Anniversaries are noteworthy, if only for us to gasp and say, "I can't believe it's that many years since ...!" So, here are a few anniversaries that bring new studio recordings and show how well some things hold up. The great West Side Story opened 50 years ago this week. Dreamgirls is just about half that old: it opened in the last days of 1981, so is a bit over the quarter-century mark in 2007. Songwriter Bernie Bierman has been around years longer than both combined, as he will turn 100 on his next birthday, and he's put out a new CD with some singer friends.
WEST SIDE STORY
Try to remember the kind of September when West Side Story opened on a Broadway not used to serious musicals. It was 50 Septembers ago and featured the first full score with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim to be produced on Broadway. His words matched to the glorious music of Leonard Bernstein (whose daughter writes the liner notes on this album) have become a vivid part of musical theatre history and our collective memory.
This new recording celebrating the milestone half-century mark has excellent sound quality and features singers who have been classified as "crossover artists" from the classical world. As is often the case with such studio project casting, there's a less theatrical style. What's sacrificed is some convincing characterization but what's gained in exchange are some rich, full and thrillingly big vocal sounds. It would be nice to get the best of both worlds, but West Side Story, with its protagonists being quite young and some requiring a tough street persona and/or Puerto Rican accents, presents a special challenge if done in character. On the other hand, musically the score does have some operatic qualities. And this recording gets closer to a theater feel than the 1985 album done with opera superstars supervised by the composer.
"Gee, Officer Krupke" feels close to a show version with the slangy, attitude-filled song well handled by the men's ensemble, showing some looseness and personality. The leads' vocals are more formal. As Tony, Vittorio Grigolo is the most satisfying (of course, a strong Italian accent can be quite distancing, too). His voice soars and he sounds the most in touch with the lyrics and the emotions being conveyed. His joyful explosions of love can be truly exciting with the big notes and climaxes, especially in "Maria." As his Maria, Hayley Westenra doesn't match his passion and her less rich and less full sound is more noticed on their duets. Just 20 years old, with a youthful and sweet sound, she projects innocence, which works to advantage; her "I Feel Pretty" is indeed pretty without her sounding carried away with the rush of love. The weakest track theatrically is the next to last, where she is joined by Melanie Marshall's Anita as they take on "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love." The acting really suffers from what seems to be a perfunctory reading that misses the intense emotions and pleading needed, and there isn't grand or explosive singing to offset this on the track.
Other numbers, like "Somewhere," are somewhere in between, catching more of the elegance than the longing. "The Jet Song" gets the energy but sounds more than a bit refined with the over-enunciation of consonant sounds. These are sung, respectively, by Connie Fisher and Will Martin, who leads the men. "The Jet Song" includes a verse not included on the original recordings.
The still fresh-sounding but very familiar orchestrations are great to hear in dynamic modern sound with the the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra led by Nick Ingman. The instrumental "Dance at the Gym" sequence is tracked so you can jump to any of five individual sections. And the CD is so well recorded and produced, with good balance and presence, that focusing on the details of the orchestra's work on the vocals becomes required listening. This West Side Story listening experience may not break your heart like other versions do, but it has pleasures to offer. And, if you somehow don't know the lyrics of this classic musical by heart, you are forgiven and they are all in the booklet.
It shouldn't be surprising that Bernie Bierman's songs sound old fashioned (in a good and sweet way), as he's been absorbing music for some time. This third collection of his songs repeats one track from his previous The Other Half of Me on Original Cast Records, released in 1995 when he was a young man of 88. That song, with the songwriter accompanying himself on piano, is the cute and lilting "I'm Not Afraid Anymore" and is about recording a CD, one of two tracks he appears on as a singer. The other had been recorded as a demo in 1999: "Like This" is about a guy teaching computer skills to an attractive and distracting female student. The lady's part in this exchange is sung by Michelle Pirret, who recorded an entire album of Mr. Bierman's work several years ago. The likeable and talented singer appears on four tracks in all and contributes to a few of the arrangements.
Sparkling and classy as ever, vocalist-pianist Steve Ross is her partner in singing and arranging on the breezy "How Much Do I Need You?" It's a real highlight. Michelle shows especially good chemistry with both partners. "The Friars Club on Thursdays at Nine," another cheery entry, is a different version than the one heard on the recent release Bernie's Journey but with two of the same singers, Joe Bachana and Marty Silver. Mr. Silver is pianist on this once more, as he is on four others, playing with good spirits.
Top cabaret singer Marieann Meringolo sings on four tracks and sounds splendid, demonstrating her versatility. Her assignments range from the serious "Now and Then," where she has a cry in her voice, to the goofy "Don't Touch My Tutu." On the first, she is accompanied on piano by the songwriter. The latter was written for an unproduced musical about Fanny Brice. The copyright dates on the material go from 1978 to 2004.
The mostly light and light-hearted songs on this latest collection cause me to grin. Unabashed sentimentality and goodwill weave through these numbers with the singers performing with easy charm. The music and lyrics themselves respect the traditions of solid songwriting. Who says they don't write 'em like they used to? Bernie Bierman does and did.
UNDER THE RADAR
Here's another of those karaoke recordings from a company that puts out albums with instrumental tracks that are not overly rinky-dink and finds singers for the "guide vocals" that go above and beyond the call of duty as guides and turn in real performances with characterization.
And I am telling you I'm not going to get get tired of the score of Dreamgirls as long as there are people singing it with grit and emotion and joy. The singers from Stage Stars Records, whose task is to provide guide vocals as a teaching tool for those seeking to learn and perform the songs for audiences or just for friends, have energy to burn. Though restricted by the tempos set by the accompaniment tracks which are meant to be easier to follow, they hardly sound boxed in. In fact, they sometimes think outside the box and add their own little touches. The accompaniment tracks include some singing that would be considered back-up vocals to further help the customer learning the material to stay in time.
One CD has the full vocals, a second CD has the accompaniment tracks in the same order: 21 selections on each, including three versions of "Cadillac Car" (attentive musical director Jason Wynn steps in for a cameo appearance on the briefest). The purposely simplified accompaniments for this gritty and funky score sound more watered down and synthesized tinny than this company usually presents. The percussion beats seem more prominent and heavy-handed.
Casts on some Stage Stars releases have been somewhat uneven, but this group has no real weak link and no one that stands out head and shoulders above all others. All are quite competent: the Dreamgirls group members includes Rene O'Neal, who who has played Effie on stage but here sings Deena and acquits herself very well indeed. As Effie, Marshall Lawson is suitably powerful but not over the top. Leticia Bryan as Lorrell and Jeanette Morales as Michelle add their skillful contributions. Of the men, Juson as C.C. stands out with his bright voice and charismatic performance.
The only disappointment here is the packaging. The lyrics are not included in either a booklet or a graphics-compatible format. For those just learning the show, it would be helpful if the song list (seen both in the booklet and on the back cover) indicated which characters sing each number. Note to the movie version's fans: the songs written for the movie are not included; this set represents the Broadway version though it is not the complete Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen score. But it should be a helpful tool for those who want to learn the material or just sing along, whether preparing for a long rehearsal period doing the show or "one night only" for fun.