The wait is over. Yes, spring has just sailed in this week, but get ready for summer ... the Summer of '42, finally available as a cast album. Also, a quartet of Sondheim shows reissued (and remastered) with bonuses. Plus two female vocalists, one who is Inspired and one who is Jazzed!: respectively, Lea Salonga, after an absence, has another all-English language CD, and then a belated discovery named Sandy Dennison.
A long journey to becoming a cast album: Summer of '42 played Goodspeed in the summer of '00, opened in New York in the winter of '01, was recorded in the spring of '05, and now it reaches us at the meeting of winter and spring of '07. It was recorded just after a one-night-only concert presentation (at Manhattan's York Theatre, where an early reading had been hosted), and reunited many prior cast members. This cast's understanding of the characters really comes through on the 2-CD set that includes much dialogue and runs nearly two hours.
She played the part in a Texas production and at the York, and Rachel York is simply lovely as the wife of a soldier who's goes off to fight in World War II at the beginning of the show. She becomes the object of affection for a teen-aged boy. Ryan Driscoll from the Goodspeed and Off-Broadway casts is instantly and consistently likeable and vulnerable as the self-conscious and increasingly self-aware teen. It's a delight to witness his comic timing in situations requiring bravado and gawky growing pains as the boy he's playing tries to act more grown-up and experienced. When he sings "I Think I Like Her," the character really seems to be discovering his feelings exactly at the instant they tumble out of his mouth. It's very satisfying to follow the arc of this character, Hermie, Herman Raucher's semi-autobiographical self from his novel and film of the same title.
Like the movie's Michel Legrand score, the music is haunting, romantic and nostalgic, filled with longing. But there's also plenty of humor in the music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, who has also written the wildly funny Party Come Here that's been in recent musical theater festivals starring Hunter Foster, who wrote Summer of '42's warm-spirited book.
In strong performances as Hermie's peers are three others who also started with the Goodspeed company. Bravos to Celia Keenan-Bolger (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) who plays Hermie's date, and Brett Tabisel (Big) who scores as the bawdy and insatiably libidinous pal, with Megan Valerie Walker as the object of his lust. Joe Gallagher and Danielle Ferland (heard on the cast albums of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George revisited later in this column) have great appeal as the geek and geekette of the teen set who might be matched up if the highly nervous boy didn't run off in panic at the prospect of a date. The three teen girls have a few spot-on short commentaries invoking girl-group harmonies from the 1940s. "Oh Gee, I Love My G.I." is particularly adorable.
Also returning to the project for the concert and recording are director Gabriel Barre and orchestrator-music director Lynne Shankel, who plays one of two keyboards in the six-member band. All seem to be on the same page, helping to make what could be a mawkish, over-sentimentalized memoir feel genuine with emotions that ring true rather than pushing buttons. With music under some dialogue scenes and spoken lines interwoven into songs, the piece flows well.
The score's standout is the act one closer, "Someone to Dance with Me," a very satisfying song of longing. Also powerful is "Promise of the Morning," kind of a grown-up version of the optimism in Annie's "Tomorrow," imbued with more life experience and less absolute certainty. Both feature Rachel York. Two more emotional songs for her character that fleshed her out and exposed those feelings were cut - but it's gratifying to have them as bonus tracks at the album's conclusion. We get a fuller picture of the lady with the emotional and soaring ballads, "Our Story So Far" and "Losing Track of Time," done beautifully, with passion.
As usual with new recordings produced by John Yap, the sound is excellent: warm and theatrical. Packaging is well done: the booklet gives us the whole script, including stage directions, making the plot synopsis perhaps redundant. There are some photos, too, and interesting new remembrances from the creative team who still sound very much in love with this musical and recording. So am I.
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CASTS
In the ten-year period between 1979 and 1988 we got original cast recordings of four new scores by Stephen Sondheim, whose birthday happens to be today. All were conducted by Paul Gemignani with brilliant orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick on three (Michael Starobin's sensitive work is on Sunday in the Park with George). They're old enough that each was originally issued on vinyl (remember vinyl?) before they came out on CD. Each original Broadway cast album has been remastered and reissued, now with new liner notes offering a bit of historical perspective by Richard Jay-Alexander and each with two or three bonus tracks not on the original. The lyrics and original liner notes are not included, but a website address is given if you want access to them. The booklets have some photos in black and white that are on the unclear, muddy side - but the sound quality certainly isn't. It's clearer and crisper than ever, with excellent separation. This is especially valuable for Sondheim scores with their contrapuntal moments, layered voices, and the many nuances and details in the orchestrations that add so much subtext.
