Have you overdosed on the hoopla and debates on the Tony Award winners and should-have-been-winners and singular focus on this year's musicals? You may want to clear your head by looking back and having a second look at some musical theatre songs and scores. Some of them you might not have had a first look at, so this isn't just bathing in nostalgia. We look at two show music albums, one going all the way back to examine the roaring '20s, but not just for its greatest hits, and the other a celebration of a groundbreaking show. There are two vocal albums with many good old Broadway nuggets well worth looking back upon. And, to start with, a major Broadway composer has been taken a second look at a score that's two decades old and added to it for its belated first recording.
What do we have here? A new musical by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell, Pippin)? Not really. Using the title of the children's book it's based upon, The Trip, this musical was originally done twenty years ago. Expanded with new scenes and two new songs, it has been retitled Captain Louie and it's a bouncy, brief score aimed at kids and family audiences. The album only has 10 tracks, clocking in at just under a half hour. I wish they'd found a companion piece or some instrumental versions of the catchy tunes to fill things out. Actually, the whole show only runs 65 minutes - they could have included all the dialogue.
The story concerns the new kid in town who is having trouble fitting in and escapes via his imagination. The milieu is urban poor contemporary. Musically, it's a blend of pop styles with high energy and a bit of musical theatre balladry. The two new songs would be easy to pick out, since they mix in some more recent music styles, including just a teaspoon of rap. They are "Spiffin' Up Ziggy's" and "Looza On The Block," which rhymes the slang words "dweeb," "feeb" and "heebie jeebies." Many of the rhymes and lyrical ideas elsewhere are pretty simple; after all, the characters are meant to be realistic youngsters who don't specialize in wit and philosophical truths. Some of this is as sweet and light as the candy of Halloween, the day around which the action is centered, and that may be a bit syrupy for some. It doesn't have the heartfelt feeling that Schwartz's Disney work boasts. Others used to his rich and emotional or flashy, splashy Broadway songs may find this too simple, and thus disappointing. It has charm and is very accessible to school-aged children without being devoid of appeal for adults.
The cast on the CD includes some from the current production and others who have done the show previously. In the role of Louie, Jimmy Dieffenbach is a good choice, with a likeable, unpretentious vocal quality that sounds neither too forced nor overly polished. And, thankfully, he's not strident or directed to "cute" it up, as is the case with much children's theatre. He has also appeared recently Off-Broadway in Children's Letters To God and The Prince And The Pauper. With the exception of the aforementioned rap, virtually all the solo singing is by young Jimmy. Otherwise, we're talking about ensemble singing from this cast which totals ten. Although they sing well as a unit, it would have been a nice change to hear a duet or more trading off solo lines for a break in the group sound. Snippets of Anthony Stein's dialogue are sprinkled here and there, serving as a breather. To help a child listener follow along, all the words spoken and sung are printed in a booklet, along with a concise plot synopsis and some of the illustrations from Ezra Jack Keats' original storybook.
If you want to see the show live on stage, you'd better hurry. The limited engagement at The York Theatre in Manhattan closes June 12. For more insight into the songwriter's admirable goals of bringing musical theatre to a very young audience, and more on this musical and recent Schwartz news in his own words, see Talkin' Broadway's interview.
It seems each musical that tries to bring rock or "contemporary" music to the stage gets compared to Hair. Well, welcome back to the reference point. Combing through Hair in this newly released recording featuring the cast from last September's one-night-only Actors' Fund of America benefit concert on Broadway is a reminder of why: they set the bar pretty high with a vibrant, smart and varied score. It sounds as youthful as ever, with mega-watt energy and performances more polished than "raw." By dividing up the wealth of the score among many singers, most only have one moment in the spotlight, so it's only natural that there is a tendency to pull out all the stops and for divas to out-diva each other. (Try to find the "incidental number" among the 31 tracks!) Recorded in a studio after the live event, not all of the concert participants appear. For example, Charles Busch substitutes for RuPaul on "My Conviction."
Musical mastermind Seth Rudetsky is deserving of much credit. He leads a tight band of a dozen, including himself on keyboards and composer Galt MacDermot's son Vincent on trombone, and he contributed some of the arrangements. This is the latest of several very recent releases from Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom with excellent sound, whether you listen on a home system or while walking with your Walkman/iPod.
A few surprises are tucked among the multiple highlights, such as a newly-written song, "Hippie Life," as well as other extra lyrics. On the subject of the lyrics, they are easy to hear on every Hair cut, which cannot be said about all previous recordings of this show. Although true to the spirit of the spirited original, this is no dusted-off relic of the Flower Power era, but has a hot power of its own. An inevitable perspective on the past only provides more to appreciate. Another thing to appreciate is that all proceeds from the album sales also go to The Actors' Fund's social services programs.
