Sound Advice Reviews
Musical TheatreRecent and Reissued
Perhaps we sometimes take for granted the craft of our long-careered writers of musical theatre. So let's take some time to appreciate the oeuvre of Maury Yeston in a recent retrospective and also be reminded of a work of the team of Tom Jones and the late Harvey Schmidt: Celebration, which recently marked its 50th anniversary with a reissue of its cast album and a special performance at Manhattan's beloved York Theatre Company where the Yeston revue also held forth.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN THE THEATER
With composer-lyricist Maury Yeston reaching his 75th birthday later this year, 2020 is certainly a good time to give him and all of us the worthy gift of a new recording surveying his work. It comes as a result of the revue that ran at Manhattan's York Theatre Company a few months ago, documenting the performances of its five singers, but adding a band with Doug Besterman's orchestrations to what had been the live show's piano-only accompaniment by Greg Jarrett. (He is on keyboards again here, along with seven other musicians, and conducts). With a somewhat different set list, Jarrett and two of the performersAlex Getlin and Justin Keyesappeared in the show in its brief 2017 run in the city at the Triad. The packaging of the physical version of this recording has a booklet with all the lyrics and appreciative, personal essays by Mr. Besterman and label co-founder/executive producer Tommy Krasker. Kudos to producer Bart Migal for another classy PS Classics release.
Anything Can Happen in the Theater: The Musical World of Maury Yeston brings together selections from his scores (high-profile and otherwise) and stand-alone songs. The recording comes from PS Classics, a label that in earlier years brought us cast recordings of Yeston's shows as well as two collections surveying his work: one by Laura Osnes (If I Tell You: Songs of Maury Yeston) and the other by various theatre artists (The Maury Yeston Songbook). There's plenty of overlap in repertoire with the previous albums, including the Osnes medley of two numbers: "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree" with "I Want to Go to Hollywood," handled here with zest and skillful stylishness by Mamie Parris. Scores are not represented in equal amounts; Nine being heavily sampled, Phantom getting just one track (the lovely group number, "Home"), and Titanic not coming to the surface at all for the recording, even though one of its numbers was used in the production.
Revues of mostly material originally designed to be specific to plot and characters have a challenge in being effective, both live and on recording. A song that can be so impactful in the context of a book musicalcoming after its dramatis personae, relationships, and storylines are establishedcan feel foreign and puzzling without all that. Interpretations that try to generalize the songs or lay personality or mood on extra-thickly to compensate can be a losing game. Mostly this cast steers clear of these extremes, but some things seem to skim the surface or feel lackluster in drama and detail. The cast is smooth and game, but not jaw-droppingly chameleon-like to fully project vastly distinctive people and attitudes. Nevertheless, with 21 tracks, there's plenty to enjoy, with the less familiar items especially rewarding to be acquainted with. And one can't help but respectfully observe the range of styles and the solid craftsmanship of the writing.
Alex Getlin's singing can effectively capture a kind of wistful vulnerability that is very effective in illuminating the emotion of pieces, making her solo of "Strange" very compelling. (Its elegant orchestration helps immeasurably in making it a highlight.) Jovan E'Sean also creates a successfully evocative mood with "Mississippi Moon," a glimpse into what might have been, as it comes from a score that Yeston started on as an adaptation of the French farce that later, in Jerry Herman's hands, became La Cage aux Folles. E'Sean and Justin Keyes combine their talents in what I find to be the sweetest and most affecting track, "You're There Too," from a musical about people in biblical times called In the Beginning.
Although Benjamin Eakeley has the unenviable task of trying to take on the larger-than-life central character of Guido of Nine and doesn't do so on as flamboyantly grand a scale as one would hope, his Grand Hotel sweep through "Love Can't Happen" is strong and richly sung. "Anything Can Happen in the Theater," specially written as the revue's opening/title number as a show-bizzy wink to actors eager/desperate to take on any part as their raison d'etre is cute and bouncy, suggesting that the quintet of folks on board and on the boards will more than gladly slip into any role for any rhyme or reason. And, indeed, the rhymes are deft and there's good reason to say "yes" to a Yeston retrospective.
