Sound Advice

Richard Rodgers and ...

While Hamilton, playing at The Richard Rodgers Theatre, may be Broadway's hottest hit, the music composed by the man for whom the venue was renamed is ever present. (Under its former name, The 46th Street Theatre, it opened 83 years ago tomorrow, and among its tenants were a revival of his On Your Toes opening 61 years ago Sunday, Do I Hear a Waltz?, and a show his daughter Mary contributed to, Working). This weekend you could walk down the same block and find a cabaret show dedicated to his songs with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein at Don't Tell Mama or venture uptown to see The King and I at the Beaumont, where Mary's son Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza played. All the aforementioned shows by the family, except Working, are among those represented on CDs reviewed this time.

Judy Kuhn surveys all three generations, including two selections that are also on Eric Michael Gillett's all-Hart CD and two that Karrin Allyson has on her Rodgers & Hammerstein disc (both ladies open with the opening number of the team's first show, Oklahoma!). Thirty-six years after his death, we can still say of Richard Rodgers—to invoke a song title from his Allegro, which opened 68 years ago tomorrow—"You Are Never Away." That show played The Majestic, which also housed Mary's Hot Spot and her dad's final show, I Remember Mama, as well as his Simple Simon, Babes in Arms, the original On Your Toes, Carousel, Me and Juliet, and South Pacific.


PS Classics

Swimming in Broadway's prime gene pool, Judy Kuhn and company immerse themselves in work by the Rodgers dynasty: Richard, daughter Mary, and her son Adam Guettel. The soprano, who earlier dedicated albums to songwriters Jule Styne and Laura Nyro, weaves in and out of the work of all three writers, occasionally letting the proceedings go beyond proximity and actually blend.

One example of the combining comes right off the bat; she raises the bar quite high indeed with the gorgeous first track,"Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." At generous length, the 1943 piece stakes its full claim for attention, letting us linger in its sweet richness, before adding icing to the cake with "The Call" and then letting them intermingle. The latter is one of three selections from Adam Guettel's remarkable Floyd Collins score, one that the singer professes great admiration for in her liner notes. She's obviously quite nestled in her comfort zone on these, as she sounds in full command navigating the melodic hills and valleys of beauty and delicacy, the plot-specificity of some lyrics neither distancing nor a hurdle. Taking a cue from Hammerstein's lyric exultation of appreciation of Nature, "The sounds of the earth are like music," it's a smooth transition to the Guettel's exploration of the echoes in the Kentucky cave where the title character gets trapped.

The fifth track is the one attempt to let the three generations compare notes, so to speak, in their contrasting views of romantic love. Hart's "Nobody's Heart" lament of loneliness, barely masked by the bravado of supposed indifference, starts the set. Then comes some sparkle with "Hey, Love" (the Mary Rodgers/Martin Charnin song from Hot Spot! which was also heard as the title number for a recorded revue of the lady's melodies). The lush and uber-romantic "Love to Me" from The Light in the Piazza thrillingly if schizophrenically ends the segment. The trio suggests perhaps someone reclaiming a determination to believe that love can and must be fully experienced. A reverse trajectory might have been the more obvious or convincing route—to go from possibly naïve faith in all-conquering, all-consuming love to some cheerful dose of reality, and then the self-defense armor needed to endure being single and "sad at times." But it works well this way, with the life-affirming, love-affirming conclusion and big musical waves so well handled by the full Kuhn soprano with its throbbing vibrato.

Guest Schuler Hensley and a chorus do most of the singing on Once Upon a Mattress's "Song of Love," with Mary's bouncy melody and the gleeful Marshall Barer lyric's announcement of "I'm in love with a girl named Fred," a made-to-order partner for South Pacific's Nellie's exultant celebration of how she's in love ... with "A Wonderful Guy." The latter song returns the spotlight to Miss Kuhn. The mash-up goes back and forth between the two happy declarations in the "Me, too!" conversation. It adds a needed burst of unbridled, uncomplicated joy. Rogers & Hammerstein followers will note that daffy mood is quite a contrast to the way most first encountered the male performer—as the brooding, intimidating Jud in five latter-day Oklahoma! productions, including London and 2002's Broadway revival.

Malcolm Gets pops in to play husband to Kuhn as they share barbs and bitchery in the only sample of Richard Rodgers' work after the death of partner Hammerstein. 1965's score for Do I Hear a Waltz? is represented by "We're Gonna Be All Right"—sort of; we get the original, sharper version of the lyric by Stephen Sondheim (who'd been mentored by Hammerstein and was a longtime friend and occasional collaborator of Mary's). This is the set of words used in Sondheim revues, contrasted with the milder version Mr. Rodgers insisted on as a rewrite. But Gets and Kuhn don't bare fangs and go for the jugular, aiming for the funnybone instead. It's still a romp, with a few more pointed digs; folks familiar with Judy Kuhn's current role as wife of a closeted man in Fun Home will duly note this spouse's outing line, "Sometimes he's homosexual/ But why be vicious? They keep it out of sight."