Among the list of singers are a couple just nominated for Tony Awards, Sherie Rene Scott and Christopher Sieber, and actors currently on Broadway, such as Shoshana Bean of Wicked and Fiddler's uniquely voiced Harvey Feinstein coming up for "Air." In the lead role of Claude, Harris Doran has an appealing vocal sound and real presence. Lea DeLaria rips into "Donna" with relish and Lillias White gets the plum opening assignment of "Aquarius" with the Tribe (chorus) who appear frequently. Combining the best of song and singer, seamlessly and screamlessly with refreshing restraint and pure sounds, are the ever-reliable Liz Callaway ("Good Morning Starshine"), plus Paul Castree and Darius de Haas duetting on "What A Piece Of Work Is Man." For a delightful moment of history, "Frank Mills" is sung by Annie Golden who was in the 1977 revival of Hair and the film version.
Even for those who know the many cast and pop versions of the score and thought no new freshness could be found, this is a Hair tonic to disprove that. So let's once again "Let The Sunshine In" as everything on this CD certainly shines brightly.
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1926
I'm guessing that most of our readers were not around to see the Broadway musicals opening in the year 1926. There were no Tony Awards to fight about, but there were many shows in that year, and thanks to this live concert recording, we can sample them 79 years later. It's the 11th album released from this Town Hall series hosted by Scott Siegel, which presents its final concert of its fifth season on Monday, June 13.
As usual, it's a merry mix of the familiar and the un. In the category of "where did they dig that up?" there's a number called "I'd Like To Fondle You." It's good clean fun. I was particularly curious to hear two premiere recordings of songs by Herman Hupfeld who wrote one of the most famous standards of all ("As Time Goes By") but whose other songs on record are few are far between. The pair here are a winningly winsome "Sort O' Lonesome" and the cad's warning "Don't Fall In Love With Me," performed by one of our most entertaining pretend cads, Marc Kudisch. He's currently catching kids and kudos in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but at the time of this early 2004 concert, he was knee-deep in the 1920s, having recently opened in Thoroughly Modern Millie. And what better roaring '20s gal to join him than his Millie, Sutton Foster. They duet with the Gershwins' "Do, Do, Do," and her solo "Someone To Watch Over Me" is a highlight, performed with real invested emotion. Contrastingly, there are several light numbers done with a wink and a twinkle in the eye. The era was famous for its perky, happy, carefree tunes and that's the feel recreated in most of these 21 selections. Depth, irony and intellectualism take a holiday.
There are five contributions from Rodgers and Hart, who had a productive year, so you can bet there's a lot of craft to savor. Three of them are on CD for the first time: "Maybe It's Me," "A Little Birdie Told Me," and "Why Do I." They're all on the "cute" side. As an antidote, should you need one, "This Funny World" is Lorenz Hart at his saddest and best. A few selections from the operetta The Desert Song are a change of pace and sung traditionally, straight and pretty great. This operetta formality is spiced up with an atypical moment from the score. It is "It." This song about sex appeal is the unruly exception to the rule and like the Gershwin tunes, it's safe in Foster care.
In addition to Sutton, the female cast was made up of a pair of Nancys: Anderson and Opel. All three sound quite at home in the decade. Their male cohorts are the comical character actor Eddie Korbich and the more understated and formal Bill Daugherty, in addition to Marc. All have solo opportunities to shine in assignments well matched to their strengths. There are group numbers like Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" which opens and closes the party. A grouch may point to a few vocal moments that don't quite hit the perfect bullseye or veer towards oh-so-precious, but c'est la vie.
A tradition at these concerts is to have a few songs performed without using microphones for amplification so the audience can hear the human voice as it was heard in the theatre in the early days. The cheers will tell you how much this is appreciated. Ross Patterson and his band do their now taken-for-granted zippy and zealous work and narrator-guide Scott provides his trademark blend of perspective, neat historical tidbits and good humor. It's a wonderful series for those of us in the audience at the time and for those who only hear them later on recording. Keep 'em coming.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. This is Philip Chaffin's second album and the first one showed he has exquisite taste and a golden voice. That was in the year 2000. Meanwhile, he and partner Tommy Krasker have been heading and running their own record company, PS Classics (and its sister non-profit arm, PS Classics, Inc.), producing some of the the most spectacular and well-produced vocal and cast albums we've heard. He's been working with some of our best singers and songs. Anyone doing this full time so successfully would have to be absorbing a lot, whether intentionally or by osmosis. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that his new CD is sort of superb. Switching from the style of big band singer to a passionate Broadway ballad style shows the real versatility of his voice. It's strong with an attractive vibrato and warmth, despite a rather formal approach. It's a big voice and quite exciting when notes are sustained and powerful. This man sings with care and intelligence, one of those you can call not just a singer but an artist.
