Top Scores: Nine That Are Very Fine
Also see Rob's list of top vocal albums of 2010
Looking back on the year just passed, with cast albums and related recordings, here is the annual highly personal list of nine faves to rave about. These are the ones I hold up for praise because they hold up for me after repeated listenings, not just impressing with a first impression of being intriguing or entertaining. In alphabetical order:
In the world of many a Broadway revival, this welcome visit down memory lane scored by Burton Lane with a tidal wave of wondrous and very strong melodies, and the inventive and/or romantic lyrics of E.Y. Harburg, stands out and stands up to the the competition. Lovingly performed and recorded, the pot of gold is very evident in this Rainbow. Although this 1947 show that balances romanticism with pointed social commentary could come off as preachy or pat in the wrong hands, those pitfalls are largely avoided. Bright and brisk, quite invigorated, the songs are sung and played with present-tense enthusiasm and affection. Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson make a vibrant and never-wimpy pair of leads, making the love songs full of joy without the coy factor. Christopher Fitzgerald's leprechaun underplays the "cute" factor, finding a more understated charm. A major highlight is Terri White's exciting and commanding leading of the song, "Necessity"which might make purchasing it exactly that. And, if another deciding factor is needed for those who have other recordings of the score that originated in the days of shorter-playing vinyl, note the time is well used here, with instrumental sections and reprises not heard elsewhere. Not just feel-good nostalgia, Rob Berman's orchestra plays with vigor, and the singers' phrasing is involved and alive with thought as these superior melodies cascade. It was and is, to quote one of the song titles, "Something Sort of Grandish."
LIFE BEGINS AT 8:40
A Broadway revue from 1934, Life Begins at 8:40 belatedly begins again with its score finally recorded in full. Individual songs had popped up on recordings over the years, as one might expect when the songwriters were the giants Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg and Ira Gershwin. And this Life is full of life: its songs are perky and fun, sometimes broad and silly, once-upon-a-time showcases for the shenanigans of comedic performers such as Bert Lahrwhose funny things, including a riotous bit called "Things," are handled with feisty flair by Brad Oscar. There's a marvelous cast of singers, including Faith Prince, Rebecca Luker, Christopher Fitzgerald and Kate Baldwin. With some then-timely glances at national and NYC political figures, a Noël Coward play and adjustments to Depression's economy ("Let's Take a Walk Around the Block"), some pieces may age better than others, but it's all historically or hysterically quite worthy of attention. Original orchestrations found, dusted off, and conducted and played with sparkle give this the valued flavor of genuine artful artifact.
Within the stylized, well packed, detailed score of a musical dedicated to variations of the waltz tempi, there is clearly wiggle room and room for new interpretations. There's a lot in A Little Night Music's latest recording of several to please. The familiar Stephen Sondheim songs and the witty and sharp interactions sound comfortingly familiar like beloved old friends sometimes, while often with new splashes of theatrical/musical paint. There are risks and bold moves in emphasis and balances of power in the relationships, some things played more warmly, some more lightly, some seemingly more casually, etc., etc. As with any new twist or turn in a classic, some things may irk and some things will work, but it's often interesting and sometimes enlightening and overall very much worth hearing this particular cast. An orchestra of a dozenlarger than was used on stage but not as large as one might have seen in other productionsis generally satisfying as a CD listening experience, allowing for some instrumental lines and details to have a certain pungent impact and close-to-your-ear underlining of drama. Especially compelling and full of personality all her own is Angela Lansbury's unique take on Madame Armfeldt, making her warmer, with more spright than spite, less of an imposing figure and more endearing. With more bits of Hugh Wheeler's book heard on this recording, her role gets even more prominence. Despite some carping about some other performances or moments that don't quite land, much of what we can relish here remains like a "sumptuous feast" recalled in the song "Liasons," not what it calls its latter-day equivalent of just "figs" (or "raisins")there's plenty that's delicious and delectable, making one come back for second and third helpings.
