No new songs from new shows this week, but some good old songs from good old Broadway.
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1963
The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" comes to mind when listening to the 21 songs on The Broadway Musicals of 1963 as gem after gem is presented from this treasure chest. This entry from the Broadway by the Year series held at The Town Hall in New York City is a June 2004 concert with six singer-actors in especially focused performances. Emotions are so genuinely "in the moment" that you can often sense the audience holding its collective breath. The artists dig deep in the dramatic numbers and integrity is the operative word.
Other volumes in the series have featured more numbers that were previously unrecorded, especially when the year in question was before full scores were preserved with the advent of the long-playing album. Only "Ting-A-Ling Dearie" from the short-lived operetta spoof The Student Gypsy written by Rick Besoyan is in that debut category here. We don't get the lyric, but we get a very joyful and well-played version by Ross Patterson's Little Big Band. There was no cast album for Hot Spot but one number has been rescued from oblivion before and it gets the hot spotlight again on this CD. The choice is the delightfully self-deprecating "Don't Laugh" (you will). Julia Murney digs into its neurosis and glimmer of hope. She shows her versatility especially well in her assigned pieces: two are off-mic in the series' tradition: she gets Oliver!'s torchy "As Long As He Needs Me" and is disarming with a vulnerable reading of "Is It Really Me?" from the soon-to-be-revived 110 in the Shade. Also off-mic, and from 110 is Stephen Bogardus' heroic "Melisande." That show also gives Liz Callaway two rich opportunities: she's wistful and wonderful in "Simple Little Things" and riveting in the nightmare fear of being forever an "Old Maid." She doesn't back away from the loneliness or anxiety.
The live performance realities are especially felt on this CD. The sound differences in the off-mic numbers are more striking this time around, as the necessary compensations are a bit problematic. There's the variation in clarity and central presence, and the band having to hold back feels tentative at times. In two numbers, the audience's reaction is notable. First, you'll hear a long laugh following George Dvorsky's first four words in his splendid rendition of "Tonight at Eight" (She Loves Me). The spoken introduction we heard in person is trimmed, but the audience was informed that George was a same-day replacement for this number and that pressure was acknowledged by grateful host-producer Scott Siegel. So, when the first few words sung were "I'm nervous and upset," it got a laugh of ironic appreciation and support, and that feeling persists up to the cheering conclusion as the singer makes the character's nervousness about an important date work for him. The response to Euan Morton's fresh "Reviewing the Situation" (Oliver!) came as premature applause from some during a pause, and singer and crowd shared the moment as he quipped, in two different tones of voice, "I'm not done yet ... but thank you."
Euan also turns on the charm in the perky "Uh-Oh!" from Tovarich in duet with Nancy Anderson, who is sensational throughout the disc. She is effervescent in "I've Been Invited to a Party" from Noel Coward's The Girl Who Came to Supper and powerful shouldering the burden of memory in "You Don't Know" from Meredith Willson's Here's Love.
Scott Siegel's intros are warm and interesting, but the acerbic quips are fewer, perhaps because the material is so solid. I do wish the narration and liner notes would not always concentrate on how long a show ran or if it lost money, but this series will have a long run and is well worth the money in person and whirling on your CD player.
BROADWAY! THE BIG BAND YEARS
In the spoken introduction to the live concert Broadway! The Big Band Years, we're told that we'll be hearing Broadway songs from the post-1933 era, but the CD actually includes a few numbers from earlier years as well as three written for films. Show tunes done in a big band style seems like a good match and the nine-man Curtain Up Orchestra generally plays with pep. Keith Levenson, whose main Broadway credit is the revival of Annie, is the artistic director/conductor. He gets the general flavor of the style evoked without adopting the tradition of the singer taking a back seat to the band by just doing a "vocal chorus" while more time is given to the instrumentals. The opener (the title song of the 1927 show Strike Up the Band), some music from West Side Story, and the closing reprise of "Mack the Knife" are the only selections with no vocals.
