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Songs of Broadway's Stouthearted Men ... and others

Bold and brave, or balladeering and besotted with love, bathed in bravery or just bravado, musical theatre's long line of leading male roles is rich with juicy material. A long line of men making solo albums have been ready, willing, and able to collect them and connect with them as an example below shows. And why shouldn't a leading lady of the Great White Way have her way with them, too? Gentlemen, start your engines.

Betty Buckley Ah, Men!BETTY BUCKLEY
AH, MEN!
THE BOYS OF BROADWAY

Palmetto Records

It may at first strike you as just an attention-grabbing, gimmicky or overly cute gender switch idea, but Betty Buckley's full-body tackle of the repertoire of classic Broadway male characters is no surface-skimming survey of glibness and grandstanding. It's a rich, multi-textured, revelatory experience that strikes this discerning and occasionally disgruntled follower, who's heard all of her 16 albums, as very possibly her greatest accomplishment. I should add that this did not come as a huge surprise at all, as I was thoroughly impressed with her memorable, satisfying live presentation of the material in her cabaret act at Feinstein's at Loews Regency—the posh club that just opened its last season, one which will feature Miss Buckley in October with a new show covering some musical theatre characters of her own gender in The Other Woman: The Vixens Of Broadway.

Meanwhile, her souvenir of the tales of males has just been released this week and she'll be reprising that material in the latter months of this year in New Jersey, San Francisco and Oklahoma. She makes a full and fabulous sweep of sturdy guy stuff—somewhat reinvented and more rethought, not just with "a woman's touch," but with the touch of a sensitive, intelligent artist and rewarding arrangements (by her pianist Christian Jacob and Eric Stern) that often make respectful and resourceful use of the original Broadway blueprints and then delve, deepening or even darkening them. Accompaniment is just the Jacob-led trio: Peter Barshay on bass and Matt Betton on drums doing superb, tight and evocative sound paintings. The vocal performances—with the singer in fine voice, bravura moments not for their own sake, and much heart in those occasionally fragile (in a good way) high notes at this age—are involved, in-the-moment explorations. They make original gender assignment a starting point, curiously irrelevant or the elephant in the room reference point.

Among the fourteen tracks are two selections each from Guys and Dolls (a lots-at-stake "Luck Be a Lady" and a warm and wistful "More I Cannot Wish You") and West Side Story (a tenderly awe-filled "Maria" and a feisty strut through the gang's membership bonding in "The Jet Song"—remember they did have one female wannabe semi-member). Sweeney Todd gets a three-song medley sampling the mindsets of three of its male characters, ending with the title character himself in a searing but haunting and surprisingly vulnerable and desperate "My Friends" that is only one of the triumphs of this sterling CD. Where some singers will lighten up when doing a solo album, suggesting a sensibility that material written as character and situation-specific needs to be generalized and being fervent would be inappropriately over the top out of context, the Buckley path is hardly that. She seems to assume that listeners will know and remember the original arcs and aches and scenarios—or that her "going there" will bring you there (back there or for a first visit, bringing you up to speed with her intensity and emotional crystallizations at least giving the sense and sensibilities, even if one doesn't know the original exact set-up and dramatis personae). And the gender-bending is less of a wink than a wallow and then can become a freeing barrier-breaking bask in emotion.

While the be-all—but not end-all—strong suit and main stamp of many numbers is an overall and overwhelming attitude (be it confidence or determination as territory-claiming or surrendering to Cupid's powerful arrows), William Finn's "Venice" from Elegies reminds us of the actress's gifts for chaptered incident-by-incident, mood-by-revealed-mood and thought as a storyteller and is the ideal such showcase. However, she digs into numbers that are often heard as simpler tests of testosterone confidence and finds new layers of pensiveness and more nuanced reconsiderations, such as making The Pajama Game's self-addressed wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee "Hey There" more mournful and meaningful.

The delicious icing on an already deliciously satisfying banquet of cakes is a showpiece here titled "A Hymn to Her," using My Fair Lady's mirthful misogynistic rant of "A Hymn to Him" ("Why can't a woman be more like a man?") as its framework, with new lyrics and musical material incorporating references to and quotes from many male models from Broadway's iconic shows, cleverly and cavalierly careening through Carousel, The Music Man, etc., etc. and nods to the Buckley resumé from 1776 to her own trouser-role reversal disguise as the dude in Drood. This smart and funny five-and-a-half minutes of delight is the work of Eric Stern and Eric Kornfeld. It puts into song the "I always wanted to play ... " comments in the singer's song-by-song liner notes that express her long-held love for the good stuff that always went to the guys in the cast while the women were left to too often blush and be demure or be helpmates, express love's grief or get grief from being assertive. Betty Buckley is just the right person to say the hell with all that and give us a hell of a good, entertaining, thought-provoking time with her heart and hell-raising.

