I highly recommend it.
The biggest dance film from the 70s, Saturday Night Fever, recently opened in the West End as a stage musical, and its cast recording was released during the summer on Polydor records. Another big dance film, this one from the 80s (Footloose) has also made its stage debut. While many film musicals have been transferred to the stage -- with varying degrees of success -- these two films both have a problem others did not. The shows' signature songs were heard in the background as accompaniment to the dancing; none of the music was used to forward the action of the story. However, in both cases, the music at least commented on the action occurring on screen or in the character's minds. With Saturday Night Fever, an attempt has been made to make some of these songs into character songs by changing a word or two here and there.
Saturday Night Fever tells the story of Tony Manero, a 20-year-old who works in a hardware store. He looks forward to weekend visits to a discotheque, 2001 Odyssey, where he can do the one thing he loves most in this world, dance. Cast as the disco-dancing king is Adam Garcia, who has a slight tenor voice and sings most of the songs on this CD. Anita Louise Combs portrays Stephanie Mangano, Tony's sophisticated dance partner, who gets to sing the Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb classic "What Kind of Fool?" (not from the film, but from the Streisand album "Guilty") as a solo in addition to a duet with Mr. Garcia on "How Deep Is Your Love?" While most of these songs still sound like dance-pop songs on the recording, I am surprised at how well some of them come across as character songs. As the tragic heroine of the story, Annette, Tara Wilkinson sings "If I Can't Have You," which, ironically, was originally sung by another theater performer, Yvonne Elliman ("Jesus Christ Superstar").
Only eight tunes were retained from the film. Two new songs were written for this production: "First and Last" and "Immortality", which was first heard on Celine Dion's hit album, "Let's Talk About Love" from last year. Two additional songs come from previous Bee Gee albums. "Tragedy" was interpolated into the score and given to the character Bobby C. to sing; it is coupled with the new song "First and Last" and fits perfectly with the rest of the score. The other song not from the film, "It's My Neighborhood," comes from the Bee Gee's 1989 album "One" and sounds like a group number a la West Side Story. While some theater fans may avoid this album, as it really doesn't sound like a theatrical recording, it includes nice cover versions of some of disco's greatest hits and is a pleasant listen.
Avenue X, which was seen at Playwrights Horizons in 1994, has just had its cast recording released by RCA Victor. It is an a cappella musical about racial conflict in 1963 Brooklyn, and has a score by Ray Leslee (music) and John Jiler (book and lyrics). The bulk of the music consists of doo-wop and rock 'n' roll along with some gospel, blues, and jazz - all sung a cappella. None of the songs seem to further the story and there is no synopsis to say otherwise. They seem to be the repertoire of the singing group upon which the story is based. Some of the songs are interesting, and the performances are first-rate, but none stick out in my mind. This disc will probably not appeal to too many theater fans except those who may have seen this musical.
Because The Wizard of Oz is one of the world's most beloved films, it is not surprising that at some point it would be transferred to the stage. The first professional production took place in London in 1987 and was presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company for a limited run, with a book adapted by John Kane from the original screenplay and new orchestrations by Larry Wilcox. It was then revived during the '88 -'89 season and recorded by producer John Yap for TER records. This recording is an excellent one, but it does not feature any star performers in the leading roles. This production has since gone on to become the standard performing version used by most companies.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey was the first company in the U.S. to use the adaptation (in 1993). Madison Square Garden, looking for a new production to produce every spring - much like their winter feature A Christm as Carol - invited the Paper Mill to restage their production for MSG. It premiered in the spring of 1997 with Roseanne (Barr Arnold Thomas) as the Wicked Witch of the West. This spring it returned with Mickey Rooney as the wizard/Professor Marvel and Eartha Kitt as the Wicked Witch/Almira Gulch.
This new recording was produced by Robert Scher for TVT records shortly after it closed in New York and before it headed on an extended tour, which will end with a return to MSG next spring. With three different versions of the movie soundtrack readily available plus the London cast, it seems hardly necessary to have yet another recording of this famous score, but it is delightful nonetheless. When Roseanne was the Wicked Witch, she didn't have anything to sing, but for the return visit, Eartha was given the opening to "The Jitterbug" - a sequence cut from the film and restored for the PMP production. Since neither Mr. Rooney nor Miss Kitt has much to sing in this show, their contributions are mostly relegated to spoken dialogue. Both performers are a joy to hear and good reason to have this disc, especially Miss Kitt.
Jessica Grove is a charming Dorothy and Lara Teeter (the Scarecrow), Dirk Lumbard (the Tinman), and Ken Page (the Lion) head up the rest of the cast and do respectably well by the score. This cast recording seems to flow better than the TER because there is more connective dialogue and makes the story easy to follow (as if you didn't already know it).
Soundbytes: New releases due this fall from First Night records include the original London cast of Leslie Bricusse's Doctor Dolittle on October 26th, and the new London cast of Oklahoma! sometime in November. The cast recording of Zombie Prom was supposed to be in stores on September 14th, but I have not seen it yet.
Looks as if the week of October 26th will bring a lot of new releases. Following Dr. Dolittle on the 27th will be the Cats video (Polygram) and accompanying CD, the original Broadway cast of Triumph of Love (at long last -from JAY records), and the Encores! concert recording of St. Louis Woman (Mercury) starring Vanessa Williams and produced by Hugh Fordin of DRG records.
That's all for this week, join me in two weeks when I will be taking a look a few solo discs by some of Broadway's divas. 'Til then, happy listening!