Each of this week's albums features the work of a particular songwriter, a cross-section of his work - usually over a wide span of time. The oldest song on a CD here is the 80-year-old "Memories" co-written by Gus Kahn, one of writers saluted. But one of the songwriters we spotlight is even older. Bernie Bierman, age 97 and still going strong, presents the newest songs here - from this year. Also this week are tributes to lyricists Marshall Barer and Alan Jay Lerner, as well as collections of the work of two giants who happen to share a birthday (different years), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.
Admirers of Stephen Sondheim were treated to a cluster of his early private recordings earlier this year, and now the second of three volumes is here. Sondheim Sings, Volume II has more unknown and older songs than the first, and they are fascinating. These bits of heretofore squirreled-away tapes of the composer-lyricist singing his own material cover the years between 1946 (three snippets of piano pieces) and 1960. PS Classics, who also provided the recent cast recordings of his Assassins, Pacific Overtures and The Frogs, gets the thanks for this history lesson.
There are songs written for college shows and later professional attempts that didn't get produced, and a long sequence written for (but ultimately cut from) a TV show, The Fabulous Fifties. It uses old children's songs as the melodies. This CD is a musical time capsule with social satire, wit and clever rhymes, but then again this was post-West Side Story and Gypsy, so it's not surprising. (But who thought we'd ever hear the same tune used by Stephen Sondheim and Barney The Dinosaur?)
What is surprising is how sharp and skilled some of the earliest work is. The melodies are more than fine and dandy, but simpler and less daringly original than what he'd grow into; the lyrics show many seeds of the later wit and polish.
The album opens with a private birthday song from 1955, which teases a friend about looking older than he is. It's so much fun, and the comic timing in Sondheim's delivery is superb. Some songs will be familiar to fans, such as the numbers from Saturday Night and two songs heard in Marry Me A Little. "Do I Hear A Waltz" bears a resemblance to his later lyric of the same name, but it's not that one.
Now for the disclaimer: although this is valuable and intriguing, the sound quality varies because these were not meant to be commercially released nor done professionally. And the singing voice strains and wobbles at times. Sondheim has never pretended to be a performer. End of disclaimer.
There is a truckload of talent already very plainly evident in this early work. Make that two truckloads. "New York Song," from a planned musicalization of the film The Clock, has a knowing lyric about the city natives who trumpet its attractions but "never had the time" to bother to visit them. A booklet provides not only all the lyrics but the history, photos and handy explanations of the dated or obscure references in the lyrics.
We've got two months til Christmas, but this feels like an early present for musical theatre fans and scholars to go back in time ... and rhyme. With a store date of October 25, the CD is already available for purchase at PSClassics.org.
B. J. WARD
No, I didn't know that B.J. Ward was the voice of Betty Rubble in "The Flintstones," "Wonder Woman" and a friend of "Scooby Doo." I first came across her via her album Stand-Up Opera, which combines humor and - you guessed it - opera. So I knew she had a strong comic sensibility and can really sing. There are no arias on her just-released CD, but there is a huge supply of funny business. This is because it's a recording of her cabaret act with songs all co-written by the clever and often saucy Marshall Barer. Recorded live at The Gardenia in California, there is a lot of talk about the lyricist, including some colorful anecdotes preceding the occasionally off-color material (very occasionally). The stories she tells are helpful and interesting in trying to get a sense of this man whom she repeatedly describes with words like "eccentric" 'but she clearly loved this unconventional but talented man who died in 1998.
Musical theater followers know Barer's lyrics from his one big hit Once Upon a Mattress and there's a terrific five-song medley from the score, written with composer Mary Rodgers. Her son, Adam Guettel, appears in a bonus (studio) track duet, "Rondelay." It doesn't give him a chance to show the beauty of his singing voice, but it's sweet to hear his sweet voice anyway on this cute echoing number. His grandfather, Richard Rodgers (along with partner Hammerstein) is the subject of another song, "The R & H Factor" and one of his melodies appears as well - "Isn't It Romantic" is used as a counter melody to Barer's "Wasn't It Romantic." Michael Feinstein recorded this combo, too, and reprises it here with B.J. as the other bonus item. Michael, a friend of Marshall's, has recorded several Barer songs and a couple of those appear here, too, including a heartfelt number written by the two men, "For Love Alone." The show is being performed on Monday nights in New York City at Feinstein's at the Regency through November 7.
B.J. Ward has a clean and clear voice. It has warmth, and her diction is especially good. That's important here, because you would not want to miss a word of the clever lyrics and the well-crafted rhyming. Though comedy was Marshall's claim to near fame, his serious songs are equally impressive and reveal the heartbreak of a troubled soul. There are some great discoveries in the numbers that make you cry and the others that make you laugh til you cry. Marshall Barer wrote lyrics about loneliness, lust and longing. And the theme from Mighty Mouse, too! As an encore in the act, Marshall's voice is heard on tape singing "On Such a Night As This" and B.J. soon joins in on this number written for a show planned for Broadway.
This recording is recommended, both for the talents of B.J. Ward and for the excellent material - from the sublime to the ridiculous.
