This week, let's talk about singers with big voices socking their numbers over the
footlights. No whispery-voiced, "intimate" song stylists need apply. There are solid and
powerful voices on the CDs featured below, whether they're highly trained or just
In the early decades of the last century, singers were not miked. They had to know how to project. One featured album is a collection of commercial studio recordings by Broadway's superstar with the super-big voice and big personality, Ethel Merman. Two songs Merman introduced are also included on a live "unplugged" concert album; as the host says, "How do you do a show about unamplified singing on Broadway without mentioning Ethel Merman?" Big Broadway voices from more recent times appear on an enjoyable composer salute. Lastly, our "Under The Radar" recording fondly looks back to the pre-microphone days of vaudeville, with a stage mother named Ethel.
Legends don't come much bigger than Ethel Merman, nor do voices. This collection of singles doesn't showcase her rip-the-roof-off-the-theatre style, but it's no rip-off either. Though these numbers aren't full of "pow" and "wow," the collection is nevertheless full of smaller, slyer pleasures. Ethel Merman subtle? Well, no. Don't get me wrong; brash and lively, the singing and arrangements are full of Merman zip and zest. The selections are exactly the same as they were on a vinyl record once available on a British pressing. The sound is fine on the CD transfer, bright and warm. Having known the record for some time, I'm glad for its improvements without any tinkering that would have changed the ambience.
The recordings are all from 1950 and 1951, just before and after the star's opening in Call Me Madam. The show tune lover will be pleased to hear renditions of Broadway songs that were new at the time. What a happy choice that the lady got to the song that provides the CD's title; it's from Flahooley, an engaging Yip Harburg lyric set to a swaying Sammy Fain melody. From Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Ethel takes on both "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "A Little Girl From Little Rock," bringing her own welcome energy and sarcasm. There are two picks from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: a straightforward but perky "Love Is the Reason" and the only really ardent song found on the album, "Make the Man Love Me," in a rather perfunctory reading that sounds uninvolved to me. Broadway sleuths will find an understandably overlooked Jule Styne oddity, "Hawaii," (lyric by Sol Meyer). Aloha, Ethel!
The bulk of the CD's 20 tracks are light-hearted, amiable novelty songs. They aren't meant to touch your heart or engage your intellect, but simply to tickle your funny bone. Most border on the silly, some cross the border by a mile or two, but it's all good clean fun. Songs in a vaudeville style are present, broad comic duets with two iconic hams who match Merman well. One is Jimmy Durante (her co-star in Red, Hot and Blue and Stars in Your Eyes), joining in for three coy tunes. Eight years before his classic role as the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz, Ray Bolger was in George White's Scandals with Ethel, and they reunite here for eight numbers. Showing great affection and camaraderie, they make the most of things like "Once Upon a Nickel" (this is back when "nostalgia" was newer) and "The Lake Song" ("Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubungungamaugg"). Two better-known hits of the day are among their partnerings, the bouncy "(If I Knew You Were Comin') I'd've Baked a Cake" and the now quaint "It's So Nice to Have a Man Around the House."
On her own, Ethel sashays through stuff like "Calico Sal" and an old Richard Whiting/Gus Kahn specialty, "Ukelele Lady" - you may recall that one from the Kahn bio flick I'll See You In My Dreams or a much later recording by Bette Midler. Ethel doesn't treat these like high art nor does she phone them in. She sounds like she's enjoying the material. Merman fans will find plenty to revel in, but this isn't the right introduction for someone who wants to know why she's such a legend. This is not what all the yelling is about. It's a fun footnote.
This recording is also available on iTunes .
Once asked what she thought of a celebrated performer, Ethel Merman replied, "She's OK ... if you like talent." The same can be said about this terrific recording of the 2004 concert at New York's Town Hall, for it has so much talent it's an embarrassment of riches. Please don't ask me to pick my favorite performance or even five favorites. This is a feast of wonderful songs and wonderful singers, including several who would appear on a who's who list from recent Broadway shows.
A big part of the excitement is that none of the performers used a microphone. This is an expansion of Scott Siegel's Broadway By The Year series in which a few songs at each concert are sung off mic as a nod to the pre-microphone early days of Broadway. Hearing the pure, unamplified human voice in a hall with great acoustics is it's startling (in the good way!) to ears used to electronic "enhancement."
