Sound Advice Reviews
A Kander cornucopia of
JOHN KANDER (and others, featuring FRED EBB)
Following similarly exciting excavations bringing forth career-spanning surveysfeaturing songsmiths' squirreled-away high-quality delightsof Hugh Martin, Sheldon Harnick, and Cy Coleman, Harbinger Records' Songwriter Showcase Series makes a strong case for John Kander's legacy with and without decades-long lyricist partner Fred Ebb. The terrific two-disc set has 49 tracks, a little more than half of which feature these partners performing their own songsmostly demo recordings, but also a few from the 1973 Lyrics and Lyricists concert at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y (which had been issued in full on CD, though this source is oddly uncredited here, as was the case with the Harnick recording). Even those who know and own all the generally available released recordings of all of Kander's work will find about two-thirds of the titles new to their collections. In addition to the vintage material are a few newly recorded items.
The demonstration recordings, of course, weren't meant to be heard by the public or to be polished performances. However, luckily for us, John Kander shows prodigious musicality as pianist and in his singing, which is generally graceful, pleasing and heartfelt, though also evidencing his somewhat modest and unassuming personalityand certainly plenty of charm. There are a few tracks featuring him that have some vocal raggedness or renditions that pale by comparison to the passion shown by singer-actors with more range and shading whose practiced final versions we know, such as Barbra Streisand's heartbreaking, nuanced treatment of Funny Lady's sobering "Isn't This Better?" or the multi-hued, tearier drama which she and, earlier, Sandy Stewart imbued "My Coloring Book" with, to make this very early result of a new team's work put Kander & Ebb on the map. But Kander's quiet authority and directness mostly score with sure steps.
Add to that the ebullient, bursting-with-personality manner of Fred Ebb and there's plenty of zing in each thing the two join forces on. Indeed, they are innately more musical as singers and accompanist than many Broadway writers who were far more blessed with writing talent than with their chops to do anything close to full justice to what was created by them. With Kander and with Ebb, we are truly entertained and won over, and the joy and justified pride that come through add to the pleasures of all these Treasures. The enthusiasm and artfulness jumps from the disc, with very little sounding vitality-challenged due to the age of the creations. And it's by no means a minor point or small relief that the sound quality is quite goodno straining to hear words through fog or static. So, certainly Alan Silverman, credited as restoration and mastering engineer, deserves praise. And the label's co-owners/ album producers, Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom, deserve major kudos for this invaluable bounty for both hardcore and casual fans.
The pleasures I am tickled the brightest shade of pink to now know, but can't help wishing I'd been whistling for years, are numerous. Let's start with the ones sung by both John and Fred: "I Love Music," the package's irresistibly perky first number for an abandoned TV project (Wait for Me, World about Horatio Alger); the gleefully goofy "I'm Getting Younger Every Year," dropped from The Happy Time, which sounds Jerry Hermanishly cheery in its defiance (denial??) of aging; the celebratory "I Have a Friend," trimmed from Zorba; and the plucky "It" (an early idea for a Velma/Roxie duet in Chicago, with the writers especially attentively in synch in their pleasingly crisp vocals). And we have the vastly different (in all aspects) completed original title song for the film New York, New York, before they wrote the one that became the iconic theme for not just the movie but the city itself.
A most interesting footnote is that a true piece de resistance called "Military Man," a dazzlingalmost dizzyingcontrapuntal confection was placed in four different scores over the years! It's a sleek trick of a creation to hear, especially done with such precision and panache as David Standish and Michael McCormick pull off, accompanied deftly by Jim Laev.
Although I'd argue that the early-draft discards stand solidly on their own merits, if you know the ones that replaced them and the show's characters and plots, there's a fascinating lesson in development and refinement to be learned. A sugar-laden considered pastiche-y, kitschy piece for Chicago's Mary Sunshine character, "Windowpanes of Rose," might not be quite as good as "A Little Bit of Good," but it's pretty darn good and good to hear here, if only because the composer's own solo vocal brings out his rarely glimpsed hammy side. Steel Pier original cast member Karen Ziemba returns to her character in a spirited rendition done this year of a rejected piece, "Nobody's Fault," which was replaced with "Running in Place."
