Sound Advice Reviews
Holiday songs from Broadway and Off-Broadway and
'Tis the season to be jolly and you can find both that mood and reverence in the annual charity fundraiser recording from Broadway Cares. And for an irreverent, carefree romp there's the largely jolly ambiance of a show that first held forth on the Great White Way way back when.
BROADWAY'S CAROLS FOR A CURE, VOLUME 21
The annual burst of talent and creative reflections on the holiday season, through a theatre lens, is here, its sales benefiting the charity work of the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. As usual, here are the casts of the musicals big and small, new and long-running, never running out of appealing ideas. While the series' selections have always mixed the secular with the sacred, this year the 18-track collection puts a major emphasis on the genre indicated by the first word of the title, Carols for a Cure, with choices such as "The First Noel" given a fine treatment by current company members of the musical that has celebrated the most New York noels, The Phantom of the Opera. And there's plenty of respectful and rich harmony group singing as other musicals' companies do likewise. The more traditional takes on religious material would certainly attract even those holiday music fans not specifically drawn to musical theatre. However, those at least as interested in the theatre season as the holiday season have some tied-in Yuletide treats, too.
Selections revamped to match a show's musical genre are notable feats. In this category, the Ain't Too Proud guys following in the footsteps of The Temptations eschew all the Christmas titles the iconic group actually sang on their own Christmas albums, but are still faithful to their sound with "O Come All Ye Faithful." It's in both spirits: a kind of, oh, little (Mo)town of Bethlehem. It has the (unlisted) addition of some bass-voiced spoken words of the lyric of "Away in a Manger," its melody also showing up to set up an elegant rendition of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" by some Wicked folks.
Beetlejuice plays things mostly straight with a vibrant "Carol of the Bells," here renamed "Carol of the Beetlebells," with brief but impactful cute cameo moments with mischievous spoken comments from star Alex Brightman and a calypso sampling. Meanwhile, Freestyle Love Supreme grabs far more territory for a hip-hop hijack of "O Christmas Tree." A revamp of another kind comes with a spiffy homage to the specialty arrangement of "Jingle Bells" at a breakneck pace created for Barbra Streisand's first Christmas album, here whizzed through by a Tootsie trio (Santino Fontana, Sarah Stiles, and Lilli Cooper). "Baby, It's Cold Outside," recent recipient of protests and rewrites, sometimes loaded with lust and leering, survives with none of the above in the feel, but with the original gender lyric assignments reversed in a relaxed performance with Renee Rapp and Kyle Selig of Mean Girls.
Aside from the well-traveled classics, there are newer things, too. Christopher Fitzgerald and Benny Elledge charm with chat and singing about the concerns around the gift-buying assignment of being someone's "Secret Santa." It was written by two members of the show's orchestra staff, Meg Toohey (lyric) and Adam Michael Kaufman (music, arranger, keyboardist). There's a dance music groove and percolating pop party feel when some Aladdin people cheer on the cheerfulness with "December Feels" led by its current Jasmine, Arielle Jacobs, written by trumpeter/arranger Augie Haas and cast member Angelo Soriano (in the ensemble here, too). Another highlight is the stirring a capella "Midwintersong" that is a slice of musical heaven from Hadestown and a real "family affair," as it's written by the show's music director/vocal arranger Liam Robinson, who is in the chorus that includes, in addition to cast members, this Tony winner's writer, Anais Mitchell, and its director, Rachel Chavkin.
In the spirit of inclusion, Jewish traditions get more than a passing nod, providing two standout tracks. The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof is represented by a lively spin on "Drey Dreydele" with the cast's performances starting off, happily, by its director, Broadway veteran Joel Grey. And Andrew Barth Feldman, currently playing the title role in Dear Evan Hansen, brings a disarmingly attractive quality in a solo vocal of ""Hine Ma Tov"/"Together." For a briskly assertive flavor to end the year and begin the next, there's decidedly robust singing with Mary Testa starting off the Oklahoma! citizens on an "Auld Lang Syne" that's hale and hearty, absent the bittersweet or sentimental mood the New Year's anthem usually gets.
The CD comes with a download card that also gives you access to videos from the recording sessions of this sumptuous holiday collection. Past editions of the series are available separately or in a CD box set of all the 21 years for those just catching up and ready for binge listening.
THE NEW YORKERS
Once upon a very different December (1930), a show came to Broadway that billed itself as being "a sociological musical satire." It was titled The New Yorkers and took place in then-contemporary New York Citymostly. And the score was by Cole Portermostly. And the songs were anything but sincere or seriousmostly. Never recorded in full in its time or after, we finally get its songs presented on recordingmostly. Thanks to Ghostlight Records, we have a belated, brash souvenir of the way the show was revised for the Encores! presentation in 2017. Songs were added and subtracted, hardly the first time that happened with a Cole Porter score. Moved to the end and assigned to a different character was "I Happen to Like New York." In spite of questionable changes and quibbles, I happen to mostly like this high-energy hybrid calling itself The New Yorkers, especially if I just listen to it more as a bunch of mainly entertainingly fizzy numbers.
It's pretty easy to enjoy the songs in isolation because most lyrics don't suggest people with detail or depth, or follow developing relationships; there are few references to specifics of plot episodes. The agenda was not about such things, but rather to be breezy and to amuse, while spoofing attitudes and mores. Silliness and pursuit of happiness reigned, with some entitled folks finding their self-pleasing ways around such potentially pesky joy-killers as the Depression, Prohibition, marital vows of fidelity, or being jailed. (Cue the short alma mater-like ditty that does name the prison, "Sing, Sing for Sing Sing," one of the less familiar Cole Porter-penned items.)
In general, the cast dives into the material with some sense of period and panache, in a gregarious and presentational style. Robyn Hurder is Betty Boop-ishly pouty and plucky with the winking "Please Don't Make Me Be Good," and Mylinda Hull gets the requisite zing in her assignments. Kevin Chamberlin is impressively boisterous and wacky in the role originated by one-of-a-kind nutty comedy star Jimmy Durante, who wrote his own specialty material. Chamberlin leads the two retained pieces, "The Hot Patata" and "Wood," with gleeful abandon without doing an exact impersonation. With flair and energy, Tam Mutu and Scarlett Strallen lead the company in the score's odes to the Big Apple with, respectively,"Take Me Back to Manhattan" and "I Happen to Like New York." They have other appearances, too, but shine best with these energizers near the end.
In a league of her own is the very welcome jazz star Cyrille Aimee's one song assignment, as she brings a distinctive voice and captivating presence to "Love for Sale." The interpretation of this famous (and famously banned from the air waves) piece, a portrait of a streetwalker, has nuance and humanity that contrast with the otherwise splashy or glib performances here.
Most of what we hear is frothy fun, especially with the sparkle and kick of the orchestra led by Rob Berman with his own flavorful vocal and dance arrangements, spiffy orchestrations by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore. So here's a toast to another era of musicals when you were told that troubles could be banished if you "Go Into Your Dance," and Cole Porter could reference Irving Berlin's "Say It with Music" via a bootlegger/gangster's sly retort to "Say It with Gin." I'll drink to all that.