The Producers ... and Others
What's not to like? The performers (as with the Rent film, several leading characters were retained from the original cast and two are new to the project) and the many people responsible for the sparkle and energy in the musical elements put the "pro" in The Producers. I've fallen in love with Mel Brooks' score to The Producers all over again. Much is already being said about the differences between the stage and movie versions, but a lot of that is beyond what is heard on disc. I'll go "on record" saying I thoroughly enjoy both the Broadway cast album and this soundtrack. The mock Broadwayesque orchestrations sound as shiny as a counterfeit penny, as they should. They are still bright (same folks in charge: Glen Kelly, Patrick Brady, Doug Besterman, with additional credit to Larry Blank on orchestrations).
Despite many performances onstage, the original cast members sound fresh, even re-energized, returning to their characters after other acting endeavors. The irrepressible Nathan Lane remains manic and a panic, especially in his solo showpiece, "Betrayed." Matthew Broderick still manages some sweetness within the schtick, although for the screen version he sounds more subdued overall. Still, this odd couple continues to delight, and is quite dandy in the movie's new high-spirited song, "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway." It sounds like an opening number Jerry Herman might have been commissioned to write for The Tony Awards - after a wise guy snuck into his office and rewrote some of the words. The wise guy, of course, is Mel Brooks who wrote this addition to his already side-splitting score. The more modest "You'll Find Your Happiness in Rio," is also a welcome new bit.
The new material is the main attraction of the CD for those who already have the Broadway album because the two cast replacements do not, for me, sound better than the originals. Cady Huffman still makes me laugh and knocks me out on the show album, but Uma Thurman hasn't got the same kind of vocal power or canny timing to flaunt. (She comes off better on screen than on disc.) Filling Brad Oscar's boots as Franz, the nutsy Nazi, is comedian Will Ferrell. He is more successful, biting into the role and being grandly goofy.
Fans of the original may miss "The King of Broadway," removed from the story proper, but it's a bonus track. This and "The Hop-Clop Goes On" serve as encores in case you're not exhausted after hearing everything else. But I have a feeling you'll have laughed yourself silly by then, especially with Gary Beach and Roger Bart still along for the wild ride, and as wild as before. Others may want to nitpick about certain fine points and phrasing on this lyric or that. But this isn't rocket science, it's wacky musical comedy and even without the technicolor screen visuals, that comes through with flying colors.
Better late than never, the Australian musical A Bunch of Ratbags has been recorded. It's from way back in 1966 and this first recording comes after it was given a reading last year. The show is based on a novel of the same name and the characters are working class types of the 1950s. They fight and rebel, they fall in love, and our hero pulls away from the gang. There ends the resemblance to West Side Story.
Most of the tunes are very, very catchy and bouncy. I like the music a lot. Some of the smile-inducing melodies, however, are matched to lyrics that speak of things beyond harmless fun. "We're Goin' Out Tonight" captures the 1950s' rock and roll energy, with references to "jeans and blue suede shoes" and Elvis, but more than that. Referring to the "squares," the guys say they'll "really push their faces in" and "terrorize" them (a word that is more charged now, of course). A similarly perky melody is set to a lyric about the pleasure they take knowing the police don't mind them "Bashing Poofters in the Park," poofters being slang for gay men. A sing-along about an unplanned teen pregnancy casually includes a line about the father slugging the girl. Granted, I don't know the context, and maybe it's not meant to be presented as acceptable behavior. Nevertheless, there's a (thankfully) dated "boys will be boys" feel. Things get noticeably darker in other spots, such as "Cold World," which wears no rose-colored glasses and has a harsher musical sound.
Most of the singing is energetic and well-done. Featured on more than half the 18 tracks, Liam Pedersen sounds strong on most, but appears strained on "Where Do I Go From Here?" which would have benefited from another take, I think. He's the chap who sees the error of his ways by the end. Along the way, there are some nifty numbers, including a nostalgic "Old Times" for his parents and a song about widgies for two widgies. (Widgies are helpfully defined in the liner notes as the female counterparts to the "loutish" males of the era.) The accents gave me little trouble; it helps that the diction all around is crisp and the accompaniment is very simple (as in "simple but effective").