Another stab at humor, to represent Hart's lauded skill set with sarcasm and flippancy is, for me, the least successful track in performance and arrangement. Taking stock of feelings and symptoms that all evidence glowing health and calm, a character considering personal condition concludes "This Can't Be Love" because the expected miseries and anxieties are absent. The snideness and snarkiness don't come through and the arrangement's consecutive repeating of lines meant to be said once each doesn't enrich things, but rather seems to dilute by overexposure. The main chorus is simply repeated, rather than risk trying the variation that was written or the cute verses that mention Romeo and Juliet. That might be too much to expect, as few singers have taken advantage of those. So, the track is fluffy instead of feisty.

The album, with a velvety net in its caring production by PS Classics' Tommy Krasker and Bart Migal, is based on the concert this past February at Lincoln Center's American Songbook series. Music director/arranger/pianist Todd Almond is a fortuitous partner choice. This multi-talented man, also a skillful songwriter himself, has devised a mix of creative and more conservative musical dressings that flatter and illuminate the family pedigree of melodic gifts. He brings added and unabashed emotion. His singing voice is most welcome, too, on two duets. There's "Daybreak" (Floyd Collins) which is captivating. And they harmonize warmly on an obscure but very worthy piece by Mary Rodgers (music and words) called "Am I?" that is one more reason to believe re-discovery of the under-the-radar work of this gifted lady who passed away last year is overdue.

Orchestrations are by Josh Clayton who has the happy task of his work being played by such adept musicians as the always satisfying cellist Peter Sachon who brings such feeling to his playing. He enhances songs with each appearance. But it's Todd Almond who is a gentle but very present and gracious anchor. He has a special touch on the keys and his presence can be felt, very much breathing and emoting with the vibrant and intense singer that Judy Kuhn is. Her prodigious instrument in its more operatic and stately modes doesn't get so heavy or forceful as to overwhelm a fragile lyric. Contrariwise, there's much heart and heartbreak in her performances. There's a maturity, pensiveness and attention to detail and diction in her work in the serious moments. The Guettel material shows her gifts to fullest advantage here, but her wistful way with The King and I's revealing key moment for Anna, "Hello, Young Lovers," makes one want to hear her sigh in Siam. And by Siam I mean Lincoln Center. But for now she's back home in Fun Home.

EMGC Recordings

Draw water from the well of lyricist Lorenz Hart and you'll find it has many flavors: There's the tart Hart, with his tangy and stingingly sharp but delicious jabs, and something salty or sour can be fun to drink in. Then there's the oh-so-smart smart Hart that is all about the crisp craft of polished wordplay and fresh, bubbling rhymes. And, when it's time to soak in romance, genuine sweetness with maybe a bitter aftertaste lurking. Eric Michael Gillett's generous delivery of Hart's versatility lets your cup runneth over. And Richard Rodgers' celebrated melodies are well served by this award-winning singer-actor-director-vocal teacher who can croon or use the full power of his impressive theatre-honed voice. It's great to hear this veteran of Broadway shows (Kiss Me Kate's revival, The Frogs, and The Sweet Smell of Success). In an easier-said-than-done (for most) approach, he lets the song's emotions dictate what kind of voice colors to display.

Your attention is riveted immediately with the disarming a capella opening for "Sing for Your Supper." Taken more thoughtfully than we're used to, it's suddenly a more serious treatise on the plight of a singer. The single word "But" becomes a loaded, sad game-changer with a shift in mood and timbre and a mini-pause and shrug. The presence of pianist/music director/arranger Don Rebic at the keyboard makes for a particularly elegant affair, leaning towards the cerebral. The keyboard artist with a classical sensibility but jazz chops can turn a pretty ditty into an art song. Perhaps best of all, his intuitive sense of drama and tension, in a moment-by-moment, phrase-by-phrase excursion through a number, makes everything count from the instant the mood is set. It's a sensitive sensibility the singer shares. Even one of The Great American Songbook's most often bookmarked pages, "My Funny Valentine," becomes caringly special with a jewel-like setting that makes you really listen to the overexposed lyric. The guy seems to value the lyric as much as the lover, as we feel both being so cared for. It's a more interactive experience. Hart's questions now are no longer rhetorical; they are being considered by both parties.

