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The Firebrand of FlorenceKurt Weill is perhaps the most chameleon-like composer to write for musical theater (or any other genre, for that matter). While legions of writers display a deft flair for composing numbers in a wide variety of styles, no other writer (save, perhaps, Stephen Flaherty) completely immerses him or herself into a work like Weill. From the German music hall sound of The Threepenny Opera and Happy End, to the French play-with-music Marie Galante (which contains a score so Parisian in flavor that one of its songs, "J'attends un Navire" became a theme song for the French Résistance during World War II), to the pure Broadway theatricality of Lady in the Dark and One Touch of Venus, Weill displayed an uncanny knack of submerging any trace of his identity and style as a writer to create works that perfectly embody the flavor and style of whatever he was writing. With The Firebrand of Florence Kurt Weill entered a world that was new to him, that of the old-fashioned costume operetta, and in doing so, succeeded all too well, thus writing his only American work to fail on both the financial and critical level.

Based on Edward Justus Mayer's 1924 stage hit The Firebrand, the show reunited Weill with his lyricist for Lady in the Dark, Ira Gershwin. Mayer, who had gone from playwright to a screenwriter of such Hollywood screwball comedies as To Be or Not to Be, was recruited to rewrite his play into the show's book. Firebrand's plot was typical operetta fare: the great Florentine artist Benvenuto Cellini is sentenced to hang but is pardoned when the Duke realizes he has yet to complete a commissioned sculpture. Thus freed, he is able to turn his attention to his favorite model/object of his affections, Angela. Unfortunately, the Duke is interested in Angela as well, and the majority of the show features Cellini trying to woo Angela while keeping the Duke away from her, all the while avoiding the Duchess, who of course, has a yen for Cellini.

Musically, Weill immersed himself into the genre with his usual gusto and created a work that would have been right at home on Broadway in 1907, when Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow was the belle of the season. However, while a revisal of Die Fledermaus entitled Rosalinda proved to be a hit a few seasons earlier, by 1945 Broadway audiences were turning to shows like Oklahoma! and On the Town rather than viewing revivals of the dozen or so operettas that opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway that season. As a result, the show opened on March 22, 1945 and closed forty-three performances later without producing a single hit song or even a cast album. In 2000, the BBC Symphony presented a concert version of Firebrand of Florence, a live recording which was recently released as a two-disc album by Capriccio.

To be blunt, the biggest problem with the score is that, while musically pleasant, to quote Gertrude Stein, "There's just no there there," or rather, the edge and visceral impact one associates with the works of Weill is just not present. There is a reason that no songs from the show have become concert, or even cabaret, staples: while everything is pretty and melodic, nothing truly grabs the listener. A great deal of the blame must fall on Ira Gershwin's lyrics, far too many of which rank among his weakest. Listening to the first two numbers, sung by Florentine townsfolk at the site of the execution and which contain lyrics like "If you're spending ducats by the buckets, you're in Florence" and "All the girls are busty, life is lusty here in Florence," one is struck by how much more succinctly and wittily Cole Porter handled similar imagery and interplay in Kiss Me, Kate. And lyrics for the various love songs sprinkled throughout the show fall far too frequently into the 'June/moon, love/dove' school of lyric writing, as evidenced by the final ballad between Cellini and Angela, which alternates between 'enemy' and 'destiny' as a rhyme for 'enemy', and whose pairing of 'song' and 'belong' is the only true rhyme of the number.

To be fair, this recording may not be the best representation of Firebrand as it includes practically every note and number ever written for the show and thus has reinstated many cut numbers, giving the score a lugubrious, overstuffed feeling. Also, the cast, while vocally strong, is not ideal in the least. Rodney Gilfrey as the artist Cellini sounds rich and robust but plays everything on the same note, adding to the show's stultifying effect. Lori Ann Fuller as his muse Angela sings prettily but is highly stilted whenever spoken dialogue is called for. And George Dvorsky, playing the role of the Duke, fails to capture the buffoonery of the part (this is a character, after all, whose attempts at wooing are hindered by his Spooneristic tendency to turn his sentences into gibberish). Reducing the narration into Restoration Comedy styled poetry further serves to make this listener zone out (although it is well spoken by Simon Russell Beale as the Narrator).

