Sound Advice Reviews
The Prince of Grand Street and
Let's have a listen to a little-known musical comedysomething in that "one that got away" category. It's from the 1970s, but had precious little stage time. And then we'll revisit some very familiar material from earlier decades that got screen time and other exposure, this time graced by the voice of Ann Hampton Callaway and a jazz band.
THE PRINCE OF GRAND STREET
We lovers of tuneful but troubled musicals sometimes have to be patient for hidden treasures to be revealed, to reappear, and be recorded. When shows close out of town, we are usually out of luck. But here's a case where patience is rewarded and we're very lucky indeed. The 1978 The Prince of Grand Street, with music, lyrics, and book by Bob Merrill, closed in its out-of-town tryout, its Broadway-headed path stopped cold; and while a concert version had a few performances sixteen years ago, the recording of that cast never saw the light of dayuntil now, from Original Cast Records. This turtle has finally crossed the finish line and curious collectors are the winners.
Now, how can a musical theatre fan not be intrigued to explore the work of a writer who'd already proven that he had the goods, even when commercial success didn't result? By the 1970s, Merrill had graduated from chipper pop novelty songs to scores for Broadway, including shows that ran for a year or more, along with those in the "also-ran" category, and those that ran aground. And you could find well-crafted lyrics whether matched to the melodies of Jule StyneFunny Girl, Sugar, the TV musical The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood, and the closed-out-of town Prettybelleor his own hummable, solid music evidenced in three Broadway cast albums: Carnival, New Girl in Town, Take Me Along, and Henry, Sweet Henry.
The Prince of Grand Street has a lot to offer in its score, handled with aplomb and spirit with the piano accompaniment and arrangements of Christopher Denny, and the performances of this concert cast headed by Mike Burstyn in the title role that was played in 1978 by Robert Preston. The 2003 endeavor was directed by Barry Kleinbort, who patched together various versions of the piece and made some tweaks and additions of his own to the script and structure, with the approval of the estate of Merrill, who left us in 1998.
Welcome to New York's Lower East Side where the Yiddish theatre holds forth and the long-reigning big matzoh ball in that small soup bowl is Nathan (Burstyn), making him "first on Second Avenue" as the appealingly jaunty title song anoints him. Oh, he's a very self-satisfied fellow who sees nothing wrong with trodding the boards in juvenile lead roles, despite being long in the tooth at age 62. And his productions aim to please his audience demographic by giving anything and everything a decided heavy Jewish slant in characterizations, plot revamps, and song. Much of the humor comes from these samplings of musicals-within-the-musical.
Merrill's goofy musical pastiche is on the money, with the imagined conceit that nothing in classic literature or history is sacred or resistant to being reupholstered this way. The result of the chutzpah: a hoot. Uber-broad comedy is catapulted way over the top. It's an alternate universe where Romeo and Juliet's relatives, competing business families, bury the hatchet so as not to be a burden to the lovers. As Abraham (Avrum) Lincoln and others, the gleeful ham prances and preens, praised by the chorus as the musical comedy hero du jour. And at the comedic core is the ingenuity of the incongruity of loopy lyrics freely and fizzily dumbing down the source materials grafted onto what sounds like music for a high-energy swirling Jewish wedding dance celebration or over-bubbly children's theatre. The multi-part, glib take on Huckleberry Finn wins the giggle-getting prize for me. What makes the vignettes so delicious is that the perky Yiddish "players" really seem to be performing with cluelessness as to how ridiculous it all is and the zeal never lags.
Wacky, exaggerated numbers are nicely balanced by the score's sincere moments, such as Burstyn's reflective and thoughtfully phrased solo, asking "Where Does Love Go?" as he compares the absence of love to "something that's melting like snow." And as Nathan's much-younger love interest, a grounded Brooke Sunny Moriber brings her rich singing voice and warmth to her several numbers. When it comes to building and belting, as appropriate to the material and moments, it's an excitingly satisfying sound. Their chemistry together is so noteworthy that you might wish the score had provided more actual duet time. One of the sharpest moments comes in dialogue within an early number, when, soon after the death of his wife, he asks her to go out of town with him and she reminds him that he's supposed to be in mourning. He replies that this is no reason why he can't do so "in a good hotel. With room service."
Merrill's rhymes are noticeably unforced, not calling attention to themselves as they tend to favor very common words. This being another show about a Jewish showbiz person recalls some aspects of Funny Girl: That show had its determined declamatory "I'm the Greatest Star," and here the leading man's oversized ego rears its ugly swelled head (in a good way!) in Burstyn's brashly boastful "I'm a Star." "Pretty" rhymes with "Atlantic City," as Merrill did in Funny Girl's "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" (that New Jersey spot, by the way, was his birthplace). The melodies jump out as strong and marvelously ingratiating. Music, words, emotion, and the leads' personalities coalesce perfectly and with palpable potency in a piece that persuasively argues that age is relative: "The Youngest Person I Know." By extension, this 41-year-old, old-school musical comedy looking at an even older form of theatre, fortuitously plucked from obscurity, sounds somehow ageless and fresh in its own way.
