Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Songwriter Collections:
Jones & Schmidt and
Marvin Hamlisch
Review by Rob Lester


Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project

You can bill Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom as producers or directors or conceivers or co-founders, but devotees of musicals may have found themselves thinking of the gentlemen as co-Santa Clauses. Such is the merry and joyous bounty of gifts their Harbinger Records/Musical Theater Project projects have brought us in recent times, making each season feel like a celebration with marvelous surprises and (like the most considerate, attractive holiday treats) thoughtful, notable packaging. Following their invaluable releases of samplers of such writers as Hugh Martin and Sheldon Harnick comes this cornucopia of work written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, with early material that preceded their breakthrough, the understandably beloved and timeless The Fantasticks, samples (of course) from that career-maker and numerous projects along the way, from the ones that got to Broadway (I Do! I Do!, 110 in the Shade) to the ones that got away (a musicalization of the classic Our Town titled Grovers Corners) to their artful and experimental pieces done Off-Broadway and miscellany.

Not all of the Hidden Treasures have been all that "hidden"—some come right off not-so-easily-findable cast albums of the vinyl era and some are alternate versions of songs the industrious forager finds on collections of material cut from shows, like the Lost in Boston studio discs. Others are from private archives or made as demos or live recordings. With 48 tracks of Treasures (two discs for the physical set), there is plenty of paradise, even for those who have procured such prizes previously. Some are short and sweet, clocking in at under two minutes, and a few well over four minutes in length.

Like any such collection that includes rarities recorded privately to preserve the art without state-of-the-art studio luxuries, the sound quality varies. But that's to be expected and generally things sound remarkably fine, especially considering that much is from the middle of the twentieth century and even before stereo. The selections are presented chronologically, but with the perhaps obligatory bookending of two latter-day treatments of their memorable "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks (Schmidt on piano to start, both writers singing in 2004 as a postscript). Rather than pluck anything from the classic cast album of that show, we get these two tracks by the men who created the enduring, long-running musical, as well as the stars who buoyantly played the fathers for the 1964 TV version, the legendary Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway, who have a happy field day with "Plant a Radish"; the number added for a 1990 tour ("A Perfect Time to Be in Love"); and Jones' performance from just last year of the monologue ("You wonder how these things begin..."). Jones, also the bookwriter, penned and heard that monologue from the wings when Jerry Orbach did it in the original cast a mere 57 years earlier, as he was also in the cast way back then as The Old Actor, under the pseudonym of Thomas Bruce. A piece that had been cut all those years ago ("I Have Acted Like a Fool") is also here, in a sweet full-circle moment as it is sung by the last actors to play the young leads before the recent New York City revival closed: Nathan Goodrich and Samantha Bruce. (No relation to "Thomas Bruce"!) Like other examples of discarded material, those with perspective and exposure to the show and discerning ears and general audiences aching for more accessible, tighter tunes and lyrics can see why an early idea was rejected as not being sufficiently catchy musically or not succinctly capturing the moment in the plot.

While we don't hear them in their early roles as that Boy and Girl in The Fantasticks, together or separately, we do encounter Kenneth Nelson (Off-Broadway original cast) in a montage and Susan Watson (pre-Off-Broadway cast and the television cast). The sunny Watson voice rings out in a few numbers over the years, ever welcome, and she also contributes some illuminating liner notes in the thick booklet that is generously filled with photos documenting the fifty-year partnership. (A longtime favorite of the writers, the sweet and welcome Watson also made her own excellent solo recording of the team's songs.)

From their first stabs as writing partners in college days (with a college show about—what else?—college life) to the lovely Mirette on the High Wire and Roadside, a reworked 2001 revisit to a property abandoned almost half a century before, this is a fascinating portfolio (to use the name of their incubation workshop/theatre space). Some rarities may need repeated exposure for better appreciation as they take some concentrated listening or are on the esoteric side. It's a mix of the glibly humorous, seriously earnest, and once-topically satirical. But it's all worth hearing as a time capsule, often a time for life-affirming jubilation or gentler joys, hearts worn unashamedly and unpretentiously on sleeves.

Along the way, we encounter many skilled performers: Dick Latessa (in a few pieces); the easy-to-recognize juicy and bright voice of Kaye Ballard; and Liz Callaway (on a demo, singing a winsome and heartfelt "I Only Want Someone to Love Me," written for Grover's Corners' heroine Emily). A jolting blast from the past brings Diana Rigg and Martin Vidnovic duetting on a zingy "Ooh-La-La," from a Seattle production about author Colette, whose life story kept the writers busy with various attempts at capturing it in a stage piece, resulting finally in the two-part Colette Collage. Also in that cast was opera/musical theatre's big-voiced John Reardon with "The Room Is Filled with You."

