Misia & Mazzie
A case can certainly be made that Vernon Duke was one of the more versatile composers of the Golden Age. With success via theatre songs that could be wistful (the odes to great cities' seasonal attraction: "Autumn in New York" and "April in Paris") or cheery, like "I Like the Likes of You." He had a whole separate career as a composer of more "serious" work for ballets and classical-styled works. His musical theatre scores range from peppy revues to Cabin in the Sky with tender and jaunty melodies and the recently rediscovered and quirky Sweet Bye and Byealso on PS Classics, the label bringing this posthumous item, intriguing in a more serious way, with some satire, too: Welcome to the world of Misia. Marin Mazzie shines in the title role. The musical is based on the real-life lady of that name who was muse and supporter of a who's who of French painters, and confidante/companion to those peopling society and the arts, beginning in the 1880s.
Misia has an unusual history. Its score began as a whole other piece, another story in another language, the biography of another person by another wordsmith! It had French lyrics, but was never produced. Duke's widow Kay got to know Barry Singer after he wrote an essay praising the late composer, and one thing led to anotherthe "another" being her offering him a chance to take that score's melodies and starting fresh with a new and unrelated story. As the project developed and was tried out, more and more other "left behind" orphan melodies of Duke's were incorporated as he was given access to those, too. The off-and-on work during a 15-year period has resulted in a lovely and unusual piece that captures the ear immediately, but may require repeated listening for full appreciation. It has passion and whimsy, some satire, and bounce. It has definite style.
With many numbers positioned as back-and-forth conversations, it can feel like dialogue set to music (even though we know that the music came first). Numbers evoke sophisticated operettas and, occasionally, art songs with their adventurous and non-"commercial" structures. But, oh, the melodies are rich! Lyrics range from the merely plot-serving detailed establishment to the more tender and unguarded revelations of oft-guarded characters. But with the Duke gift of melodic invention, much feels more sumptuous than the words on their own would suggest. The characters are wealthy in monetary resources or creative output, so there's a highborn or high-living joie de vivre and unburdened flights of fancy.
A magnet for men because of her beauty, figure, and personality (as well as opening up her home as salon and opening her checkbook, too), Misia catches eyes and hearts and hopes. The plot (synopsized in a booklet which includes samples of paintings of her, but not the lyrics), lets us follow her through various marriages, a dalliance with a woman, and a ménage à trois. Marin Mazzie's performances, featured on many of the tracks, let us enjoy her work in romantic and thoughtful soprano mode, zippier moments, and pointed attitudes in the included dialogue (also by Singer).
As usual, PS Classics populates the recording with first-rate, well-cast performers, including two who joined Mazzie on the memorable Sweet Bye and Bye: the always-welcome and versatile Telly Leung and clarion-voiced Philip Chaffin, label co-founder. Misia's husbands are played by more top talent, all Broadway vets: the superb Bobby Steggert, Marc Kudisch (sly and egotistical in his assertively oily moments in "You Will Know Me"), and Jason Danieley, our star's real-life husband, also cocky and big-voiced.
Eddie Korbich as Renoir doesn't get prime solo spotlight, but he always adds dash and color. As the dance world's impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Jonathan Freeman makes a strong impression in three contrasting numbers. His solo, "Nursery," sung as a tender lullaby to his star dancer is quite moving in its simple, sincere display of paternal-like affection. His duets with Marin Mazzie, commenting on "Lies" and gloating how both have "No Talent At All" (no artistic skill, but the essential gift of taste and serving as inspiration) is clever and they nail it without pushing the ham envelope. But the company numbers where the men converge to praise and flatter Misia, and urge her to disrobe for a nude painting, show great teamwork and their distinctly different voices make for a wonderfully appealing musical composite. In their amiably drunken joy in being drunk and going off "To Bed," Stephen DeRosa (as Toulouse-Lautrec) joins Leung and Chaffin to great effect.
The cast is completed by two women: Lauren Worsham (with the liveliest number, as a can-can dancer) and Darcy Dunn as the then-current wife of Kudisch's lusty Edwards. There's also a chorus singing together to fill out things as guests and other citizens. Coco Chanel, a prominent figure as friend in Misia's life, does not appear here in song. (She's already had her own musical, of course.)
Some lyrics are highly polished and nicely rhymed, with welcome bursts of wit (more might well be in order) and frank discussion of having mistresses. Some lyrics are peppered with conveniently rhyming French words with their plethora of open vowels. Perhaps due to fitting ideas to pre-existing finite melodic lengths, some songs at their endings feel either redundant or like they need to go on a little more to make their points or don't have quite the form needed to make and reinforce their lyrical points in more satisfying, crisp ways. And while Marin Mazzie does solid work, she doesn't get the dazzling showpiece hoped for. Her solo "My Heart and I" is borderline flowery, owing too much to fluffy pseudo-poetic writing for distancing operetta's more generic declamations and many, many old songs' applying the power of independent "thought" and actions to a human heart. Still, it's rhapsodic on its own terms. There are lines that feel too banal to be sung and occasionally one will feel like filler, such as in "A Child," after Misia makes it clear that's what she wants, does she really need to blandly and immediately sing "I really, really do want a child"? But Vernon Duke's masterful music sets the bar pretty high for any lyricist and his melodies must often prove a challenge as they are not always traditional, going in unexpected (if attractive and interesting) directions.
