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Devoted to Songwriters: Sondheim, Gordon, Finn, and Moross

It's summertime, the season when one's thoughts turn to flights of fancy albums devoted to songwriters. All right, that may not be quite the case, but this summer sure has produced a bumper crop of CDs focusing on specific songwriters, so I'm going to look at four of them.

Barbara CookThe first album was the one I was most looking forward to hearing, Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim, which was recorded live at Carnegie Hall. How could it miss? First of all, Barbara Cook shines on live recordings, as evidenced by Live in London and The Champion Season, which happen to be her finest albums. While she sounds incredible on any album, thanks to her glorious, shimmering soprano and her innate sense of lyrical understanding, her live albums capture that extra spark which is evident when one sees her in concert. And she has a proven track record with Sondheim's material, as displayed in the Follies in Concert album. So a live album devoted to songs which Sondheim either wrote or has stated that he wishes he had written seems like it would be perfection on two discs. Unfortunately, that is not quite the case. Now this can't be blamed on Cook, who is in excellent voice and is still at the top of her craft. Her pairing of "Happiness" and "Loving You" from Sondheim's Passion is incredibly expressive and passionate. And it is a treat to finally hear her perform such Sondheim standards as "Not a Day Goes By" and "Send in the Clowns." Her patter is as warm and entertaining as always, and she even shares some trivia about cut material from She Loves Me before launching into yet another (but still perfectly delivered) rendition of "Ice Cream."

If the recording had stuck to its star, this album would be among her finest. However, she has a guest artist who, unfortunately, is not up to Cook's level of performing perfection. Malcolm Gets, who appeared in Hello Again and A New Brain, is ill-suited for the majority of the material, and does not shine when paired (and thus compared) with one of the greatest voices and stage presences on the planet. The resulting effect is like placing a hamburger and Beef Wellington side by side; no matter how perfect the burger, it just is not in the same league and comes off pale in comparison. Malcolm is fine on the uptempo numbers, such as "Giants in the Sky" from Into the Woods (which he introduces with a snippet of a cut song of Jack's) and "Another Hundred People" from Company, but has a tendency to go flat on held notes and ballads. His patter is stiff, his jokes are forced, his duets with Barbara Cook never mesh, and his insertion of a monologue from Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story's "Tonight" just makes one scratch his or her head.

The album is worth getting, however, if only to hear Barbara Cook perform numbers one would never imagine her singing (or Sondheim even liking) like "Hard Hearted Hannah" and "The Trolley Song." And it's fun to see what songs and writers Sondheim admires (for the record, Harold Arlen seems to be the favorite, as four of the twelve non-Sondheim songs are his).

Bright Eyed JoyI was more ambivalent about hearing the next album, Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon. I have to admit that I have not completely warmed to him as a writer and vacillate between enjoying his songs (like the tender, lyrical "A Horse With Wings" on Andrea Marcovicci's New Words album) and finding them to be emotionless art songs (like any of his numbers on Audra McDonald's Way Back to Paradise CD). He always strikes me as a "composer's composer," a feeling supported by the fact that every modern songwriter I have talked to lists him among their absolute favorite composers.

So would I enjoy an album solely devoted to Gordon's work? Or would it perpetuate my feelings that his work hits (me at least) on the intellectual rather than the emotional level? The answer to both is "yes." I literally found myself actively enjoying every other song on the album, the rest being tuned out as background music. This is not the fault of the performers, who are all wonderful. While I still can't warm up to "Dream Variations," "Song for a Dark Girl," and "Daybreak in Alabama" (which also appear on Audra's aforementioned album), I really enjoyed Audra McDonald in the pairing of "Poor Girl's Ruination" and" The Dream Keeper" (lyrics by Langston Hughes), which has a Weill/Gershwin Lady In The Dark feel to it. Theresa McGarthy shines on my favorite track on the album, "Run Away," which possesses a spirit and joy missing in too many of the numbers, and features lyrics by Gordon (making me wonder if he should write lyrics more often, instead of setting so many existing poems to music). Adam Guettel is wonderful on "Souvenir" (lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay), but "A Contemporary" (Lyrics by W.S. Merwin) has an orchestration which is too atonal for my tastes. A trio of songs with lyrics by Dorothy Parker ("Resume/Wail/Frustration") and sung by Judy Blazer and Chris Trakas perfectly captures Parker's biting wit and presents a refreshing departure. Oddly enough, one of my favorite singers, Dawn Upshaw, failed to capture my attention on any of her numbers as they all fell into the emotionless 'art-song' category. Overall, the album is well sung, well produced, and is extremely listenable. It just vacillates too much between songs that grab my attention and ones that make me tune out. Classically trained singers looking for new material would be well advised to look at Bright Eyed Joy for recital pieces.

