As you are by now very well aware, thanks to an endless number of tributes and reissues, 2002 marks the centennial of Richard Rodgers' birth. While the number of honorariums and CDs are quickly making it feel like 100 years has passed since the beginning of this great event, quite a number of albums are being released that deserve one's attention.
On March 23, a 12 hour event at Symphony Space in New York City practically kicked off the Rodgers Marathon with a 12 hour event entitled Wall To Wall Richard Rodgers. This free concert featured performances from the expected cabaret and Broadway stars, as well as some unexpected surprises, such as a veteran of the Yiddish theater singing "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" in Yiddish. As the latter is definitely something I would pay to hear, the fact that the Fynsworth Alley recording of the event focuses solely on the traditional offerings is a major disappointment, especially since the CD provides a paltry fifty-four minute representation of the twelve-hour marathon.
That said, there is not a weak performance on the album. While most of the tracks feature the usual Rodgers suspects (KT Sullivan's "Ten Cents A Dance," Mary Cleere Haran's "Manhattan," and Billy Stritch's "Mountain Greenery," for example) there are a few slightly unexpected and delightful tracks. Judy Kaye wrings a great sense of pathos out of Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue." Maureen McGovern's creamy vocals perfectly interpret "It Never Entered My Mind," and fuse the chestnuts "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" into a touching medley. Other highlights include James Naughton's "You Are Too Beautiful," from Rodgers and Hart's little known Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, Debbie Gravitte's powerhouse "Johnny One Note," and Richard White's touching "Where Or When."
1943 saw the end of one era in musical theater and the beginning of the next through the transition of Rodgers from Hart to Hammerstein and the opening of the then groundbreaking musical, Oklahoma! While many a recording of this classic work exist, Sony has released one well worth adding to one's library: the 1964 studio recording that featured legendary leading man John Raitt as Curly, Florence Henderson as Laurey, and Phyllis Newman as Ado Annie.
Both Raitt and Henderson have a long-standing relationship with the material as he played Curly during the ten months the national company resided in Chicago and she played Laurey on tour when she was 18. The two are in top voice on the recording and bring a freshness and emotional honesty to the album that is highly enjoyable (and this is coming from somebody who has never warmed to the material). Phyllis Newman is equally enjoyable in her role, especially in her big number, "I Cain't Say No." 'New' orchestrations by Philip J. Lang give the album a rich, almost cinematic scope. Unlike the rest of the Columbia/Sony reissues, this CD contains no additional extras. But, like the rest of the reissues, the album sparkles and sounds incredible.
In addition to Oklahoma!, Broadway is currently home to another Rodgers' revival: The Boys From Syracuse. Based on Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (which in turn was based on a Roman comedy by Plautus), Syracuse is a slapstick comedy illustrating the farcical troubles of two sets of long-separated twins engaged in an ever escalating case of mistaken identity. Decca Records has released the 1963 London production's cast album, which starred Bob Monkhouse and Denis Quilley as the Antipholuses (Antipholi?) and Ronnie Corbett and Sonny Farrar as the Dromios of Syracuse and Ephesus, respectively, and Lynn Kennington as Adriana and Paula Hendrix and Luciana.
The show, with music by Rodgers and lyrics by Hart and a book by George Abbott, injected an inordinate number of standards into the musical cannon, and it is a delight to hear them in their remastered glory. It is especially pleasant to hear the usually unrecorded verses to many of the songs, as it is the verses that provide character and plot settings for the numbers. Of special note are the always delightful standards "Falling In Love With Love" (well sung by Lynn Kennington), and "This Can't Be Love (Bob Monkhouse), as well as the highly comic "What Can You Do With A Man" (Maggie Fitzgibbon and Sonny Farrar).
The CD is beautifully remastered and the orchestrations are simply superb. The lyrics display Lorenz Hart at both his wittiest and his most tender and is arguably one of the best musicals from the Rodgers and Hart partnership. As an added bonus, the CD contains six bonus tracks that had comprised Songs Hits From The Boys From Syracuse, a 1938 album that featured Rudy Vallee and Frances Langord singing songs from the show.
Another Rodgers and Hart reissue, the recording of the 1983 Broadway revival of On Your Toes remastered by JAY Records, is only marginally less magical than Syracuse. Since the majority of the show's appeal resided in the dances rather than the songs, the show transfers less successfully to disc. While the show contains fewer song gems than the rest of Rodgers and Hart's oeuvre (the show's one big hit "There's A Small Hotel" and two minor standards with "It's Got To Be Love" and "Glad To Be Unhappy"), orchestration-wise, the show is a gem. The dance arrangements, as to be expected, are lush and full, especially the "La Princesse Zenobia Ballet" and the classic "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue."
The singers are all delightful as well, and impart timeless quality to the piece. The standout on the disc is Christine Andreas, who brings a tender poignancy to "Glad To Be Unhappy" and a sense of joy to "It's Got to Be Love."