As the redoubtable Rebic is no stranger to jazz, he seduces the star into some of that irresistible hip slinkiness. In "You Took Advantage of Me," they uncoil the melody and lyric in cat-like playfulness. Make that a Cheshire Cat, self-satisfied wide grin firmly in place. Dick Sarpola's bass work is crucial here and is spot on. The jokey Gillett-whispered comment at the very end is the capper that makes me laugh out loud each time because it's so perfect and so surprising. (No spoiler here; I'll just say it's just a couple of words and they aren't Hart's.)

The album is based on Gillett's cabaret show where "Careless Rhapsody" was the title song placed as the encore, and it's similarly the final piece here in a grand and wide-ranging program. And, because this 1942 By Jupiter gem is rarely done outside the musical (don't ask me why), it holds special interest. And it is done particularly well, with a mix of passion and pluck.

The dour and desperate solitude and outright rejection are palpable in the emotionally naked performance of the resignation in "This Funny World" set up by "Nobody's Heart." Both betray an unquenchable thirst for connection, but both advocate the mask and stiff upper lip in a cold world ("If you're beaten, conceal it/There's no pity for you" because, you must see that "this funny world is making fun of you").

A bonus of a non-Rodgers melody comes with a ravishing "Vilia" from Hart's English lyrics for Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow, here combined with the ardent and irony-free sincerity of "My Heart Stood Still," both delivered with graceful aplomb and golden, pristine tones. And it doesn't escape observation that the title is self-referenced in the winking list of conditions not experienced and so "This Can't Be Love" because, unlike what one would expect, "My heart does not stand still/ Just hear it beat./ This is too sweet/ To be love."

Speaking of buying those clichés, "Falling in Love with Love" is also part of an impressive and clever mash-up. The early part of the song states the philosophy that love means "playing the fool," just a "juvenile fancy." It speaks in a universal way about the experience in a dismissive way. Then, pow! He's suddenly blindsided by the depth of his feelings before and after a break-up, saying of the new reality he never thought would come to pass, in the past tense: "It Never Entered My Mind." After reeling in wounded surprise, he uses the last part of the first song, which is also written in the past tense about a personal journey, moving beyond the aforementioned general philosophy mocking the folly of love to confess to the listener what happened to him: "I was unwise with eyes unable to see/ I fell in love with love, with love everlasting/ But love fell out with me."

A happier state of affair(s) comes in taking three songs together to tell a story. He starts with the cheery tale that starts with someone's casual question and introduction to a lady in "Have You Met Miss Jones?." The lyric as written doesn't tell us much about the woman beyond the bare outline that there's an "all at once" attraction and they end up as a couple. Here, with the help of two other Rodgers & Hart standbys, we keep up with the Jones description provided by the other lyrics: "Wait Till You See Her" creates anticipation about a person a listener has barely met or pictured. Now we hear about the awe-inspiring lady's "looks ... her laugh ... the warmth of her glance ...," but we still don't have much in the way of specifics until the jubilant Gillett describes her hyperbolically as "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" who has assets beyond looks. Finally, all three numbers gel in a perfect storm, tying the trio of titles together.

The anything-but-careless approaches on Eric Michael Gillett's Careless Rhapsody are a bounty. The proceedings are also enhanced by other musicians who also add their arrangements for the instruments, such as the super-skillful Jonathan Kantor, who plays several. Paul Rolnick, a savvy record producer, does that job with flyer colors here, his mix most appealing. All parties here are On Their Toes, to borrow the name of one of the musicals sampled, with an appealing "The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye" paired with Pal Joey's "You Mustn't Kick It Around" (the "It" being Hart referring to a person's heart again). An oft-quoted review about Pal Joey's slicker kind of guy presented as an anti-hero heel stated "You can't draw sweet water from a sour well." The refreshing water from this well is not sour at all, but rather has a kick. Yum.


Motéma Music

Currently performing at Birdland in Manhattan, before gigs shortly in California, Seattle, and Paris, Karrin Allyson is celebrating the release of her new CD of Rodgers & Hammerstein gems, Many a New Day. Back in 1992, this spectacular and creative artist issued an album that included the songwriting team's "It Might as Well Be Spring" from State Fair. It was the beginning and the end: It was the beginning of her recording career (her first release) and the end track of the album, and the end of her recording anything by the great team. Until now. There was also a Rodgers & Hart item on that initial disc and one more by those two, but the jazzy singer's numerous CDs had some show tunes by others, in addition to Brazilian numbers, pop, pieces by the jazz giants, standards, and a recent Christmas album. I admire her work and its eclectic genres, and it has deepened over the years, becoming more emotional without losing any jazz chops "cred." I hope there'll be more theatre music like this because it combines the best of all worlds.

