No one said it would be easy. In this week's look at song cycles and themes, we are reminded that life can be an uphill battle. We begin with two theatrical song cycles, each a solo piece for a struggling character in the romance trenches. But then what follows are a "tapestry of songs" and our "Under the Radar" item, collections where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.
SONGS FROM AN UNMADE BED
Like a glass of spiked lemonade on a hot day, Songs From an Unmade Bed is a welcome relief with a real tang. This smart little one-man musical/song cycle works very well on disc, thanks in large measure to the attention to detail on the part of the performer. Michael Winther brings a great deal of characterization and shading to the phrases, and his sense of comic timing is expert. He does frustration especially well, seething and then bubbling over. His neurotic Everyman is so identifiable and endearing that when he rants, the people he's complaining about seem like the crazy ones. It's a wonder to hear how much variety he gets into his singing: the edge he gets in his voice when irritated, the sighs of resignation and the calmly stoic acceptance of the potholes in the road to romance. All this is done without shortchanging the musical values and Michael the singer accommodates Michael the actor superbly.
In these musings about a gay man's relationships, many delightfully cynical and some rueful or touching, Michael has excellent material. The concept of having all the lyrics by one person, Mark Campbell, but having each melody by a different composer could have just been a gimmick, but it works to the piece's advantage, bringing great variety without sounding like a crazy quilt. All but three of the 18 composers did their own arrangements. Greg Pliska did those three, and also is one of the composers (for "Funny Gesture," with a melody that matches the slow burn of the moment quite well). Not all of the melodies can be described as soaring; a few are more like little art songs that serve the lyrics and maybe take a back seat to them. Most don't take full advantage of Michael Winther's voice as I've heard it in other projects, but it's put to fullest use on "To Sing," with a more forceful melodic line by Peter Foley.
The three musicians are David Kotay on cello, Shane Shanahan on percussion and musical director Kimberly Grigsby as pianist. (She's an especially gifted musical director and player, a major asset for recent productions/recordings like The Immigrant, The Full Monty and Caroline, or Change.) The characterful musical accents and comments are so strong that I'm almost tempted to say they act like the sole actor's supporting cast. Let's just say they reinforce and flesh out the emotions.
The funny songs, rich with clever turns of phrase and the cutest angst on disc hold up well on repeated listening. Theater people and those who date them and/or hate them will relate to "Exit Right" (music: Steven Lutvak, no stranger to bright comic songs) about a lover who is attentive - to himself. Throughout the CD, there's cause for applause for Michael's crisp phrasing of juicy lines like "being dead would only feel redundant" and highly crafted word play and rhyme as in "you've rushed that feeling of trust in our tryst/ By adding another object of lust to your list." However, the underlying humanity and more serious material resonate and make this much more than a display of sophisticated, caustic wit. Perhaps most impressive of all are some moments that are amusing and tragic at the same time, as life sometimes can be.
The show, billed as "a theatrical song cycle," had a run last year in New York and was reprised for one night at Joe's Pub recently in celebration of the CD's release. Michael's facial reactions and gestures are highly entertaining, but this recording really captures many of the nuances. New Yorkers can have a free sample this Wednesday, March 29, at 6 p.m. when several selections will be presented at Tower Records near Lincoln Center in their weekly "Any Wednesday" series of performances of material from new CDs.
There have been two-and-a-half previous recorded versions of Maury Yeston's December Songs. With their very different styles, cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci and soprano Harolyn Blackwell each made gratifying presentations of the work in the 1990s. In 2003, PS Classics released a CD of Yeston material with five of the ten pieces along with numbers from his other works. It's a set of mostly sorrowful and lonely confessionals. Now comes Parisian Isabelle Georges with her take on the ache. She has musical theater experience, including a leading role in Yeston's Titanic in Europe, and comes across as a fragile and sympathetic character, a lost soul struggling to survive the loss of love. As a tragic heroine (albeit with a very pretty voice), one can't help but root for her but wouldn't be likely to place money on a bet for her to come out a winner.
The song cycle was inspired by Franz Schubert's Die Winterreise but switches the character's gender and sets it in our time. Like the Songs From an Unmade Bed song cycle, December Songs is written for a solo singer who knows about breaking up, and takes place in New York City, with snow making a notable appearance. You won't find humor here, however. (Fun fact of the week: there's a reference to Die Winterreise in an Unmade Bed lyric.) You will find the kind of passion Yeston has shown in his scores for Nine and his Phantom.
The big news is that there's one new song added and the original ten are sung in both English and French, with translations by Boris Bergman. The French translations are pretty close, with the necessary approximations to allow for rhyme and proper scanning. The song titled "Please Let's Not Even Say Hello" turns into "I beg you not to say a word" as the suggestion of what to do when the ex-lovers run into each other. In the graceful and flowing "My Grandmother's Love Letters," there's an interesting change. The English version tells the story in the third person, using the word "she" whereas the French lyric addresses the grandmother using the form "tu" ("you"), making an already emotional look at the past even more so. Besides such adjustments, the approach and tempi are close in both versions, although the singer sometimes sounds more free in French. The new number, "Strange," is included only in English. Isabelle clips notes in the first sections, and the staccato effect is less satisfying than when she opens up later in the song. Sort of a mood-setting, hope-dashing commentary, it states unequivocally, "You can break my heart, I will always love you." Foreshadowing is not needed, as the character is already alone, mourning her lost love in the next piece, the first in the original set.
In addition to "My Grandmother's Love Letters," respite comes in a few sections. There's the happy memory of "When Your Love Was New," the distraction of observing the "Bookseller in the Rain," and the ultimately bittersweet recounting of the reunion that was just a dream. True, the character seems understandably weak and her perspective seems bleak, but there is a noble beauty here. This very human, very realistic look at a slow-to-heal broken heart is poetic and even hypnotic. Isabelle's emotions are painted in broad strokes with less nuance and variety within a single song than I'd like. However, she is to be given credit for giving full rein to some very naked human feeling which some singers would not be able or willing to approach.
