A Swell Songwriter Salute &
Jason Graae sounds a big "You I Like" hurrah for Jerry Herman, singin' his songs from Broadway, and talkin' a good game, too, on a live CD. The Swan(n) songs come in two very different forms. The first are melodies by Jason Robert Brownno lyricstelling the tale of a determined young swan with no voice, E.B. White's story of The Trumpet of the Swan, with swans and human characters voiced by some familiar actors. Then, Mr. Phil Swann, a songwriter and all-around man of music (teacher, pianist, arranger, composer of most songs in Play It Cool) now also taking the vocal spotlight.
If the worlds of musical theatre and cabaret ran an election to name their Official Imp, Jason Graae would win by a landslide. And he'd make a playful, saucy acceptance speech. But on the lively live recording of his tribute to composer-lyricist Jerry Herman, he also shows his more serious side. The songs of Jerry Herman are a swell fit for him, with their upbeat spirit and bright melodies, as well as solid, unpretentious romantic ballads.
Jason also knows his Hermanology from performing in the Hello, Jerry! revue with the songwriter aboard. He may not quite put the "Graae" in "gravitas" much, but his serious moments, taking a stand"I Am What I Am" and "I Don't Want to Know"have a directness and empathetic stance, and "Before the Parade Passes By" has the exuberance, but not the longingin case you're longing for longing. It's not a concert of taking on those original characters. When singing three songs he did in productions of The Grand Tour, spoken of warmly and gratefully here, he slips more into the role of the charming, optimistic Jacobowsky. And the gentle side of his personality and sweet, pretty singing glow in "Marianne" from that score, and "My Best Girl" from Mame and "Loving You" from its film version. Besides the usual suspects, it's nice to have a taste of Milk and Honey, with the ardent "There's No Reason in the World," and Dear World's anthemic life-affirmer about how "One Person" can start the ball rolling to impact our dear world. But there are no previously unknown or unrecorded songs, and nothing from the usually ignored early revues by Herman or his TV (Mrs. Santa Claus) or Vegas (Miss Spectacular) scores.
Jason's funny, original humor in stories and set-up are a big part of his charm in his live performances. So it makes sense that there's patter aplenty on this, his second, live album. That being said, there areperhaps unavoidablysome "better seen than just heard" moments and some that might not be clear to any newcomers to the mind and act and world according to Graae. The first "what the heck?" moment comes at the start where we hear a solo oboe making quite a production of things. It's Jason. It was his college instrument and he makes a bit of playing it, struggling or soaring, and goes into the title melody from La Cage aux Folles. There's also, I know, a bait-and-switch bit suggesting a big dance break that gets a laugh here (his acknowledgment of the CD puzzlement-to-come is referenced when he addresses "those of you listening at home," explaining his tap board prop on tap). But sometimes, it's just that Jerry Herman wrote a funny line and Jason nails it, familiar to the crowd or not. The longer talk sections are separately tracked for those who want to skip them or focus on them on later playing. By the way, even the liner notes are funny and friendly and fan-like, from Jason and veteran theatre music album producer Bruce Kimmel.
The sound is crisp and clear. So is Jason's diction. In fact, I discovered a couple of words in a rarely performed song I'd always misheard. Some other lyrics have been changed by director Lee Tannen for the occasion, which might seem odd or presumptuous for a songwriter tribute. But it's in the service of introduction and warming up and setting up the audience ("Just Leave Everything to Me," with "He has always been a pianist who arranges things for me to sing tonight and brighten up your lives") and even adorably adapting some Hello, Dolly! dialogue for singer/pianist banter to describe the set and set the tone, complete with underscored bit of "Call on Dolly." The very fine pianist John Boswell even gets to sing and speak a couple of lines and brings some flair of his own. What to do with the warhorse title song from that monster hit? He gets to it later, making it an audience sing-along, not all that much "fun" on a recording. A medley crams in several other Herman memories, happy but haphazard it seems. Again, maybe you had to be there. And you'll probably wish you were. And maybe you can bein October when Perfect Hermany has a night near Chicago and several dates near good old Broadway at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on West 42 Street.
