Each year at this time, Broadway is buzzing about who did (and didn't) receive Tony Award nominations. During this lull between the announcement and the post-ceremony arguments about who should have (or should not have) won, let's look at some older show tunes, including a musical just nominated as Best Revival. But first, a look at an off Broadway show that's had its own buzz and now has its own CD.
All singing! All dancing! All praying! In Altar Boyz, the Christian "boy band" is playing their big New York concert. The musical is a bouncy, pointed, pop pastiche, and devout is what it's about, with a big wink. The score's very clever writing holds up well on repeated listenings, unlike some comedy material. It's that rare breed of parody that works as a spoof but is also as entertaining as the best real examples of the genre being mocked. Therefore, songwriters Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker (working separately, not collaboratively) are, well, a blessing. The production quality is simply terrific and the sound is clear, even if the intent and point of view may not seem to be. I found it less than holy, but wholly hilarious.
The unflagging energy of the cast (Ryan Duncan, David Josefsberg, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Scott Porter) is also finely tuned. They get the most out of every punch line in the well-honed performances captured on the recording. They're very smart and canny in the way they act wide-eyed and dumb, and good directing is apparent. The five "boyz" are on the same page and their harmonies are a godsend. You need not find it a guilty pleasure (see our "Under The Radar" item for that!) - it's a well-crafted score sung by a talented cast, plus it gives you something to ponder. And you can dance to it.
There are solo spots for each of the bubbly Bible bubbleheads and they're all super in their very different characterizations. The irreverent takes on reverence make for a zippy CD listen. Can this be musical theatre? Have a little faith.
Please don't ask me which of the three recordings of Pacific Overtures to buy if you can only get one, because I find strengths in each. This newest one, with the cast of the 2004 Roundabout Theatre production (Tony-nominated as Best Revival) is created with the love, care, and respect we've come to expect from record producers Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin. The sound is clear and theatrical, it's generous in recording length, and a recording of a Stephen Sondheim score is always an event. Having two members from the 1976 original, Alvin Ing and Sab Shimono, adds an extra sense of history.
I find some of the songs less intensely emotional in these performances, but that will be a plus to many who don't like to be as shook up as one can be by this story of culture clash. For those not aware of the history and changes the piece has been through, the liner notes by bookwriter John Weidman and director Amon Miyamoto will bring you up to speed. However, some of the bigger changes were in visuals and overall concept of the show, so as a CD listen, it's not as drastically different as you might think. There is some dialogue included, and certainly several songs have a different feel, at least in sections: more humor here, a more dramatic edge there, choosing an acting "moment" over a purely pretty musical choice. All this makes things quite accessible where they might have been distancing.
For your eyes, the booklet, which has all the lyrics, also contains numerous color photos for a glimpse of the Tony-nominated costumes and sets. For your ears, Sondheim veteran Jonathan Tunick provided orchestrations (also Tony nominated), with Paul Gemignani conducting. Four additional musicians were brought in for the recording to supplement what was a seven-person band. Pacific Overtures remains a powerful and thought-provoking piece with some exquisite moments and well-placed comic relief. Some may find a new recording unneeded, but those who saw and admired this production will, naturally, want this version. And why not? There's plenty of talent on display.
A special bonus track is included: a song cut long ago, "Prayers," done by original director Hal Prince and the songwriter himself. What will PS Classics, who have also recently treated us to CDs of the Sondheim scores Assassins and The Frogs, come up with next? Stephen Sondheim crooning his own songs and playing the piano? Actually, yes! Keep reading.
To review this as an album is to miss the point. It wasn't intended to be heard by the public. To appraise Stephen Sondheim, male vocalist ... well, is somewhat absurd. These are private demo recordings made when the songs were newly written, meant for private use and to hear them at all feels like voyeurism as well as a privilege. It's like the first look at a newborn baby (imagine "Send In The Clowns" as a new song!); you get a real idea of how they were first conceived, and in many cases the baby didn't change much at all as it grew up. Most were fully thought out before the tape recorder was turned on and were solidly built, accompaniment figures and tempo decided. Others changed. Historically valuable? Yes. Fascinating for those interested in songwriters, especially this one? Absolutely. But guess what? It's also charming, emotional and very entertaining to listen to.
There's something about this flashback that's much more than an esoteric for-fanatics-only experience. There's a joy and, strange to say, innocence in these recordings. Volumes II and III of Sondheim Sings will be issued soon, including some material much rarer than what is here.
