Rent is due - the movie version of the still-playing Broadway show is just around the corner. Along with that soundtrack, we have three emotional vocal albums: Broadway songs (mostly) from Broadway's wedded twosome, Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely; the first CD from Julie Budd in five years; and a graceful debut by Jennifer Paz. The albums this week are full of sentiment - tender feelings, reflection and love.


Warner Brothers

Nine years after Rent rocked Broadway, the film version is about to rock and roll around the world in movie theaters. Hollywood is famous for making big changes in Broadway shows, adding and subtracting songs and passing up theater actors who originated the roles in favor of "household name" movie stars. The bottom line here is that the show's integrity has been respected and much about the show has been kept, including six of the eight leading players.

Several musical numbers have been cut: the loss of the big "Happy New Year" section and "We're Okay" will make devotees of the original score feel less than happy. Also gone are the musicalizations of voice mail messages, not major pieces but on the cast recording they serve as comic relief to the intense big numbers, and some sung dialogue (rock recitative) which may be replaced with spoken lines in the movie. There are some snips and trims in a couple of other numbers, at least based on what's on the disc.

One unfamiliar song by Rent's late composer-lyricist, Jonathan Larson, has been added. "Love Heals" is the last track - not written specifically for the project, but similarly themed. Sung by the leading cast members, it's a worthy discovery. More low-key than most of the score, it serves as a cool-down postscript anthem, encouraging and life-affirming. A new song and mostly the same voices is probably not enough reason for casual fans of the score to buy the soundtrack if they already have the original. [A one-disc "highlights" version, to be released November 15, may serve for noncompletists.] However, the soundtrack is an enjoyable alternative, even refreshing if the original is burned into your brain.

The main cast replacement in the film is Rosario Dawson as Mimi, instead of Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega. Dawson has a smoother, gentler singing voice, making her a more fragile-sounding character (after all, she's dying.) This comparison brings me to the major difference between the two Rents: the original, all around, is more raw. I like raw. It works for this piece about young, struggling artists who have a lot of rage and other emotions bursting through. Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp both sound more the "angry young man" type on the Broadway album, if less "musical" at times. On the soundtrack, recorded in numerous sessions over a few months, Rapp shows positive (ear-pleasing) development as a vocalist; Pascal at times appears raspier. Idina Menzel, who went on from the Broadway Rent to Wicked, sounds quite similar in both: youthful and big-voiced. The arrangements are rather different, with the film "calming down" some numbers and revving up others. It's is not a major case of "watering down" or homogenizing. The soundtrack has plenty of drive, beat, screaming electric guitars and pounding drums.

Here's the math: the soundtrack's two discs' playing time totals a bit over an hour and thirty-five minutes, while the Broadway cast album came in at two hours and six minutes. Although I miss the cuts in the "Rent reduction," I find myself admiring some of the fine tuning and different arrangements. Certainly returning cast members Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia do good work in both. Newcomer Tracie Thomas is a less effective Joanne for me, although some will find her singing style to be a fresh take. The most famous song, "Seasons of Love," is now also the first song heard, reprised later. Sadly, I feel it is less exultant and less exciting here.

Of course, seeing the film and experiencing it visually and emotionally will convince many still on the fence that they want this version in addition to (or instead of) the 1996 recording. It has many rewards, and shows integrity and loving care. The sound is bright and crisp as arranged and produced by Rob Cavallo. All the lyrics are in a booklet, along with color photos from the motion picture, coming soon to a theater near you.


PS Classics

Co-starring in private life as husband and wife, theater singer-actors Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley rarely work together in the same show. Productions of Brigadoon and 110 in the Shade have found them playing opposite each other, but Opposite You contains nothing from those scores. (Too bad - that would have been more than fine with me.) What they have collected is a program of mostly theater songs: solos, duets and medleys. They can't be accused of a lack of variety: you'll find cute, clever, romantic, rousing, tearful and toe-tapping tunes. A few years ago, they put together a concert, which played recently at The Empire Plush Room in San Francisco. This album is based on that evolving set.

