It has been a while since the score for a Broadway show has produced such a polarized opinion as the one Stephen Schwartz wrote for Wicked, currently playing at the Gershwin Theatre. There seems to be no middle ground on this one; it's either love or loathe, which is a rather odd reaction. While it is admittedly not a perfect creation (and let us all admit that finding one of those is primarily a question of taste, as one person's Sweeney Todd is another one's Starlight Express), there is a lot to like in it, both in terms of musical creations and powerhouse performances.

The musical Wicked is based upon the best selling novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire and retells the familiar tale of Dorothy's epic journey in Oz through the eyes of the 'Wicked' Witch of the West. The book takes an incredibly dark view on the material, portraying the land of Oz as not so MGM merry, being, as it is, under the control of fascist dictator who uses the oppression of a minority to act as a literal scapegoat and keep the crowd pleased and in his thrall. The musical has lightened up the story (Maguire has aptly described the transformation as being "like a Mahler symphony that's been turned into a Mozart opera") by expanding upon the relationship between Elphaba (Idina Menzel), the pigmentally challenged outsider, and Galinda (Kristin Chenoweth), the prototypical popular bubbly blonde (think Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde) and their evolution from antagonistic college roommates to friends and co-conspirators.

Musically, this is arguably one of Schwartz's strongest scores to date and is a direct descendent of his previous musical, Children of Eden, and the two solo albums he has recently released. As with most of his musicals (The Baker's Wife being the rare exception), Schwartz utilizes a pop/rock style throughout most of the album. In fact, the only numbers not in the pop ballad or light rock vein are the songs written for the Wizard (Joel Grey), as befits his true outsider/foreigner status. Structurally, the score is the most complicated in the Schwartz oeuvre as it resembles Grand Hotel with its combining of snatches of song and dialogue into a seamless and ever shifting scene. Thus, some of the scenes, such as "No One Mourns the Wicked" (containing as it does three distinct numbers plus dialogue all fused together), have a patchwork quality when translated to disc, and the scene "The Wicked Witch of the East" is cut altogether as it is basically eight minutes of dialogue containing a few sung lines sprinkled throughout. This is definitely an album that cries out for a synopsis to make sense of the material, and the fact that the liner notes only contain lyrics and an essay by Maguire will frustrate anyone who has not seen the show.

While Chenoweth's portrayal of Galinda has received the lion's share of critical attention, the two goosebump-inducing moments on the disc belong squarely to Menzel's portrayal of Elphaba. The first act closer, "Defying Gravity" (another one of those scenes that is comprised of multiple songs fused with dialogue), proves that the song is thrilling even when removed from its special effects and staging, and displays Menzel at her belting and emotional best. Likewise, "No Good Deed," a bravura number on loss and frustration, is actually more effective when divorced from the incredible lighting effects present in the scene. While a lot of Chenoweth's numbers seem designed to show off her classical soprano ("No One Mourns the Wicked") and/or comic abilities ("Popular"), Menzel's character track is much more developed through song and lets her display an idealistic side ("The Wizard and I") and heartrending sadness ("I'm Not that Girl," a number destined for multiple CD and cabaret covers) in addition to her high energy moments. When the two actresses are allowed to sing together ("What is this Feeling?" and "For Good") the effect is breathtaking as their vocal tambours make it sound as if they are singing in beautifully blended harmony even when they are sharing the melody.

Given that the show stars not one but two powerhouse actress, it is understandable that their material, like their performances, overshadows the rest of the album. It is, however, a bit disappointing that while Schwartz is one of the few Broadway composers who is equally strong at writing for men as he is for women, the men in Wicked are let down by the score. "Dancing Through Life," largely sung by Norbert Leo Butz's 'brainless' swain who provides the love interest for both Galinda and Elphaba, is a light number that would be more at home at Fame's high school or (dare I say it) Carrie's alma mater. The lyrics also seem less character or situational driven than to set up 'aha' moments further on down the line. And this jury is still out on whether stating the chilling and highly appropriate, given current events, theme of the show (that history is written by the victors and their press representatives) in the Wizard's (Joel Grey) fluffy vaudeville, "Wonderful," is brilliantly subversive ala South Pacific's "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" or too far below the radar to register.

The album, like the show, is beautifully orchestrated by Stephen Oremus and the show's usual 23-piece orchestra (in itself a refreshingly large number for a Broadway show) has been augmented to 30. While a little more documentation would have made the album more accessible to those not familiar with the show, enough of the storyline has been preserved to make it an understandable and enjoyable listen.