If you didn't know this was Sondheim, you'd probably be more distracted by the untrained voice reaching for notes here and there. But you'd be moved and caught up in it. Without the polish and orchestra, one is also reminded that the bare bones seem pretty fleshed out. It's all there: passionate melody, hundreds of well-chosen specific words with interior rhymes and fewer distractions from the craft. This is where it all began.
BROADWAY MUSICAL CUT-OUTS
This CD made me very happy before I heard it. If you have attended any of Scott Siegel's Broadway By The Year concerts at New York's Town Hall or heard the live recordings of them, you know why. Simply put, he presents good singers with good Broadway songs, famous and obscure. The one problem has been that, because the concerts are generous in length, not all of the numbers can fit on one CD. This new release is the solution as it gathers up those concert "cut-outs" for this catch-up issue. "Leftovers" were never so tasty. What made my smile broader was the small print under the title that says those magic words: "Volume One." With nine not-quite-complete concerts already on CD (and more recorded), well, there's "more where that came from."
So why were these cuts cut? Have no fear, it's not because they are the weak ones. The choices made for the CDs as released had to do with balance and variety, or opting to include a rare song instead of a well-known one, etc. Whatever the reasons, this first potpourri is dandy. Each concert focused on musicals which opened in a specific year; here we have samples from the presentations spotlighting 1925, 1939, 1940, and 1951. So, the other plus is that you have a broader range of musical styles (and singers - 11 in all), making this a good overview and introduction to the series.
Darius de Haas sings "It's Me Again," from 1939's Yokel Boy, and Annie Golden covers "Comes Love" from the same musical. Both are infectious and lively. For something more emotional and richly satisfying, the versatile Darius digs into "Darn That Dream," from Swingin' The Dream. Host Scott Siegel's typical wry, sly, dry comments abound and are especially choice on the show from whence comes this song (it was a jazz version of A Midsummer Night's Dream). I'm not normally a fan of much talk on live recordings, but these clips of the quips provide interesting history and perspective. Presenting the same facts in liner notes without his tone of voice just wouldn't be the same.
Stephanie J. Block, now touring in Wicked, dips into 1925 to show two more facets to her singing style: an operetta selection and some sultry vamping from the hit No, No, Nanette. Chip Zien is effective with a well-phrased interpretation of the ballad "I'll Buy You A Star" from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz). The real dramatic high point, surprisingly, is with one of the most famous songs, "Hello Young Lovers" from The King And I. Alison Fraser's take on this much-done tune is stunning. Rather than the usual light touch or just showing the character's nostalgic calm, she dares to play some of the pain of memory as well. It's a revelation.
The series' reliably nifty Ross Patterson Little Big Band deserves a great big hand. I especially like the appearance of a ukulele featured in "If You Knew Suzie," sung by Walker Jones. The mix of the expected and unexpected is what makes this all so enjoyable. And there's a lot recorded still in the vault plus more live concerts ahead. In the hands of Scott Siegel and company, there's a great future for the past.
If you like digging into the early days of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, what better and more prolific songwriter to focus your searchlight on than the great Irving Berlin? So say Benjamin Sears and Bradford Conner, whose latest Berlin bounty collects 23 old tunes of the early 1920s. A few are Berlin standards, such as "All Alone," "What'll I Do?" and "Say It With Music," but many are little-known numbers, and 13 of them have never been recorded before. This is a major find for those who appreciate and are fascinated by the work of one of our legends of American music. You won't be hearing long-lost Big Numbers on the order of his "White Christmas," "God Bless America," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" or the score to Annie Get Your Gun. No, these are more charm numbers and what used to be called "ditties." Many are from the musical revues done at Berlin's Broadway theatre, The Music Box.
My favorites are a sprightly "Alice In Wonderland" with multiple rhymes, "Take A Little Wife" (with the smiling warning: "but be careful whose wife you take!") and "Eight Little Notes." In the last selection, we hear members of a vocal group with the same name as the song (you guessed it - there are eight singers in the group), who appear several times on the CD.
This is old-fashioned parlor entertainment done in period style, rather formal but playful. Ben does most of the singing and his voice has a wide vibrato now; I prefer when he avoids using that and sings quicker, more staccato numbers. Things can get a bit wobbly or starchy, but there's much quaint sparkle. Brad adds some vocal harmonies and is on piano for most selections.