In addition to a stack of well-known numbers, there are some new-to-most-ears selections, too. Barbara Schottenfeld's comedy bullseye "I Want You to Be ..." presents a conflicted, marriage-phobic man tripping over his tongue, Freudian slip style. And they've snared an ideal duet for themselves in the premier recording of what serves as the CD's title song. Full of references to theater and being made for each other, the rich "Opposite You" is from a hopefully soon-to-appear musical about a troupe of actors called The Glorious Ones from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, whose material served Marin so well in Ragtime. The singers really seem to relish this one and it's a real find. Two other first-time-on-disc songs are from Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell, and I suspect lovers of well-crafted songs will want to hear more of their work. Their "Natural Order of Things," a duet, is a heartfelt and mature piece. The cutely titled "A Sorta Love Song" is that rare trick that makes you laugh out loud one moment and then touches you. This solo for Marin about being in love with a man despite his flaws and bad habits serves as a companion piece to her companion's solo, the familiar ballad, "I Won't Send Roses," a man's admission of his faults. Jason has previously demonstrated vocal versatility (The Full Monty, the title role Candide and recently in Encores' A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); he shows range here as well.

I'm a big fan of medleys when one number comments on another or connects in an unexpected, creative way. The four mix-and-match-ups here aren't in that whole-is-more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts category. Especially in the Harold Arlen medley, the just seem to be squeezing in more titles in a shorter span of time. But what's there is sung well. A Stephen Sondheim "suite" of five songs includes two from Merrily We Roll Along (the CD's arranger-keyboard player David Loud made his Broadway acting debut in the original cast of that show), and Marin reprises "Happiness" which she introduced in Passion, this time with her own husband. Elsewhere, the soprano finds passion combined with reflection in "I Got Lost in His Arms" combined with "Who Are You Now?" Another medley is a trio of Irving Berlin's contrapuntal numbers. I think they're more exciting when one has a chance to hear each section separately first, rather than just the simultaneous singing sections, but perhaps the point of their counterpoint here is to try the effect of a set of payoffs minus the set-ups. As an extra wink, it all begins with a quote from Berlin's own "The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)." 

What's sorely missing for me is a heroic, positive song for Jason. I'd take that over any of the three lighter duets, although I'm sure somehow my life has been enriched by hearing the story of "Nellie, the Nudist Queen." 

It's a pleasure to hear these two strong Broadway voices on disc. Knowing they're married, it's cute to hear them sing "An Old Fashioned Wedding" and "Abba Dabba Honeymoon," too. Let's hope PS Classics signs up more favorite Broadway performers for future recordings.


Ruby Records Records

Most of the recipes for the tempting treats Julie Budd has cooked up follow the same steps: Start slowly, simmer, let things heat up to a full boil. The beginnings of her songs showcase the prettier side of her voice as she sings sweetly and slowly, embracing the melodic line. By the end, she is usually throwing back her head and belting. Either can be impressive as pure sound, depending on what gives you goosebumps. But things get predictable, and it almost seems that she's afraid a song without a big ending will disappoint. When the vocal choices come off as motivated by the story of the lyric, it is more satisfying. If this were my first encounter with Julie Budd, I'd be more bowled over by her powerful pipes and creamy caressing of a legato line. I find her last two albums, Pure Imagination and If You Could See Me Now, more satisfying, with more Broadway and a bit of jazz. However, with the infrequency of her releases (these last two were in 1997 and 2000), I'm glad to have a new visit to Julieland.

She belts the showstopper "Defying Gravity" like there's no tomorrow. Her vocal wizardry with this Wicked wonder will make you hold on for dear life.  The sole Broadway song, it's also the one where the big blast seems like the best fit.  I'd love to see her take on more recent show songs (I have a wish list!), but this is mostly a pop outing. She does get to an energetic tune she did in a movie (1981's The Devil and Max Devlin) and never had on an album, "Roses and Rainbows," from Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager. It sounds very ... well, very 1980.

The ten tracks include "A House Is Not a Home" and a medley of "Didn't We/The Hungry Years." A couple of songs originated in other lands but have found a home on these shores over the years, and Julie sings them in English.  Originating from France is "Once Upon a Summertime" with the Johnny Mercer lyric for Michel Legrand's bittersweet melody. Brazil is the source of "Someone To Light Up My Life," a Jobim tune with Gene Lees' English lyric. Julie finds many luscious sounds throughout, with control as impressive as ever.