It's time for a multiple-choice question about Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's 1969 Broadway entry: Was it overwhelmingly of its social revolution-tinged time; somehow before its time; or timeless? The underlying query is why Celebration wasn't sufficiently celebrated then or later. Why did this work by the writers of a musical I adore, The Fantasticks, seem so different and much less memorable when I first encountered it on vinyl so many years ago? I am very happy that Harbinger Records/The Musical Theater Project saw fit to remaster and reissue this recording with mind-opening liner notes by lyricist/bookwriter/director Jones that help make me now belatedly fall in love with the show. (Some further research and becoming acquainted with the script really helped, too.) It's a piece that can't really be appreciated just on the merits of its quirky surface. With a less informed perspective, it can seem too broad, arch, and preachyor, initially, distancing.
Inspired by myths and ancient theatre traditions, in making its points about cycles of life and death, lust and trust, selfishness and self-awareness, Mr. Jones once observed punnily that "the symbols crashed too loudly." But we can identify with the emotions, frustrations, and dashed dreams of those who sing, even if the goings-on are determinedly heavy-handed in broad depictions of four character types (rather than truly sympathetic, three-dimensional realistic people). It's interesting that Jones gained some 20/20 hindsight of lessons learned and revised the work many years later, but with this reissue of something from a half-century ago, we're kept in the time warp, albeit with that awareness.
This ritual-rich presentation ostensibly centers on the contrasting attitudes of an idealistic poor young fellow and an aging wealthy man, both attracted to the same woman (named Angel, but harboring some very earthly attributes), sort of refereed by a jaded theatrical host/narrator. Innocence collides with snark and crass solipsistic sensibilities, to take the spotlights. Confusion, panic, and hope are ready co-stars, as a chorus of revelers emphasizes points, taunts, or offers condolencesall to the trademark tunefulness of the savvy and savory Harvey Schmidt melodies played by a nine-member band.
Rediscovered or initially encountered through the prism of the march of musical theater time, Celebration's committed characterizations, singing, and spot-on instrumental accompaniment hold up. Susan Watson, always an especially welcome presence, is radiant and rapturous. Her first appearance, the "I want" number wherein she declaims her desire for importance to be what her values would mark her as "Somebody," is an assertive strut that in style allows for being steeped in the pop music of its day. Other assignments, fortunately, allow her to show far more warmth and lushness. Jones/Schmidt followers know she was the very first lady to sing their Fantasticks score and also did the same honors for a TV version, and that tender-voiced Michael Glenn-Smith appeared in the team's later Philemon, the cast recording of which was also recently brought back by this label. He is well cast as the naif who is, perhaps by default, the conscience or heart of the show, persisting when others are less than endearing. His pleading to reclaim "My Garden" rings out with ardent yearning, as does his sympathy-engendering, character-establishing "Orphan in the Storm." (These two actors contribute brief but touching remembrances for the booklet which also has black-and-white photos of the production and a plot synopsis.)
As the two tougher types, Keith Charles (seemingly omniscient narrator) and Ted Thurston (the often raging rich guy) are potent presences with theatrical flair. Charles is commanding throughout and thoroughly chilling as the essence of heartless disregard dismissing anyone else's woes in "Not My Problem." Through the smart writing of Schmidt and Jones, and resourceful acting, Thurston's character is not relegated to the simplistic and hateful amoral man of privilege, but the tragic victim of that inescapable leveler for all humans: the grim reaper and the grim reality of aging that brings loss of confidence, control and attractiveness. As he rues all this, wondering "Where Did It Go?," and sings with temporary optimism, "It's You Who Makes Me Young," we can catch ourselves caring. The much-employed chorus adds energy and underlines points, serving as witnesses.
A single bonus track offers the writers in their own latter-day spirited rendition of Celebration's rousing carpe-diem title song, as did this label's marvelous collection of Schmidt/Jones souvenirs in their Hidden Treasures series. This score and its ultimately wise and uplifting message in an unusual structure that incorporates ancient traditions and universal truths, is a treasure all on its own.