LOST BROADWAY AND MORE, VOLUME 2
Among the highlights on this unusual album, which I return to time and again, are items sung by original cast members which would have been on cast albums had they ever been made! It includes all kinds of things, from the last two songs recorded by Kitty Carlisle Hart, in her nineties, decades and decades after her participation in Walk with Music (Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer), to more recent shows like Urban Cowboy with two numbers and one from a musical version of the life of Edgar Allan Poe with songs by cast members Jenn Colella and Brooke Sunny Moriber, respectively. A college cast of College: The Musical sings with blithe matter-of-factness about the lamentable apathy of "Generation Meh." This second in an ongoing series of Lost Broadway songs also brings in some of the songwriters doing their own material, even if the bulk of the show was preserved (like a number lost when A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine transferred to Broadway: "All God's Chillun Got Movie Shows"). A couple of long-lost songs from Cole Porter's Mexican Hayride get a new ride, with sheet music archivist Michael Lavine along for the ride there and elsewhere as singer and pianist. Another multi-tasker, William Zeffiro is a regular part of these projects, singing and accompanying and presenting songs he wrote/co-wrote. Also present are cabaret veteran Steve Ross and such theatre stars as Martin Vidnovic and Rita Gardner, Lewis Cleale and Heather Mac Rae. Spreading the net pretty wide for all kinds of treasures and oddities, the new scavenger hunt venture from Original Cast Records founder Bruce Yeko is a collector's bounty.
Composer-lyricist Adam Gwonone to definitely watchcaptures the language and restless rhythms of modern-day New York and New Yorkers with all their itchiness, irritability and neurosis. Conflictsinterpersonal between two pairs of people and each within himself/herselfare set to restless jangles and little bursts of likeable music and well-rhymed words that echo natural personality-rich conversations and emails and streams of consciousness that become floods. Pianist Vadim Feichtner is all the accompaniment the score has and all it needs: his precise and attentive and lively work is a real presence of its own. Hunter Foster, Lisa Brescia, Kate Wetherhead and especially Jared Gertner as the dorky but determined suitor turn in strong and believable characterizations in this tale of taking chances and making connections. Petty but pesky frustrations of these folks' Ordinary Days and ways give way to much deeper revelations and risks in the latter part of the tale, bringing surprising and affecting impact.
A bold and unsettling subject for a musical, the real-life story of the unjustly accused Scottsboro Boys and their several court trials, looks squarely in the face of America's shameful legacy of racial prejudice and corruptness of its legal system. An undeniably grim saga, the palpable fear and sorrow and anger arising are hard to escape, yet it makes for a powerful and compelling work of art, too. The score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, no strangers to the grittier side of life in their work, is remarkably successful in its daring and inventive decision to tell the story in the style of a minstrel show. With stereotypes and stylizations thrust in our face (or, on CD, in our ears), the undeniably catchy banjo-plunking, ukulele, etc., and zingy and rhythmic music sweeps one along without ever letting go the grip of the ugly attitudes and fears. The indomitable human spirit and joy of performance, sometimes as escapism, are strong; the strong medicine of the truth is ultimately more powerful. The performers, most of whom transferred with the show to its later Broadway run, give committed performances. Broadway veteran John Cullum dynamically takes on several roles as the white figures of authority. The score's jewel is "Come Back Home," a song of yearning that floats through the air and its lovely melody instantly sticks in the memory. So does the wallop the show delivers.
In a year filled with well-deserved celebration upon celebration for his 80th birthday, can there be such a thing as too much Sondheim? Not if it's done well And the recording of Sondheim on Sondheim is full of pleasures without just resorting to the usual suspects that show up at most concerts. Granted, some don't work as successfully out of context of their character-specific sources, but many will have those perspectives already. Risks are taken with reshaping songs ("You Could Drive a Person Crazy" as a back-and-forth conversational squabble for two peeved people rather than a bouncy, bubbly, brisk bit of business), and there are serious selections from Passion and Assassins ignored in other Sondheim retrospectives and concerts. Rarities like the very early career "When I Get Famous" and recently-written "Talent" appear, even though they were not included in the final version of this Broadway production; the two-disc set allows room for such extras. Sondheim mocking his exalted image as well as criticisms of his trademarks come up in the new song comparing the writer to "God." The icing on the cake is the inclusion of many of those pre-recorded commentaries and explanations by the composer-lyricist which were part of the show, illuminating the songs, his creative process, and showing his personality. With a cast of singing actors featuring the legendary musical theatre star and expert Sondheim interpreter Barbara Cook gracing the material, this is another bounty for their many fans.