Other highlights: a 2017 rendering of "Wand'rin' Child" with guitar accompaniment by the sensitive Sean Harkness, crooned by Carole Demas (long associated with the writers and their shows, and most recently tributing them in a radiant cabaret show with Sarah Rice); I Do! I Do!'s original stars Mary Martin and Robert Preston singing a selection, live, before it was cut from that score: "Thousands of Flowers." Wow! Two legends almost leap into your happy, grateful ears.

Of course, what makes the timing of this release so bittersweet is that it comes so close to passing of Harvey Schmidt, who had already retired his pen and piano fingers, on the last day of February of this year. But, happily, he was able to contribute to the liner notes in the anecdote-filled booklet, complementing the more prominently observations and memories of his longtime collaborator. And his vigorous voice and keyboard work on the demos and live performances make it feel like he is right there with us in our living room (or his) at the piano bench, as time stands still again and again. Often present here, he is also represented as his own lyricist and demo solo singer (his "Broadway Sam" inspired by a casual comment by Jones's son is a spunky pick-me-up) or as instrumentalist for movie music. No need to "try to remember," because it's all laid out here... and so gloriously.


Varese-Sarabande Records

A live recording of one of the tributes Kevin Cole put together for Marvin Hamlisch after the composer's passing has, thankfully, been released to celebrate the career of the man who wrote the music for the landmark A Chorus Line as well as other musical theatre projects and films, was an orchestrator, concert pianist, and a busy conductor who also sang a bit in his own evenings and TV appearances. Two film clips of Hamlisch singing and accompanying himself were included and the audio appears here, both from the Broadway score They're Playing Our Song, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager: a bubbly and kinetic romp through the title number and an intimate, affecting treatment of the ballad "If He Really Knew Me" (here as "If You Really Knew Me"). A pianist himself who got to work under Hamlisch's baton, Cole had become his friend and was mentored by him, and the sudden loss motivated the younger musician to create and refine the career-spanning salute.

The even was billed as a "Celebration!" of the multi-tasking winner of the Pulitzer, Grammys, Tony, and Oscar and Emmy. Cole is piano soloist and Adrian Daurov is featured on cello with Kalamazoo Michigan's Symphony Orchestra conducted by J. Ernest Green with the palpably enthused response of the audience. The sound is rich and full, allowing for full appreciation of the compositions and the guest artists respectfully render the lyrics with care to phrasing and mood, sincerity radiating. The concerts had the full support and artistic consultation of Hamlisch's widow Terri Blair, who offers brief but articulate and grateful introductory liner notes ("Listen with an open heart and you will hear HIS heart," she says in conclusion.)

The collaboration with Craig Carnelia, the lamentably short-lived Broadway resident The Sweet Smell of Success is on rich display, evidencing its admirable craftsmanship, sung with full-voiced adeptness and relish by musical theatre veteran Doug LaBrecque and silvery soprano Sylvia McNair, who morphed from opera singer to embracer of show songs and standards. Including dialogue, he does a stunningly bravura performance of the dramatic "At the Fountain," the album's high point for me by far. It's a fully involved and invested performance with a thrillingly strong and climactic ending. His "I Cannot Hear the City" is also quite strong and noble, with suitable passion. Miss McNair gets to lead an impressive number that was cut from this score: "That's How I Say Goodbye," another touching moment and proof that material trimmed from a show is so often worthy on its own merits as a song.

Chameleon-like singer Judy Harrison handles A Chorus Line's "Nothing" with nothing short of spirited vim and spunk. She also recalls movie songs in their original musical wrappings, thus her voice echoing Carly Simon's phrasing, too, in "Nobody Does It Better" (OK, Simon does it better, but it's nice to have a slightly different flavor in sound). A few other motion picture themes are heard instrumentally, including "The Way We Were" twice.

Cole himself takes a glib vocal turn to represent Hamlisch's early career writing pop music with the cheery "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows," a hit for Lesley Gore (lyric by Howard Liebling). His piano elegance is given full reign for a lengthy instrumental section featuring "The Way We Were" and "What I Did for Love" from A Chorus Line. That score's "One" is also heard instrumentally as "Bows" to cheers. And Edward Kleban's lyric for the former is here at the end of the recital sung by the vocalists joining their voices in song, along with the audience. The sing-along straightforwardness robs us of some passion, but the general feeling is there, buoyed by nostalgia for one of this much-missed musician's best-loved contributions. I'll play Play It Again, Marvin again and again.

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