"Phone rings, door chimes, in comes company," Stephen Sondheim wrote about being with others. This week, we look at some musical company you might want to invite in this summer. They say we're known by the company we keep, and these CDs are keepers. Romance, comedy and new-to-our-ears theater songs are always welcome company around here. We start with a CD by a singer who has a different duet partner on each track, so he has plenty of company. In fact, he has his own record company, too.
Lee Lessack began LML Records ten years ago this month to distribute his own recordings, but he soon had a roster of singers on the label. He has invited a few of them and a whole lot of other colleagues to duet with him on In Good Company. There are 17 duets in all, and he is indeed in good company.
Although most of the songs celebrate love in its happier, heartbreak-free chapters, the album is not completely filled with joyous celebratory singing. The feeling on most of the tracks is rather gentle, with the singers sounding extraordinarily thoughtful, hushed and awestruck by the experience of love. There's a wide-eyed, pensive examination of the emotions at hand in many of the moods. You won't be snapping your fingers or laughing, but it's a smooth glide of a ride.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the project is how well and successfully Lee harmonizes with such a wide variety of vocalists. The harmonies are often exquisite and graceful, and he seems more than willing to share the spotlight at each turn. There is tremendous respect for the songs; in fact, at times I wish they'd have been less "careful" and just cut loose a little. Some of this feels very studied and not very spontaneous. Although most of the singing is lovely, there's a sense of walking on eggshells rather than jumping in - but I'd much rather have careful singing than careless singing.
I've always been a fan of Lee's solo albums. His live Johnny Mercer album is buoyant and loose, and overflowing with songs, though he seems to favor a more delicate approach. Some of his high-voiced, emotionally naked interpretations on his first two albums are arresting, and he's not shy when it comes to being a romantic.
Singer-songwriter-musician Johnny Rodgers, whose own debut album is about to be released, deserves a lot of the credit here. He and his band do a terrific job accompanying the singers, as do the five additional musicians (Tom Harrell on brass and four string players). Johnny is also co-producer, along with Lee. Johnny's duet with Lee is a song he co-wrote as a tribute to Simon and Garfunkel ("Here's to You"), and it's a remarkable achievement. The song captures the essence of the team's appeal with specific lyric references to their songs and melodic bits and arrangement touches that echo their trademark sound without being pure pastiche or a musical Xerox. This would be enough to make it my personal favorite, but add to that the fact that Johnny and Lee also channel the icons' vocal sound without attempting to do an impersonation.
I'm also especially fond of the duet with David Burnham (the Everly Brothers hit, "Devoted To You"). David is currently the understudy to the male lead in A Light In The Piazza and his gloriously gorgeous voice soars. The album spends considerable time revisiting pop material that is well-trod and very much in the air (meaning radio airwaves or what were then smoke-filled cabaret rooms) in the late '60s through the '80s. For example, "Open Arms" with Brian Lane Green (in one of the more energetic numbers, making the most out of this old pop tidbit) and Amanda McBroom on her own claim-to-fame "The Rose." But there are some less familiar and newer offerings as well, including two first recordings of songs (in addition to "Here's To You").
Each listener will have different favorites, but I can't find a dud in the lot. Michael Feinstein stops by for a Susan Werner song, "May I Suggest," and that songwriter duets on her own "Blue Guitar." If played when you're in the mood for something to wash over you rather than to get your blood pounding, it's a sweet summer afternoon's hammock listening. If you don't have a hammock, use your imagination.
Broadway doesn't get much attention here, but lovers of Wicked will be happy to hear "For Good" as one of the choices, and especially interested to hear who the duet partner is: the writer of the song, Stephen Schwartz. Also on board are some familiar musical theater names: Susan Egan, Maureen McGovern and a welcome surprise, Ken Page, who does a laudable job with Lee on Don McLean's "Vincent." Romance is good company, especially when virtually devoid of tragedy and tears as it is this time. Lee Lessack with good friends and good blends adds up to good company for him and us as well.
