Sound Advice Reviews
Once upon a time, after what, for recorded music, might be considered the equivalent of the Paleozoic Period when releases were offered as heavy, quite breakable two-sided discs with one song on each side, technology gave us platters with a few songs on each side and finally the "long-playing" (L.P.) record album (and tapes), often with a total of a dozen tracks or so. A few decades later, the compact disc allowed for even more. Still, some CD/digital releases still come our way with a paucity of songs and the "single" or E.P. (extended play, with a little more) still pops up. Here are some abbreviated items I had thought might be appetizers for a fuller banquet (not yet, anyway) and one item with plenty of tracks that is an example of another genre: the sampler, a kind of teaser/taster around a theme, surveying this past Broadway season's cast albums, some not yet issued in full in physical copies. All these smaller portions might prompt you to say, as the title character in the musical Oliver! does at one meal time, "Please, sir, I want some more."
It's rare that fans get official recordings of a replacement actor's renditions of a show's numbers. Laura Benanti, who inherited the mantle in the just-closed Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, directed by Bartlett Sher, is the happy rare exception. Four songs featuring her assertive characterization of Eliza Doolittle are now available with her soprano voice, in turns, floating or feisty. Adding just her vocals, recorded in April of this year, to what was laid down in another studio the previous April (the full cast album's tracks of the orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling, and some other original cast members singing on the numbers), technology plays efficient matchmaker. Collectors partial to some past notable replacements will recall such partial efforts for Larry Kert in Company and Nick Jonas in the revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.
I find some of the pronunciation in the cockney accent sounding studied and forced, a little too harsh, as if, ironically, an anti-Higgins is needed to put the unrefinement in. It's distracting from otherwise engaging work. Especially in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," Benanti's Eliza sounds less vulnerable and less dreamy than the numerous others we have heard approach the role. (And, by the way, why eliminate the vocals of the three costermongers' sung section before Eliza begins her chorus?)
It may be fair to say the lady we meet first as a struggling flower seller need not be a fragile flower herself. Tougher and more resilient might be a defensible tack, but here and elsewhere Eliza seems almost, to employ the leading man's later verbiage, "serenely independent." This latest in the long line of Elizas created in its non-musical origins by George Bernard Shaw is no fragile lass, but more a tough force to be reckoned with. Admittedly, I've grown accustomed to more grace. But she soars with "I Could Have Danced All Night" when her gorgeous soprano can reveal its rich radiance and that splendid final high climax.
In the explosive "Show Me" and "Just You Wait," the bombastic Benanti takes the best advantage of opportunities to put her stamp on the bursts of frustration in comic turns of phrase and have fun with the latter's revenge fantasy. A formidable performer she is, and hearing Laura Benanti take charge has its goosebump-potential moments of exhilaration.
The CD's packaging of this quartet of My Fair Lady treats is a bit odd. The chosen production photos include two shots with her leading man in the paper insert, and one on the back cover (along with her Pickering), suggesting we might hear their trio of "The Rain in Spain," but we don't. And there are no photos of the singing actors we do hear. The credits are all there regarding the show, from Shaw to Sher, with all the musicians duly listed with their instruments, etc., etc., but it might have been nice, especially for those coming across this in the future (or those without the knowledge packagers might assume) to spell out the fact that this actress was indeed a replacement in the cast, and maybe a line of three giving background about her and the musical.
But let's celebrate what we do have for the ears of the grateful collector who feels one can never have too many visits with this iconic Frederick Loewe/Alan Jay Lerner score, in full or mini-servings.
The latest collection by skillful singer Jan Daley comprises a mere eight numbers, with the following disclaimer at the beginning of her liner notes, which then go on to comment on connections to all selections: "I wanted it to be an easy listening CD both for my jazz fans and my Broadway fans, so I didn't include some of my up-tempo showstoppers from my concert." It's not often that liner notes frighten me a little, but I am wary of the category "easy listening" as it often means eschewing dramatic meatiness and visceral involvement in lyrics in favor of homogenized, smoooooothed-out musical lines, making for mind-numbing background music. Fortunately, the renditions of the famous favorites on Broadway Memories don't turn my fond Broadway memories into forgettable, neutered new versions at all. On the contrary, prepare to be enthralled.