Overall, while this recording will be a 'must have' album for musical theater completists, it will be palatable mainly for fans of the operetta genre.

Wonderful TownOne of Broadway's biggest tragedies is that Leonard Bernstein seemed to have considered the musical theater genre to be the proverbial 'red headed stepchild,' never giving his talent in the field the respect it deserved and abandoning it for the more rarified world of classical music. The truth of the matter is that his compositions for the Broadway stage far outshine, in terms of popularity and longevity, any of his more 'classical' works such as Chichester Psalms, Jeremiah, or even the Mass he wrote with Stephen Schwartz. Every one of his musicals is a gem and Wonderful Town, a revival of which is currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, is one of the most perfectly constructed examples of a pure musical comedy around.

The story of two Ohio-born sisters trying to make it in the big city has aged remarkably well and remains as relevant today as it was when it opened in 1953. Is there anyone among the thousands of hopeful artists seeking success in the Big Apple who can't empathize with the show's anthem of underachievement, "What a Waste?" Likewise, the single girl's lament of being too smart for one's own good ("One Hundred Easy Ways") would be right at home in any Sex and the City episode. "Pass The Football," in which a character with an IQ only slightly larger than his waist size reminisces on how he was practically given a Ph. D. due to his athletic prowess, will strike chords of recognition with anyone who went to college (or follows the salaries and legal shenanigans of sports stars). Toss in some of the best love songs ever written for Broadway ("A Quiet Girl," "It's Love," and "A Little Bit in Love") and you have a score that comes pretty close to perfection.

While it is doubtful that the revival's recently released cast album will replace any recording featuring Rosalind Russell, whose portrayal as the harder edged older sister Ruth remains one of the quintessentially perfect marriages of character and actor, it is a solid recording with a lot to like. Chief on the plus side is Donna Murphy, whose portrayal of Ruth is a revelation. After almost a decade of playing brooding, serious parts in Hello Again, Passion, and The King and I, Murphy lightens up and shows a comedy side not seen since Song of Singapore. She still displays a deft touch at creating a definite acting arc for the character that is as apparent on disc as it is on stage. She also proves to be quite the master of impressions, as evidenced throughout "One Hundred Easy Ways," and the mounting level of desperation that pervades "Conga!" is simply hysterical.

The rest of the cast is a bit more hit or miss. Jennifer Westfeldt's portrayal of younger sister Eileen, for whom life is a banquet from which she knows how to order, is stronger on stage than on disc as her singing is the weakest aspect of the part. Likewise, Gregg Edelman, who gives a solid performance on stage, fails to strike the necessary sparks on his recordings of "A Quiet Girl" or "What a Waste." However, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod (aside from Murphy, the only holdover from the 2000 Encores! production that sparked the revival) gives a solid portrayal of ex-football player Wreck, and the ensemble numbers ("Christopher Street," "Swing" and "My Darlin' Eileen") all hit the mark. The only number that falls horribly short is "Conversation Piece," one of Bernstein's most brilliantly constructed songs and a precursor to his work in Candide. It is performed at a lethargic pace that would be fine if it were coupled with stagecraft and imagery as it is on stage, but it proves to be deadly dull on disc.

The album is rounded out by two bonus tracks featuring lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green performing numbers from the show. As the tracks can be found on another DRG album, Comden and Green Perform Their Own Songs, the inclusion of more of material from the show, such as "Ruth's Stories" (currently found only on JAY Records' studio cast recording) would have been more welcome.