This is not an album for casual listening. Like most of what composer and sometime-lyricist Marc Blitzstein has written, it's serious stuff, requiring thought and attention. That's not to say there won't be a smile here and there, but it will be a smile that comes from thinking. Blitzstein wrote operas, choral music, art songs, poems, and various odds and ends. He had a strong social conscience which infiltrated much of his work, including a lot of what is heard on this 100th anniversary celebration. It's not just one concert, but rather selections from a few concerts over the last year or so. Also included is a long section from a 1970 performance.
As a fan of his theater scores The Cradle Will Rock, Regina and especially Juno (as well as his adaptation of The Threepenny Opera), I was interested in hearing this album which boasts some never-before-recorded items. Blitzstein is an important figure in music, and one whose work can be intense and will never be described as fluffy or light. Some of it I confess I admire more than love. That remains true for what I've discovered here, and it's interesting without being fascinating. This is an odd collection that may be too esoteric for many theater fans and not the kind of thing you want to hear all the time, but not something that can be dismissed.
Leonard Lehrman is the force behind this labor of love. He completed some of Blitzstein's work that had been left unfinished, adapted other pieces here, and wrote some of the lyrics. He's also on piano and participates as a performer. He is co-producer of this album, along with Original Cast Records owner Bruce Yeko, the otherwise unsung song's best friend. This album is one of Original Cast's most recent search-and-rescue discoveries of buried treasures.
Some of the singing voices and performance styles on this album are not my cup of tea. But it's pretty strong tea. The sound quality of some tracks leaves something to be desired. I found myself straining to catch the words, and feeling like I had something a few steps above a bootleg tape. I would have preferred that these songs were given the studio treatment with other singers, although I understand the historic pull of a centennial concert. Almost all the applause is cut out, so there isn't a "live" feel. The work is mostly formal and the accompaniment is, too, with this feeling like a time capsule or a yellowed page from a history book.
There's a wide variety of material here, including settings of three Walt Whitman poems and one by Dorothy Parker, "War Song." Pretty impressive company, that! There are three premiere recordings from Blitzstein's stage work Idiots First and a broad comedy song cut from Reuben, Reuben. Three selections from his opera on the politically charged Sacco And Vanzetti case, which was completed by Lehrman, are also present. The 1970-recorded segment is from a piece about a composer called I've Got The Tune and is a healthy sampling of the piece, including dialogue. Though lengthy, it is still a challenge to appreciate out of context and, like other items, might require more detailed notes. The album concludes with a recently discovered recording of Blitzstein singing "The Nickel Under The Foot" from The Cradle Will Rock, which is dramatic and well worth hearing.
If your taste veers toward the more operatic or have a special interest in material with social commentary, this will pique your curiosity.
If you're looking for a happy side trip with company that won't soon wear out their welcome, try a wild and wacky ride down The Road To Ruin. This new musical has had a couple of readings and is ready to hit the road. This studio cast album has some of the performers from the readings on board: theater veteran and longtime audience favorite George S. Irving (going back to 1948's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and so much more) has in his bag of tricks just the right take on this material, which requires tongue firmly placed in cheek. He plays a few broadly comic roles and is pure delight with his rolling Rs and, wide schmaltzy vibrato and more talent than performers one-quarter his age. The lusciously voiced Brooke Sunny Moriber (The Wild Party) shares the ingenue role with another charmer, Stephanie Kurtzuba. The role is a good girl gone bad.
The show is based on a silent movie intended to be a cautionary tale for teens about the dangers of a poorly-chosen life where one false turn can lead you down that road to ruin. Sebastian Arcelus is a great golly-gee-whiz type of wide-eyed suitor and does a splendid job, even in a song that lasts all of 53 seconds. Contrastingly, a 13-minute number at the end is a mini-musical in itself, with every bit of a classic melodrama's cornball fun not already covered in the previous 16 songs. Ann Morrison (played the original Mary of Merrily We Roll Along) is back after too long an absence from cast albums in a splashy, showy role as an enterprising Madam.