You might think of the talented composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown as specializing in driving powerhouse music, with jangled-nerves, edginess and angst, leading a Parade of serious adult drama and heartbreak, or the contemporary teen traumas and 'tudes in 13. On the surface, you might not think he's the match for a sweet old children's book with morals and messages, heroic challenges, and Nature's graceful beauty and dangers. Adapted by playwright Marsha Norman, E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan is full of all this, as well as wise and chatty animals and humans that are foolish, much like his other classic novels for children, Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. If it's a stretch of the imagination for you, and maybe a stretch for him, it's a grand success, despite his not writing any lyricsbecause there are none on this project described as "a novel symphony for actors and orchestra." The actors supply the words with dialogue and narration, with the music often in the background for long patches, as in movies with background scores that come to the foreground in key moments. The captivating music often co-stars with the talk, accenting it, dramatizing it, punctuating it, and then getting some spotlight for a bit, sometimes serving as melodies for this story where playing music is a key part of the plot. (Some well-known pre-existing music is used rather briefly for some of those segments.)
Some will want to understandably dismiss this as a kiddie piece of low priority, but please do read on. It's wonderfully done, full of not just glorious music and a charming story, but delightful and often very funny work by the actors. Summon your inner childor the kids in your lifeand enjoy. It's wonderfully done.
John Lithgow, who has three CDs for kids among his myriad credits, anchors the proceedingsnarrating with verve, wry attitude, and in-the-moment emotion. If a character is confused, his voice is colored with befuddlement; if there's danger, he tells us about it with breathless high-stakes excitement as if it is happening now. Lithgow is superb at creating a sense of wonder, empathy, and true joy. The sense of involvement and bringing the listener in is increased because he is also a character in the story: Sam, the boy who finds the baby swan, Louis, who can't make a sound, and takes him under his wing, so to speak. When recreating the boy's bits of dialogue, he speaks in a higher, more youthful voice. He masterfully undercuts some potential for the morality tale to get trite or overstated by doing what White did so well: injecting humor. He has fun just saying the word "Philadelphia" with disdain or wearily acknowledging that one must adjust normal preferences in order to accept work when oneeven a swanneeds money.
Martin Short is nothing short of hilarious as the slightly nefarious employer. He has a field day as the mercenary man employing the swan who, through sheer will and a fortunate unfortunate accident, is able to learn to play a trumpet well enough to enterprisingly be hired for a few jobs and get welcome attention and admiration after a tough start. Kathy Bates and James Naughton play the parents of both the bird and the boy, Naughton entertaining as the self-satisfied but ultra-moral papa swan, who is as verbosein fluent English, that isas his son is silent-voiced. Mandy Moore plays the love interestfor the boy swan, that is. The brief thoughts and communications jotted on a slate by the voiceless swan are spoken with an endearing manner by Jesse Tyler Ferguson. All but he and Lithgow also play other minor characters. Things move generally quickly, the dialogue is economical and full of strongly defined personality and pockets of real emotion, the structure depending more on the very lively narration to keep things moving, in both senses of the word.
The constantly varying musicin tone, tempo, orchestration, length, mood, coloris always in service to the story, never overwhelming it. Often I wished I could hear it on its own, that there would be a companion disc with just the orchestra cues, as they are, or expanded and woven together, just so I could hear it front and center, but this is a piece where the music and talk really are partners. Brown, also conducting his own music, gets a third credit for producing the album. Georgia Stitt, who happens to be his wife and another talented composer, is associate conductor on this challenging project with a large orchestra called upon to do many things. Bravo to Christopher Michael Venditti, who plays the all-important trumpet solos. (P.S.: You never heard "Taps" played with such depth!) The prodigiously talented musician Sam Davis provides orchestrations that often have to create impact in less than 5 seconds and then have an extended piece musically expressing anything from the serenity of a calm day to a boisterous boys' camp, from a swing band to a gunshot, from a majestic soaring flight to the mournful loneliness or hope of a swan we root for all the way.
This version of the beloved story was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and performed there, with just two of these actors (Lithgow and Bates). It somewhat recalls other classic pieces for kids combining orchestral music in bite-size pieces and a story with dialogue and narration, with a moral and strong characterizations, Peter and the Wolf and, even more so, Tubby the Tuba, in that it is about a lonely little non-human with human qualities who wants so much to play music and be accepted. The story has been adapted as an animated film in the past, and adaptor Marsha Norman says in her liner notes that she tried workingfor yearson a way to do it as a film. Its tale of friendship, parenting, determination, and a central moral issue make it universal. This performance makes it rather universally appealing in a new way, thanks to a world of talents at work. And you can't beat a good story and a swan who swings and swims ... right into your heart, should it and your mind be open.
