It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas, so here are four releases: the annual Broadway Cares offering from Broadway casts who should soon be back on the boards, home for Christmas. Nobody actually sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas" on that set, but it's on each of the other three, ready to accompany your holiday happenings whether you are home, going back home, or just at home with the season's music and want some new interpretations .
BROADWAY'S GREATEST GIFTS:
CAROLS FOR A CURE, VOLUME 9
So you thought you'd heard "Jingle Bells" in every possible musical style? Wait until you hear the cast of Wicked trying them all out as they have a mock argument about which is best for this year's album of Carols for a Cure. Among the many merry Christmas performances on this album are Grease-ers zipping through a medley and the boys from Jersey saluting the holiday season with the goofy old novelty number "Dominick the Donkey" (you know, the Italian hee-hawing animal).
The 9th collection of Carols for a Cure is wonderfully done, bringing us lots of Broadway talent (and a little Off-Broadway), and some things delightfully a little off-kilter and a little off the beaten path. Some of The Little Mermaid singers start things off with an invigorating "Joy to the World" - those not familiar with these albums should know that often the selections don't feature the most well-known cast members, as is the case with that track. There's marvelous singing throughout, but if it's star soloists you're most curious about, here are a few better-known names: Shuler Hensley is the sole singer representing Young Frankenstein and plays it straight to provide a lovely, dignified "O Come All Ye Faithful" and Kerry Butler (Xanadu) sings a sincere and plaintive "Away in a Manger." Curtains' David Hyde Pierce is the titular character in the very funny number, "The Monotone Angel." Julia Murney and Max von Essen get the final bow with their very powerful and affecting "O Holy Night." The same melody is also heard in the background during the first CD's last cut, "'Twas the Night Before the Spelling Bee," a spoken piece of fun with the Putnam County orthographists having a field day updating the misadventures of the characters.
It's always a special treat when a song is written or adapted to bring out the unique flavor of a certain show. Also along those lines, this year we get the cast of Hairspray ignoring their 1960s time frame with a rambunctiously hammy "Tracy Turnblad's Big, Bad Holiday Rap." And there's the gang from Les Miserables with its customized version of the ultimate Christmas "list" song, "The 12 Days of Christ-Miz"; among the presents, "five dead Fantines" and "eight whores a-hooking." The Altar Boyz stay in character with "The Innkeeper's Lament," created by one of the show's writers, Michael Patrick Walker. That show's other writer, Gary Adler, collaborates with Phoebe Kreutz to bring a blithely cheery Beach Boys-like "(At the) North Pole Global Warming Surfin' Party" for the cast of Avenue Q, and he sings on it, too. A similar theme comes up in the contribution from Legally Blonde, "Christmas Makes the Whole World Warmer." A clever contribution comes from songwriter Peter Mills with Legally Blonde’s cast crooning "Christmas Makes the Whole World Warmer," with a neat surprise skillfully masked - at first - as a straightforward paean to pleasantness.
The generous set is not short on beauty with traditional religious songs like Spring Awakening's young voices respectfully gracing "What Child Is This?" with some modern touches. As has been the case in the past, songs can be cast surprisingly against type, based on current associations with a show. "The Coventry Carol" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" are done straight by Naked Boys Singing; and Spamalot, known for fun, has its soloist, Jenny Hill, stunning with a lovely song, "It Was Simple Then," from a new musical about Tammy Faye Bakker (Big Tent written by Sean McDaniel, Spamalot's drummer, and Ben Cohn).
Throughout, the care given to vocal harmonies, arrangements, sound and production is superior.
Priced at just $20 for the two-CD set, you'll be set for a very theatrical holiday with the newest volume Carols for a Cure, available online at the charity's website and some theatre gift shops.
LAURA BELL BUNDY
Energetic, bright-voiced Laura Bell Bundy, whose trio of Broadway credits consists of Legally Blonde, Wicked and Hairspray, adds Christmas to her resume with her I'll Be Home for Christmas CD. "Home" in this case means Lexington, Kentucky. She's enlisted musicians from the local source, BAJA (Bluegrass Area Jazz Association), a non-profit organization promoting jazz education that is the co-beneficiary of proceeds from the sale of the album, along with a foundation she began for needy children to be exposed to the arts, Kreative Kids.
Also from the bluegrass state comes her grandfather, Wayne Bundy, a retired radio broadcaster who appears on the album. He sings with her on three tracks, sounding like, well, like your game and casual grandpa. His singing is not that of a polished professional and, charm factor aside, there is struggle on his solos, such as the title song where each sings alone for a good chuck of the track. His straightforward and warm reading of the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" is divided into six sections, interspersed between the songs. The first few lines setting the old home week mood with "'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house ..." are followed logically by a Laura singing a peppy "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" before joining her grandfather on the nostalgic-for-tradition Irving Berlin classic to proclaim they are dreaming of a "White Christmas."
But mostly, Laura is dreaming of a light Christmas. Even with some potentially pensive, bittersweet or sad holiday numbers, things never get droopy. Though she sings with some feeling, it's not complex with nuanced phrasing. This is about contentment, more of a singer's performance than an actress's examination of lyrics. A bit of Southern style gets into the singing in a nice way. Warm and snuggly and easygoing, her vocals are generally likeable and easy to take, though her singing on "Winter Wonderland" seems raw, like she's not vocally at ease, the sound missing the relaxed warmth generally heard elsewhere.