While the Off-Broadway production of Listen To My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman had a disappointingly brief run Upstairs at Studio 54, a live recording of the show has been preserved on two discs. While David Friedman may not be a household name (except for those households containing sharp-eyed readers of movie credits, as he was the vocal arranger and conductor for many of Disney's neo-classics), cabaret aficionados have long been familiar with his work as many of his songs have become nouveau standards in the cabaret world.

Admittedly, Friedman's songs are not for everyone (but then again, whose are) as he specializes in illustrating the minutia of life, oftentimes in ballad or anthem form. In Friedman's musical world, when one meets one's true love, it is not with trumpets sounding but with quiet wonder ("What I Was Dreamin' Of"). There are no tragically dramatic breakups, only the gradual growing apart, as in "What I'd Had in Mind." Becoming what one fears the most, as in "I'm Not My Mother" (the last two songs with lyrics by Muriel Robinson) is met with comic horror, and the loss of a loved one is met not with anger or by railing at the heavens, but with quiet resignation and even hope ("You're There," with lyrics by Alix Korey). Even his anthems, such as "Help Is On The Way," "I'll Be Here With You," and "We Can Be Kind," possess a simple, understated honesty that is either refreshingly honest or maddeningly naïve depending on one's taste and emotional state.

Personally, this simplicity is more than a little refreshing, especially when performed by an incredible cast of singers. Anne Runolfsson (Victor Victoria), who possesses one of the most beautiful and emotive sopranos around, shines on the aforementioned "What I Was Dreamin' Of" and "We Can Be Kind," a number associated with the late, great Nancy LaMott but which Runolfsson makes her own. Although Alix Korey, who possesses one of today's biggest voices, gets the lion's share of the comic material (including her signature tune, "My Simple Wish"), she is also effective at bringing out the emotional truth of a number, such as "If I Were Pretty." Allison Briner (Forbidden Broadway, Pete 'n' Keely) is remarkably poignant on the tender "You'll Always be my Baby" (lyrics by Barbara Rothstein). Michael Hunsaker pulls at every heartstring with "What I'd Had in Mind," and Joe Cassidy's (1776) rendition of "Catch Me" is raw and goose bump inducing.

Overall, the show works very well on CD as a collection of Friedman's songs. The only number that does not work, in fact, is "Two Different Worlds," which was given an almost soft-porn staging in the show. The lack of an emotional core for the number (in addition to audience reactions that are puzzling if one did not see the show) is highly evident and is in glaring opposition to the rest of the album.

As with all of the Broadway By The Year discs, The Broadway Musicals of 1939 is enjoyable as much for its treasure trove of historical facts as it is for its performances. Admittedly, while 1939 was a very good year for the movies, it was not that great a year for Broadway, given that very few of the musicals represented on the album are familiar, much less still performed. While many of the songs from that year are well known, such as "All The Things You Are," "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," "Mad About the Boy" and "Friendship," even Broadway aficionados would have a hard time placing the show to the song (for the record: Very Warm for May, Too Many Girls, Set to Music and DuBarry Was a Lady, respectively).

Hosted by the always informative Scott Siegel, the album features a largely entertaining mix of performers. The always enjoyable Bryan Batt has fun sending up Carmen Miranda's "South American Way" from Set to Music and is surprisingly touching on "Just a Little More" from the Schwartz/Fields musical Stars in Your Eyes; a delightful discovery that is worth the price of the CD alone. The equally enchanting Amanda McBroom shines on a tender "I Didn't Know What Time it Was" and a bittersweet "Mad About the Boy." Darius de Haas proves that microphones are not a necessary evil on "I, The Living, I" from Hot Mikado and Annie Golden is wackily touching on "A Lady Needs a Change" (Stars in Your Eyes) and "Friendship" (flubbed lyrics and all). And Steve Ross shows why he is the embodiment of Coward's café society with his guest spot interpretation of "I Went to a Marvelous Party." As always, Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band provide the perfect accompaniment.

The owner of one of the most distinct voices ever to grace Broadway has finally released a solo disc. Best known for her tour-de-force performance of "Another Hundred People" in Sondheim's Company, Pamela Myers has released an album with an intriguing concept: all but one of the tracks feature one of the writers accompanying her on piano. Wisely, the songs on The Chance to Sing are chiefly character and lyric driven, such as "I Stayed Too Long at the Fair" (Billy Barnes Revue), "Poor Sweet Baby" (Grossman/Hackady's Snoopy) and "I Wish You a Waltz (Goldberg's Ballroom) as Myers remains extremely adept at inhabiting a lyric. However, a tender version of "Our Children" from Ragtime is especially poignant.

