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The Producers, A Class Act, Billion Dollar Baby, and You Never Know

The ProducersBy now I'm sure you've all heard of the juggernaut on Broadway known as The Producers. With a record breaking 15 Tony Nominations, 14 Drama Desk Nominations and the Outer Critic Award for best musical, not to mention an astronomically successful amount of ticket sales, there is no doubt that The Producers is this year's smash hit. Which, of course, begs the question, "Enough with the hoopla; how is the Cast Album?" The answer is, "Surprisingly entertaining."

The musical is based on Mel Brooks' 1968 cult classic film which starred Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder as Broadway producers with a 'fool-proof' get-rich scheme; namely, raise a ton of money, put on the worst show ever seen on Broadway, quickly close, and abscond with the funds. Mel Brooks has returned to the material, co-writing the book with Thomas Meehan and writing the music and the lyrics. And, oh yes, he is one of the producers as well (thus breaking both of Bialystock's rules of producing). While Mel Brooks has written songs before, including the Oscar nominated title song from Blazing Saddles, this is certainly his most ambitious attempt at the songwriting genre. As displayed in the past forty or so years, Mel Brooks is a master of pastiche, with his songs constantly calling to mind other songs, writers, or styles, and this, his first attempt at a full-length musical, is no different. While his melodies are pleasant, they do give one the feeling that they have been heard before. With lyrics whose every rhyme and punchline is telegraphed a mile away and gags that were old when vaudeville was young, it is hard to call The Producers brilliant, at least musically.

However, the genius of The Producers is not in the music and lyrics, but largely in its performers. With Nathan Lane as the conniving mastermind, Max Bialystock, and Matthew Broderick as the accountant turned producer, Leo Bloom, you have enough guaranteed star wattage to shine through material half as dim as what was written, and Mel Brooks has provided enough meat for both actors to sink their teeth into and chow down on the scenery for dessert. Nathan Lane, surprisingly enough originating his first Broadway musical leading role, has been given yet another career making star part and he milks it for all he's worth. From the Fiddler inspired "The King of Broadway" to his 11 o'clock 'Rose's Turn as a mega-mix' number, "Betrayed," he appears to be having the time of his life and revels in every bad, tasteless joke and cliché. Matthew Broderick is winning as the nebbish Leo, especially in the Gershwin-esque "I Wanna Be A Producer" which also recalls Oliver! and Showboat. In fact, one could make quite a drinking game out of The Producers in which shots are drunk every time somebody recognizes a musical or lyrical quote or reference (of course you would be hammered ten minutes into the album, but what the heck!).

And therein lies the rest of the genius in The Producers: Mel Brooks' mastery of taking every show-biz cliché, lovingly parading it about, and standing it on its ear. From the showgirls in "I Wanna Be A Producer," to the stereotypical Swedish blonde bombshell, Ulla (hilariously played by Cady Huffman, whose number, "When You Got It, Flaunt It," calls to mind any number of bad auditions I have seen), to the number that started it all, "Springtime for Hitler," Mel Brooks displays a love for the musical genre and a knowledge of its cliches and stereotypes that would make the most ardent fanboy (or girl) blush. While not a great score, it is a fun one worth getting for its fluffy enjoyability. I doubt any of the songs will become classics or even have a life outside of the show ("When You Got It, Flaunt It," being the only one that would even partially work in a club or at an audition) But the album is entertaining for what it is: a madcap musical comedy.

Now before we go any further, we must give credit where it is due and mention that Mel Brooks belongs to the circle of songwriters who don't read or write music, but record the melodies and let others flesh them out into actual songs. Thus, special mention must be made of Doug Besterman, who provided the orchestrations and Patrick S. Brady, who acted as music director and vocal arranger, since without their help the show would not sound nearly as lush, and perhaps not have nearly the number of musical puns and influences.

A Class ActThe Tony Committee also nominated another show dealing with the tortures of creating a Broadway Musical, A Class Act. Based on the life of Edward Kleban, best known as the lyricist of A Chorus Line and for creating a foundation which awards a yearly cash prize to promising lyricists and librettists, A Class Act integrates songs from various projects of Ed's to create an evening devoted to a rather unlikable guy. I have to admit that I have been dreading writing this review ever since I first heard the cast album. While it contains some winning performances, I just have not been able to warm up to the CD. Part of the problem is that, on disc at least, Ed (played by Lonny Price) comes across as totally unlikable and I just can't seem to muster any sympathy for his problems, nor can I understand why anybody would put up with his neuroses and game playing.

