Hearing those Scottsboro Boys (when they were Off-Broadway)
A new musical opened on Broadway this past week, just after the release of the cast album of its recent Off-Broadway incarnation with some of the same players. And then, a visit from way further back in the past. A classic show, with just one of its leads from Broadway, issued on CD on the 50th anniversary of its London production, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its writer. Consider these two: a truly sad tale overlaid with smiley minstrel show zest and a "most happy" tale with a shadow of sorrow.
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
A tragic and unsettling true chapter from American history reflecting the ugliness of racism and justice gone awry becomes a pointed and pungent musical. Told ironically in the form of an old minstrel show with stylized characterizations, it includes sounds that are foreboding and mournful, butin the tradition of this obsolete form of entertainmentthe high-energy cheer of banjos a-plunking, tambourines a-shaking and tip-tap-slap-happy dancing. The jarring juxtaposition of the hard-to-resist bright, sprightly melodies and the impossible-to-ignore duplicity, dangers and disasters presented in the lyrics makes for odd but often compelling theatre. It packs a punch, even though you see the punches coming and know they're designed to knock you for a loop.
The messages can feel heavy handed and telegraphed with intentionally broad strokes. When the imposed and limiting device/genre is given a rest, and characters sing in a more realistic, emotional manner, as in early "Nothin'" or the defiantly proud "You Can't Do Me" (near the end), the catharsis is riveting. These are both solos for the character of Haywood, the person who gets the most focus of the nine so-called Scottsboro Boys who were falsely accused of rape back in the 1930s and go through several trials. In the Off-Broadway company, but not joining the cast for its current Broadway leap, the role was played by Brandon Victor Dixon. He makes a strong impact on the recording, displaying grit, grief, guts and gallows-humor sarcasm as required in his vocals. The unbridled joy and lust for adventure in the number before the arrest, "Commencing in Chattanooga," makes the sudden horrific whirlwind all the more dramatic. All lyrics are included in a booklet, with some photos in color, a plot synopsis and a brief reflection by the composer on the show's genesis and intent.
Although the ever-clever rollicking numbers and the menacing power plays presided over by John Cullum as Caucasian authority figures have their dazzle and drama, respectively, it is the plaintive and heartbreaking simplicity of the yearning "Come Back Home" that is most striking and satisfying. With a touching and tender melody that instantly pleases and crystallizes the sense of longing and hoping against hope, it's a gem. Besides the group vocal, led again by Dixon with a brief but impactful solo moment by Cody Ryan Wise as the youngest of the accused group, there is also a bonus track with a vocal by John Kander, the show's veteran composer who completed the work after the 2004 passing of his longtime lyricist, Fred Ebb. Mr. Kander's unpretentious rendition is quite moving, with the maturity and slight cragginess of his voice reaching for notes adding to the ageless ache of the sentiment in the song.
Although it is virtually impossible to forget the unpleasantness of the horrors of this true story, even on a recording with minimal dialog included, it's also virtually impossible not to be caught up in the snappy, grin-inducing melodies. Musical seduction is what it is. The sparkling band led by piano/harmonium player Paul Masse presents many splashy flashes of the Southern honey-glazed flavors with, indispensably, Greg Utzig's playing of banjo, ukulele, harmonica, mandolin and guitar and brass instruments key in the eight-man group. Larry Hochman's orchestrations and Glen Kelly's arrangements are a delight with crispness and personality, with musical director David Loud's responsibilities including the appealing vocal arrangements. They have tang and zap, and John Yap, executive album producer (Messrs Loud and Kander are co-producers), once again presents an aural landscape that is theatrical and rich without overwhelming the listener with relentlessness, overkill or brittle sounds. It's a cumulative effect as numbers build, fueled by the high-voltage talent of the well-oiled harmonizingly kept-humming machine that is the cast. ("Hey hey hey/ Join in the merriment ... If you're a gloomy gus/ We'll erase that sour face ...")
Presenting some characters as buffoons in the minstrel numbers, having the fabricated and changing testimony of the female accusing parties re-enacted by two men who also play two of the Scottsboro group adds to the twisted take and absurdities. That gender-bending choice has a somewhat limited impact when it's just your ears doing the work, of course, but some effect registers. Unavoidably, perhaps, there is a sense of redundancy as some numbers show their hand right away and drive the point home, and minstrel style has its rather small repertoire. However, only a few numbers go on much longer than three minutes and there are not long stretches of dance music or talk. Despite playing unsympathetic figures here, and decades after his Broadway debut, John Cullum remains a formidable, commanding presence.
The Scottsboro Boys is intense, but has much to recommend it on disc: a heavy drug with a candy coating, it often manages to make one shiver and shimmy.