One of Australia's premier musical theater actors, Anthony Warlow is best known for his portrayal of legitimate-voiced musical theater roles, such as Enjolras in Les Miserables, the title character in Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, Archibald in The Secret Garden or for his work on the complete two-disc set of Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde. On his latest album, Face the Music, his first solo album in a decade, Warlow tackles big band era tunes with the vocal intensity and lyrical sensitivity that have won him an international following. The songs are typical Sinatra repertoire numbers with highlights being a lounge-like "Girl from Ipanema" and a driving "Charade." While its short playing time (only thirty-six minutes) makes it hard to justify paying a high import price, it is a wonderfully produced and executed album.

Fans of choral music may want to check out the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D.C.'s latest album, You've Got to be Carefully Taught ... The Songs of Sondheim & Hammerstein. The album has all the strengths and weaknesses inherent in large member choirs (glorious tight harmonies at the expense of strict, square rhythms and less variation in dynamics than one usually likes to hear associated with showtunes). As the title suggests, the album is comprised of songs written by Stephen Sondheim or his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II with no surprises or obscure numbers. In addition to solo spots performed by members of the chorus, Laura Benanti performs as guest soloist on half of the numbers.

A splinter group of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D.C. has released Love Songs and Other Fairy Tales ... A Gay Cabaret, a collection of cabaret and specialty numbers that is admittedly more this reviewer's cup of tea. The album features solos and small group numbers and contains a pleasant grouping of numbers both comic ("It's Tough to be a Fairy" by Mark Waldrop and Dick Gallahger, and "Pour Me a Man" by Fred Barton) and serious (a number of songs by Craig Carnelia, including "You Can Have the TV," and the exquisitely tender "Look in My Eyes," plus Tom Brown's "Jonathan Wesley Oliver Jr.," one of the most poignant songs about AIDS ever written).

RCA Victor has released two more reissues in their Broadway Deluxe Collector's Edition Series that could not be more diametrically opposed if they tried: the tribal love musical, Hair, and Frank Loesser's ode to corporate America, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying . Both reissues benefit greatly by the remixing and remastering and sound better than ever. Neither album contains material that was missing from previous releases (although the Hair album would like you to believe otherwise; however, the CD issued in 1998 contained all the material found on this reissue and in the same order).

The Hair reissue is worth getting, as the two-disc set also contains the first CD release of the 1967 Off-Broadway recording, which contains three songs not found on the Broadway disc: "Dead End," "Exanaplanetooch," and "The Climax." The second disc also includes three previously unreleased tracks for the Off-Broadway recording ("Opening," "Red White and Blue" and "Sentimental Ending"), as well as an interview with composer Gal MacDermot. The bonus tracks for How to Succeed are largely culled from the recent 1995 revival: five tracks of Walter Cronkite's narration and two reprises not found on the original cast recording that can be programmed in as needed and desired. More enjoyable and essential is the inclusion of two demos performed by Frank Loesser ("Organization Man" and "A Secretary Is Not a Toy"). The bonus tracks are rounded out by jazz takes on "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" and interviews with Robert Morse and Charles Nelson Reilly.

There really is no good word to categorize the musical Lorelei. While it starts off as a sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with its titular character (once again played by Carol Channing) reminiscing about her late husband Gus Esmond, it only serves as the lead-in to a slightly re-worked version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The recently released CD is an even odder hybrid as it is a fusion of the 1973 touring cast album and the 1974 Broadway cast album. The new songs, by original writers Jule Styne, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green, are rather enjoyable. "Looking Back" serves to bookend the proceedings and make sense of the show, as well as giving Channing some rare quiet acting moments in the show. On the other hand, "Men" exists to give Channing a moment to have a rollicking good time.

One of the odder re-releases is the mythical solo album recorded by Bette Davis entitled Miss Bette Davis. Recorded in 1976 when she was 68, the album ranks up there with the Ethel Merman Disco Album as a camp classic, containing as it does "I've Written A Letter To Daddy" from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (and at 67, Bette Davis' little girl impersonation is truly bizarre) and a dialogue scene from All About Eve. However, she is surprisingly touching on "Life is a Lonely Thing" and her rendition of "I Wish You Love" is eerily poignant.

Coming up next -- Jonathan's Best of 2003 list.

-- Jonathan Frank

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