Broadway Musicals of 1953Songs from Wonderful Town are also featured on another recent release, the latest in the Broadway By The Year series showcasing The Broadway Musicals of 1953. While there is no denying the appeal of those numbers ("A Little Bit in Love," sung by Andrea Burns, "A Quiet Girl," divinely sung by Davis Gaines who sings and acts the hell out of the song, "One Hundred Easy Ways" sung by Julia Murney, and a western flavored "Ohio" by Murney and Burns), the real reason to get the album is its inclusion of three never-before-recorded numbers from Carnival in Flanders. While the show spawned one standard, "Here's That Rainy Day" (powerfully and jazzily interpreted by Debbie Gravitte), and has the distinction of setting the record for a Tony awarded for the least number of performances (Dolores Grey won with just six performances given before the show closed), very little has been recorded from it until now. Debbie Gravitte shines on "How Far Can a Lady Go?," a humorous number that recalls Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart in its portrayal of a lady going astray. "The Sudden Thrill" and "You Can Trust the Word of a Gentleman" (both sung by Ed Staudenmayer) also recall Cole Porter and are highly entertaining and worth looking into by singers.

Other highlights include "You're So Much a Part of Me" (written by Richard Adler/Jerry Ross for the revue, John Murray Anderson's Almanac), which features an inspired pairing of Scott Coulter and Gravitte as a pair closer than the Side Show twins. The opening number, "The Big Black Giant" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Me and Juliet, is a hysterical number sung by the cast as they assess the audience, and Coulter and Murney shine on a passionate version of "No Other Love" (also from Me and Juliet).

Rebecca Luker Leaving HomeIt is safe to say that, as a performer, Rebecca Luker has deep roots in the past. On Broadway, she is best known for lending her shimmering soprano to classic revivals such as The Sound of Music (Maria), Show Boat (Magnolia), and The Music Man (Marian). Even when cast in a modern show, it is usually to play a 19th century soprano (Christine in The Phantom of the Opera) or the ghost of a Victorian Englishwoman (Lily in The Secret Garden). Her latest album, Leaving Home, is surprising for two reasons. First of all, while the material chosen by Luker and her producer, Christopher McGovern, is decidedly rooted in the past, it is largely culled from the folk/rock repertoire of the late sixties/early seventies and features songs from some of the best singer/songwriters to come out of the last three decades: Joni Mitchell ("River" and "Chelsea Morning"), Janis Ian ("Getting Over You"), Carly Simon ("Boys in the Trees"), Billy Joel ("You're My Home") and John Lennon/Paul McCartney ("She's Leaving Home"). Luker shows a surprising affinity for the simple melodic lines and honest emotions that are the hallmark of these writers. The second surprise is that she has a lush, resonant lower register that has largely gone unheard. In "River," she displays a throaty growl that is astonishing coming from a singer I have always thought of as a somewhat distant soprano. "Getting Over You" is a heartbreaking number recounting the emotional destruction caused by a divorce, and Luker delivers it with aching simplicity.

The few new songs on the album are right at home with the rest of the material. In addition to the understated but emotionally affecting orchestrations on the album, Christopher McGovern has provided two numbers: "Cherish the Child" (cut from his musical, Lizzie Borden) and "Morningtimes" (a wistful number of loss). Luker teams up with her old castmate Alison Fraser for a folk/rock version of "Wick" from Secret Garden. She also performs a beautiful song of loss written by Fraser's late husband, Rusty Magee, entitled "Coming Apart." Other highlights include a number by Amanda McBroom, "Ophelia," from her new musical Will's Women and a sweet rendition of "Old Dog Tray" by Stephen Foster that would have been right at home on Show Boat.

