A spirited Irving Berlin selection ...
plus pre-election Celebrating American Spirit
We've got three discs on the CD player, and the name of composer-lyricist Irving Berlin is very much around. There's a London cast album of a production adding various Berlin songs to the score of a classic film. And some of the same titles appear on a studio sampling of his work by a trio of songsters. Lastly, two Berlin pieces are among those to appear on an album focused on U.S. presidents and patriotism by a chorus and two guest stars from Broadway.
Spirits are high and bouncy-bright on the London cast album of Top Hat. It might get you dancing around the living room or just reveling in the work of songwriter Irving Berlin, as what was a five-song score for a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers expands into a more music-filled experience with numbers from other sources. Basically breezy and blithe, its liveliness is more on the frothy side than high-energy bombast. While respecting the material as first heard, this is no slavish copy of the treatments of the material as done in the 1935 movie and elsewhereor later renditions by Astaire, for that matter.
It's tough to top Top Hat's film leading man when it comes to charm and his unique light touch with a song. A dazzler of a vigorous voice might have brought fireworks, but leading man Tom Chambers is more about ebullience, and his sound is more boyish and buoyant, with a slightly nasal quality rather than a voice of purity or heft. Still, he projects an engaging enthusiasm that becomes contagious and has its own sparkle. He has the spotlight on four vocals before the female lead, Summer Strallen, finally makes an appearance on the seventh track (two others are instrumentals) with the first of her three solos, "You're Easy to Dance With." Despite the additions of the other Berlin numbers (four from Louisiana Purchase), the two stars have only one duet: the classic "Let's Face the Music and Dance." "Better Luck Next Time" gives her a chance to lament and belt in the sole truly serious moment on the disc and it's invested with some real emotion and thought (and, by the by, the original line "There ain't gonna be no next time for me" has had its casual double-negative grammar adjusted to be proper English).
On a couple of numbers, there's a low-key elegance and grace that gets a gear-shift change when the ensemble suddenly jumps in perhaps a bit brashly. For me, the infusion of joy and musical comedy zing comes more from the orchestrations and arrangements of Chris Walker, who is also the producer of this fine-sounding album. The recording's clear, cheery sounds jump out and fill your ears without hitting you over the head with clutter or noise. Musical-directed by Dan Jackson, the 24-person orchestra's (more than half those players are on stringed instruments) presence is very much felt throughout. This is one album featuring song-and-dance numbers where a longish latter section of several tracks is just instrumental and so their role is that much more important. Make that "essential," as Mr. Walker's flowing and felicitous work as played so superbly and crisply here is the main attraction, embracing familiar material with freshness.
There are Berlin bon-bons such as "Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings" ("I'm Fancy Free"), "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?" and, of course, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"all from the film and all assigned to the male star, as is the interpolated "Puttin' on the Ritz." While there are 18 tracks on the disc, there are not that many songs, as there are reprises and an overture. Briskness is more often the order of the day as many cuts are well under three minutes in length. While most vocal renditions are straightforward and glide alongor percolate with their dance rhythmsone comedy number for supporting players near the end has a special feistiness that's pure fun. It's a list song: a couple trading pet peeves, "Outside of That, I Love You." Showing real chemistry together, playing off each other, Martin Ball and Vivien Parry make it a juicy unleashing of barbs with welcome spice (and great timing).
For effervescence and ageless musical comfort food, Top Hat is made to order.
Five songs heard in the London production of Top Hat are included on Marching Along with Time: "Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings" ("I'm Fancy Free"), "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?" as well as "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "Outside of That, I Love You." This is hardly the first time Benjamin Sears (vocals) and Bradford Conner (vocals and some piano accompaniment/some arrangements) have dipped into the Irving Berlin well. Five previous albums are exclusively Berlin material or feature it prominently. Most was material introduced prior to the rich 1935-1945 span they get to on Marching Along with Time. Here, they are joined by Valerie Anastasio, with Tim Harbold on keyboard and providing arrangements when Conner's not doing the honorsthere is no other instrument heard besides piano. Collectively, these four folks are billed as The Smart Set. And this set of Berlin numbers is a bounty: two dozen tracks, with a few being musical pairings and bringing the total to 29 for a playing time of 78 minutes. That's a pretty big serving of Irving! While some pieces are well known, others are infrequently heard, and three items are first-time recordings. The likeable and peppy title song of the album was written for Ethel Merman to sing in the film Alexander's Ragtime Band, but only the melody was used.
The album comes off like a musicale, a salon evening of old friends entertaining around a piano, for kindred spirits rekindling memories. It's almost as if they are hauling out and simultaneously recalling personal favorites from a big pile of yellowing sheet music, reveling in the nostalgia for ye olden days of strong melodies, good spirits, and sentiment. It's about the songs being in the spotlight, not so much singers putting their stamp on them. And no modern twists. Their obvious enthusiasm undercuts some of the stodginess or what might otherwise be stiffness.