I am flat out in love with Lerner in Love and think it's a remarkable achievement. Barbara Brussell wraps herself up in Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics and relishes so many individual words and turns of phrase in a way that makes me appreciate singer and song more than ever. What strikes me is that she is so present at each emotional point in the story of each song. Very much an actress, Barbara makes the most of each moment, making often unexpected choices in phrasing. One of the things I remember most in reading about the lyricist and playwright is how he often took weeks on various drafts, tweaking, rewriting, going back to the drawing board. When this interpreter takes such care in bringing out the craft of the rhymes and images, I can't help but be grateful for the fruits of that labor.
I didn't think I'd find so many new ways of looking at these songs after knowing the various cast albums plus countless cover versions of the hits, and Lerner collections by vocalists Julie Andrews, Brent Barrett, the jazz duo Jackie & Roy, an old album with Kaye Ballard and the man himself, and Ben Bagley's Alan Jay Lerner Revisited, plus three concert tributes.
Barbara is a fearless singer. She is more than willing to be revealing, fragile, even foolishly and naively romantic. She dives right into the romantic waters, but most of the songs chosen are the happier ones, so she's not drowning in treacherous seas. Whether belting or taking a turn at quiet reflection, the singer is commanding. Her fuzzy, fizzy voice is well suited to a sense of awe and wonder as in "Gigi" or "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." In these numbers where a character is thinking out loud and discovering something, she is so "in the moment" you'd swear she didn't yet know what the next line is. I was especially happy to hear two selections from the Broadway score Carmelina: the perfect mood-establishing album opener, "It's Time for a Love Song," and one of the most perfect bittersweet songs ever, "One More Walk Around the Garden."
Although Barbara can rip the roof off and rip your heart out with a torchy turn such as "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," I think she's even better at the most unabashedly romantic numbers. Four songs from Brigadoon, Lerner's first hit show, are especially glorious in this category, with their majestic Frederick Loewe melody lines. With a generous 71-minute playing time and five tracks being two-song medleys, the beguiling and breathy ballads are wisely varied with powerful and passionate pleas, like "Anyone Who Loves," a call for tolerance from Dance a Little Closer (1983) with Charles Strouse's music. That show's title song is successfully partnered with "I Could Have Danced All Night," one of four from My Fair Lady. The classic score's "Show Me," usually sung in explosive fury, is slowed down considerably and revealed to be seductive rather than assertive. It's the major reinvention here among many smaller, more subtle creative ideas.
This is a high-class, high-gloss production with high marks for the arrangements and the work of all musicians. Barbara is reunited with Todd Shroeder who produced, orchestrated and played piano on her only other solo album, Patterns, which also showed off her quirky and comic side, back in 1998. Here he produces and sings one duet quite effectively ("You Haven't Changed At All") but only plays piano on three tracks. He shares arranging credits with Scott Harlan and Tedd Firth, the main pianist. Tedd is one of the most skilled and sensitive players I've seen and heard in cabaret and jazz. Other top jazz players are present: Steve LaSpina is on bass and the wonderful Gene Bertoncini on guitar. Trumpeter Warren Vache makes valuable contributions on three tracks and Robert Kyle sits in on sax on "There's Always One You Can't Forget." Likewise, this album is one you can't forget: it stays with you.
Although these interpretations sound fresh and spontaneous, it's all been developed and honed in live engagements since the first month of 2004 through this Saturday when she appears in New York again. After appearing on the bill with many others that night at the Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center, she'll have a late show at Danny's Skylight Room. Next, she's turning her attention to Johnny Mercer. I can't wait.
Visit www.barbarabrussell.com for more information.
WILLIAM BOLCOM, JOAN MORRIS,
In the same decade Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics were first heard on Broadway, Gus Kahn's last lyrics were being presented. This Kahn was a pro. His songs were on the musical menu for a 2004 concert at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village, recorded live for this newly released album. They span the years from his earliest hits to 1941, the year he died. The 1941 numbers are "Day Dreaming," with music by Jerome Kern, and "You Stepped Out of a Dream" from the film Ziegfeld Girl (music by Nacio Herb Brown). The lyricist had an especially fruitful partnership with composer Walter Donaldson. They came up with a variety of hits: the tender "My Buddy," the comic "Makin' Whoopee," the torchy "Love Me or Leave Me," the nostalgic "Carolina in the Morning," all present here - and others, too. One of the earliest songs is "It Had To Be You," (music by Isham Jones) which is still heard and recorded 90 years after its debut.
I've always enjoyed the albums by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, mostly songwriter tributes. The mezzo-soprano and the pianist (who sings a bit and is a composer in his own right) always strike me as quite formal and serious. That works well for some of the older material they favor, and there are flashes of fun and relaxed moments here and there. Many of their performances come off as parlor entertainment or recitals to me and I feel should be wearing a tie and sipping lemonade and clapping ever so politely. They've been married for thirty years now and recorded together a bit longer than that. I like the respect they have for the music and that they often find little-known songs, like the less familiar "I Must Be Home By 12 O'Clock," written with George and Ira Gershwin, and "Your Eyes Have Told Me So." It's also great that they include the introductory verses which set up the song, some rarely used. Joining them are tenor Robert White and ragtime specialist Max Morath (vocals and piano), the most relaxed of the bunch. With vocal solos and collaborations, there's variety in the singing as well as the tempi.