Anything Goes JAYCole Porter's comic hit Anything Goes has received several releases recently. The first, a studio recording by JAY Records, is essentially a recreation of the 1987 Broadway revival in terms of song inclusions and orchestrations (although Michael Gibson has punched up his orchestrations to powerful effect for the National Symphony Orchestra). Aside from the incredible orchestration, the chief reason to buy this disc is that it preserves Gregg Edelman's performance as Billy Crocker. Edelman, who replaced Howard McGillin in the 1987 revival, shines on all of his numbers. Between the augmented orchestrations and Edelman's interpretation, "Easy to Love" and "All Through the Night" are simply delightful and his half of "It's Delovely" sparkles. Unfortunately, as Crocker's other half, Hope Harcourt, Katrina Murphy is a tad on the weak side vocally. As Erma ("Buddy Beware"), Tara Hugo brings great gusto to the part; indeed she sounds more vocally suited for the lead, the Ethel Merman/Patti LuPone part of Reno Sweeney, than the woman playing the part, as Louise Gold lacks the bravado and fire the part requires.

Anything Goes SoundtrackDecca Records has just released the soundtrack to the 1956 film version of Anything Goes. Notice how I did not refer to it as "Cole Porter's comic hit" as I did in the previous paragraph. For the film version, the story was completely altered for its stars, Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor. Instead of featuring a lounge-singer-turned-evangelist as the driving force of the show, the 1956 film rewrote the book to tell the tale of two male co-stars who are about to open a new musical comedy, but each has a different leading lady in mind. Even more puzzling is the studio's decision to jettison most of Porter's classic score in favor of three numbers by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen ("Ya Gotta Give the People Hoke," "A Second Hand Turban and a Crystal Ball" and "You Can Bounce Right Back") that are as cheesy as they sound. To add insult to injury, Porter's remaining numbers have been sanitized to within an inch of their lives ("Anything Goes" is not even able to refer to "four letter words." Instead, good authors seem to be having problems with three letter ones).

Bing Crosby does a beautiful job with "All Through the Night" and he and Mitzi Gaynor have fun with "You're the Top." Jeanmarie's version of "I Get A Kick Out of You" is a camp classic with a male ensemble speaking the verse and an overpowering brass section (not to mention "perfume from Spain" replacing the usually excised cocaine). Taking a page from Rodgers and Hammerstein's playbook, the soundtrack features a "Dream Ballet" based on "Let's Do It" and "All Through the Night." As an added bonus, the CD features three songs sung by Bing Crosby for the 1936 version of Anything Goes, all three of which were written by writers other than Porter: "Sailor Beware" (Leo Robin and Richard Whiting), "My Heart and I" (Leo Robin and Frederick Hollander) and "Moonburn" (Edward Heyman and Hoagy Carmichael).

FlahooleyEvery house needs a Flahooley or, barring that, the cast album of one of the oddest musicals to ever flop on Broadway. This being the Year of the Puppet on Broadway, it is only natural that the cast album for a musical whose first number is "You, Too, Can Be a Puppet" and which features the Bil Baird Marionettes as cast members is re-released. For decades, the LP of the cast album was the Holy Grail among music theater lovers and its 1993 CD release by Angel Records has long been out of print. DRG Records has recently re-released the cast album and has taken great pains in sprucing up the sound, making it much richer, deeper and clearer than it sounded in its previous release.

The score of Flahooley remains one of the oddest to ever grace stage or disc and the CD practically contains three shows for the price of one. First of all, there are the songs sung by the puppets, which recall "It's a Small World" on acid. Even more bizarre is the inclusion of Yma Sumac (who was either a Peruvian ritual singer of the sun-worshiping Andes Mountain Indians or a Brooklyn girl named Amy Camus; the jury is still out) whose four octave warbling, hissing and grunting is the stuff of legends. The disc is rounded out by some gorgeous songs performed by Barbara Cook in her first stage appearance, chief of which is the beautiful number "Here's to Your Illusions." All but Yma's songs were written by Sammy Fain (music) and "Yip" Harburg (lyrics), the latter of whom also wrote the book, which is a mish mash of discourses on politics, economics, capitalism, world trade and ethics. The only flaw in the DRG re-release is that it includes only a snippet of Ken Mandelbaum's interview with Barbara Cook and reprints none of Mandelbaum's history lesson of the show, both of which were in the original Angel release. Regardless, this is a 'must have' CD for music theater lovers as the album simply has to be heard to be believed.