This parody of "cautionary" teen exploitation movies doesn't go so far into the world of "camp" as to run out of steam. The evils of pleasure are sung about with gusto, as if the do-gooders want us to know that if you take the road to ruin you may regret having to pay the toll. It's good, clean, silly-but-clever fun put together by composer-lyricist-book writer William Zeffiro, who takes a few turns at the mic as well, and is also on piano. There's no band, but for a change that's okay. He knows how to set a mood and keep things going, adding touches of silent-movie music and sparkle. Zippy Zeffiro does very well by some brassy characters, lots of irreverence without being mean-spirited. And the rhymes are creative and/or ridiculously cute. (When a character lies near death, someone croons, "If only you'd been more wary there'd be no coronary.")
This show, somewhat in the tradition of Little Shop Of Horrors, Zombie Prom and Zanna, Don't! has a fine company of performers and has entertainment pure and simple as its mission. With sung references to bobbed hair and Mah'Jong and being a "nice" girl, it succeeds. The music evokes the 1920s without letting itself get trapped in period nostalgia. Gosh, it's fun!
UNDER THE RADAR
It's a pleasure each week to let you know about a CD that has slipped in under the radar, quietly, but deserves a look and a listen:
This is a sweetheart of a CD. Debra Wagoner is very happy romantic company in her album The Hopeful Romantic and the title gives you the idea that she likes to be in the company of love songs. The songstress has a warm, rich voice and presence. She's instantly likeable and unpretentious. Debra makes you comfortable, maybe because she sounds at ease with herself and the material. Opening her debut album with a bare-bones piano intro and a very thoughtfully phrased "Love Is Here To Stay," she caresses the Gershwins' melody and words. Once she accomplishes the goals of displaying her wares and letting us luxuriate in her honey voice and time-tested lyrics, unfurling them in conversational slow mo, she switches gears. Before more of this treatment could risk making herself or the listener complacent, the rhythm kicks in and she turns up the heat and the beat. Debra is a musical theater actress living in Virginia and performing around the country in lead roles. The album has a definite theatricality and naturally includes a few songs she did onstage. There's a lot of feeling coming through and it feels genuine, not showboating.
She's been Cinderella in Into the Woods, so she takes on "No One Is Alone" which sits well in her voice. Communicating a sense of comfort, a big part of the agenda of this number, comes through well. The high point of the album for me is Jeanine Tesori's and Brian Crawley's "Lay Down Your Head." If a lullaby can be said to be powerful, this is it. The song is from the musical Violet, another show she has performed, and she gets right inside the heart and soul of it. Debra is not afraid to be open emotionally or to open her mouth and wail.
Most of the other choices are standards that have been done by countless singers ("My Funny Valentine," "It Had To Be You" and the like, but I like). Without Debra and her arranger-pianist Ron Barnett doing fancy tricks with these warhorses, they are still pleasures. She certainly doesn't sound like she's bored with them, and she brings sincerity to the table. Her pianist plays sparely most of the time, giving her plenty of room to interpret, pause and do her effective rubato thing. Now and then the musicians (add bass and drums) get to swing and bring up the energy level, and generally the pacing is good. Fortunately, not every song follows the same formula of "start slow and build, build, build." A couple of tracks suffer from a lack of dramatic point of view or sound overly influenced by famous recordings of the songs in both phrasing and arrangement.
Three Harold Arlen melodies are here, worthy additions to the bandwagon in the composer's centennial year where we find a wealth of new recordings. His most famous song, "Over The Rainbow" is present, with the introductory verse. Debra has a sweet but not at all cloying quality of girlishness in her singing persona and naturally it comes out in full on this. Another Arlen-E. Y. Harburg classic, "Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe," is especially well done and will strike you as coming from the heart even before you peek at the liner note thank-yous (or her website www.debrawagoner.com) and find out that this Hopeful Romantic's husband is named Joe. The third Arlen standby is "Come Rain Or Come Shine" and it has more of a pulse than some of the versions I've heard lately.
The best thing about this new album is that it introduces us to a singer who is rewarding to hear whether she's wrapping you up in warm, relaxed tones or belting a big finish. The clips you can hear on CD Baby by clicking on the cover above will let you sample less of the power and more of the pretty, but it's a pretty good start. Likewise, this album is a good start for a performer I'm glad to discover with you.
There are more discs and discoveries each Thursday here, so we hope you'll be checking in. We'll be listening for you.