Let's get to the talent. A smart move that makes this recording so rewarding is that so many styles are represented; with 18 singers, each on one track (plus a company number), there's automatic variety. There is, of course, some good old belting as in the two songs introduced by belting champ Merman herself: The Producers' Cady Huffman vamps and growls through the title song from Anything Goes and Alix Korey blithely blasts "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy. For crystal purity and beauty, Christine Andreas is exquisite with "My Ship." Looking for more contrast? Marc Kudisch is a laugh riot in the ego-mad and super-silly "My Fortune Is My Face" (Fade Out-Fade In), while Ludmilla Ilieva is appropriately serious and elegant, bringing drama to "Dancing In The Dark." Michael Cerveris, between gigs portraying murderers set to Sondheim music (Assassins and Sweeney Todd), slays the audience (metaphorically) as a more gentle Sondheim protagonist in "Finishing The Hat." I get chills from the textured performance of Barbara Walsh, so successfully building "Holding To The Ground," which she did on Broadway in Falsettos. As host-producer Scott Siegel points out in his affable and anti-mic comments, one fitting song title is "Make Them Hear You," and Norm Lewis does so, big time, with this song from Ragtime.
The audience was especially appreciative of the skill on display and the rare privilege of hearing a singer's voice as it's meant to be heard. Thus, the applause was vociferous and sustained, requiring trimming for the CD. Unfortunately, as can happen in a one-night-only live recording, there were some problems with stage movement and the mics used for the recording, so a few songs, such as one by George Dvorsky, could not be included. But at 19 tracks it's a very full listening experience, superbly captured by producer Peter Pinne. As usual, there's nothing little about the talents of the "Little Big Band" led by pianist-arranger Ross Patterson. The other musicians are Don Falzone (bass), Chuck Wilson (woodwinds), Jane Sow (violin), and Gene Lewin (drums). A grateful bow to all involved.
The Broadway Musicals of 1935 is the next By The Year album to be released, making it the 13th in the series, including Unplugged and the recent Cut-Outs. I know a reminder for Town Hall's second fully Unplugged concert is coming in under the "wire" as you read this (it takes place on September 19); Unplugged doesn't need me to plug it, as I heard they're almost sold out, but if you can get in, I'd urge you to do so. You'll see an audience listening in a different way, more actively. They'll be leaning in. But with this recording, you can just lean back and enjoy it.
THE MUSICALITY OF STROUSE
Charles Strouse gets the spotlight on the most recent installment in the ever-growing series of JAY Records' "MUSICality" series of songwriter salutes. Like the other albums, this one includes tracks both newly recorded and previously released (by JAY). There are 12 tracks in all, new and old: six of one, half a dozen of the other. Each song is from a different score, making for a good overview of Strouse's career.
Four of the new-to-CD items have lyrics by Strouse's first collaborator, Lee Adams. Their musical version of Marty played in Boston a couple of years ago and has been promised for Broadway, so this new recording of one of its major ballads is of major interest. More good news: the star singing "My Star" is Ron Raines. He brings his strong, legit voice, but has restraint, not letting this emotional number get soupy. A new version of "Once Upon A Time" (from All American) is present as a duet for Judy Kaye and David Green. His tender talk-singing and her glorious soprano combine well in this impressive rendition with the full set of lyrics. (It's been shortened in recordings by numerous vocalists over the years.) Golden Boy is represented by a song Strouse and Adams wrote for a 2003 London revival, "Winners," and it's persuasively put over by that production's featured actress, Alana Maria. "Home," a rosy-colored view of burlesque (with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead), is well sold by Karen Ziemba with Christiane Noll, and it builds in that old show bizzy tradition. It's from the score to The Night They Raided Minsky's, a movie with a few songs that has grown up into a full stage score awaiting its Broadway bow. Matt Bogart offers "The Strongest Man In The World," from It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman.
Annie got a big new number for the movie version that was a song about movies. Though JAY Records recorded the score of Annie, this love letter to classic movie stars, with Martin Charnin's lyric, has not been released before. Exuberantly sung by Ruthie Henshall, Ron Raines and an indefatigable chorus, it's a happy finale to the CD.
Songs previously available on other recordings include cuts from cast recordings of Nick And Nora, I And Albert and Nightingale (with Strouse penning his own lyrics and Sarah Brightman as the title character, an actual bird). Taken from their solo albums, we get Liz Robertson (title song from Dance A Little Closer), Susan Egan's swell "How Lovely To Be A Woman" (Bye, Bye Birdie) and Sally Ann Triplett's sultry but elegant "Blame It On The Summer Night" (Rags).
How great to hear these songs with The National Symphony Orchestra, with classic Broadway orchestrations. The CD is produced by John Yap with his customary professionalism and attention to detail - and obvious love for good old Broadway songs. Charles Strouse, still very much around, should not be taken for granted. He writes solid, well-constructed, unpretentious melodies that are very Broadway and very worth knowing and humming.