JAY Records has also released the Rodgers and Hammerstein edition of their Musicality series. As with the previous releases in the series, the album is a compilation of material by the featured writers from the JAY catalogue. While the CD contains nothing truly groundbreaking as the song choices are largely what you would expect, they are expertly delivered and recorded. Highlights include the little heard "No Other Love Have I" (from Me and Juliet and delightfully sung by Brent Barrett and Kim Criswell) and "Everybody's Got A Home But Me" (from Pipe Dream and evocatively sung by Judy Blazer). Of special note is Pat Suzuki's return to Rodgers and Hammerstein-land with "Bali Hai."
One of the more interesting reissues to surface is the long-awaited original cast recording of the London stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, produced as a Christmas pantomime in 1958 by British impresario Harold Fielding. The show bares no resemblance to any other production of Cinderella, on television or on stage. In typical British Musical Hall tradition, the parts of the stepsisters were played by men (Kenneth Williams and Ted Durante). Greater emphasis was also placed on the comic aspects of the script, thanks to the augmentation of the part of the King (played by renowned comic Jimmy Edwards) and the creation of Buttons, a servant to Cinderella's father (played by Tommy Steele, best known for the stage and screen versions of Half a Sixpence and the film version of Finian's Rainbow). In fact, the titular character (played by dulcet toned Yana, a television star of the time) gets third billing and is treated almost as a secondary character. Based on the cast list, it also appears that the usual motivator of villainy, the stepmother, is missing in action.
Structurally, the show was vastly altered as well. The score has been augmented with three songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Me and Juliet: "A Very Special Day," "Marriage Type of Love," and "No Other Love." In addition, a song written by Tommy Steele was added to give him and Edwards a Music Hall turn. The song order has also been radically altered, and as the CD fails to provide a plot synopsis, it is sometimes puzzling as to how the songs fit the changed storyline. "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?," "Stepsisters' Lament" and "When You're Driving Through The Moonlight/A Lovely Night," for example, all occur before the ball (and dialogue inclusions make these changes appear to be part of the show rather than an arbitrary song order for the CD).
More than merely a curiosity, the album is a well-produced and vocalized treat and well worth adding to one's collection.
Another intriguing Rodgers inspired album is No Strings (with Strings) by Ralph Burns and his Orchestra. Burns, who orchestrated Rodgers' show No Strings (for which Rodgers wrote both the music and the lyrics), was given strict instructions by Rodgers not to include any strings in the show's orchestrations. For this album, Burns rearranged the songs for a full orchestra, with a great deal of the melody line being given to the newly created string section.
The album, from DRG, avoids sounding like easy listening Musak arrangements thanks to the pizzazz and bounce Burns imparts to the orchestrations. The album contains an entertaining mix of some of Rodgers' most melodic numbers, ("You Don't Tell Me" and "Nobody Told Me") and some fun swinging big band songs ("Be My Host" and "The Sweetest Sounds").
If one is tired of an all-Rodgers album, one can get a healthy (but not overwhelming) sampling of his music on The Broadway Musicals of 1940, recorded live on March 18 by Bayview, 2002 at Town Hall in New York. Part of Scott Siegel's series exploring the shows that opened on Broadway in a given year, The Broadway Musicals of 1940 features songs from two Rodgers and Hart shows: the hit Pal Joey and not-quite-a-hit Higher and Higher. From the former, Bryan Batt gets to display his all-too-infrequently shown sensitive side (one that directors and producers would be well advised to showcase more often) with a tender "I Could Write A Book." Natalie Douglas shines on a beautifully introspective "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," also from Pal Joey. From Higher and Higher, Rob Evan lends his rich baritone to the exuberant and romantic/patriotic "Life! Liberty!" and Julie Reyburn gives a heart-aching rendition of the one standard to come out of the show, "It Never Entered My Mind."
1940 was an intriguing year in that, although the world's political attention was focused on increasing tensions in Europe, the musical world looked toward Latin America for song styles. Thus, we get Julie Reyburn urging us to "Visit Panama" (from Cole Porter's Panama Hattie), Rob Evan exploring the sensual "The Latin In Me" (a premier recording from Sammy Fain/Jack Yellen's Boys and Girls Together), and John Dossett informing us (via Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's Hold On To Your Hats), "There's A Great Day Coming Manana").
Overall, The Broadway Musicals of 1940 is the strongest of the Musicals series thanks to a superb mix of Broadway and cabaret performers, as well as a delightful mix of known and obscure songs. Other noteworthy songs are "We Have Sandwiches" (a silly number from Gorney/Myers' Meet The People, in which Bryan Batt gets to explain why America is number one), "Ooh! What You Said" (from Carmichael/Mercer's Walk With Music and sung with great playfulness by Julie Reyburn), and "It'll Come To You" (from Irving Berlin's Louisiana Purchase and wonderfully delivered by Reyburn and Douglas).