This week, our destination is London ... starting with a recording of Busker Alley, a musical taking place in that city. This week's solo vocal CD is by a singer named London and then a look at some musicals from London, mostly from a season now exactly half a century ago.
The streets of London, where sidewalk performers known as buskers performed, provide the setting for an appealing musical. The score is by that sibling team of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, whose long list of Disney credits includes another tale whose action takes place in London, Mary Poppins, currently on Broadway. Recent reports indicate that Busker Alley is eyeing a berth - or should I say rebirth - somewhere near Shubert Alley.
Meanwhile, at last we have the score on disc for this musical whose gestation period has been decades long. It was based primarily on a British film and first planned in the late 1960s for Tommy Steele. Listeners get some context to songs and a sense of characterization because of included lines of dialogue by A. J. Carothers (who, sadly, died this April).
In 1994, the show finally became a reality, with a 16-city pre-Broadway tour for another Tommy: star song and dance man Tommy Tune. But it never made it to broadway - after Tune broke his ankle, the show was closed down and did not re-open. The new CD doesn't have Tune, but Jim Dale sings the lead role with panache and is reunited with his Barnum co-star Glenn Close, billed as a "special guest star" on this recording. She does some narration and finally sings at the very end, with a few lines of "Moonlight in Brighton" and a third vocal version of "He Has a Way" (recalling the old days, the lyric is adapted to past tense as "He Had a Way.") Though it's her only singing appearance, it's very effective in its bittersweet performance, especially in striking contrast to the boisterousness present throughout this long album. It was recorded in a studio the day after the one-night only fundraiser for the York Theatre in November of 2006.
Some of the music has been recorded before. "He Has a Way" appeared on a collection of Sherman Brothers songs called Believe and also on the solo CD of one of the stars of the original run, Marcia Lewis. Her Nowadays also includes the score's sweet "Tin Whistle Tune" and Believe has "Busker Alley." These are highlights of the cast album, too, with "Busker Alley" especially delightfully done, bursting with a real contagious kind of musical comedy joy. Cockney accents and English music hall style performance style are prominent, as the lead characters are performers. There's a cast of 16 for this recording. Jim Dale does more than just charm and seem brash in the lead male role; he also brings a wounded dignity to the more introspective moments like "How Long Have I Loved Libby?" Libby is the character played by Glenn Close, who tells the story; the younger stars-in-her-determined-eyes version is portrayed brashly by Jessica Grove. Some of Jessica's more strident moments and the hammier, purposely over-the-top group numbers may seem grating to some, but these must be taken in context of the characters and situations. (It doesn't mean you'll love them.) Veterans George S. Irving and Anne Rogers are an absolute hoot, loveable as feisty, funny and daffy "Mates" and these pros make the most of their numbers.
Aaron Gandy is pianist, conductor and orchestrator, with just five other musicians creating quite a big sound (a synthesizer is used). The booklet contains all the lyrics, a detailed plot synopsis, color production photos, and notes by the York's James Morgan and Tony Walton, original designer who repeated those duties and became director of York event. It all seems very busy at times, and there are some aspects that might be better - or better appreciated if seen - but better late than never for this score to be preserved.
Amy London sings with solid musicality, clarity and focus. Well, in fact, she's been doing so, at The New School in New York and elsewhere. Her eclectic music background also includes majoring in opera at college, singing jingles, performing with big bands, teaching and being in the vocal quartet for the entire Broadway run of City of Angels. She has a classy version of that show's big ballad, "With Every Breath I Take," and of "The Best Is Yet to Come," both by Cy Coleman.
Amy sings with a no-fuss, straight-ahead confidence that lets her sail through several swinging jazz tunes, but she can put real emotion into a lyric. A perfect example is the CD's title song from the score of Doctor Dolittle; she sings it with great tenderness and with a wealth of feeling and empathy. Lines such as "Autumn comes, summer dies/ I see the passing of the years in your eyes" are beautifully shaded and phrased differently when repeated. The track also benefits from the featured playing by guitarist Roni Ben-Hur who accompanies Amy throughout the album (and in life, being her husband). She appears on a couple of his albums as a guest, and they did one prior full-length CD together, the very enjoyable Two for the Road.