Those expecting vocalists' songbook albums to cover the breadth of the writers' oeuvre might well be surprised that only four of the team's scores are represented on the 14-track CD. Five are from their first project, 1943's Oklahoma!, and Broadway's current revival resident, The King and I, gets four. Three come from South Pacific, a show she played the lead in when she was a teenager falling in love with musical theatre. After skipping back and forth among these three scores, the disc ends with "Something Good" written for the film version of The Sound of Music with Rodgers' own lyric, and finally Hammerstein's final lyric, "Edelweiss" from the original score. In deciding what to record, the singer watched DVDs of the film versions over and over. Her liner notes comment briefly on each selection, always referencing the performers from the movie, not the stage versions. But her renditions are very much her own, some arrangements and approaches as many miles from the originals as Bali Ha'i is from Bangkok.

In often fascinating reinventions that make us hear the material with fresh ears, the album is quite the triumph. Karrin's cozy, warm and fuzzy voice with its confident mastery of musical leaps and bounds highlights unexpected aspects of some lyrics and melodic invention shifting emphasis on the musical lines makes one want to unhesitatingly renew her artistic license. Purists may complain about the shake-ups, but as I hear it, the essence and heart of a song always comes through—some of them with new or unusual hues. "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is soaked in brooding blues, bemoaning the attitudes of rejection passed on from one generation to the next. Sadly, the negative preconceived notions about "people whose skin is a different shade," which still bring tragic headlines of hate crimes, make the blues all too appropriate. It's more effective than a preachy approach that this piece sometimes takes on. "I Cain't Say No" is also a detour from the usual path. It doesn't go for broke with brashness or comic zeal. Slowed down, sexy, and knowing, it thankfully doesn't veer into vulgarity. There is an odd innocence and hapless quality inherent in the number that is a big part of its charm. The Allyson attitude is playful and earthy, without getting eye-battingly coy. The only other singer who's found a new way with this that still makes me chuckle because of her timing and smarts is Jessica Molaskey. Writing their own ticket, the two are on the same page, with no plagiarism.

Before we go further, I must mention the musicians—all two of them. They deserve star bows, too, so crucial and substantial is their work. John Patitucci is on upright bass, given a bigger and more diverse role in accompaniment than bass players usually get. His work is flavorful, weaving in and out of the singer and pianist like a dancer. Kenny Barron is on the keyboard and is just superb. A major figure he is, but he doesn't ever overplay or overwhelm. Whether playing with delicacy or muscle, he is very much a partner. He's fascinating to listen to, both for his supportive and leadership moments. The arrangements are the singer's own, informed by her own experience as a pianist. (She lets the two gents sit out the last track, playing for herself and making "Edelweiss" a touching and spot on sign-off.)

I suspect that the very few diversions from the published lyrics are unintentional, rather than the cavalier attitude some jazz singers have for embellishing or paraphrasing. In a thoughtful and persuasive "Something Wonderful," she's upped the total number of the King's "dreams that won't come true" from a thousand to a million. A mild but initially distracting change finds the animals scurrying for safety when "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" comes down the road named in a different order, when that first line of the chorus should be: "Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry." Her same re-ordering happens when the chorus is repeated. But there's little repetition in her approach to tempo and tone. This surrey surely is having a bumpy ride, as it keeps veering and accelerating.

I don't know if it's an arranged marriage or just a coincidence that two pieces that have the same key nouns in their choruses' first lines come one after the other: They are "I Have Dreamed" ("that your arms are lovely ...") followed by "Out of My Dreams" ("and into your arms I long to fly ..."). Both capture the longing their different characters feel. Some of the most successful re-fittings come when loosening the ties that bind melodies to strong melodic architectures. Such is the case in Bloody Mary's South Pacific overtures to persuading other characters' views. When the long and quite pronounced notes of "Bali Ha'i" get relaxed and "Happy Talk" eases off from its perky rhythmic zip, both become more subtle. We listen to these lyrics in a different way. The Hammerstein messages and the Rodgers musical moods need not come on so strong and underlined, once we've known them inside out as originally presented. In Karrin's masterful yet understated casting coup, more subtlety and nuance can come in, even letting us reflect on words now getting more emphasis since she can have the space to do that. And when the song breathes a little more, and so do we as we ruminate instead of being mesmerized by one's mystique and nodding and grinning to the beat of the other.

"Hello, Young Lovers" is closer to the home base of The King and I original feel, complete with the longish "When I think of Tom ..." set-up. It could use a drop more of the bittersweet, but it is still voiced in a mature and thoughtful persona. From the opening track, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'"—a mix of sweet serenity and funkier feel—to the end, there's much commendable and commanding work on Many a New Day. And I know that I'll spend many a new day and night revisiting the sublime Karrin Allyson revisiting these classics rethought so that everything's going her way. Oh, what a beautiful way.

- Rob Lester

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