All is Lost:
Love's Labour's Lost &
Lost Broadway finds Kern treasures
LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST
Contemporizing, musicalizing, or in any way shaking up Shakespeare is hardly a new thought, but the wise guys at work reupholstering Love's Labour's Lost make it a hoot. Including a marching band, oft-banned political incorrectness and sexual stereotypes, songwriter Michael Friedman and director/script adaptor Alex Timbers, the duo behind the bold Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, strike again. And Friedman's freewheeling musical posturing and petulance often strike comic gold. The bubbly cast album from the production that premiered outdoors last summer at New York's City's Public Theater series is a series of glib and occasionally glorious strikings of attitude. The brash mash-up of contemporary pop/show tune stylings and the Elizabethan text and basic plot come together with the unified goal of again proving, as Shakespeare said in another Midsummer's musing, "What fools these mortals be."
Forsaking creature comforts and female company to devote three years to serious study and contemplation, a group of men are quickly tested and tempted. Enter the women. In this version, they've all returned to the college where they partied plenty. Five years older, there may be some more self-awareness in their self-centeredness, but the men don't necessarily quite remember they are recycling the objects of their desire. Like so many short-lived New Year's resolutions, the vow is fated to be futile. Terrifically enthused and sly work by this cast brightens this battle of the sexes.
The company included participants in the current Broadway season Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) and Colin Donnell (Violet), both of whom shine here with commandingly feisty personality and bravura work. Quite appealing, too, as the reunited once-lovers are Daniel Breaker (Shrek) and Patti Murin (who was seen a while back in another musicalization of an ancient play about giving up sex, re-set at a school, Lysistrata Jones). The over-the-top crown goes to Caesar Samayoa for his thickly accented, thick with humor Armado, with Justin Levine wickedly funny (in the more devious sense) as the comrade with an odd taste for catsmeaning he likes them "whether boiled or sautéed or fried." He also serves as conductor and instrumentalist (keyboards and more) in the small-but-mighty band of just six players.
While much is snarky and oh-so self-aware, all the way through, there are some breaks from that tone. The private love letters these 20-somethings send get their tender words from Shakespeare's actual text, set to affecting music. It's quite disarming, in its poetic genuine elegance, coming as it does midway after all the contemporary lingo and references andon the cast album experiencewith just bits of the sections of between-song dialogue. And the gear-switching is lovingly done by the versatile cast. Also, a wise change of tone comes in a clear-eyed solo. Facing down love's folly and bleaker prospects, Rebecca Naomi Jones gets more searing with the unblinking "Love's a Gun," which begins with that metaphor and goes on to others, economically delivering the message of the packed indictment. While "To Be with You" is one more moment for the commiseration expressed in male bonding, it's an interpolation of a 1991 pop hit scored by the band Mr. Big and carries a likeable boy-band pop feel. The women's come-hither/get-lost tease of "Hey Boys" is the girl-group equivalent. Some of the sharpest slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune are delivered with glee, working best in ensemble work: grousing about "Rich People," who "make the laws, but then they break all the rules/ And they act like snobs/ To us poor slobs/ Who clean their swimming pools."
From its early number calling itself out with a wink about adding entertaining but unneeded songs to classic works to its more thoughtful ending, the lyrics are full of clever surprises and glimpses of temporary sanity. Wondering about growing up (or not), drifting toward presumed goals in "expensive T-shirts," name-dropping Xanax, and some contemporary culture references and boorish slacker behavior, the rose-colored glasses (or blinders) are quickly re-donned. But, along the way, this very, very entertaining and well-produced album gives us chuckles and sugar-coated food for thought.
Raising the bar on new looks at the Bard, peppered with quickie musical theatre references, the pep and polish of this Love's Labour's Lost won't be lost on those with an open mind and a willingness to laugh at love and lovers and the surety of immaturity being a prime target. Let the games begin.
The attention-grabbing star of this sixth volume of the collectors' dream series Lost Broadway ... couldn't be found in person at the recording studio. It's Jerome Kern. It's his melodies which are front and center. These graceful melodies generally strike a discerning listener as more artful and interesting than many of their lyrics which feature the "precious" sentimentality and dewy innocence oft lobbed on pretty thickly in their day. But give 'em a few hearings, as I did: even some sets of words I'd found underwhelming and resistible have begun to grow on me, and I gave in to the craft, taken in context of their time and what was expected of theatre songs. (This is early stuff by the master who influenced so many who came after him; several of the selections will be 100 years old next year and a few are even older.) One must be willing to accept as signs of the times that all women tend to be addressed as "girls" or "Dearie" in lyrics.