The atmospheric recording is produced by the reliably astute and sensitive Tommy Krasker, yet another feather in his very well-feathered cap. My own cap is off to the fine 13-piece orchestra conducted by Scott Dunn, also credited with adapting and arranging it, adding much to our immense pleasure here. And one can hardly ask for a finer or more heavyweight orchestrator than Jonathan Tunick! While it may be difficult to feel very drawn in by the problems of the never-fully-fleshed-out privileged characters via the songs and bits of dialogue, we don't quite drown in delicious whipped cream. If not fully riveting, there's splendid work done here on a diverting and era-evoking piece that is steeped in elegance.
Ten years ago, a live album recorded in a classy Manhattan nightclub featured vocals by Marin Mazzie and her husband, performer Jason Danieley, and it was mainly show tunes. The CD, Opposite You, featured decades-spanning classics from Irving Berlin to Sondheim, the writer in whose Passion many theatergoers first knew her. With the exception of one show tune introduced 80 years ago, theatre music is absent from this Broadway performer's next releaseas a solo artist. Make Your Own Kind of Music was also recorded live at another classy Manhattan nightclub, 54 Below, and instead finds the Mazzie voice wrapped around pop songs that informed her growing-up days in Illinois.
The choices are some of the hits that many would hear on the radio at the time, and then rush out and buy and spin again and again. She begins with those from her parents' collection which they'd play as she listened. There are two of Rosemary Clooney's early hits: the warm ballad "Tenderly" and "Come On-a My House" in a splashy Tedd Firth arrangement where she omits naming the items offered at her house (candy, Christmas tree, and various fruits and a marriage ring), substituting blasts from the band, suggesting perhaps more X-rated pleasures. This latter song provides her with her opening number. Also recalled from her parents' pile of discs is the romantic standard "That's All." And then there's that one theatre song, the Cole Porter standard "Begin the Beguine," first heard in Jubilee and oft recorded over the passing decades. She sings it lustily against the drums of Larry Lelli.
We hear patter about a young Marin dreamily listening, watching her parents dance as she follows along with her dolls. (There's quite a bit of included talk, all concerning her memories attached to music, and some is wedged between verses of the numbers as narrative, and a few other sections are separately tracked.) She evidences some self-aware humor along with the buckets of nostalgia about growing up and her family homes, school, and record players.
Once she gets to the music of the 1960s and 1970s, her own era, not quite as many liberties are taken with the sounds, stylings, and tempi in many cases. While not slavishly imitating them, there's a definite fondness apparent, keeping her rather close at times to her adolescent self she describes: the girl who sang alone into her purple hair brush, dreaming of being a singer and having a record. Sometimes that and boisterous vocalizing in chest tones come through more than the emotional potential of the lyrics as especially personalized statements. While they don't often come off as reinvented, filtered through her own life experience, Marin does capture some joy and heartache. And if the joy seems largely the joy of just singing old pop-rock favorites she shared with millions of peers (some clearly in the appreciative audience), it's a happy holiday. It was wise to have this album presented as a live recording so we can be sure of the attitudes, intents, and witness the communication, cemented by the tongue-in-cheek narration. The professionalism and lingering affection and rekindling of memories (for performer and audience) keeps a listener from feeling led down a memory lane in Karaokeville or Wedding Band land. I readily admit that 13 of the 14 numbers (I am minus The Partridge Family opus "I Think I Love You") are in my own collection in their earlier, most famous forms, purchased out of fondness in pre-reviewer days.
The look back makes no claim to be diligently representative of its eras beyond Marin's own old favorites in teen idols and female vocalists. Don't look for the broader scope of the CDs Boom! by Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway or Maureen McGovern's A Long and Winding Road which include The Beatles, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Jimmy Webb songsnone of those are included here. This singer's shared touchstones range from Bacharach & David's "Anyone Who Had a Heart" (a thumping, dramatic highlight here) to her encore romp on the Neil Diamond-penned smash recorded by The Monkees, "I'm a Believer." She recalls her love for the soundtrack of A Star Is Born and how she got to sing its love theme by Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, "Evergreen," for a program at her Catholic high school blessing the school rings, though the nun in charge censored a lyric line as too suggestive. We don't get to hear the whole lyric here either, and it's interrupted with the anecdotes, but it's sweetly done, with a big (but not overdone) nod to Barbraisms.
High school romance blossomed in her steady's parked car listening to the longing in the Barry Manilow hit written by singer Randy Edelman "Weekend in New England" ("When will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?"). Starting slowly and cozily like Manilow, Marin's version builds in volume and intensity to a more dramatic climax of frustrated passion.
Having a guitar in the quartet is wise for a show with rock and pop; Nate Brown does the honors and all the musicians chime in on background vocals. Arrangements are by various hands, including music director/pianist Joseph Thalken (six) and bassist Pete Donovan (three). (Dan Lipton contributed three others.) They are a solid group which flatter the singer, never overpowering her, through there's not much worry of that with her strong-stanced lower-register singing with power and gutsiness that may surprise those who only know her from high-voiced "legit" soprano work like the revival of Ragtime or the revival of Kiss Me, Kate.
I do wonder if Marin Mazzie's Broadway-prioritizing fans will sigh that she is barely showing her pure soprano tones and avoiding musical theatre. 54 Below is noted for welcoming musical theatre performers exploring their pop side and exercising their inner rock stars (like Norbert Leo Butz, Michael Cerveris, Jarrod Spector, all also recorded by Broadway Records). For those missing the "legit" Mazzie sound, they need look no further than the also-new Misia CD reviewed above. For those open to another side of Mazzie, Make Your Own Kind of Music is like flipping over an old 45 rpm single and hearing something that takes a chance outside the usual toolbox and jukebox, and worth the listen.