This is the kind of enjoyable album that could make you want to see what else the writers have on the market. The music and lyrics are by Peter Pinne with additional lyrics and book by his frequent collaborator, Don Battye. Some of their other work is on disc (a show called Caroline and scattered songs elsewhere, including a compilation of their musicals for children, All the Colors of the Rainbow). This album is on the Bayview label, run by the same Peter Pinne, and they've put out a number of other musicals, many British ones, as well as the valued Broadway by the Year and Broadway Unplugged concert series recorded at The Town Hall in New York City. I like the youthful energy of the cast, as well as some characterful lyrics and above all, the very strong, unpretentious melodies.
Meredith Patterson (42nd Street) is in the California cast of White Christmas, a stage production based on the movie musical. Frankly, a cast album of that would be more up my alley. This is a pop confection and Meredith, who goes by just her first name on this CD, wrote all the songs except one. There's a theme of the hopeful performer coming to the big city to succeed. Many of the feelings will ring true for those with big dreams and those who have had them dashed. Determination is here, without glossing over the challenges and disappointments. I like the idea more than much of the execution.
Some songs read like stream-of-consciousness ramblings or of-the-moment "dear diary" confessionals and validation mantras ("someday they'll know it's their loss"; "watch me fly"; "have tenacity, I say!"). The false rhymes turn me off, and there's a bubble gum quality to some of the music that isn't to my taste. Although songs about romance are here, too, the ones about living in the city trying to beat the odds for success make the CD especially appealing to young people in the same boat. I can see new arrivals who make the rounds of auditions by day while waiting tables all night really liking a lot of this. I don't question the intent. I even like the in-between song real tapes: the actual phone message from an agent telling her she lost a role, New York State unemployment insurance registration, the flight attendant on the plane. I was hoping for more of a musical theater sound and style.
MerieNYC is indeed sweet, but like cotton candy. The extra layering of vocals (all her voice) adds to that effect. The album ends with a cover of the old Paul Williams/ Roger Nichols tune, "I Won't Last a Day Without You," a simple and sincere song she dedicates to her husband on their first anniversary. The target audience in her own words: "to each and every struggling artist." Sounding like a pop princess here with a light girlish voice, her musical blog will find its audience.
UNDER THE RADAR
Sneaking in quietly with good taste comes a young singer named Sarah DeLeo with her debut CD. She's a jazz-influenced singer with a warm sound, sounding quite sophisticated and pretty daring, too. She tackles a variety of tempi and does well. Most of this doesn't really sound like a first album because she's so comfortable. The title song is especially tasty. Her inclusion of the verse makes it even more romantic and tender, as does the featured but subtle guitar of Chris Bergson - very cool. It lasts for more than six minutes but doesn't feel overlong at all.
The Rodgers and Hart selection ("It's Easy to Remember") and the Cole Porter song "So in Love" (Kiss Me Kate) find her phrasing thoughtful and with originality. When Sarah takes things slow, she's pensive and it's worth the time she takes. There are some bluesy side trips, too, but things don't get morose. This singer exudes intelligence, and the scales tip towards optimism overall.
"Blackbirds" by singer-songwriter Erin McKeown is a new number to me, a funky story song making for a hip change of pace, with trumpeter Chuck Mackinnon added as another plus. "Angel Eyes" is just Sarah and bass player Mark Verdino: this spare dare pays off impressively. She's really in the company of some skilled musicians on this album, including drummer Diego Voglino whose work I especially appreciate on repeated listenings. The band also includes keyboard work by David Cook and, on four tracks, pianist Brian Charette (she co-produced the CD with him).
My favorite track is "It's a Good Day," a Peggy Lee trademark written by Miss Lee and her guitarist husband Dave Barbour. Sarah has her own intriguing look at it, taking the usually brisk song out of tempo and exploring it, gradually adding energy. This is a creative album all around but not an exercise in showing off or self-indulgence. Quite the contrary, this mostly laidback outing does not wear out its welcome. I've had it for a few weeks now and find myself returning to it over and over, especially late at night.
Check back next week. I'll be listening for you, as we expect some interesting things in these last weeks of '05.