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Sound Advice Reviews

The pleasures of Sheldon Harnick's Hidden Treasures

Harbinger Records
Available at ArkivMusic, Amazon, iTunes and The Musical Theater Project

Those of us who love musical theatre and its might-have-been/could-have-been/used-to-be-used songs and abandoned projects can rejoice in the release of the treasure trove that is Sheldon Harnick's Hidden Treasures, released on May 1, one day after the 90th birthday of the still-vital—and vitally important—musical theatre legend. Since the writer is doing most of the singing, it helps that, among theatre songwriters, Mr. Harnick has always been one of the more skilled singers and ebullient performers. On some demos, he's joined in duets by his longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Bock (who's also at the piano). And various others appear, including Sheldon's wife, the performer Margery Gray and some names quite familiar to musical theatre followers. Two discs span the decades, with songs presented roughly in chronological order.

There are more than 50 songs in all. Because of what will be a plentiful Harnick harvest in any case, and the consistent high quality of the craft throughout, this is a must-have. Relish the oh-so-right and polished character songs with their playfulness and dignity. Oh, sure, the completist Harnick fan may have acquired a number of these songs before. For example, Sheldon's delightful rendition of one of the Fiddler on the Roof comical cut song "When Messiah Comes" comes from the recording released (as An Evening with Sheldon Harnick) of his 1971 night at the Lyrics and Lyricists concert at 92nd Street Y. The same performance appeared as one of the bonus tracks on a later CD issue of the original cast album. Another interpretation of this (and others of the cut songs) can be found on the series of studio-recorded albums collating cut songs, Lost in Boston with theatre singers' studio performances with orchestral accompaniment. "I Can't Get Used to These Clothes," a Hugh Martin number that got Harnick help is on the Martin Hidden Treasures collection presented on the same label. A few may have one of the best-ever search and rescue efforts for long-lost songs, the 1977 LP from Original Cast Records, 18 Interesting Songs from Unfortunate Shows, which brought us Betty Garrett's cute "Isms" (co-written with David Baker) and Susan Watson's radiant rendition of "All of These and More" from The Body Beautiful. Bock and Harnick's demos from that score were included on one of two recent CDs of that score, also on Original Cast Records, and there's a reappearance here.

Those who have A Broadway Christmas in their holiday archive will know "Christmas Eve," cut from She Loves Me, as part of their yearly theatre-specific musical faves, but it's nice to hear the demo of that and of two other numbers cut from the score. I'm lucky enough to own the rare album of a Bock/Harnick score from a marionette show, The Man in the Moon, and am happy to hear "Worlds Apart" from that in the voice of Margery Gray. A few may have the obscure cast album of Smiling the Boy Fell Dead, a work with David Baker, but it's a treat, especially with the winsome performances by Danny Meehan and Claiborne Cary. Other numbers will be familiar from other versions, such as "Garbage" (fortunately not thrown out from a very early revue in the 1950s), and others that did get into shows that had official cast albums (Fiorello!, Tenderloin, Fiddler).

This 2-CD set contains many gems and curiosities that even devotees will find surprising and worth having been dusted off in Sheldon Harnick's spring cleaning. A nightclub act from 1990 yields interesting performances from the Harnicks and Leigh Berry, while abandoned projects finally see the partial light of day with a few numbers, making me wish they'd been completed. One, "One Family," from a never-to-be film, found a new home in A Christmas Carol, a projected TV adaptation of the classic that became a stage piece (Michel Legrand is the composer).

Not surprisingly, Fiddler is the most represented with eight songs. All were cut except the formidable "Sunrise, Sunset," but parts of some cut music and lyrics did get salvaged and recycled. Others get far shorter shrift, like the full score of the produced but not recorded A Wonderful Life, and the long-gestating Dragons and adaptation of Moliere's comedy The Physician in Spite of Himself get just one sampling each. (The latter, though, happily brings us Brian d'Arcy James.)

Among my own favorites here: an affectionately teasing tribute to director George Abbott on his birthday (praising his work ethic, but recalling his alleged habit of informing a waiter to bring separate checks at business lunches); a Fiddler discard that scolds us for treating butchers like the meat they may cavalierly prepare; and "You Made My Day" voiced beguilingly by Audra McDonald, dropped from a children's album in recent times. Strong and appealing Richard Rodgers melodies and thoughtful Harnick lyrics (and vocal renditions) make for moving work in three unused songs from Rex, two of which were finally recorded for the first time just last year.

Liner notes by the man of the hour (make that two hours) give likeably chatty and, with specifics, informative stories about how songs came to be or came to not be used as originally intended. Black and white photos add to the experience, as do comments from Hal Prince and Ted Chapin. Many thanks to producers Ken Bloom and Bill Rudman for this set, which is a co-production of The Musical Theater Project. The generous and affordable double-disc dream also makes us appreciate Harnick's versatility in writing with numerous composer collaborators as well as his own skills as a composer for his own always highly literate and accessibly down-to-earth and warm lyrics.

- Rob Lester

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