Although I long to hear her with an orchestra, and she can sound fine on a ballad with just piano, the arrangements here have a synthesizer. As synthesized productions go, this is way better than most. Julie is co-producer on the CD with the man to whom she's been professionally joined at the hip since tweenhood: Herb Bernstein, who conducts and does much of the piano work and arranging, along with Jamie Lawrence (also on synthesizer). Guitarists Jay Berliner and David Spinozza are the only other musicians listed.

Last week, at Tower Records' (Lincoln Center, NYC) free ongoing Wednesday night in-store performance series, she hit the money notes with power and seeming ease.


An impressive debut solo album this week. Don't pass on Paz:


Spaz, Ltd

The liner notes tell us that the "goal for this project was about learning to embrace change, and not resist the process of healing." Even if this had not been the intent, I think Jennifer Paz's sensitive and plaintive voice would be soothing and refreshing. She has a very young, girlish sound (although she is 32 years old) and projects vulnerability and an open heart.  When called upon, she can she also show some vocal power. It's easy to see why she was cast as the female lead in the national tour of Miss Saigon.  Fans of that role's originator, Lea Salonga, will be happy to hear Lea join Jennifer in a duet of "For Good" from Wicked. They resist the powerhouse treatment and make it reflective in a more relaxed tempo. It works quite well, and begins with a simple and effective guitar accompaniment by John High. His work throughout the album is a real asset.

Another Stephen Schwartz song brings another duet. This time Jennifer's partner is Jose Llana (... Spelling Bee) on "In Whatever Time We Have," the romantic pledge from Children of Eden. This and William Finn's celebratory "Infinite Joy" both start off simply and then build, leading to more passion and more forceful singing.  I don't think belting is her strongest suit, as the prettiness and wistful qualities in her voice are more compelling. But variety is a good thing, and Jennifer knows how to bring theatricality to a number. She sounds very involved in each setting.

I was happy to see she included two Jason Robert Brown songs. Her "Christmas Lullabye" might have benefitted from a little more determination, as it loses some momentum in the repeated lines. I also would have liked a more liberal use of her pure soprano high notes here.  In "Letting You Go," she is intelligent in her phrasing, bringing out various shades of emotion and levels of hope (or lack thereof). She finds mini-stabs of heartbreak in the lyric's litany of daily tasks that feel so lonely post-break-up.

Two pop songs blend in well. Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" introduces another Miss Saigon tour alumnus: the attractively husky-voiced Dane Stokinger. A Carole King-Gerry Goffin song I'd almost forgotten, "Speeding Time," gets a worthy revival. The theme of going through changes has inspired some interesting choices of material. The CD's title song, by Harry Turpin and RJ Tancioco, is from a musical in development, Tappy McCrackin.

The "changing" theme brings in that not-at-all funny Funny Girl ballad, "Who Are You Now?" It takes the focus off self, as it questions what a partner feels about being in the relationship. Following the line, "How is the view - sunny and green?" Jennifer uses the original sheet music's wording, "now that you've walked in my door and through the dream."  This is more evocative than the usual "how do you compare it to the views you've seen?" though it creates a false rhyme. I like the way she stays believably in the present moment, portraying a woman who is tentatively waiting for an answer she can't presume to predict. She thereby creates some tension, which is also evident in the album's closer "When Will We Know." In that very vulnerable but hopeful piece, she is accompanied on piano and guitar by its writer, Charlie Lustman.

You won't find humor or irony here - it's sincerity all the way. I'm not complaining about that, but I will grumble that the ten tracks add up to a very short playing time of under 36 minutes.  Awakenings would be an ideal gift for someone who is having some challenges, as its well-chosen songs are analytical, empowering and optimistic. Songs that purport to do this are often bombastic or Pollyanna-ish. This album is the thinking person's alternative to that. But don't relegate listening to times of struggle - it's lovely, and I've been struggling to take it out of my CD player and move on to the next item.

But I don't need to because that's all for this week. I'll be listening for you next week, but now it's time to put the CD player on "pause."

-- Rob Lester

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