Sound Advice Reviews
Broadway's Barnum for Backers
P. T. Barnum, the legendary showman, gave customers quite the bang for their circus and museum-admission bucks. The 1980 Broadway musical that told his story was chock full of entertainment, too. Let's rewind to that time when the show was seeking additional funding and eavesdrop on a backers' audition. While we're time-traveling, let a bevy of Broadway Tenors reprise some hits from across the decades.
Nobody talks much about a musical production named Ondina!, but that is understandable because it was, after all, 155 years ago and did not run very long. The point is that it was the earliest show credited to P. T. Barnum as producer. Although he is best remembered as a circus man, museums most interested him, apparently, and Barnum's converted-to-museums places are where most of his shows considered Broadway productions were housed. Unfortunately, both of his museums burned down. (He only presented one other Broadway offering in an alternate venue).
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of a Broadway play about him called Mr. Barnum, which starred one of its writers, Thomas A. Wise, as the legendary impresario. Additionally, in six movies for the big screen and television, he has been presented as a character (including a new musical film, The Greatest Showman, set for release next month starring Hugh Jackman). It is clear that the life of this man has been quite the fascination for many to this day, even though he passed away in 1891. It is now 35 years since the musical about his life, simply titled Barnum, appeared on Broadwayand only after other projected productions by others were announced, but didn't see the light of dayand now we have a newly released recording of its score.
The material on the Barnum Backers Audition album is from a tape of a performance by its authors. This rendition may sit side by side with other recordings: the original Broadway cast with Jim Dale as the title character; the London cast starring Michael Crawford; five other casts from foreign countries; and a commercially released 11-song studio recording released by Gryphon Records with composer Cy Coleman on piano and vocals, joined by drummer Ron Zito and bassist Jonathan Miller (the latter singing on "Bigger Isn't Better").
As the liner notes by Coleman biographer Andy Propst explain, when legendary producer David Merrick retreated from his commitment, Coleman stepped up to the plate and put his own money where his mouth was as a believer in the work, hoping Stewart might do the same. He did not, but the composer was able to find others. When more money was needed, a gathering was held in the home of a couple who were main partner producers and, happily, the living room presentation from that day is high-quality living proof of these creators in fine fettle. Mr. Propst perfectly categorizes the tone of the performances when he describes the attitude and performance of the partners unveiling their score with the word "gleeful." Is it ever! Stewart bubbles over with excitement, energetically talking about the plot and the characters, while Coleman is more of a cool man, comparatively more laid back and not seeming to be pushing as much. The two often finish each other's sentences or clarify what the other has said about the storyline and descriptions of characters and specific moments. The wound-up Stewart sometimes loses his train of thought when Coleman interrupts his speedy speech with his own points.
We are lucky here, compared to other demos or recordings of writers singing or playing their own work. Stewart is an engaging, capable singer; he is ebullient and his joy is evident and seemingly contagious. Here and there his unbridled enthusiasm gets the better of him, with some notes wavering from the pitch. Coleman is an old hand at the piano and his voice and personality are charming, having spent a number of years in front of audiences with his own melodic creations and standards in jazz clubs and other places, and he made albums over the years. The opening remarks by the lyricist are fairly long and seem a bit anxious. Other spoken set-ups for the songs being put in context are much shorter and clearer.
This has always been a score that is great fun to listen toenergizing, with the same goal that Barnum himself had: captivating, solid ways of entertaining the masses. The rollicking melodies truly capture the flavor of circus spunk and struts, despite the backers' audition not including the various instrumental circus marches and rags. The lyrics by this perhaps underappreciated wordsmith are full of delightful and clever uses of language, deft rhyming and wit, all of which clearly pleased the folks in attendance, as bursts of both applause and laughter are frequent and hearty. Appreciation is palpable. Brash and buoyant tunes are balanced by a couple of ballads, with the reflective "The Colors of My Life" a textbook example of contrast and making a character more sympathetic and vulnerable through song as he speaks his thoughts and looks back on his life.
Especially notable here is the presence of two songs later cut from the score. They are "At Least I Tried" ("And if the piper must be paid, I'll pay his price/I'm not afraid to take a gamble, to tempt the gods"), another attempt to humanize a tough guy who loved his work and maybe was shortsighted about some other personal matters, and "Now You See It, Now You Don't," an apt title for a number that would be in a score one moment and then gone the next ("Now it comes wandering shyly, slyly, slowly, holy smoke... Now it is, now it was, Now it's under your schnozz ").