Other standouts which are also Ebb-free tracks include some elegant, subtler pieces: Kander's own tender rendition of his collegiate show effort "Janie"; Anita Gillette's dignified, in-character (complete with accent) "Only Love" which is touching; and examples of work with the melodist's young new partner lyricist Greg Pierce. The newish writing duo are heard on their recently produced shows' selections, as areto great advantagethe strong theatre singers Lewis Cleale, Julia Murney, and Paul Anthony Stewart. They also point the way to new vistas for the vital veteran, now 88 years young. And his own distinguished lyrics reveal an unabashed sentimental soul, without the edgier or more ironic aspects of Ebb's prodigious wheelhouse. For example, there's his autobiographical "I Get My Music from My Dad," sung with warmth and feeling by Michael Winther in a 2003 recording where the piano is, perhaps ironically orgiven the subject matterjust intentionally, more prominently favored in the balance. But it feels less than ideal sonically to my ears, but my heart gets the message loud and clear.
Rudman and Bloom, in their jointly written page in the fact-filled booklet, tell us that The Happy Time is both men's favorite of Kander's scores, so it may not be surprising that this gets as many tracks (4) as its much better-known, more successful predecessor Cabaret. But this fellow fan of the underappreciated The Happy Time is happy to discover that three of them are cut songs, while much of the latter's included material is familiar (more so if you have the reissue of the 1966 cast album that, like this package, includes the demo of the cut "It'll All Blow Over" among its bonus tracks). And receiving the most samples (5) is the musical version of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (which had a few productions with a few titles over the years before the Wilder estate withdrew the rights, a frustrating fate shared by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' musicalization of his Our Town). The vigorously victorious title song (when the show had the original Wilder title) is familiar to some of us from Brent Barrett's past voicings of it, and he's here with his 1999 go at that item again here. Original cast member Linda Emond, as the saga's very long-suffering wife, manages to distract us from perhaps eye-rolling at her easy forgiveness of her mate's frequent forays into unfaithfulness with an invested reading of "He Always Comes Home to Me."
That bookletor rather bookis over 60 pages, rich with detail, anecdotes, insights and pictures. There's a brief but generously affectionate introduction by composer peer Charles Strouse. Although some of the photos (all black-and-white) have appeared memorably in other places, there are others less traveled, including youthful shots of the dramatis personae. We get a luxurious journey through theatrical history and might-have-been history in the pages and pages of song-by-song commentary by theatre journalist Jesse Green who once worked for the man of the hour. Far from a rehash of overly familiar facts, the stories and interesting historical points are virtually "hidden treasures" themselves. Especially colorful and revealing of personality and perspective are observations in John Kander's own words, hindsights that are sprinkled throughout. Cutely he observes, "My fingers have a tendency to make waltzes. It's not my fault." His self-effacing tendency and matter-of-factness dominate. In commenting on a perfectly captivating number he and Ebb polish off with élan called "Man About Town," excised from Woman of the Year, he remarks that it was thrown out "probably because it wasn't good enough." Mr. Kander, with all due respectand I have plenty of thatI beg to differ.
Hidden Treasures salvages from the theatrical wastebasket are dud-free and divine. The items that cued "back to the drawing board" retreats would easily K.O. what many other writers would proudly hold up as their finest efforts after being holed up for hours. And some of the items tossed off after 45 minutes work, like a little ditty that begins, "Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today/ I want to be a part of it/ New York, New York," ain't chopped liver. It's nice to have the creams of both kinds of crops side by side. Bravo!
P.S.: The world has gone 'round so very many times since the songbook revue And the World Goes 'Round was compiled: Time flies, but could the time be ripe, in view of all this unearthed bounty, for recycling the heretofore hidden treasures in a new revue of the old that's new to most? If a title is needed to echo that earlier scrapbook, the name of one of the many musically ingratiating pleasures included here, cut from The Rink would fit the bill quite nicely: "Round It Goes."