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A score born in '54
and a show from 54 Below

Back in 1954, an original score for a musical film called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers debuted and became a popular favorite. In later years, as a stage vehicle, it has had various mountings and tours, including the most recent British production, bringing us a (sort of) cast album release from JAY Records—the newly recorded vocals by its three principal players are combined with instrumental tracks and vocals from a studio cast recording from a couple of decades ago. In an act at 54 Below (now called Feinstein's/54 Below), Broadway's Melissa Errico, born while Broadway's Company was trying out in Boston, sings that show's reluctant bride's song, and more Broadway on Broadway Records' latest release of cabaret acts recorded live.


JAY Records

As its title suggests, there's more than one married couple who'll be united in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The original MGM film musical of 1954, based on Stephen Vincent Benet's novel "The Sobbin' Women," aimed more for laughs than tears. Although the "sobbin'" in the novel's title a song in the score titled the same is based on characters mishearing the name of the story about long-ago Romans, "The Rape of the Sabine Women," there are tears shed by these eventual brides, six of whom are simply kidnapped on a trip to town by brothers ready to follow suit when their oldest brother chooses his mate. The hitch in getting hitched is that the fellows forgot to secure a preacher when the road was made impassable and they must wait out the winter in gender-segregated quarters, with some trepidation.

I suspect there were some tears of disappointment and frustration shed in real life, too, when attempts were made to make a hit stage piece out of the hit film. There have been tours and various mountings over the years, with a 1982 Broadway landing that resulted in a closing after just fifteen previews and five official performances. A London production a few years later didn't last very long, but did produce a cast album. In the following decade, producer John Yap brought out a studio cast album with the big National Symphony Orchestra led by Martin Yates. Vocal and instrumental tracks from that release are combined with newly recorded performances by the three lead players in 2015's British production by the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. So, if—like me—you have the studio cast album from the mid-1990s (JAY Records/ Showtime! Series), you have part of this release. But you have the youngest brother (Gideon) and the oldest brother (Adam) and his wife (Milly) played by different actors than we have now. And the characters of Adam and Milly lead the bulk of the singing duties.

So, this mix contains something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (the sad songs). The memorable, hummable, supple, and mostly cheery movie score had music by Gene de Paul and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Additional songs for the stage version were added by Al Kasha and the late Joel Hirschhorn, who wrote pop songs (and a book about how to write them), and they won consecutive Oscars in the 1970s for their successes from disaster movies sung by Maureen McGovern ("The Morning After," "We May Never Love Like This Again"). They also wrote for the Disney film Pete's Dragon and adapted Charles Dickens' novel about a boy named David for Broadway's Copperfield, which only lasted a few weeks on the Great White Way, but the score was recycled for the animated film version.

The Kasha/Hirschhorn material (they share credit for both music and lyrics) allows us to see what's going on inside the characters' heads a bit more. We might have hoped for material to offset some of the blatant sexism of the male characters of another era (the novel was reset in Oregon in the 1850s, a century before the film, which itself was some years before the women's movement raised consciousness and sensitivities). Instead, they added the "A Woman Ought to Know Her Place" rant for Adam. We can also bristle when he flatly states in "Love Never Goes Away" that all women are "the same." Melodically, though, it's the most satisfying of the newer numbers, with a real emotional pull—a gorgeous highlight sung by the 2015 leads. As Gideon, Sam O'Rourke sings his part with a wispy delicacy that makes him sound wan and even fragile. It's his spotlight singing moment as he protests that his girl is special. His voice contrasts hugely with Alex Gaumond's big, robust sound that resonates and appropriately (and rewardingly) invigorates his vocals throughout. Quite effective are the sections where he croons more sweetly, pulling back the volume and power for very effective contrast and appealing shading.

The female new voice is Laura Pitt-Pulford, exuberant and warm as Milly, especially in the film number "Wonderful, Wonderful Day." Those who only know the film version will find Milly's songs here have a different, earthier feel than they did in the high soprano silvery voice Jane Powell brought to her screen presence. "Glad That You Were Born," written for the stage incarnation, finds her in a more pensive mode, letting us get another side of her character. (Different productions have added and subtracted numbers, using more or less from the movie score. On the way to Broadway in '82, several creations were cut.)

We hear scattered spoken lines here and there. The book was revised by David S. Landay and the late Lawrence Kasha (brother of songwriter Al), the director of the 1982 stage version and a familiar name for his various jobs from producing to writing (he was even stage manager for Mercer & de Paul's other collaboration, Broadway's Li'l Abner in 1956).

As is common with John Yap's releases, the sound is spectacular and full. The Martin Yates-conducted orchestra tracks remain thrilling with the bright melodies threaded through the orchestra and the dance music sounding full of life and strength, so suited for this rustic Western setting. There's also sparkle and wit. Additional musical direction is by Stephen Ridley. Orchestrations are by Irwin Kostal, except for two by Larry Moore: the film score's cutely whining "Lonesome Polecat" and "Spring, Spring, Spring," the latter of these two group numbers also featuring some of Mercer's most delightful exercises in word gymnastics and rhyming. Sadly, some of that is lost in the tempo and unison vocals.

With a bonus track giving star Gaumond another shot at "Bless Your Beautiful Hide," also the CD's first vocal, it may be just too much of a good thing, with the rousing de Paul melody— especially its title phrase—heavily featured in the instrumental sections. Those playing most of the other brides and brothers in the 2015 cast may be unheard, replaced as if via a time machine by a studio cast, but it's all good. But the group vocals are just fine and dandy. There's no booklet this time from JAY, and the information given is not presented in a clear way in the fold-out enclosure to specify the facts about the earlier recording; and those totally unfamiliar with the material wouldn't be sure which pair of writers wrote which songs. But, these "weddings" of old and new still hangs together pretty well.