In acting the lyrics, the velvet-voiced interpreter sounds consistently involved and thoughtful, with phrasing that often emphasizes the unexpected word, bringing a fresh slant. Most of the liberties taken with note values add gentle, inventive shake-ups. While tempi are indeed rather slow, there's no sludge. Daly spends just enough time lingering over what she chooses as key words without trying to underline too many. Multi-instrumentalist David Cohen (keyboards, bass, cello) is an elegant psychological partner in these arrangements credited to the singer herself. The resulting atmosphere suggests analytical, sensitive "thinking out loud," with the unrushed, deliberate performer rolling the words around in her mind, discovering and confronting her feelings moment by moment.
In this vein, the piece that becomes the most accomplished as a revelation is the one you might think would be the one coming off with the least gravitas. But no, "The Sound of Music" is reverent in its expressed awe of each named element of nature, and even that potentially precious-to-the-max line about "a lark who is learning to pray" seems viable. With accompaniment first tip-toeing and later swelling, pace picking up, tension and release, it never risks becoming "The Sound of Muzak," thankfully. And, by and large, the same agenda and modus operandi inform the other selections.
The veteran singer, whose history includes entertaining the troops during the Vietnam War with Bob Hope, TV appearances, and several recordings, shows off an ageless vocal instrument here, with an impressive range that features particularly satisfying deep tones and airy high notes, too. Her stylizations, timbre, and mix of regal qualities with vulnerability remind me in many moments of Diahann Carrollmeant as high praise. She definitely acts her lyrics and, if that sometimes means sacrificing a few bricks in the melodic architecture, it isn't cavalier or disconcerting, especially when it's all been established in the first chorus or is already cemented in your mind from much prior exposure.
A few quibbles: Despite the title Broadway Memories, not everything was written for a stage musical. The pop power anthem of gratitude, "You Raise Me Up," doesn't feel like it fits. Also not created for the theatre are "Over the Rainbow," created for a classic film (OK, it's also been done as a theatre piece, although not in a Broadway house) and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" is a recent jukebox musical inclusion for the still-thriving Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. (One of my pet peeves pops up with these, too, in that these two song titles are given slightly incorrectly.) All is forgiven, of course, since they all are delivered with tremendous feeling.
A final cavil: "The Impossible Dream" brings a few choices that might be deemed distracting. As the vocal begins, a simple, throbbing accompaniment figure threatens to become droning; some note alterations and melisma seem egregiously for show; and, as a female, she apparently felt she had to alter the male pronouns in the original lyrics. The case is this: "... that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage," changed to what is clunky and squeezed in without enough notes ("that one woman or man ...") and then grammatically incorrect ("their last ounce"). She also crafts an extended ending to proclaim that she will do the impossible: "I'll reach reach the unreachable star" when that isn't a given, as I think it's supposed to be all about just the nobility of the striving and the dream. Or is it just me?
Although the subtitle On the Street That I Love suggests a play on the song title "On the Street Where You Live," and might lead you to assume we get that, we don't. But My Fair Lady devotees are justly compensated instead with something else from that score: "I've Grown Accustomed to Her [His] Face" which is wondrously wistful and quite loverly. Her advisor on the approach was a friend of hers, none other than the person who graced the original production and has also directed it: Julie Andrews. Two pages from the Stephen Sondheim songbook complete the set: "Send in the Clowns," which includes the additional lines he wrote for Barbra Streisand at her request and "Losing My Mind," enveloped with the iconic accompaniment figures from the original. But, before we get there, there are grafted-on first lines borrowed (uncredited) from an oldie, "I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do," which, oddly take the tack of denial ("I never loved you/ You never reached me/ You were just someone/ Someone I knew") for this number that is otherwise baldly confessional about caring.
Ms. Daley will be doing a show at the Catalina in Los Angeles on July 14. That's many miles from Broadway itself, but it seems like this lady has a lot of love for Broadway in her heart and so much sounds heartfelt here. Curtain up!
DAVE DAMIANI & BOBBY RYDELL
A blast from the past comes via a two-song offering from two singers teaming up: Dave Damiani and Bobby Rydell, the veteran who is now well into his 70s, but still full of spunk and solid vocalizing. Neither the Latin-tinged seducer "Sway" nor "You Gotta Enjoy Joy" is new to Rydell. In fact, this is his third go-round on "Sway"; way back in 1960 it was a chart hit for him and he re-did with a disco beat in the '70s. And he'd had a ball with the bubbly, swingin' "You Gotta Enjoy Joy" on record in the '60s and performed it on Milton Berle's TV show where it was the musical theme (Berle is credited as one of its writers). Electricity zings back and forth as the two guys take turns singing sections of each number, seeming to feed off each other's energy. They include a few sly spoken asides, egging each other on and seemingly enjoying each other's company. Regrettably, they never sing in unison until the final few seconds in either case. (They sound great together for those brief bits).