Infinite JoyOf course, this is all a matter of personal preference (as are all reviews and criticisms), but I have to admit that my tastes run more along the lines of Infinite Joy: The Songs of William Finn, recorded live at Joe's Pub. It is hard to believe that after twenty-five years of writing, Finn has written a mere handful of shows. But oh, what shows they are. Best known for The Marvin Trilogy (In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland) and A New Brain, Finn has also written the unrecorded Romance in Hard Times (originally entitled America Kicks Up Its Heels) and is currently working on an adaptation of The Royal Family of Broadway (based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber) and a new musical, Muscle, with James Lapine.

Infinite Joy contains numbers from all the above except Muscle and March of the Falsettos, plus several individual numbers, which makes for a delightful retrospective of a songwriter who truly is devoted to crafting the proverbial "well-made song." Indeed, it is in that spirit that we enter the album, "Mister, Make Me a Song," a number written for an 'as yet to be recorded' Mandy Patinkin album and sung on this one by William Finn himself in a bombastic style reminiscent of Patinkin (but not as pitch perfect). Finn also can be heard singing "Republicans" (a number written in response to the recent Presidential elections, and should probably be skipped if one were of that ilk ... although, as the liner notes mention, "it's hard to imagine any Republican ever having an interest in musicals, much less original cast albums.") Luckily, the majority of the songs feature incredible performers who more than do justice to the material. Liz Callaway delivers a simple yet shimmering version of "I'd Rather Be Sailing" from A New Brain as well as Infinite Joy's charming title song. Wanda Houston is brilliant on "The Music Still Plays On," also from A New Brain (Note: for an alternate, less character driven version of this song, check out Marcovicci's aforementioned New Words album and songbook). Carolee Carmello gives a devastating performance in a song written after the death of Finn's mother, "When The Earth Stopped Turning," which is one of his most poignant and beautiful songs and needs to be published and soon. Stephen DeRosa is hysterical in a version of "The Baseball Game" from Falsettoland which has him recreating a charity version of the show which he had the mixed pleasure to witness. And Mary Testa is brilliant in a hard hitting number from Romance In Hard Times, "All Fall Down," which somehow manages to find humor the imagery of stockbrokers jumping out of buildings during the Depression. Listening to the album, one realizes how many of Finn's songs are concerned with families who are in more than slightly dysfunctional relationships. The album is worth getting for a trio of such themed songs, "That's Enough For Me," (also from Romance In Hard Times and features Wanda Houston singing a tender ballad to her unborn child), "And They're Off" (from A New Brain and sung by Lewis Cleale) and "Anytime" (a breath-taking number cut from A New Brain and sung by Norm Lewis). Infinite Joy is one of the most enjoyable albums released this year and is highly recommended.

Another highlight of year album-wise is Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross. If that name is unfamiliar to you, don't feel too badly. Unless you are a devotee of Ken Mandelbaum's book, Not Since Carrie, or are an active reader and memorizer of songwriting credits, Jerome Moross is a composer you probably have missed. Which is a shame, because Moross had a wide-spanning career, writing for orchestras, films, television, and musicals. Moross orchestrated pieces for Aaron Copland, Hugo Friedhofer and Franz Waxman, was the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Columbia Composers Commission, composed his first score, Close Up, in 1948, and to those of us on Talkin' Broadway, is best known for his one Broadway Musical, The Golden Apple, which spawned the standard "Lazy Afternoon."

Windflowers is a treat because the majority of the album is made up of previously unrecorded material from forgotten (Ballet Ballads and Gentlemen, Be Seated!) or unproduced (Underworld) shows. Six of the seventeen songs from Underworld, a musical about Chicago gangster Deanie O'Bannion's quest to vanquish Al Capone, receive their recording debut and are an especially welcome find. From "I've Even Been In Love," (a great jazzy tune sung by Alice Ripley and well worth checking out by singers looking for new material) to "It's Almost Time Now," (a sweeping, lyrical number well sung by Richard Muenz without a trace of schmaltz), the songs from Underworld make me wish for an album containing the remaining numbers. The songs from Ballet Ballads are likewise enjoyable and would be welcome finds for cabaret performers (indeed: "I've Got Me," expressively sung by Philip Chaffin, would be at home in a Philip Officer show). Jessica Molaskey has great fun with a song for a brothel owner, "That Extra Bit" (from Underworld), and Jenny Giering shines on "I Can't Remember" (from Gentlemen, Be Seated!), one of the loveliest songs on the album. Alice Ripley nearly walks away with the album with two numbers: "Windflowers" (from The Golden Apple), one of my all time favorite songs in which she displays an operatic side I had not known existed, and "Some Day," a haunting song from the film Forget Me Not, in which a widower struggles to find flowers for his wife's grave.

Windflowers is a beautiful album (produced by Tommy Krasker, who also produced Bright Eyed Joy) and contains more than enough stunning surprises to warrant purchasing. For more information on the composer, visit http://www.moross.com.


-- Jonathan Frank


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