"If I Could Start Anew" is the last of the tracks on Phil Swann's solo album, and that's exactly what I wanted to do when I got to it: I wanted to start all over and take it from the top. Perhaps part of the reason I felt like I wanted more is that there are only, alas, 10 songs. His melodies are so ear-appealing and his piano accompaniment for his own vocals is so fluid and gracious that I would have been happy with some instrumental versions of the same pieces. He doesn't sound like he's performing as much as just opening up and sharing. When his voice opens up more noticeably, on some occasional purer open vowel sounds, it's very attractive and stronger than the seemingly casual or intimate approach much of the singing takes on. He's not out to knock your socks off with technically dynamo vocals, but there's always a "real feel" comfort level. The naturalness comes off as warm and sincere. Four of the songs have both words and music by the man of the hour (or the man of not that much more than a half-hour) and five different songwriting partners are represented on the others.
Let's look first at the ones he wrote alone. The CD begins with one of those, an invitation to a "Slow Dance," with the vocal entering almost immediately, dropping us into a super-cozy, sentimental mood, other instruments reinforcing the purringly smooth sensuousness. Do they still call this "make-out music"? It's passionate without being perfervid or wimpy-limp, and the crooning voice will end lines with a strong, forceful note and then ease back into the dewy eyes and rose petals. Far less serene, but waxing philosophical, "In Another Place" is his wistful look at what might have been if things and times were different (meaning happier) if there were "one more second chance." His detailed, example-specific answer to his lover's why-do-you-love-me query is that it's because of the transformation into "The Man You Made of Me" and "the way I am with you." The ultimate combo valentine/ thank-you card? You betcha, but this valentine candy acknowledgment is not too sticky, addressing how one person changes a love partner for the better, a kind of answer song to something like the musical Funny Girl's "Who Are You Now?" The only humorous entry is "The Middle Man," and the CD could use another light, witty gem or two like this among the rhapsodies and confessions. The lyrical word play is a delight in this sideways but ultimately sympathetic look at an aging fellow who's "in between and on the fence/ The future's now his present tense/ He's moving on with nowhere left to go." It also includes a reference to the vices named in the album's title.
Some of the collaborations with other writers lead into the irony-free swamps of romance with swaths of sweet devotion and emotion. The heart is plainly on the sleeve or in the throat and one can see why modern country artists seeking to pour out such hearts in such songs have flocked to Swann as a songwriter. Some of Barry Manilow's better but decidedly sentimental and commercial songs or the more poetic of power ballads would find kindred spirits. Some listeners might sigh "Ahhhhh" but some scream "Arggghh!!" at lyrics like "When some part of you gets broken/ I'm the glue that holds you 'til you're whole again" and "a fool becomes a warrior" and "if you love me, there's nothing I can't do." They're all in "The Power of Us," written with Paul Williams. But, in his singing, one doesn't really doubt Phil's throbbing sincerity. Blessedly, the arrangements don't go in for the emotional (over)kill. No string section here, nor pounding piano, nor modulation upon modulation to simulate or stimulate heart palpitations and proclamations. Instrumentation is simple.
The two numbers written with Mark Winkler are strong, but different from each other in tone and genre. "How Do I Go Home Tonight?" offers a refreshingly low-key self-examination about being honest, sung gently but thoughtfully, with its unanswerable questions to one's self. And their "Jazz Is a Special Taste" is skillfully handled, another winning version of this ode to jazz music's unique, elusive qualities and assets, released in the last year on Mark's new Sweet Spot CD and on A Special Taste by Dolores Scozzesi, both reviewed in this column. It can also be heard on the L.A. cast album of Play It Cool, the musical with mostly Swann melodies to Winkler words. Phil and Mark can be found performing on Theatre Row in Manhattan tonight (Thursday), previewing their new solo CDs at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, across the street from the Acorn Theatre where the intriguing jazz-meets-gay (in the 1950s) Play It Cool is getting set to officially open its New York run. Break a leg!