UNDER THE RADAR
As usual, the last CD is one you might not know. Those who think they do, should know that this is a revised version, with eight selections re-recorded or new. (I haven't heard the earlier tracks, so I can't comment on the now-obsolete incarnation.) This newly issued version is an entertaining look back at entertainment from decades ago. Going back to those pre-microphone days, it's billed as a "tribute" to the members of the Gumm family. Using material sung once upon a vaudeville time by Baby Frances Gumm (the tiny tot who grew up to have her name changed to Judy Garland) and her performing family, it's a page out of history.
Judy Garland's very early performing career has been discussed in books and is the stuff that becomes legendary and/or hypochrophal. The producer of this recording and its live show counterpart is Michelle Russell, who is writing a full-length book about the family, due next year. There are a few existing bits of sound and film and some photos of the real Gumms, but they are not imprinted enough in most people's minds to worry about comparisons. In this recording, there are several numbers with three young girls as Judy and her two older sisters. Sofie Zamchik, age 8, gets the big shoes to fill (or should I say little shoes?) and is a sweetie. As Judy, she sounds unaffected and endearing in her solo spots - the tearjerkers "Tie Me to Your Apron Strings Again" and a spunky "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue." The older girls, Ashley Birmingham and Laura Oseland, set the mood well with the opener, "Rememb'ring." All three shine in a dare-you-not-to-smile paean to optimism, "Wear a Hat With a Silver Lining." This is a late addition to the show, the theme song of vaudevillian Ted Lewis.
You might expect that, with the hook being Judy Garland, the kids would dominate the album, but they don't. I'd prefer more of the sisters' repertoire, but the focus is more on the material that was performed by Frank and Ethel Gumm, who began as performers years before their daughters were part of the act. Erin Romero and Jennifer Ackerman are both heard effectively as mother Gumm. Jennifer does a lovely job with a solo, "I've Been Saving For a Rainy Day." However, it's the sole male member of the troupe who gets the lion's share of the material. That's fine by me, as he's the versatile and strong singer Brian De Lorenzo. The guy has a real flair for the period style. Whether turning on the charm with a showy bit of flash or a sentimental ballad with his pure, high voice, he's perfect casting. I knew his talent and affection for more recent theatrical material from a well-done solo album, Found Treasures, so I'm not surprised.
Garland aficionados will note that there are numerous songs from the family set list that she recorded after she became a star, having retained an affection for the old standbys. Those include "You Made Me Love You," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Carolina in the Morning," "Danny Boy," and the song used, in a short version, as the closing theme for her TV series, "Maybe I'll Come Back" (it's one of Brian's best moments and he sings it with relish). "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street," sung here by the girls, was one of the songs cut from a segment in the Garland film A Star Is Born.
Major credit must go to the pianists. Sue Maskaleris is responsible for skilled piano accompaniment and vocal/instrumental arrangements on seven tracks. The rest are the work of Mark Hartman, credited in the same way and also as a co-producer (along with Daryl Kojak). An increasingly ubiquitous and always valued presence on the New York cabaret and theater scene, Mark has a special affinity for period material, as evidenced by his past work with the highly entertaining and musically spot-on revivals produced by Musicals Tonight! and the new recording of After The Ball on the Kritzerland label. He has an understanding of and respect for the 1920s and 1930s eras and it comes through his playing, as he brings out an affection stopping short of schmaltz and never sounding tired. A few selections have the added musical colors of clarinet, violin or ukelele.
Certainly, you need to be willing to step back in time and buy into the sentimentality and check your sophistication at the door. If children singing sets your teeth on edge, these Gumms aren't going to do yours any good. The great achievement of this album is that it comes off as a sincere love letter to the style and sensibility of the period. Though knee-deep in nostalgia (maybe waist-deep, actually), the performers don't sound condescending to the more flowery, innocent tone. No one is winking at the audience or mocking in any way, and the performers and musicians work together well. Since they complement each other well and are on the same page, this reflects well on Michelle Russell as director and executive producer.
The liner notes are informative but concise, explaining how and when each song was part of the Gumm family performing history. Though Judy Garland fans will be especially curious, this has much broader appeal. Anyone interested in the early era of American entertainment will get a real taste for the styles from this good mix of the little-known and better-remembered tunes. I think Broadway types will especially like "There's a Broken Heart for Each Light on Broadway." As Ethel Merman first sang (loud and clear), "who could ask for anything more?"
It's been a pleasure hearing the vocalists on all these albums "sing out" as they bring out the best in their material. There's more where that came from in upcoming weeks. Check back; I'll be listening for you.