The story may work better on stage than on disc, where all we have upon which to gauge the show are the songs, and in that department I find the album to be lacking as well. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I kept waiting for that one goose-bump inducing moment that would make me go, "Wow! This man was really something! We really lost a talent!" Instead, all the songs sound like any number of second rate theater and cabaret numbers, and the album ended without a single number grabbing me and forcing me to listen to it. In all honesty, the only pulse quickening moment for me occurred when an excerpt of "One" from A Chorus Line was used, which made me think that, despite Ed's protestations, he was lucky to work with someone like Marvin Hamlisch. Even the lyrics are rather trite and obvious, and kept calling to mind better songs which covered similar terrain. "Better" sounds as if it was lifted from Minnie's Boys, of all things, and the wordplay of "Gauguin's Shoes" echoes the far superior work he did in "One."

There are some fine performances thanks to Randy Graff and Carolee Carmello, two performers who bring warmth and emotional honesty to any project to which they are attached. And the orchestrations by Larry Hochman make the material sound better than it should. But overall I found the album to be a huge disappointment and completely uninteresting. I kept thinking of superior writers, such as Howard Ashman, for instance, or any number of recent Kleban Award Winners whose material is more deserving of being in a Broadway show.

Billion Dollar Baby
You Never Know
In a blast from the past, two world premier recordings have been released recently which not only feature Kristin Chenoweth, but are set in the same era as well; Comden and Green's Billion Dollar Baby and Cole Porter's You Never Know.

Billion Dollar Baby was Comden and Green's follow up to their smash hit On The Town. Since Leonard Bernstein was busy with conducting engagements, the writing of the music fell to Morton Gould. The show was set in the '20s on the eve of the stock market crash and centers around one Maribelle Jones (Kristin Chenoweth), an ambitious gold digger who will stop at nothing to get what she wants; namely to be rich, famous and powerful. The show had mixed reviews, and audiences, many of whom lived through the crash, failed to warm to the material, so it had a brief run and never got revived, much less recorded, until BT McNicholl convinced the York Theater to produce it as part of its Musicals in Mufti series.

While the album has a lot going for it in terms of curiosity value and stellar performers, it is not all that enjoyable in its entirety, largely due to threadbare orchestrations that fail to bring the songs to life. The songs call for more instruments than were utilized (which sound highly artificial on the CD), but I suspect that even a full orchestra would not improve upon the majority of the material.

Still, Billion Dollar Baby has some winning performers. Kristin Chenoweth shines in a part that shows off her comedic as well as her vocal range. Debbie Gravitte plays the proverbial sharp Madame with a heart of brass, Georgia Motley, and gets some numbers that would be worth investigating for belters in search of new material. Marc Kudisch plays the aptly named gangster, Rocky, who does well with his numbers, "Bad Timing" and "I'm Sure of Your Love," which would be worth looking into as well.

Kristen Chenoweth is featured on another World Premier Recording, Cole Porter's You Never Know. Under a different title (which was not provided in the album notes), You Never Know was produced in Europe in the 1930s as an intimate musical and was based on the play By Candlelight. By the time it opened at the Winter Garden in 1938 it had evolved into a typical 1930s Broadway extravaganza. In 1991, a revised and restored version of the show, adapted and directed by Paul Lazarus, played at the Pasadena Playhouse and an album based on that production has been released by Fynsworth Alley.

On disc at least, the show is rather charming. The story takes place in Paris in 1929, right before the stock market crash, where Baron Rommer (Harry Groener) and his butler, Gaston (David Garrison) are staying at the Hotel Ritz. The two swap places so Gaston can woo a woman he believes to be a Lady (Kristin Chenoweth) but is actually a maid. Meanwhile, his boss has fallen for her boss, Mme. Balton (Donna McKechnie). We're not talking high art, just a lot of froth with some great Cole Porter songs intermingled with some fun lesser known ones. Songs from other shows ("Ridin' High," Let's Not Talk About Love," I Happen to be in Love" and "Let's Misbehave") are thrown in to round out the otherwise skimpy score to great effect. There are some wonderful rarities that would be worth investigating, like "I'm Back in Circulation" (sung by Angela Teek as a Josephine Baker-esque performer) and "What is That Tune" (a touching number reminiscent of La Cage's "Song on the Sand" and winningly sung by Groener and McKechnie). The singers are great, the orchestrations by Steve Orich use a minimum of instruments to a maximum effect, and overall it's a very enjoyable album. If the script is half as entertaining, regional and community theaters would be well advised to look into producing it (rights are available through Samuel French) as a refreshing alternative to the same old revivals.


-- Jonathan Frank


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