A quick look at the front cover giving equal billing to Isabelle and pianist Stan Cramer would make this this appear to be a recital with just piano accompaniment. No. He is in the forefront, but conductor Larry Hochman has orchestrated this for piano plus violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe and clarinet - plus himself on celeste and percussion. The composer-lyricist co-produced the CD with PS Classics' Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin as executive producer. It comes with a booklet containing both sets of lyrics, but perhaps a package of Kleenex might be a wise enclosure, too. This is always a sad tale, in no small part because it rings so true.
Intrigued by the stories of two inspiring "grand ladies" who loved life, Rebecca Spencer has collected a group of songs old and new on her new album, Fair Warning. With the underlying theme of living life fully, with familiar tunes woven through instrumentally, this album, too, has the feel of a song cycle. In her liner notes, Rebecca says what is attempted is "a tapestry of music with contemporary art song interpretations." The tapestry she has created works like a strongly reflective story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The first vocal is "The Girl Who Used to Be Me," the powerful song by Marvin Hamlisch with Marilyn & Alan Bergman written for the film version of Shirley Valentine. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, I don't know anyone who's recorded this excellent lament besides its originator, Patti Austin. Speaking of Oscar's favorite tunes, a Best Song winner, "You Must Love Me" (added to the score of Evita for film) is here, too, benefitting from the velvety Spencer treatment.
But the very first thing we hear are the instrumental strains of the old Shaker hymn ("Simple Gifts") setting the tone. Midway, there's another religious moment and the album ends with a vocalise version of "A Prayer" by Vangelis. The cello playing throughout the album holds everything together and is a beautiful asset and anchor. The ethereal beauty plus power will come as no surprise if you're familiar with Rebecca from her work on cast albums or her first solo CD, the delightful Wide Awake and Dreaming. You'll know she's a soprano with range and power. She takes chances and has a taste for the unusual and the traditional. Working again with versatile pianist/ musical director Philip Fortenberry, the elegant pair mix the very well-known (here, "Summertime" and "Stardust") with the unexpected. There are four premieres, all with music by Keith Thompson who also did the cello orchestrations. One is a setting for the words of the late Virginia Scott, a professor who was one of the women whose life was part of the CD's inspiration. With Thompson's music and lyrics, "Eat, Drink and Be Mary" is the recording's change-of-pace number. It's a rousing carpe diem campy piece with fun rhymes and a cute salute to "Nowadays" from Chicago. This number is a party all by itself. "Something in Red" by Angela Kaset is another brash and bright selection; others are quite serious and fervent.
If "legit" soprano singing and a serious look at what life is about are not to your taste, this might not be the CD you'll rush to buy. Much of it requires a willingness to reflect, not just be diverted. The rich recital succeeds in delivering its message of embracing and appreciating the important things in life. This album, which the artist's liner notes prominently states is "dedicated to the human spirit," is not a project tossed off casually. Formal? Certainly. Earnest? Quite. And also quite moving.
In celebration of this release, Rebecca Spencer will be at Tower Records on Broadway at 66th Street on Wednesday, April 5 at 6 p.m. On April 6 and 7, she's at Don't Tell Mama to celebrate and sing. Then, she's off to Las Vegas to play Madame Giry in Phantom of the Opera.
UNDER THE RADAR
In Moira Danis, we meet a singer on a more lighthearted excursion. Possessed of a lovely and clear voice, she glides through 13 songs on her debut album, I Wish. The set is varied, with titles associated with the jazz and pop world. She has a light touch, not digging too deep into the lyrics or dabbling in dramatics. Still, she has an easy-on-the-ears grace and is very musical. It comes as no shock then that by day she is a music teacher for young children. Her rendition of Carole King's "Music" makes me think her joy in singing probably comes through in her teaching and writing and directing musicals at her school. The same goes for the message, "If You Feel Like Singing, Sing," an invitation by Harry Warren/ Mack Gordon, introduced by Judy Garland in the 1950 film Summer Stock. A positive outlook pervades this album, down to the bouncy choice from the previous year, from Irving Berlin's Broadway musical, Miss Liberty: "Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun" (the characters in the song cycles above would find that debatable).
Other songs from musicals are Finian's Rainbow's classic "Old Devil Moon" where Moira cuts loose, is freer and has a big ending. It also provides perhaps the best opportunity for her pianist Wells Hanley to do likewise. Moira is less convincing and out of her element with something that wants to be bluesy and lusty, like Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her [Him] So." Her soprano and grace find their most natural match with "I Wish It So" in which what seems to be a lingering reserve works in her favor. The Marc Blitzstein plea from his Juno score is a highlight. Another is the five-song medley about childhood that this shows the teacher's own sense of wonder and fun, ending movingly with the Alec Wilder/ Loonis McGlohan gem, "Be a Child." One of prolific film composer John Williams' pre-epic era movie melodies, "Make Me Rainbows" (from Fitzwilly) with the romantic Alan & Marilyn Bergman lyric, is always good to hear, and she does well by it. I question some of the meandering jazz paths Hanley and bass player Eivind Opsvik take Moira down as they don't always seem to be following the same road map. Nevertheless, her voice is a sweet pleasure to enjoy.
These aren't groundbreaking, definitive versions but Moira Danis' voice and manner are like a breath of fresh air.
That's all for now, but there will be more next week. To quote the Carole King song on Moira's album: "Music keeps playing inside my head, over and over and over again. My friend, there's no end to the music." I wouldn't have it any other way.