The upbeat and positive attitude and confidence of the title character and indeed the show itself comes through loud and clear. The first number's invitation to "Come Follow the Band" is irresistible and Barnum's famous mantra set to music, "There Is a Sucker Born Every Minute," is so ingratiating one is tempted to not resent the condescending air that might otherwise be there. Barnum is the more "rose-colored glasses" view of the sideshow compared to the musical Side Show with its earnestness and drama.
While no substitute for a cast album, Barnum Backers' Audition is its own terrific document, and don't be surprised if you feel like a fly on the wall and are tempted to join in clap along with the beat and the giggle quite a bit. In fact I would dare you to be still. Still and all, it feels like an appetizer or invitation to hear all this material flushed out and sung in character by the different people in the story. For some, that will mean going back to one of the cast albums and recalling such and during performances as that of Terri White singing "Thank God I'm Old" for the perky points made in the specialty given to the character of Tom Thumb for obvious reasons "Bigger Isn't Better." And taking that a step further, sometimes bigger isn't better or when it comes to Broadway songs and their orchestrations and performances, at least as far as appreciation, as this more modest performance by the two songwriters shows us the bare bones of the score presented without dressing or high-wire walking and clowns on parade.
The work of Michael Stewart will be surveyed in December in Urban Stages annual Winter Rhythms program in Manhattan.
THE BROADWAY TENORS
Imagine an annual convention where some of Broadway's best and brightest-voiced tenors get together for a concertand you're invited. Well, there are indeed concerts featuring the guys heard on this recordingan even dozen, but it's a rotating cast, so you wouldn't get all of them in one show and what JAY Records has released was done in studios, not live performances. Nevertheless, the gentlemen sing these big songs with big voices and big orchestral arrangements, heard here with the National Symphony Orchestra. It's a feast for those fond of grand, dramatic musical theatre classics, stressing the importance of being earnest and staying true to the basic blueprints of what was designed for the material when first heard in context in the stage pieces from which they came.
While much of what's here are songs on the serious side with no small measure of angst, the first track is atypically perky. John Cudia, Jeff Kready, and Lewis Cleale are the featured singers. The opener is a caffeinated mash-up of numbers celebrating New York and, specifically, Broadway: "Broadway Rhythm" and "Lullaby of Broadway," although these numbers have their original roots in film musicals, unlike the rest of the tracks (17 in all). This Big Apple booster, arranged with zing by Larry Blank, is begun with the mid-1940s tour guide of "New York, New York" from On the Town, a musical sampled again when Alan Campbell offers a warm "Lucky to Be Me," embracing the melody composed by Leonard Bernstein. That about-to-celebrated-as-centenarian has a number from his famed West Side Story (that show, itself half century old); the selection is "Maria." Jeff Kready sings it sincerely and straightforwardly. Both Bernstein melodies use their original Broadway orchestrations, co-created by their melodist.
Les Misérables is the other musical represented twice, with John Cameron's orchestrations: John Cudia is sufficiently prayerful with "Bring Him Home," and Norm Lewis refreshingly non-bombastic with "Stars," a more thoughtful take on the man with a mission.
Understandably, some may scoff at the set list as "the usual suspects," lamenting that we tend to hear them too often as go-to pieces for the grander presentations by theatre-leaning male vocalists in concert and when they make solo albums, choosing mega-size songs from mega-size musicals: Sean McDermott's anguishing "Why, God, Why?" from Miss Saigon; Ryan Silverman and Brent Barrett haunted by "Lily's Eyes" (The Secret Garden); and Silverman with a traditional, but not oversung, "The Impossible Dream" ("The Quest"). Dreams of the romantic, idealized kind are the matter at hand for David Loud's arrangement, orchestrated by Larry Hochman and Chris Jahnke, of Rodgers and Hammerstein dream-themed classics with Campbell, Barrett, and Matt Cavenaugh sharing the vocal presentations.
I'm impressed with the youthful restlessness that reinvigorates "Corner of the Sky," the "I want" song for the title character of Pippin because of Kyle Dean Massey's electric performance. As is the case with others in this collection, the performer has done the role on Broadway or elsewhere. Telly Leung pays Rent representative, "One Song Glory," with his usual in-the-moment presence and passion. Max von Essen and Matt Cavanaugh also bring their customary professionalism and commitment to the album, sounding great with the huge instrumental congregation. It's nice to be in the same room with any of these men of song, even though they were not in the same room as the orchestra when recordingnot even on the same continent. But all 12 singers seem to have dual citizenship in the worlds of acting and singing, because they're certainly singing and acting here.