THINGS TO RUIN:
The two-disc set of some of Joe Iconis's songs, presented in a theatrical setting, is an eclectic, entertaining, quirky bundle of dynamite. Of the scores I heard this year that have a pop-rock sound, this is the one I gravitate to for return visits after the initial rush of adrenalin and wake-up throttling that driving guitars and drums can give. There's more to this than youthful angst with lost souls soulfully wailing, although there is plenty of all that for sure. There is also the presence of wit, subversiveness, satire and surprising heart in portraits of lovers and losers and those who love those presumed to be losers. The restlessness, urgency and mix of hopefulness and hopelessness of 20-somethings is well captured in "I Was Born This Morning" ("The Cicada Song"), a group number that begins and ends the show. It's one of the songs that liberally uses profanity, normally a turn-off for me, but it seems so organic and natural to the tone and mindset, and is used casually and not hurled with ugliness. Leading the band as pianist, the songwriter also joins in the fun occasionally, notably with a purposely skewed-viewed commentary, "The Guide to Success."
What's especially rewarding about the songs are how they have surprises and sudden turns rather than establishing a premise or point of view and just restating and building it. For example, the fellow watching the snoozing gal next to him ("Asleep on My Arm" sung by Nick Blaemire) at one point finds it surprising, then sweet, then annoyingly uncomfortable and just too close and then surveys the possibilities. "The Whiskey Song" will seem at first to be a happily cavalier paean to the joys of getting drunk and forgetting your troubles, but, as it progresses, you see and hear the downside. Actors will get a special kick out of the song taking place at an audition, where things are second-guessed and rationalized that everything can be solved with having a new and perfect "Head Shot" photo. I especially like the looks at kids who are disappointed by not being picked for the "Dodge Ball" team (Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams as a winning kind of loser) and having a close friend move far away, prompting denial of feeling hurt, but then wondering, after all, where is "Albuquerque Anyway"? (sung poutingly with little-boy hurt by Lance Rubin). The singing on these two is low-key, appropriate for a moping child, but there's bravura wailing and rocking out elsewhere. It comes in the form of unbridled joy or explosions of frustration, but rather than self-serving or self-aggrandizing, it seems to strive to touch a more universal chord. Communication is happening and so is entertainmentoften unpredictable, sometimes tender, sometimes like a thunderbolt.
THE WOO: A LATIN JAZZ SUITE FOR SOPRANO SAXAPHONE
As you can guess from the illustration on the cover and song titles on the back, WOO is an acronym for Wizard of Oz and, yes, the song titles on the back cover will confirm this is a set of instrumentals of the songs from the classic movie score by Harold Arlen with the E.Y. Harburg lyrics not heard except, with an asterisk, the musicians chanting "Lions, and tigers, and bears" and the "Oh-wee-oh" mantra of "The March of the Winkies." As such a beloved and iconic score, so interestingly done, I can't help but include this instrumental outing as a favorite for the year. What makes it special is the way most of the melodies are rethought for jazz, making us rehear them as they are so very much reshaped.
Most striking are parts of the Munchkinland sequences, two titled as "Come Out, Come Out Wherever You Are" (Parts 1 and 2) and "The Lullabye League." We're used to hearing these as lilting and perky, the lyrics chirped in character voices. Here it's slowed down, sinuous, musically seductive and so pretty. Likewise, "Optimistic Voices," given short shrift in the film at the opening of the Emerald City gates, gets a rich and luxurious treatment of over three and a half minutes. Also surprising is playing with the "Miss Gulch Theme" for that wicked one, treated a minute and 22 seconds rather than a snippet for character recognition.
Don't be apprehensive that this is a gimmick or a glib poke at a classic. Originally prepared as a musician's thesis, an experiment to see if the music could seriously and successfully be transformed into real Latin jazz and work on those terms, it became a well-received commercially released recording. It's affectionate and respectful in its embrace of the music, not cheeky or tacky in any way. "Over the Rainbow," rather than be radically rethought, is handled gently and conservatively. In addition to fertile-minded Peter MacDonough, who said he wanted to treat the soprano sax as it is not usually handledsomewhat more percussivelythere is a small but super band. It features two pianists who get a generous amount of spotlight: Jovino Santos Neto and Mark Levine, as well as percussionist Michael Spiro, drummer Paul van Wageningen and bassist David Belove.
A score many of us thought we knew inside and out is truly turned inside and out and discovered to be something that can still perk up our ears as the focus is put on the melodies. After all, the composer is the great Harold Arlen, whose melodies here grow up and show they are well able to sustain the elastic treatment and microscope inspection. We shouldn't be surprised, I guess. Bottom line: this is a satisfying and captivating new trip down that well-traveled yellow brick road by a new musical wizard of sorts.