That first "Mack the Knife" is sung by Alfred Boe, a British tenor who appeared in the Broadway presentation of La Bohème. He's eager to swing and seems to have Frank Sinatra recordings rather than the sheet music as his guide. On this number and others, he uses the unique lyric changes made by Sinatra and affects his swaggering attitude. When the band also lifts the arrangement by Nelson Riddle for Ol' Blue Eyes' "I've Got You Under My Skin" (listed here as "Under My Skin"), it's a pale imitation all around - redundant to say the least. When Alfred drops his Sinatra-isms, he has more to offer. His "A Foggy Day in London Town" and "My Romance" find him singing simply and sincerely, and his gentle high notes are attractive. The latter selection is enhanced by the featured cello playing by Jordan Jancz.
Robin Skye (she was in the company of Parade and heard on the Mata Hari recording) succeeds more consistently and seems more comfortable in the musical milieu. She's got a brassy sound for belters like "Sam and Delilah," introduced by Ethel Merman in 1930, and heats things up, too, with "I Can Cook, Too." She's looser in her phrasing and therefore personalizes or "owns" the material more. Two duets that work well and draw more from the big band style rather than pop recordings or Broadway arrangements are "Heart" from Damn Yankees with the brass really kicking and Gypsy's "Everything's Coming Up Roses"(the album misidentifies it as "Rose's Turn" from the same show). This arrangement is kind of cool, with a vamp and tempo more reminiscent of the jazzy "Steam Heat" from The Pajama Game.
It would be great if The Big Band Years had, well, a bigger band sound and wailed more. As it is now, it's rather middle-of-the-road, but has some worthy cuts.
UNDER THE RADAR
Singers needing accompaniment tracks to learn Broadway material for auditions, etc. may be interested in recent offerings from Stage Star Recordings. Such performers are the target market, of course, but there's a happy surprise on these. The vocal tracks meant as guides (before graduating to the instrumental backings) are often quite entertaining and full of character, and some names may be familiar because of their theater credits.
INTO THE WOODS
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES
Stage Stars Records
It's sing along time. Stage Stars' accompaniment CDs have clear, simplified arrangements that are generally easy to follow without being maniacally minimalistic. Tempi are crisp without becoming militaristic or overly restrictive. They are all loyal, within limits, to the Broadway originals. Depending on the song's difficulty and style, what's heard on the instrumental tracks varies: some have more melody line, others are dominated by percussive rhythm. These recent entries, all well produced by Stephen M. Pearl, join the larger library of shows recorded (see the label's website, www.stage-stars.com for the full list and other information, including legalities).
If one is working on the show rather than isolated songs, it should be noted that some are closer to full scores than others. Generally, reprises used in the Broadway versions are not included, unless a version is very different in tempo, as in La Cage Aux Folles' "We Are What We Are"/"I Am What I Am." Spamalot eliminates some minor numbers and reprises, Cats is the skimpiest, with only a handful of songs from the large number in the actual production, while the 2-CD Into the Woods has 18 cuts, virtually complete.
La Cage, helpfully, has the keys of the songs clearly marked on the back cover. Its accompaniments sound rather simplified and bare bones as compared to the more sophisticated Into the Woods. That's not surprising considering the originals: one with more bounce to the ounce and one psychologically and musically complex. Of these four CDs, all come with lyric booklets except Cats, coming in audio format only while others are in graphics compatible format to be used with a karaoke machine. (The packaging and written material mostly avoids the "K" word.)
Not content to simply hire generic, neutered-sounding singers with the bland leading the bland (or band), Stage Stars has some talented singers. Impressively, they are able to sing in character with emotion without compromising their primary goal of staying in time as serving as non-distracting guides. Some singers are hired regularly; there's a basic repertory company of sorts. David Negron is a regular music programmer. Jason Wynn is a frequent musical director as well as a singer; he's versatile and energetic (he's also a cabaret singer and musical director around New York). Actor Miles Phillips, also a familiar name in cabaret circles, is especially impressive on La Cage as Georges, giving an impassioned performance. Dara Seitzman does well in the showy role of Spamalot's Lady of the Lake. Rob Langeder is a valuable and varied-voiced participant, with a big attractive sound and a flair for comedy when needed. Kristopher Monroe has a bright and youthful energy that jumps out as Jack in Into the Woods and a frisky feline in Cats, a recording which in general seems fresh, profiting from a non-bombastic approach and non-huge chorus.
Stage Stars' next release to accompany is a Company CD.