Ah, the sound! Listen to the individual character voices in the large group numbers of Into the Woods, the choral work on Sunday in the Park with George, the brightness in the orchestrations of Merrily We Roll Along, even the embellished thump-thump as pies and bodies whisk by in Sweeney Todd, not to mention the heightened hysteria and ominous warning as we "attend the tale." Even Sondheim fanatics who know these recordings inside out may find details and new clarity in the voicings of the orchestras. I would not go so far as to say that all non-audiophile or casual fans need to replace their cast albums immediately. One could cite numerous examples of what strikes the ear in a good or bad way, but here are some broad generalizations as my ears ring from the first couple of listens to these recently arrived albums: Merrily We Roll always was and remains the most troubled as far as sound quality and clarity. Sweeney Todd's orchestra becomes more prominent and enhanced, like a full co-star to a singer. Sunday in the Park feels most brightened, and Into the Woods remains warm and full.
It's the bonus tracks (and the improved volume) that may entice. Six have been available on CD before. Two of Sweeney Todd's extras are from the recorded concert Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall: Harolyn Blackwell's elegantly operatic "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" and the seven-and-a-half minute symphonic suite with Don Sebesky's orchestration. The CD now ends with an unbilled bit of Its "Parlor Songs" sung by Julie Andrews from the Putting It Together cast CD. Sunday in the Park has "Sunday" by the show's leading lady, Bernadette Peters, with the chorus from the Carnegie Hall concert; and the score's "Putting It Together" (with some different lyrics) from the cast album of the 1993 Off-Broadway of the same name. Merrily's bonuses are a performance of the musical's big ballad, "Not a Day Goes By," plucked from a live Bernadette Peters CD and also something much rarer. The "It's a Hit," not included in the vinyl release due to lack of space, did show up on A Collector's Sondheim and then again when the cast album first appeared on CD and on the cassette - but this second version is a recording by Sondheim himself, on vocals and piano, from his private archives. He's singing in front of some people who can be heard laughing, and as he demonstrates the number he pauses to call out a character's name to identify who sings what line in the show and make a couple of quick explanatory remarks. The singing feels rough and rushed, but yes, it's always interesting to hear his energy and exuberance.
It's the Into the Woods album that has a small treasure chest of rarities ending the album. They come from a recording that was part of a proposed new version for younger audience that was to appear on Warner Home Video. Unlike the other albums, these are not simply alternate versions of numbers, but material that is new to most ears and not previously commercially available. The score's "Giants in the Sky" is heard with a large portion of material not in the standard version; you'll hear quick-paced lines by the character of Jack with, deliciously, more rhymes per line per square inch than usual. The singer is John Cameron Mitchell. Following are two cut songs. First, the lyric-dense "Back to the Palace" for Cinderella, sung by Kim Crosby who had the role. It's rather similar to "On the Steps of the Palace," using some of the same rhymes (palace/malice; shoe/clue). Finally, we get a song sung by Maureen Moore for the Witch that was later replaced by "Last Midnight": called "Boom Crunch," it is more maniacal than spooky. All three are very much worth hearing, and not just for Sondheim fanatics. And they are all especially well sung, in full character. (The track preceding these three bonuses is simply the regular "Children Will Listen" finale, despite the mistake in printing the title on the back cover as "People Will Listen"; it sounds superb.)
Currently in the revival of Les Miserables as Fantine, Lea Salonga also appears on disc in a recent solo album, her first entirely in English in some time. The earlier solo CD, simply titled Lea Salonga, was much more of a commercial pop outing. Inspired is a lush, string-laden orchestral work, more serious and thoughtful - all to the good. Highly romantic and oozing sensitivity, it's a showcase for her tender, mature and thoughtful persona. In short, it's very affecting, butterfly-soft.
The CD is currently available as an import, though it can be ordered through various US online retailers.