I feel obliged to say that, at this point in time, Ben's not-so-steady, wide vibrato on sustained notes and slower tempi can be distracting and may be distancing for some; but don't doubt his investment and commitment. And there's something that suggests an earned "vintage" in that, I suppose. Lighter and spunkier on vocals is irrepressible partner Brad, whose piano playing also evidences relishing and respecting the old styles. Tim, mostly playing on tracks where Brad is contributing to vocals, is likewise right on the old-style money and frolicking in his own non-vocal way, very much a partner. Valerie is a rather flexible, oft-times vibrant vocalist, sometimes employing a creamy sound, other times a perky chirper. The long set list gets varied sounds as they mix it up vocally: there are five duets; five tracks on which one person is the sole singer, although sometimes one is doing the lead with the other two in support; and some a true trio.
Of special interest here are the rarities, some of which reference life in wartime: "What Does He Look Like?" tells the tale of a soldier far away from home who's just heard that his wife gave birth to a baby boy and it's sweet, rather than soap opera in this solo rendition by Brad. All three sing on: the aforementioned title song; a sort of unsentimental direct hope for a happy outcome, the intriguing "When This Crazy World Is Sane Again"; an obscure and odd anti-Hitler number, "When That Man Is Dead and Gone"; and a medley of "Any Bonds Today?" and its militant rewrite, "Any Bombs Today?" with the pleased-to-be-dutiful "I Paid My Income Tax Today" ditty in between them. And a zippy number custom-written for Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The President's Birthday Ball" is a pip.
Once again, we are reminded of Irving Berlin's range, his gift for spinning solid melodies and natural-sounding rhymes, his unbridled cheer and cheerleading for his beloved America and his romanticism. And don't forget the glib humor ("We joined the Navy to see the world and what did we see? We saw the sea") in the song whose title is those last four words and the supposed dance craze where you position yourself with a partner "Back to Back" sung back to back with "Cheek to Cheek" in a combo. And then there's the adorable tale of the musically challenged fellow, "He Ain't Got Rhythm."
Albums like this prove that Irving Berlin's songs are still-interesting products of their time, like revealing snapshots capturing a moment in history. And some are indeed timeless.
If the backbiting, news bytes and endless debates about debates are getting to you this election season, an inspiring and striking musicalized reminder of what America is supposed to be about awaits your fair hearing. Being released next week, Celebrating the American Spirit is no simple rah-rah flag-waving exercise nor a feeble band-aid for the bruised country. With gorgeous harmonies and soaring vocal chorale sounds, Essential Voices USA, conducted by Judith Clurman, is a mixed group of skilled singers who bring thoughtful and rich performances to some familiar patriotic pieces in new settings and introduce us to newly commissioned items. There are glorious sounds hereinstrumentally, and in compositions, tooand the whole project glows with intelligence and dignity, with restraint and simplicity where others might be tempted to go for overkill and cliché.
Musical theatre followers will be especially interested in the participation of two stars who each make two guest appearances and some representation of songwriters from the genre. That patriot of Broadway, Irving Berlin, is represented by two of his pieces. The perhaps inevitable "God Bless America" caps the CD with the Voices joining Kelli O'Hara in a pensive treatment that becomes more like the "solemn prayer" referenced in the last line of the introductory verse. And it's also a grand showcase for the different strengths of her voicethe simple purity, tenderness, and an exciting, strong and high soprano showcase for the ending. From Berlin's Broadway show Mr. President, Ron Raines relaxes amiably into the homespun humor (if your home is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) with "It Gets Lonely in The White House," which here includes some of Berlin's lyrics not heard on the cast album. Kelli O'Hara's other piece is from the musical by Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner whose title is the aforementioned street address and her "Take Care of This House" is lovely and seriousand fervent without pushing the envelope. In "Reason to Be Thankful" ("'Tis America That I Call Home"), Raines, with his deep tones, persuasively sings Sheldon Harnick's lyric to a melody by Broadway orchestrator Larry Hochman, who contributes to several pieces on the CD as arranger, player, adapter or composer. The dignity of the Raines and O'Hara pieces is anchored by mood-setting, focused instrumental work, with jazz/cabaret/etc. piano accompanist-in-demand (and command) Tedd Firth notable here. Marc Shaiman's movie theme from The American President is heard with words penned by Ramsey McClean, titled "A Seed of Grain."
Theatre composers Andrew Lippa, Jason Robert Brown and Georgia Stitt are among the musicians who set the words of 16 of the United States' Presidents to music in an evolving piece called "Sing Out, Mr. President." Most of the sections are about a minute long and glorify a memorably pithy sentence attributed to one of our Chief Executives. They often take the forms of rounds or canons, with the line repeated overlappingly in different voicings, a motto or watchcry ("We have nothing to fear but fear itself" among the more famed lines) becoming an art song by the male and female voices in various configurations.
Reverent, rhapsodic or restless with yearning, the Essential Voices rarely sound pat or inaccessible. It is easy to get swept up in the majesty and swirls of vocal blends and the solo voices within the chorus that pierce through. In the complex layering, it may be difficult to catch all the words, but many (including those Presidential lines) are in a booklet which also gives the backgrounds and credits for the works and their writers. This may not be an album one plays every day, but it's not every day we think of Lincoln or Reagan as "lyricists" of a sort.