Neither man is a stranger to show tunes and standards. Comfortably wearing the skin of old-school finger-snapping and ballad-singing nightclub entertainers, both include plenty from the Great American Songbook in their live and recorded repertoires. Bobby Rydell often included show tunes along with his pop fare over the years and musical theatre followers might know him best from the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie where he played the expanded role of the teen-aged Hugo opposite Ann-Margret. (And, oh yes, Rydell High, the choice for the name of the school at the center of the musical Grease is an eternal nod to him!)
Although Damiani is credited as producer here, the musicians and arrangers are not indicated. But the music sounds terrific, irresistibly engaging as the vigorous vocals. (And, frankly, I've always resisted most versions of "Sway" in the past.) The "Joy" number is deliriously bursting with just that quality; its simple infectious delight is pretty darn difficult to resist.
Although this pairing is not currently available as a physical item, you can download or stream it. And l bet you will sway as you stream or be filled with downloaded joy.
2019 TONY AWARD SEASON
I imagine a time in the future when some people fairly new to musical theatre will wonder what this past Broadway season sounded like and old-timers who've been there/done that may want to revisit it. The song sampler of the 2019 Tony Award Season, released by Broadway Records, will do the trick, featuring tracks from cast albums (one per production), credits, and a bit of information on each production, a little history lesson on the Tony Awards and the full list of nominees for the most recent batch. (The album was issued before the winners were known and before some of the cast albums in full were available, with various labels contributing material.) Who knows how perspectives may change when we are in another decade; to borrow a few titles from this compilation, dreaming that "If I Could Turn Back Time," I might want to go "Back to Before," but would realize that "I Can't Go Back" after the most recent entertainments have "Gone, Gone Gone."
Meanwhile, back in the present, this collection serves to introduce listeners and potential buyers of full cast recordings to the latest such offerings with representative examples. For the casual or curious not immersed in all things Broadway 2018-19, who haven't had much exposure to the scores, this parade could be a good guide to a fairly eclectic lot. Whether one wants to get a sense of each play's musical genre and ambiance, or just wants evidence on how a jukebox show's singers compare to those pop stars who introduced the golden oldies of The Temptations, Cher, or The Go-Gos, this is the go-to aural scrapbook. For those who became acquainted with the material only via the performances on the Tony Awards broadcast, there are cases where the same choice is also here (as in the big winner, Hadestown with "Wait for Me" or the Kiss Me, Kate revival's lengthy showstopper "Too Darn Hot," dance music and all) or different (Beetlejuice presenting "Say My Name").
Especially for those listening to these selections in track order, the dominance of rock/pop music is an unavoidable first impression. There's no obvious logic to the sequencing, except to position as a final bonus track the memorial Marin Mazzie medley of Ragtime numbers to acknowledge the powerful performer's posthumous award. (It comes from her part of a live Ahrens/Flaherty concert from a few years ago.)
With Gettin' the Band Back Together and Oklahoma!, we get their vibrant title songs. It's not surprising that in many cases, what's put forth is a BIG number, a showstopper that pulls out the stops, as that is often seen as a show putting its best foot forward. So many hard-driving, uber-energy blasts in a row might feel exhausting, so keeping a finger on the "pause" button might be the antidote.
I do find it refreshing that The Prom pick is not one of its more frantic or hammy performances, but the contrastingly tender and thoughtful "My Unruly Heart." The "discovery du disque" is something from King Kong, "Last of Our Kind," as there has not yet been a released or announced cast album. Christiani Pitts' earnest vocal work and the melodramatic piece are interesting to hear in isolation, not upstaged by the giant furry fellow.
There's something for everyone here, from power ballads to groovy nostalgia with Tootsie, Be More Chill, Pretty Woman, The Cher Show, Head Over Heels, and Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.
With several of the musicals already departed from the Great White Way (or soon to pack up), this 2019 Tony Award Season souvenir, like the ones in the previous couple of years, already earns mileage on the nostalgia train. Whether the listening brings up what you missed, or a fond memory of something you'll miss, there's something to be said for a time capsule.