The recording ends with an irresistible piece de resistance. Framed as an all-sung interview with Irving Berlin, it's a multi-part, big musical number, incorporating several of his famous songs as the chorus, in unison, asks about them. Sears and Conner are keepers of the flame of great old American songs and, as the opening number's lyric states, "someone has to hear this and it might as well be you." Famous or obscure, Irving Berlin songs should not be taken for granted, and they're still very much in the air. There's one on the Broadway Musical Cut-Outs (John Dossett asking the musical question "What Chance Have I With Love?" from Louisiana Purchase) and not surprisingly, one of his sturdiest, "Blue Skies," opens and closes the next album to be discussed, as well.
The torch has been passed and they're keeping it in the family. What a pleasure it is to revel in the radiant and remarkable achievement that is Debby Boone's new CD. As Rosemary Clooney's daughter-in-law, Debby Boone may have been sharing Thanksgiving dinners but also recipes for how to season a song with wisdom and wistfulness that come from life experience. The late and much-missed Rosemary was a master at getting inside a song and bringing out its essence with thoughtful phrasing and warmth. This was increasingly true in the second half of her career, and Debby's tribute is a lush and loving one which shows her following in the tradition.
Avoiding the early pop hits covered in Bette Midler's fun and bouncier tribute CD, Debby appropriately concentrates on the jazz-inflected style of the Rosemary she knew. Her partner in the venture is Rosemary's long-time pianist and musical director, the very skilled John Oddo. But don't expect a copycat experience. There are many moments where a turn of phrase or vocal quality sound very, very Clooneyesque (never forced or self-conscious), but Debby has her own glorious sound. It's youthful and smooth, even girlish. What proves that she's really picked up the approach is when you hear Clooneyisms in the songs Rosemary had not recorded, such as "I'll Be Home" by Randy Newman.
The liner notes explain why each song was chosen, and they are quite interesting and personal. Standards fill the CD and there's not a weak link in the lot: "The Best Is Yet To Come," "Time After Time" and "Blue Skies," one chorus of which is reprised in a bonus track, an informal recording made for Debby's son by his famous grandmother. Even more icing on the cake is a guest appearance on "I've Grown Accustomed To His Face" by ever-cool John Pizzarelli who worked with Rosemary, too. The whole production is first class from start to finish.
The album has been released in connection with Debby's current night club show featuring the material. She's at the elegant Feinstein's At The Regency this month, adding another connection: Rosemary was the first performer to appear there. "Reflections Of Rosemary" reflects well on both of them.
UNDER THE RADAR
In our weekly feature bringing your attention to a CD that may have slipped by you, we're back to Broadway songs, but you may not have heard this. If you did, believe me, you'd remember.
This CD does not come with a warning label, but it might do well with one that says: "Warning: This is not a dream. It's really happening!" Would you believe Broadway songs rethought as a techno, synth-pop, danceable kind of electronic 21st century experience? It's true, and this will not be to everyone's taste. I discovered it purely by accident while looking for another CD on the Internet and was stopped in my tracks when I heard these tracks.
Synthetic Broadway is a collection of theatre songs, each sung by a different artist, on a label appropriately called A Different Drum. Before I dared to listen, I was prepared to rise up in righteous indignation. But, surprisingly, I got a big kick out of it. It's a hoot without really being the campy novelty you might be expecting. It's quite musical. Normally, this style of music leaves me cold, so I'm delighted, and still a wee bit in shock.
This CD will not make the great Broadway songwriters turn over in their graves. That's because most of those represented are still alive. (And don't say this will kill 'em until you gave it a try.) The master celebrated above, Stephen Sondheim, has his "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd revived and two songs from Hair sound not at all out of character. "The Impossible Dream" and "Edelweiss" are more radical shocks to the system, but are must-hears for your Tony Awards party, as are two mega-hits from Phantom of the Opera, in two languages. Add a couple of Kander & Ebb tunes and some movie music and you're in for a wild ride along the Great White Way.
You can sample this at CD Baby. Broadway hits have survived detours through bossa nova, bongos, and The Ethel Merman Disco Album, so why not this? I had fun with it.
Next week, however, back to more traditional sounds of theatre and vocals, as the cast recording
of the Tony-nominated Light In The Piazza will light our way. Til
then, enjoy the lights of Broadway, let Debby Boone light up your life, and we'll find things to spotlight, because we'll be listening for you.