Jazz treatments predominate, with vocal versions of out-and-out jazz tunes, including two by the late Elmo Hope with Amy's own lyrics. Despite obvious skill and technique, there remains a kind of reserve at times that makes for a listener's respectful admiration more so than jaw-dropping astonishment. She can scat sing (wish she'd do it more), breeze through tricky-metered melodies and really cook with the band as an integral, interactive part of it. She is in impressive company with such players as Rufus Reid on bass and the late John Hicks on piano on eight of the twelve tracks. On the others, Lee Musiker plays, appearing first on his own arrangement putting together two Broadway songs: Amy sings about leaving "Ohio" (not a random song choice, it's her real-life home state) and then declares "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" with certainty. A desire for relocation is also celebrated in "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York," coming off as carefree and zestful, with just a bit of the pleading and seductive tone of its original context in Porgy and Bess. That may be partly because she takes a liberty with the lyric to make it about "you and me" dressing up rather than "you." The musicians get a real chance to solo on this track. Chris Byars, who plays sax and flute, does seven of the arrangements; the one that surprises and strikes me is "Wonderful, Wonderful." I might have guessed slowing down the old, honey-dripping Johnny Mathis hit would make it drown in sentimentality, but Amy's looser phrasing frees it to be reflective of genuine contentment in a quiet, grown-up way.
Much as I enjoy the show tunes and agility on the harder core jazz melodies, the one track where everything comes together best is the early Laura Nyro song "Lazy Susan." Amy sounds fully involved, with dramatic nuances, and it calls upon her vocal and emotional range, letting her wail as the arrangement and playing fully support and embellish the moods.
Amy will be performing in a CD release concert this Monday, December 17th at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the space called Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, named for Dizzy Gillespie whose composition "Wouldn't You?" is another strong entry on her CD. Amy London is the real thing.
FREE AS AIR
FREE AS AIR
THE MUSIC OF JULIAN SLADE
Meanwhile, back in the city of London ... The musical Free as Air has had its songs represented as all or part of three different albums released recently by British labels on the musical's 50th anniversary. The show, running for 417 performances, was about life on a tiny island visited by a London heiress seeking refuge and a reporter pursuing her for love and printable gossip, respectively, as they get to know the locals and their traditions. The strongly melodic songs are mostly sprightly, or odes to idyllic island life, or songs of longing for another kind of lifestyle. The singing quality varies: Gillian Lewis as the heiress has a rather shaky soprano, but there's richer singing from Patricia Bredin (Julie Andrews' replacement in Camelot) and some good character work by others, including one song featuring the show's lyricist Dorothy Reynolds (who also collaborated with the composer, Julian Slade on other shows, their big hit being Salad Days). Standout songs include the contented, come-what-may "Let the Grass Grow" and two comic nuggets, "Her Mummy Doesn't Like Me Anymore" for Gerald Harper as the rogue racer, with a group of reporters aggressively lusting after juicy tidbits about the heiress "Geraldine"—something very relevant in our celebrity-obsessed tabloid world.
Both Must Close Saturday and Sepia Records have issued the cast album's 17 tracks, previously on vinyl, preceded by an instrumental medley of the musical's tunes featuring the composer, Julian Slade, on piano. This bouncy and crisp section, just over six minutes long, makes a strong case for the melodic strength of the score. The same can be said for the dance band treatments on the Must Close Saturday issue that end its CD: ("Tommy Kinsman and his Band: Perfect for Dancing" reads the billing) – 11 minutes with eight numbers, including all but one of the half dozen played by Slade. Sepia opts to fill out its album instead with vocals of very early Slade songs from various shows, all quite lilting. A song about the travails about being a mermaid has his own lyrics, and collaborator Reynolds is represented by a waltz about learning to waltz, "One, Two, Three, One." There are seven in all, including three for shows based on Shakespeare.