With affection but without trying to dissect the songs or radically alter their construction, they are presenting the songs. "Presenting" is the operative word. This is a good choice for traditionalists and with 24 numbers, it's a plentiful sampling of early 20th century popular tunes. Most are romantic and cheery, so all in all, as the concert ends with "Ain't We Got Fun?" - the answer is "yes."
Meanwhile, back in the recording studio, Andrew Lloyd Webber has remastered some old tracks recorded by Sarah Brightman, and joining them on this new album are six previously unreleased cuts. All are Lloyd Webber compositions, representing nine different scores. Devotees of the composer and singer will have many of these selections on older albums, so let's keep track of the tracks which aren't on those.
"Probably on Thursday" was written for Song and Dance and is a light pop bit of fluff, making for an oddly non-dramatic opening piece. "The Perfect Year" (Sunset Boulevard) gives the soprano more to work on and brings out the sweetness in her voice, nicely matching the song's mood. From the same show comes "Too Much in Love to Care," done in duet with John Barrowman, and though they aren't the best of blends to my ears, most of the song finds them singing separately. The big song from Aspects of Love, "Love Changes Everything" gets a somewhat less bombastic treatment than others have tried, but it's still quite a production. "Seeing Is Believing" from the same score with that show's star, Michael Ball, is a nice surprise. "Make Up My Heart" from Starlight Express is also newly issued, and Sarah stays in a light, pop mode. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure as it's kind of bubble gum music that kind of works. The lady can be a musical chameleon.
As far as the previously available eight songs, they range from the appealingly gentle title song for Whistle Down the Wind to Evita's more dramatic and full-blown "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," sung in Spanish, and two duets with Steve Barton from a little show called Phantom of the Opera which can't be stopped any more than the Andrew Lloyd Webber compilations and collections. I'll admit to not being a close follower of the former Mrs. Lloyd Webber's work, nor a big ALW fan, though there are some songs I enjoy, particularly some of the earlier and less melodramatic ones. I certainly know there are many eager fans who will snap this up when it is released October 25th. I can almost hear the snapping now.
UNDER THE RADAR
Bernie Bierman has not been under my radar as I've known his songs for some time, from a few albums featuring his songs and some isolated tunes from long ago. But when this release called Bernie's Journey came to my attention, it took a bit of checking to figure out if it was new or old. The answer is: both. Like the last item reviewed above, this CD collects some tracks previously available plus several that have not appeared before. If you were browsing at a record store, you might not know what to make of it as nowhere on the front or back cover will you find information indicating who performs the songs or even that there are many different singers. So this column is here to set the record straight.
Among the new items is the zippy and funny "I'm Looking for Someone," performed with great spirit by the brassy, sassy Klea Blackhurst. The lively and creative Alex Rybeck is at the keyboard - another plus. More comedy is found in two group numbers, "The Friars' Club on Thursdays at Nine" and "The Elderhostel Family" which pokes fun at aging with lines like "our average age is B.C." (Mr. Bierman is now 97 years young and these are newly-written songs.) The composer-lyricist himself sings and plays the piano on "When I'm Here With You" with the ingratiating charm you might expect from a man who has written the other sweet and spry tunes. That number was written to express his thanks when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award last year from the publication Backstage. Also new to disc is "Why Did We Wait So Long?" which sounds like a long-lost ballad from the 1940s when so sincerely sung and played by Steve Ross at his best. (Steve is also heard in duet with Michelle Pirret on "Let Me Be The One," the one track from her all-Bierman CD, Somewhere In The World.)
Other reruns are mostly from a 1995 Bierman and friends CD called The Other Half Of Me featuring Hildegarde's last two recordings. Her medley with Bill Wright is here. A change of pace is "Now and Then," the lyric spoken fervently by David Kenney, known in these circles as the radio host of WBAI's Sunday night Everything Old Is New Again where he champions the good stuff: show tunes and standards, including many items discussed in these columns.
My favorite arrangement is the snappy "Don't Shout" from another various artists outing, We Have Something To Say. Robin Field does the appealing singing. His former singing partner, Bill Daugherty, sang the male lead in the recording of Bernie Bierman's musical The Farmer Takes A Widow and one track from that CD is here, with Barry Levitt as musical director and pianist. The well-sung optimism-drenched number is "Pick Yourself a Lucky Star." It is typical of the unpretentious Bierman melodies, lilting and nostalgic. His lyrics tend to favor plain rhymes and indicate he doesn't have a mean bone in his body, although he clearly has a funny bone. And I make no bones about the fact that there is sentimentality that can get pretty thick, but there's some spice among the sugar. It brought a smile to my face.
Good songwriting + good interpretations = good listening. I'll be listening for you next