Most of the songs are performed with a large orchestra conducted by Kevin Stites that is nothing short of marvelous. A big string section! Multiple clarinets! Four French horns! And a harp! And you can hear them all. Philip appeared in Alan Menken and Tim Rice's 1997 King David and includes two of those elegantly romantic and intense numbers without "milking" them: "When In Love" and the album's title song. I'm happy to hear "If It Is True" from My Life With Albertine by Ricky Ian Gordon and Richard Nelson's 2003 score. The other selections are all a lot older, going as far back as 1924 for "Evening Star" by the Gershwins. PS Classics has been the home of Stephen Sondheim in the last year or so and his "Silly People" makes an appearance. Rebecca Luker stopped by for a sweet visit to duet on "Sailing At Midnight" from Sadie Thompson (Vernon Duke/ Howard Dietz), a lost score recently rescued and preserved by Original Cast Records.
Three songs are done with just piano, but I find them the least interesting and didn't want or need a break from the excellent orchestral backings. In many cases, the work of the original orchestrators is used, so we're getting an authentic Broadway treatment. My current favorite track is the last one, a powerhouse medley of two Cy Coleman/ Carolyn Leigh songs from Wildcat, one used and one cut. I also am extremely fond of the gentle idealism captured so well in "There's A Room In My House" by John Kander, written with James and William Goldman before he teamed with Fred Ebb. "Heaven In My Arms" by Kern and Hammerstein proves that Philip can also go it lightly and sprightly, and its lilt is a nice change from the drama. "Haunted Heart," on the other hand, I feel misses sufficient drama and tension. I'm guessing Philip is too much of a happy romantic to have psychological torture in song be his strong suit.
There's integrity all over the place in this CD. In equal measure, one takes pleasure in the song selection, the orchestra and the performer. He clearly loves the songs and they seem to love him back by showcasing both the pretty and powerful parts of his vocal instrument. This is a class act.
UNDER THE RADAR: Our weekly look at someone you may not know.
Sometimes in swimming through the crowded cabaret waters, full of singers, one can miss the boat. Although this is her third album, I wasn't familiar with Robin James until the day before the successful and fun Talkin' Broadway party for staff, readers and chatters. It was held at the attractive and friendly new Manhattan cabaret, The Encore, and there was her postcard promoting her show which opens there June 10. Somehow I'd missed two previous CDs she made with one of our best pianist/musical directors, Dick Gallagher, whom sadly we lost last year. For this show and recording, she works with pianist David Brunetti and bassist Frank Wagner. Although I have some reservations about this newest album, I wanted to tell you about it.
Robin may still be experimenting with different personae and perhaps hasn't yet found herself musically, but there are some interesting and entertaining things in this 15-track collection. Although she's a soprano who often sounds too prim and old-fashioned for her own, and our, own good, she has the comedy gene and can be quite funny. She does well by "The Last Song," a great, modern comic vignette about ending a relationship, complete with references to computer-savvy methods of stopping online communication. It's written by that wonderful team Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. I love it. The quirky "Lime Jello" is also a pip. Especially worthy is the smart choice "Smart Women" from the recent short-lived Broadway production Imaginary Friends with songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia. A medley of four Broadway songs from different musicals tell the story of a date from anticipation to rapture. Her bio says she's from Long Island, but a British accent creeps in. It's odd and adds to the formality that I find distancing. But you may find it charming.
Other Broadway songs include "There's Always One You Can't Forget," the haunting beauty from the failed Dance A Little Closer by Charles Strouse and Alan Jay Lerner, and it's done pretty well. I feel cheated by the accompaniment. The arrangements aren't creative and original enough to sustain interest in the more well-known songs and I think she'd be showcased better with a fuller instrumental sound or arrangements that weren't so traditional. Still, there's something appealing in her sincere approach and modesty in the serious songs and she has a sense of humor that may be better appreciated in person. I'm not raving about this one from top to bottom, but I'm liking it more and more after the first few listens. See what you think. www.robinjamescabaret.com
We'll see what new releases come our way for all of us to listen to in the coming warm spring nights. We'll be listening for you.