There's no need to think of this album with its conceit of a woman singing men's songs something that needs defending; as the included "My Defenses Are Down" (Annie Get Your Gun) proves with the accuracy of a bull's eye shot, when we drop our defenses and defensive attitudes about sex role expectations or histories, minds and hearts can open.

Curtain CallCHRISTOPHER SANDERS
CURTAIN CALL

"My Defenses Are Down" turns out to be the surprise success change of pace (and a very welcome one) on what seemed to be a very conservative, by-the-(song)book approach to a recital-esque album of musical theatre leading man numbers by singer-actor Christopher Sanders. Nine songs into a 13-track endeavor that seems mostly an earnest, alternately grand or sweet but traditional-bordering-on-derivative stroll down Shubert Alley, originality and looseness bare their happy presence. With his arranger/trombonist/co-producer Scott Whitfield (who adds some vocals on this one piece) using his instrument as a commenting comedic character and the singer showing a sense of abandon after so much famed-footprint-following, it's a happy highlight in a mostly dead-serious (but hardly deadly) collection with dead-giveaway instrumental intros for oft-sung, stoic heroic anthems. While the vocal phrasing and playing by the band is often very steady and sturdy on the beat in traditional tempi with broad strokes of evenness that are quite often absent shades of textured subtlety, the voice is commanding without being strictly mired in macho mannerisms and posturing.

Despite the predominant lack of truly unique personalization of lyrics that would allow for a feeling of thoughts being considered carefully as they unspool, there is pleasure to be had in the stalwart, direct, no-nonsense approach and an appealing and impressive legit baritone voice. In its higher registers, the stouthearted man persona gratifyingly falls aside so that the mask of male dude fortitude recedes, and a real sensitivity and yearning—even sweetness—radiates. It's quite a striking difference. And, to quote a line from that highlight of the aforementioned Annie Get Your Gun's defense-dropping delight by Irving Berlin, "I must confess that I like it."

And logic and a little research tells us that, well, hey, the approach makes sense when the samplings feel like in-character, modeled-on-the-originals renditions, adjusted for a small band and record—because, yes, he has played some of those roles and sung those numbers. The California-based performer has twice taken up the armor of the noble legend-of-his-own-making knight of La Mancha whose quest for "The Impossible Dream" opens this collection. Erring on the side of cautiousness rather than over-the-top gut-wrenching dynamics or sob stories, it sets the general tone. His most recent credit, another return visit, has been in the lead role of Emile in South Pacific; his "Some Enchanted Evening" is more human-scaled and serene than operatic, urging or declamatory. It's set up by an unbilled segment from the score's "Twin Soliloquies" complete with the character's pronounced accent which oddly pretty much disappears as he segues into the main piece.

Those looking for showboaters won't find Sanders so much of that ilk, but he has a more understated way that does not have the exhausting effect that some "pull out all the stops" fellows gravitate to. That may be somewhat a relief to some, but on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be as much on the line as a more visceral, angsty or cathartic unleashing will allow. But sincerity lurks not far from the surface even if it seems a skimmed surface at times. There's delicacy in "Bring Him Home" from Les Mis and his duet with himself is fun on the energized battle of wits and competition (originally between a creator and his fictional creation) in David Zippel and Cy Coleman's "You're Nothing Without Me."

A couple of chancier things almost work, but have their downsides. A more relaxed-tempoed "What Kind of Fool Am I?" is musically refreshingly interesting, but absent its core self-flagellation because of self-disappointment/examination, it seems diluted and at odds with its essence. And "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!—notably the one number here written for a female character is sung only with its pep-rally quality and not the yearning it usually begins with as a character's decisive, "rejoining the human race" turning point. Ignoring this aspect may be a conscious choice rather than a male blindness to the original sensitivity, as it's used as more the literal parade pomp in the circumstance of a combination/set-up for the cheery album-ending "Strike Up the Band." For those Broadway fans happiest with a happy medium between light and heavy fare, without much deviation from the way we remember "Try to Remember," and less interested in injecting purely imaginative originality into "Pure Imagination" and such, certainly Christopher Sanders fills the bill.

Although I respect his respecting the forefathers, my mind meanders when Sanders and his path become predictable with the course of heartfelt songs I know by heart. But when he sounds more thoughtfully invested, so am I. For example, his "This Is the Moment"—gratifyingly—is calibrated and each moment is not overwrought and fraught, and thus it becomes a thinking man's soliloquy, not just the fueling of uber-determinedness or demented drooling. And, throughout, there's a virile and/or vulnerable voice to revel in.


- Rob Lester


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