Justin Hayford Look Who's Been DreamingMusical archaeologist Justin Hayford has just released a new album sure to please those who, like me, get a kick out of uncovering forgotten tunes. Entitled Look Who's Been Dreaming, the CD presents a dozen largely forgotten numbers from various Hollywood films. Hayford possesses a light, lyrical tenor and a sharp intelligence that mines the songs for all they are worth, and for the most part the songs are well worth excavating.

The title song, cut from the 1953 Betty Grable film The Farmer Takes a Wife, is a delightful low-key ballad by Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields. "Never Swat a Fly," an uptempo comedy number sure to hit home with those of a vegan or karmic leaning, comes from a 1930 science fiction fantasy, Just Imagine, that starred Maureen O'Sullivan. For some odd reason, "Please Pardon Us, We're In Love," a jazzy number that needs to be investigated by any number of singers displaying that bent, is the only number lacking documentation in the liner notes (but a quick Google found the answer: it's by Mack Gordon/Harry Revel and is from the Alice Faye film You Can't Have Everything). A substantial number of the songs would find a welcome home in a jazz repertoire and are worth looking into by those seeking fresh material as all of the songs are entertaining and make for a fun listen.

Richard IIIArguably the finest English speaking actor of the twentieth century, Sir Laurence Olivier's finest film, Richard III (for which he served as both actor and director), has received the royal treatment in a restored version released as part of the Criterion Collection. The length of the film has varied greatly since its initial release in 1955 and has ranged from 155 to 161 minutes. An earlier Criterion laserdisc was only able to reconstruct 154 minutes, but with this two DVD release, Olivier's masterpiece can finally be seen in a version that matches the official release script page for page. While there is, at times, a noticeable difference in film stock, overall the transfer is breathtaking, as befits a Criterion release.

Olivier originally created his interpretation of one of the most compelling villains to ever grace the stage in 1944 at the Old Vic in London and it took a decade for him to bring it to the screen. In doing so, Olivier took a great deal of liberties which had to take place; otherwise the movie would be nearly five hours in length. However, since the play was originally intended to be the last installment in a four-part history series (the other three being Henry VI, parts I, II and III), elements from the Henry plays were either introduced (Olivier's film starts with the coronation of Edward IV, the scene that ends Henry IV Part III) or removed (the entire character of the deposed queen, Margaret, whose ramblings are incomprehensible if one lacks a working knowledge of the Henry plays).

The film's style is decidedly unrealistic in nature. The costumes are right out of Kiss Me, Kate and the sets would look right at home in Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The heightened acting style is decidedly pre-American Method in nature. The visuals are less naturalistic and more impressionistic in their execution, with elements like shadows, colors and even characters utilized to add to the visceral and emotional impact of the piece. But there is no denying the power and the craft inherent in the film's structure and in its acting. In his portrayal of Richard, Olivier crafted a gleefully wicked villain in a court full of rogues. And rarely has John Gielgud (playing Richard's saintly and highly wronged brother, Clarence) sounded so melodious, as if he were singing the lines instead of speaking them. Claire Bloom's portrayal of the Lady Anne, whose transformation from the grieving widow of a king slain by Richard to his lover is one of the most problematic in all of Shakespeare's canon, is breathtakingly honest (helped, in no small part, by the restructuring Olivier did on the text).

As with all Criterion discs, the extras add greatly to one's enjoyment of the film. The first disc contains an audio commentary by Shakespearean experts Russell Lees and John Wilders that provides an intelligent and highly insightful examination on the film and the changes Olivier made to the source material. The highlight of the second disc is an extensive interview the BBC did with Olivier in 1966 entitled Great Acting: Laurence Olivier, which covers his entire career in great detail. Other extras include an extended television trailer, a selection of production photos and promotional materials, and the film's theatrical trailer.


-- Jonathan Frank


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