Broadway Records

She can be all chipper and goofy and casual in her banter with the audience and then turn on a dime and turn on any of the numerous contrasting musical theatre characters plucked from her resumé or dive into a lush ballad or blasting belt. That's Melissa Errico, cabaret chameleon. Her April 2014 nightclub act, with some material she's done in such settings in the past (like at Joe's Pub a couple of years earlier) and other material—all good fits—is now a CD. What we first hear is some patter that sounds out of breath and giddy and not at all like an opening. Once you read the booklet's commentary by admiring journalist Brian Scott Lipton it becomes clear: the act's opening number ("I'm Every Woman") is not included on the disc.

OK, so the CD begins with talk and there's a lot of chattery patter that doesn't amount to much of consequence unless you don't already know that she's a fun-loving, comfortable-in-her-skin woman who's more the down-to-earth type than the above-it-all diva type. All but the shortest bits of talk are tracked separately so that they can be skipped over. Those less enthralled with hearing repeated references to her shoes and hair and her darling daughters and watching Youtube—or intros that begin with the unimaginative words "The next song ..." will want to do the skipping. Some of the talk feels misguided to me. In a just-for-fun finale (well, the finale before the encore) of "Last Dance" there's almost as much spoken as sung as she interacts with audience participants, high-fiving and telling them it's OK to stand up.

It's a mini-bait & switch, though probably unintentionally so, to talk admiringly about a line she admires in a number from Stephen Sondheim's score to Into the Woods and then say she's not singing that one. (Arguably, the live audience might have been truly frustrated; we, after all, have the list of songs in advance.) Similarly, why point up the fact that she is not going to sing all the lyrics of another piece? In that case, it's "It's an Art," the waitress's song from Working: The Musical. While I miss the missing words of this nifty Stephen Schwartz showpiece, there's some compensation in what she does include that we don't have in other recorded versions: she incorporates spoken lines taken directly from that particular interview in Studs Terkel's book that inspired the revue. She delved into it all belatedly, admitting offhandedly that when someone suggested she sing it, she'd "never heard of" this "little-known musical" which has had numerous productions since its premiere when she was just a kid. "Patti LuPone was in it!!" she "informs" us. Melissa shines on a classic tour de force that LuPone introduced, albeit in a musical that didn't make it to Broadway: another Schwartz gem, "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife. She doesn't belabor the drama as some tend to do and her pace is noticeably brisker, only lingering over a few moments that thus stand out all the more. It's not as much of a tear-provoker as it is when others take flight with it, as she sounds stronger and less conflicted. But she has the chops to nail the big notes and grand finish, for sure.

As with most live albums by artists who have recorded other solo efforts, there are some things she's sung on disc before, but the bulk is new. Of the revisits, there's a cut from her Lullabies and Wildflowers album. It's a number she wrote, "Gentle Child," and it remains classy and sweet. She recently released a couple of tracks which had been recorded for that CD, but were not included on the album. One is "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" which is sung here as her encore. So that makes it her third version on disc, having also sung it as leading lady on the Finian's Rainbow cast album from the Irish Rep cast.

There are two ballads with melodies by Michel Legrand from her dreamy album of his work (which she also got to grace in the underappreciated Broadway musical Amour). They are the movie songs "The Summer Knows" and "His Eyes, Her Eyes," both with lyrics by the ever-literate and romantic Marilyn and Alan Bergman. They feel fresh here, deeply felt and knowing. Rather than just clones of the earlier versions, they sound strikingly different. This is largely because the Legrand Affair CD had a huge orchestra, and here we have a trio. But what a trio it is! Any recording featuring Tedd Firth prominent as pianist/musical director is a musically highly accomplished one, with creative ideas abounding—which command rewarded attention on their own or as the remarkable teamwork that his playing and arrangements are as raise-the-bar-high art. Just listen to what he's doing so interestingly, moment by wondrous moment. He can play with the strength and control that make you think the keyboarding is an Olympic sport. And, yet, he doesn't overplay or flex his considerable muscles for show. He's always serving the song and illuminating it, turning gracefully gentle when appropriate, playing the silences and truly listening. (He is a fascinating one to watch if you get the chance—which is pretty easy because he is so in demand that he's working in clubs and concerts all the time, and not just in New York City.) He's joined by bassist David Finck, one of the top jazz veterans who has also worked with this singer for a long time. ("Since the thirties," he deadpans when she breezily asks him how long it's been.) The tasteful but vibrant drummer who completes these three musical musketeers is Mark McLean.

There's a cluster of Sondheim numbers, side by side by side, with "Getting Married Today," Company's wedding neurosis for three characters—bride and groom and soprano wedding singer for starters. In her intro, Melissa says she's going to sing "all the parts," though she only does the two female roles. But it's fun nonetheless with one voice less, as she switches from a gorgeous legit sound to the frantic conversational tongue-twisting bridal breakdown. She nails it. From Into the Woods, we get the moving "No More" fully inhabited and nuanced. It's a refreshing change to hear this piece, written for a male character, in a woman's voice. With a choice from Gypsy, we get a cozy "Small World" that embraces Jule Styne's melody.

Errico followers will be particularly happy to have disc versions of two numbers she did on Broadway but didn't get to record on issued cast albums. Both are recreated with British accent intact. From the role that first brought her to wide attention, Eliza in a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady, we get her revisiting of "Show Me," which is especially feisty. And the much-discussed Dracula from 2004 is represented by the strong selection "The Heart Is Slow to Learn." Those newcomers who may be slow to learn who the versatile and glorious modern-day Broadway-bred singers are should catch up and learn that Melissa Errico is and has been one of the more exciting in the pack.

- Rob Lester

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