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
Though not definitive, most definitely worthwhile and of interest is the belatedly-on-CD London version of The Most Happy Fella. This 1960 production of the ambitious, boundary-busting mix of operatic, musical comedy, and folk-like styles with music, lyrics and libretto by Frank Loesser followed the original 1956 Broadway debut. Only Art Lund, playing Joey (with the solos "Joey, Joey, Joey" and "Don't Cry") was a holdover from the key players in New York. The story requires characters to sound like Californians and Texans, and for the title character and his sister to have thick Italian accents. The British cast accommodates this well enough; you won't hear telltale British accents. The London cast performing at the Coliseum Theatre did not get the royal treatment as far as preserving the huge score; not all the numbers were recorded. However, the major pieces were preserved and are done competently. Those who know and love this music-heavy, lengthy work as originally conceived and previously recorded will feel the gaps (extended pieces, reprises or the connective thread and "minor" numbers that flesh things out). The original Broadway cast album was a generous three-LP record set.
Although this treatment follows in the outlines of the original, in this version, there feels like there is less of a dichotomy between the "operatic singing" and lighter, perky vocalizing in the "musical comedy numbers." For those who feel the score presented two vastly different styles that didn't make comfortable musical neighbors, this Most Happy Fella may have found a most happy medium. Much seems toned down; there's less dramatically grand or grandiose singing of serious numbers and fewer slices of ham in the comedy. Tony, the title character, as performed by Inia Te Wiata (who also played the role in New York before the London production was all set to go) is presented with not as broad an Italian accent as was used originally. The higher-drama moments aren't as "accented" either when Tony is worried, wary or weepy. He and leading ladyHelena Scott as his beloved Amy, aka Rosabellaseem more earnest and down-to-earth regular folks than oversized personalities as characters or performers. Unlike others who have recorded the scoresuch as Jo Sullivan in the Broadway original cast, who went on to marry the musical's creator, or, many years later, their daughter Emily Loesserthere isn't a shimmering quality to the vocals, a compelling dignity mixed with a touching neediness, also a characteristic of the interpretation in the off-Broadway revival. Here, we have a more serene and sensible kind of lady, less outwardly vulnerable or passionate.
The missed opportunities of not hearing what's missing from this cast recording may be partially to blame. The original Broadway album is one I grew up with and even now, after countless hearings, it can still make me laugh out loud with the broken English and and broken etiquette rules in "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance" and, listening to it even years later, I still feel the pang of the heartbroken moments of despair in "Mama Mama" and certain key scenes. I don't have those reactions settling in to hear this 1960 recording, which I had never heard before, yet it is fine and entertaining. Art Lund's Joey doesn't seem to have found new depths or nuances in his songs here and sounds a bit dispassionate at times. There's some likably loose good spirits and spirited singing with Libi Staiger as Cleo and Jack DeLon, with their rousing "Big D" showing zingy bursts of joyful delight. Although the ensemble sometimes sounds rushed or lacking specific attitude, the singing of all cast members is admirableand it's a worthy listening experience, another flavor of a favorite score.
As Sepia Records usually does with their CDs of scores recorded when the originals were done with abbreviated playing time, they've fleshed out things with related contemporaneous hard-to-track down bonus tracks to give us more bang for our bucks. In addition to the 19 vocal tracks of the 1960 cast LP and its attractive, appetizer platter of an overture, there are eight commercial "pop" recordings of numbers from the score. Don't worrythey are not crass, jazzed up, or given a rock 'n' roll beat. All are respectful, if notably watered down, but not trying to be "theatrical" in tone. All are songs also heard in the cast album section. The peppy "Standing on the Corner" starts things offnot the hit record American pop group version you might know, but a similarly textured but less ebullient British counterpoint by The King Brothers and The Rita Williams Singers with the orchestra directed by Geoff Love. Then, interestingly, there's a pop version of one of the numbers done in a studio by the cast's New Zealand-born leading man, wringing out more dramatic florid flourishes, recorded in a studio five months after the London opening. It's "My Heart Is So Full of You," the big love declaration from the score. There is also a version of this by Edmund Hockridge, whose vocals total half a dozen. (The album is so full of "My Heart Is So Full of You," with these two bonus tracks, the main version from the cast and a reprise in the show's finale!) I especially like the unfettered, directly approached and ear-pleasing vocals by this Canadian-born pro who found success in British musical theatre performer and recording solo albums, and they are a marvelous way to end the return visit to this great score.
Edmund Hockridge, who passed away last year, recorded the six numbers with the Peter Knight Orchestra and (sometimes) Chorus. He doesn't adopt the assignments or personality of just one character, but it's an equal opportunity survey, the singer at ease as much with the the aforementioned big ballad as with the comic "Happy to Make Your Acquaintance" (the chorus standing in as for some of the interaction and mispronouncing the word "likewise") and even with the leading lady's glowing reflections that "Somebody Somewhere" really "wants me and needs me." The others are the valentine to Texas hospitality and how-dee-do, "Big D," and the two solos for the character of Joey. Smooth as smooth can be, the rich vocals are warm but without the tension one would put into the original context of the characters. What's a plus is that he didn't try to recreate that but to make the songs more universally accessible divorced from their originsand they do stand on their own, their solid melodic architecture and literate, well-crafted lyrics something to appreciate all over again.
As a part of the Loesser legacy being celebrated as we near the end of his centennial, this release is a welcome one. I'm most happy to have it on CD and to revisit the score some more ... in new, more subdued clothing.