By the way, speaking of "grand" things with Burstyn, you can hear his enthusiastic rendition of "Ain't Broadway Grand" by Mitch Leigh and Lee Adams repurposed as the theme for a new musical theatre-focused weekly radio interview show of the same name. (This Leigh/ Adams number was the title song for another less-than-hit musical about another showman, Mike Todd.) The interviews are done by Original Cast Records producer/Footlight.com owner Bruce Yeko on KMET 1490 AM, in Los Angeles, broadcast on Mondays at 10 AM California time (1 PM Eastern time). All past shows are available as podcasts any time at www.kmet1490am.com.
ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY
Like a film director with decided vision and purpose, singer Ann Hampton Callaway sets scenes with color and imagination and knows how to bring a song into focus for an intimate close-up in her tracks on Jazz Goes to the Movies. She first did live sets of this material in New York City venues before recording it, and I'm now reminded of this late 2018 release because she's about to bring the show back to the Big Apple (June 25-29 at Feinstein's/54 Below) and then will bring it to several other cities in coming months. Serenely in control of her formidable skills, Callaway's body of recorded work now includes over a dozen solo albums and two discs with her sister Liz (who had her own run at 54 earlier this month and with whom she'll be doing some shows in various places soon).
For a themed album, Jazz Goes to the Movies offers a surprising repertoire if you are, understandably, expecting songs written for films. More than half of the selections were not introduced on screen. Some were birthed on Broadway, although they came to greater fame when used in widely seen motion pictures. For example, certainly "As Time Goes By" is unquestionably linked to the 1942 film classic Casablanca, and its first appearance in a stage musical about a decade earlier is more and more of a footnote as time goes by. The list of titles of the 14 selections reads more like your standard collection of standards, voluminously recorded by singers such as those saluted admirably in past projects by Ms. Callaway: Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. And the writers are Broadway/Hollywood big names, with two numbers each by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern melodies with lyrics by three of his different collaborators. The fame and acclaim that came to these standards as stand-alone pieces sometimes surpassed the films wherein they first (or later) were used. No movie title songs are included, so we don't have what would be a reinforcement in that manner.
Will listening to this well-done collection push your nostalgia buttons and evoke memories of songs as they were presented by characters on screen? Not so much; Jazz Goes to the Movies is more about jazz than movies. That means some scat-singing, liberties taken with melody lines, with tempi and treatment that on upbeat, fleeter numbers can put the spotlight on the music more than the potential nuances in the words. A few seem offhand in their blithely breezy romps. (But stay tunedballads are caringly and craftily phrased, truly acted.)
With some generous instrumental breaks, the music is in the hands of a quartet of first-rate players (pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Martin Wind, drummer Tim Horner, and sax man Jimmy Greene) with a variety of arrangements contributed by several people, most in collaboration with the singer herself. "The Way You Look Tonight" must have been in a Callaway back pocket for some time, as the co-arranger, pianist/singer Richard Rodney Bennett, passed away in 2012.
Comfortable in her musical skin, there's more than a sublime silkiness to the Ann Hampton Callaway sound. Vibrato is judiciously employed, the range is wide, and she sails through these well-traveled iconic melodies with ease and some surprising tweaks. Low tones have an earthy rumble while high notes can approach ethereal levels without excessive showiness. There's a kind of relaxed feel to this particular outing, both in the seemingly easygoing, no-sweat zips through the quicker-paced stuff and luxuriating in dreamy ballad mode. Romantic ruminations bring out the best in this artist who unapologetically/unhesitatingly delves into expressions of devotion and being dazzled by a lover.
She cozies up to the 1938 perennial "The Nearness of You" even more effectively than when it was revived for a 2006 movie called The Last Holiday, where it was sung by none other than Ann Hampton Callaway herself, the interpretation richer and more deeper this time. (It's one of several arrangements co-created with John Proulx, a sensitive pianist/singer himself.) Two Kern gems with charts by Rosenthal are deftly done: "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" is suitably wistful and idealized in the Oscar Hammerstein-penned long view of the simple life of a couple; and "Long Ago and Far Away" with just his piano is the essence of "less is more," with the Ira Gershwin lyric shining with warm and fuzzy sensibilities.
In addition to summertime journeys to England and Spain, Ann Hampton Callaway's tour for the remainder of 2019 finds her in more than a dozen states. In person or on disc, she may well bring you to a contented state.