Lea's voice sounds lovely, still very youthful. Although we don't hear the power of her vocals evidenced in theater roles like her breakthrough Miss Saigon, this CD, very much a studio excursion, is pleasing in its own pensive and pretty way. Her brother Gerald Salonga arranged half of the CD's dozen tracks; he also conducted and produced the album and plays piano on some tracks. He favors a sweeping and sentimental landscape with lots of strings and woodwinds; his best moment is "When October Goes" the Johnny Mercer lyric (co-credited here to his wife Ginger) set to music by Barry Manilow, a song that's been picked up by quite a few singers now. He effectively incorporates another autumnal song instrumentally, "Autumn Leaves," which will please Mercer admirers even though his lyric is not heard, just implied. Another Salonga-Salonga achievement is the low-key "Sing," the old ditty from Sesame Street more often heard as a relentlessly chipper sing-along-at-gunpoint kind of thing. It's done at a relaxed pace, with no agenda other than luxuriating in music - the idea of music as well as the specific melody of this piece.
The old standard "My Foolish Heart" is another familiar choice, letting Lea dip into romance, this time with some tension in the lyric that suggests caution about love. The line, "His lips are much too close to mine" is changed, replacing the word "his" with "your"; a small change, but it throws off the song's sensibility. The instrumentation here is simpler, making the track a welcome change of pace. However, Ria Villena-Osorio's arrangement of "Brian's Song" works against Lea's attractive interpretation of the lyric by Marilyn & Alan Bergman and the Michel Legrand melody, with an attempt to make this aching 1970s movie theme have a stronger, harder beat with drums and a cluttered accompaniment.
A couple of songs are on the ultra-vulnerable, New Age-y poetic side that might strike some as too flowery. But don't doubt this sweet songstress's sincerity. This is a romantic ride on rose petals and rainbows for the irony-free open-hearted lovers (or wannabe lovers) everywhere.
UNDER THE RADAR
I'm very happy to have been listening this week to a singer who's not new, but new to me. She had a previous album a few years ago, but I missed the independently released item and have caught up via her second. Better late than never ...
If I owned a nightclub, I would hire singer Sandy Dennsion in a minute. She has the kind of voice and presentation I could listen to every night, four sets a night. And I wouldn't mind at all if she brought along the musicians from her two albums, because they're very simpatico. There is an immensely attractive kind of husky quality to her voice, lightly swinging when she wants to, and an airiness to her vibrato on a slowly-spun-out ballad that is just great. She has a quiet confidence and solid control of her very natural phrasing. Sandy never sounds tired or tired of the songs, although I suspect she knows them quite well, having been worked as a singer for some years before retiring to raise a family. Now she's back at the mic, fortunately in a studio.
Although occasionally I wish she'd use a little more attack, and bite into a song a bit more, I find no real fault with her. This Portland, Oregon-based singer is a joy to hear if your like your jazz-tinged material addressed with taste by someone who impresses by not trying to impress. Generally, the five-piece band is a groove and never less than very professional, yet there are times when I find them a bit too laidback on longer instrumental stretches. The album is arranged and produced by the band's pianist, Vincent Frates.
A couple of show tunes are among the CD's strongest cuts: Annie Get Your Gun's "They Say It's Wonderful" is, well, pretty wonderful, as it floats through the air. Sandy gives it a rubato treatment, examining the lyric and sounding her most thoughtful. "On the Street Where You Live" finds a new tempo, too: Sandy knows you don't have to scream and shout to express "that towering feeling." She's satisfied and pleased in a gentler way that works very well.
It's gratifying to hear the sultry John Williams/Marilyn & Alan Bergman Oscar-nominated "Moonlight" from 1995's Sabrina in such capable hands. Perhaps the best is saved for last: Billy Strayhorn's "You're the One," a reminder of Sandy's first album, a collection of songs associated with Duke Ellington and his band called Love You Madly.
Even though I greatly admired and enjoyed Jazzed! I almost hesitated catching up with the first CD because it was the same bunch of songs that every Duke Ellington tribute tends to tackle - the super-famous ones. But Sandy treats most of them in her original way, freshening them with very present phrasing and not the obvious tempi. (Her band is great on this CD, too.)
At times, Sandy reminds me a bit of Lena Horne, June Christy or a more contemporary favorite, Pittsburgh and New York's Joyce Breach, but she just has some of the best qualities of each and her own sensibility and flair. She has the kind of intelligence and musicality that, if played on the radio, would make people say, "Nice. Who is that?"