Kern's sturdy, satisfying architectures are brought out by the crisp playing of the sole instrument accompanying the various singers: a piano. The adept pianist/musical director Michael Lavine, the series' anchor, succeeds in bringing out the music's lilt and lightness. His own singing on many of the tracks, and arrangements co-credited to him and David Cleaver, suit the enthused keyboarding. It's not about trying to yank these quaint ditties kicking and screaming into the modern era or winking at the lyrics from a modern, superior point of view. And without a previous reference point for so many unfamiliar items (rarely or never recorded material), we want to be introduced to them in what feels like their natural habitat. One tends to notice the material itself, and it is being served affectionately by the crisply nimble piano playing. (He also does a neat instrumental to start off the proceedings, with selections from the obscure 1922 The Beauty Prize. Can't help wondering what words go with those tantalizing jaunty bits, but maybe in Volume 2 ...?)
Mr. Lavine's life-long experience of championing musical theatre, his informed toil as a leading sheet music collector, and years as a coach to performers and comfort with the genre and era all show. The recruited singers follow his example, although some are more assertive of personality than others, with more thoughtful phrasing to emerge from the potential of generic ingénue and male juvenile leading man sugar content. Another returning Michael to the series, Michael Marcotte, stands out in his attractive and confident vocalizing, no matter whom he's paired up with. He seems at home with the material and style, never overly coy. While all the vocalists are game and have something to offer, on rare occasions a voice can sound pinched on a high note, making me wish for another key. But many are duets, so compromising may have been needed. And occasionally someone sounds overzealous. But, it must be stressed, with such a cavalcade of under-the-radar riches, a glutton's delight, these quibbles are minor ones.
Don't look for much of the gravitas or more stately later Kern. The vast majority of the material predates 1927's landmark Show Boat and the whole decade of the 1930s is only represented oncewith the brisk "Good Girl" with that score's collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II ("Why should you want to hold him?/ We're glad you told him goodbye ...We are concerned where you're concerned"). Kern's work is acknowledged with the earnest "And Russia Is Her Name" from a film, with an atypical lyric by E.Y. Harburg. Marrick Smith is the suitably sturdy-voiced lead singer. Otherwise, the latter-day work gets nods just from contributions by Dorothy Fields who was set to write Annie Get Your Gun with him had he not died suddenly in 1945 when the project was to begin. From that year comes their "Two Hearts Are Better Than One," cut from the film Centennial Summer, which, like "Blue Danube Blues" with Anne Caldwell's words and a healthy helping of Strauss's iconic melody of "Blue Danube Waltz," will be familiar to avid Kern collectors, having appeared in Ben Bagley's series of Revisited albums of rarities, with four vinyl platters devoted to this composer. Fields' work is also on "You and Your Kiss" from the movie One Night in the Tropics and the "Nice to Be Near" words copyrighted in 1956 which she set to an orphan melody left in the trunk. Singer Ari Butler cozies up to its rosy romanticism.
We get two samples of Howard Dietz's first year as a Broadway lyricist, with 1924's Dear Sir. In two cases, we hear two different lyrics for the same melody, always an interesting study in different takes. In the case of "Have a Heart," it's the same title with different shows and different wordsmiths. A few cute Toot Toot samplings include two alternatives with zippy Kern and one-time-at-bat lyricist Berton Braley, with neat rhyming like "Upon the road of love/ We'll learn the code of love/ We'll sing an ode of love ..." One item from this score is listed, but does not appear anywhere on the album, also creating some temporary confusion when selecting tracks, as this makes the numbering off for the second half of the album. Also, some of the Lavine duets don't list his name.
But let's give credit where it's due: to him and to Original Cast Records' longtime producer/owner Bruce Yeko (who took over the collectors' paradise, www.Footlight.com), for dusting off these treats. Where so many collections of the work of the great writers tend to feature mostly the same old same olds, getting to hear the little-heard is worth a hip hooray.