In another case of overlapping, the catch-all collection of The Music of Julian Slade on Must Close Saturday is broken up into three categories: the first is 12 miscellaneous Slade tracks: including all these seven, plus "Let's Take a Stroll Through London" and the adorable "We Smile" sung by Eleanor Drew and Slade himself). These two cuts appeared in 2006 as bonus tracks on the same label's CD of Salad Days, as did the five selections from Slade's score to The Duenna with lyrics by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. (That album was reviewed here in the past.)
This Julian Slade collection has as its third section what survives of his score to Lady May, a musical about gypsies, written on his own (music, book and lyrics). He was just 21 years old, a student at Cambridge where the student cast recorded it for posterity. The sound quality, understandably, is not great but it's full of youthful energy and the students are actually mostly pretty good. They include the writer singing the snippy "Snap!" and "She Never Quite Got Me." He's also the pianist. The talent is clearly there, with sturdy melodies and some clever lyrics. Three of Lady May's songs are also heard by professionals in later recordings in that first section of the album: a truly funny bit where "A Star" preens and brags about his appeal. It stands up. Another is also a cutie, "He's Got Absolutely Nothing." The flowery semi-admission of love, "So Much to Say," is the third, but wasn't recorded by the students. Two of the score's melodies were recycled for other scores.
If a focus on collecting mostly American musicals made Slade slide by, there are wonderful melodies to enjoy.
UNDER THE RADAR
BRITISH MUSICALS OF 1957: HIGHLIGHTS
Here's a four-part album collection. One part is - yes, Free as Air again, but it's a different version. The billing is Peter Knight Singers & Orchestra, but most cuts have vocal soloists; Knight was the show's orchestrator. There are 11 selections from the score, most are very short, averaging 1:25, songs performed in a rather perfunctory manner, attention to staying with the brisk tempos rather than characterization. What's reinforced is how gifted Julian Slade was in coming up with bright and simple melodies during his career (he died in 2006).
This speed drill has its pleasures and the singers are fine. There are four tracks from Grab Me a Gondola but since we reviewed the Sepia Records full-length reissue of the cast album quite recently, I'll skip commenting on that one except to say it's fun and the four chosen are among the strongest. One 1957 representative here is a film rather than a stage show: it's Good Companions based on the novel of the same name, but the songs are no relation to the 1974 stage musical. There are four short pieces and an extended musical sequence. A cute "list" song about things that go together, "Where There's You There's Me" is the standout but the 55-second title song makes a neat impression, too.
The most time is devoted to Harmony Close with 13 tracks. It was a musical that had two "pre-London" tours with different casts, neither making it to the West End. The Charles Ross/ Ronald Cass score has quite a few likeable and laugh-out-loud moments, being stronger on comedy than romance in lyrics. "Why Should I Care?" has potential as a ballad, but some weak singing hurts it. Though these musicals call more upon my sentimentality-tolerance side, my inner curmudgeon is satisfied, too. I love the complaint about people always being so darn cheerful each day, meaninglessly piping a "Good Morning" to everyone. And I was tickled by a trio of upper-crust London ladies turning up their noses at – horrors! — actors and other artistic types moving in, considering them "Undesirable Elements." One of these singers (Rose Hill) has a solo as a former madam looking back with some nostalgia for the old days, "Goodbye to All That." A group number, "Nothing to Do in London," has some spiffy and sarcastic lines, especially in the section about theatre spots and playwrights (asking punnily, "what is the point of the Surrey without Inge on top" and dropping the name of Julian Slade, too).
All four of the London cast albums discussed above come with liner notes that give basic information on the shows' plots and frank assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. The Highlights CD also has an overview of 1957 British shows. Taken as tokens of their times and not judged by today's perspective, they have a lot in the plus column, especially if the hummable tune and sunny disposition – or rarity - is a priority.
And, as the sun sinks over London, I must close because I'm starting to think with a British accent. The remainder of the calendar year's columns will have the accent on some other fine work still awaiting a look and a listen before contemplation of the year's best. Cheerio!