The album's highlights are the cheer and sax-and-brass liveliness coming from the upbeat numbers where the band gets cooking and Laura's joie de vivre and joy of the season come through.
The miracle of Christmas? Yes, without question Lynn Loosier evokes the awe surrounding the import of the baby's birth on that long-ago "Silent Night." But regarding this album, the miracle of Christmas is the ability of this artist and her musical director to so often make a listener hang on every word despite the fact that they could hardly be more familiar. How can that be? In handling things like "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Mary, Did You Know?" the material is treated as very present drama rather than musical wallpaper. The very talented arranger/pianist Tedd Firth creates a sense of tension as Lynn unfolds the tale and stays in each moment, ever-observant and reactive to the events described in the lyrics. This applies to the secular selections as well, such as the moods and images set and sustained in "Christmas Time Is Here" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Despite repeated playings, I still feel drawn in each time by Lynn's very involved phrasing, the subtle and detailed piano support and accents, and the truly arresting quality of the performances.
The 13 tracks here tend to the longer side, but none overstays its welcome because there are musical surprises, and things build; the skilled, luxurious spinning out of the hypnotic spell is masterful. The small band also includes guitar, bass, drums, sax and flute for variety in tone and color.
Lynn most frequently utilizes her voice in a very up-close-and-personal, sometimes breathy way on the largely tender sections. She can adapt that to an offhandedly snuggly, warm-and-fuzzy smiling style for two comic relief numbers that take a break from honoring the baby Jesus to use the word "baby" in playful adult mock seduction. They are "Santa Baby" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside," the latter a duet with Julian Fleischer that does get a bit too coy-cute with its chatter patter but has a good, original zinger at the end. (It's actually the atypical opening song, not at all preparing you for the seriousness to come, but with the second cut being "The First Noel" allowing some jazz energy groove to ease us into all that's to follow.)
Of course, it helps that Lynn has such a basically attractive and flexible voice and is in good control of her instrument. She can produce bursts of joy and sustained tones, but on this more intimate does not very often use the big-voiced, soulful wail she has. It's on display in a video with Tom Wopat on her website and used more on her first album of standards and pop songs, 2002's What I Like on the Original Cast Records label. Her other recent CD, Going About My Father's Work, stays completely on the spiritual side, and it's quite impressive and powerful. Again, much credit must be given to the consistently resourceful and song-sensitive Tedd Firth who is on keyboard, is the arranger, and co-produced both with Lynn. He'll also be with her this Sunday afternoon, December 2nd, for a show featuring this Christmas material at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan.
Christmas for My Friends may be the perfect Christmas gift for your friends if they need an antidote to the redundant or overly chipper nature of some holiday CDs and want something more grown-up and reflective. I suspect I'll be playing it out of season, too. It's that kind of good.
All of her recent CDs will be available for sale at her engagements, but otherwise right now they are just available through her website.
UNDER THE RADAR
This last one is just temporarily under the radar because it's hot off the press, having been delivered to the singers themselves just in the St. Nick of time for this column, but will be on sale at www.CDbaby.com in a few days.
This Christmas variety pack offers different genres of Christmas song to pull you into the holiday spirit. If their early perky and peppy proclamations of how swell the season is don't do the trick, they'll play the sarcastic card or try some deeper emotion. Sue Matsuki and Edd Clark are rather an odd couple, he sounding more formal and "legit" voiced, and she more cabaret-jazz and openly emotional. They take on eclectic musical styles, together and separately; the 15 tracks offer five solo songs for each and five on which they combine forces.
Despite some somber and dead serious selections, there's an informal nature overall to this enterprise, like old friends hanging around the tree, singing favorites at a party. The musical accompaniment can be casual or even tentative. Paul Stephan is pianist, musical director, producer and arranger (with the exception of a Latin jazz kind of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" by David Lantz III), with the participation of Tom Hubbard on bass, Brian Fishler on percussion and Brian Taylor on flute.
When singing in his comfort zone and not pushing his voice or pushing for comic effect, Edd Clark does well here. He brings real feeling and drama to the story song "The Last Noel" that uses "The First Noel" as a reference point. On the comedy side, we can be grateful for his performance as the ungrateful gift recipient in a song from The Mad Show by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer, "The Gift of Maggie." It's snide, sneaky and snarky great fun.
Sue Matsuki, a frequent and involved presence on the cabaret scene, shines in many moments here. She's perfection and devilishly funny as a little girl on the nifty novelty number describing "The Pretty Little Dolly" and its special features, bodily functions and all. Sue brings genuine longing and adult perspective to "All Those Christmas Clichés" (Stephen Flaherty/ Lynn Ahrens). Though they harmonize espousing holiday happiness, their most effective collaboration is actually when Sue sings John Meyer's heartbreaking plea for a soon-to-be ex-lover to stay until "After the Holidays" with Edd ably crooning "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in the middle of it all, sounding far away. It sets up an image of a held-tight memory or wish for what won't be.
Though the CD has some moments where more careful work would have been in order, it has quite a bit to recommend it, and the two genial singers would be welcome presences at a party or show celebrating the season - which is exactly what they have planned at the Duplex in Greenwich Village for four performances, starting this Saturday (and they will have CDs for sale at the venue).
A little more Christmas next week, and there are cast albums and singers handling songs that are evergreens rather than just the Christmas tree kind of decorated evergreens.