Looking back at yesterday through the prism of today makes for some interesting
listening. This week's batch of CDs includes a star revisiting some material performed
over a long career, four reissued revival cast albums, and a new CD with songs about
looking back at the past. Finally, a look ahead to a newer voice on the jazz scene
freshening some old standards.
Looking back on a long theater career, veteran star Theodore Bikel has gone into the recording studio again to document some of the roles he has played in musicals. Gratitude and respect are the feelings it engenders. So, first off, thanks to producer Craig Taubman, arranger Oded Levi-Ari, conductor Tamara Brooks and the supportive playing of the orchestra. A celebration of a career it is, of course, but many of the choices of material make it also feel like a celebration of life. This is especially true in two selections from Kander and Ebb's Zorba. In these, he has overflowing joie de vivre and is quite robust.
One of the CD's highlights is the outwardly hopeful title song, the plea for peace that, in his voice and this arrangement, has an undercurrent of melancholy. It's from the score of The Rothschilds by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The same team's Fiddler on the Roof is, appropriately, prominently represented, as Bikel's notes in the CD booklet say he has played Tevye in various productions over a 37-year period, logging a total of 2,094 performances. The vocal on Fiddler's "Sunrise, Sunset" is restrained and underplayed, staying basically in the same tone and energy level throughout. The instrumental arrangement, owes its basic feel to the original Broadway treatment, with some nice work by the strings. "If I Were a Rich Man" is more personalized and gets two vibrant revisits: once in English, with a creative, full and glorious orchestral arrangement with just piano accompaniment,sung in Yiddish. Raising his voice in song in foreign languages has always been a calling card for this performer, who released a series of albums of folk and international songs over the years, as well as albums focusing specifically on the Jewish experience. He sings in Hebrew, in German, in French, and more. This skill is employed for three bilingual selections heard in the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. These numbers especially call on Bikel's formidable interpretive skills as an actor, particularly "La Chanson des Vieux Amants" with his own English lyric translation. There are sections of songs where those skills finesse potential musical hurdles, often agreeably. In part of "If We Only Have Love" such compensation belies a struggle as the melody and intensity build.
Of course, as the original Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Theodore Bikel introduced the classic "Edelweiss." He revisits that song here, in a gentle and inevitably nostalgic version. Listening to the CD makes me regret that more of his roles in musical theater weren't captured on recordings along the way. (Among his out-of-print vinyl albums was one called Theodore Bikel Is Tevye, and there is a fine studio cast album with him as the monarch in The King and I opposite Barbara Cook.)
MY FAIR LADY
A happy glut of reissues of revivals was recently brought to market by Masterworks Broadway; each score has been recorded numerous times over the years. All these were produced for reissue by Didier C. Deutsch, who has added to the liner notes for some. The covers are the original ones, but there are booklets with plot synopses and some black and white photos from the recording sessions that were not included with the releases way back when. Lyrics are not here.
Candide is the only one that was vastly different from its original presentation, which had a short run and had been rethought. The other three were revivals of shows that were among Broadway's very biggest hits and are of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought. These three all kept their original orchestrations which were all done by the same man: Robert Russell Bennett. (The My Fair Lady revival co-credits Phil Lang.) I've had the recordings on vinyl for years, so they're quite familiar to me, but I appreciate having them newly available on CD in sparkling sound.
It's sort of surprising that Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady isn't back on Broadway as this year is its fiftieth anniversary, but its twentieth anniversary found it reappearing, resulting in a new recording. This 1976 album was produced by Columbia Records' Goddard Lieberson who also did those honors for the 1956 cast recording as well as the 1959 London cast album. In those two productions was Robert Coote as Colonel Pickering, who also returned for the twentieth anniversary, sounding understandably gruffer but still game singing on "You Did It" and "The Rain in Spain." Joining him were a new Higgins, Ian Richardson, who sang the melodies more than Rex Harrison but didn't make as strong a personality impression on disc, and the ever-marvelous Christine Andreas as Eliza. Her glowing, feisty, performance is the major reason to own this version. Jerry Lanning (the grown-up Patrick in Mame in 1966) offered a smooth "On the Street Where You Live." George Rose, gravelly-voiced but exuberant, won a Tony for his performance as Eliza's irrepressible dustman dad. This version has the brief (2:21) but valued instrumental "Embassy Waltz." The conductor was Theodore Saidenburg.
The conductor of the ultimately more satisfying original cast album of My Fair Lady was Franz Allers, who was musical director for the 1964 version of The King and I. It came about when its composer Richard Rodgers, known for liking his shows done as he first conceived them, got the chance to see that would be the case for the summer revivals of Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960s. He was its president and producing director, and some Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were among those presented, with new cast albums issued. Casting opera star Risë Stevens as the female lead in The King and I made the role sound more formal than it often does, but the richness of her voice offered compensations. "Shall We Dance?" found her really loosening up. Following Yul Brynner, you could say Darren McGavin had big shoes to fill, except that the role requires going barefoot. Vocally, he seemed to be struggling in the King's big number, "A Puzzlement." Lee Venora, also on the Lincoln Center cast of Kismet, was Tuptim; her recorded performance has vocal strength as its strength, which is not a strength if you prefer the character of this unhappy slave to have the appropriate vulnerability and sense of yearning. As her lover, Frank Poretta is likewise more stalwart than ardent. With its mix of narration, choral singing and instrumental segments, the lengthy piece "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," not released on some of the King and I cast albums, is here. Patricia Neway (Mother Superior in the original Sound of Music) was cast as Lady Thiang, bringing dignity to "Something Wonderful" though an over-enunciation of consonant sounds mars the performance for me. Her comic number with the the chorus of wives, "Western People Funny," previously unreleased, is something wonderful, too: full of cute moments and blithe musical moments. To concentrate just on the glory of the score's soaring melodies, this is a version to enjoy. That refers to the full-throated singing from most, as well as the the orchestra where this King and I is majestic. Still, I personally prefer most other recordings of the score, including one starring My Fair Lady's original fair lady, Julie Andrews.
Another Rodgers and Hammerstein giant, South Pacific, up for revival again next year following the recent recorded and broadcast Carnegie Hall staged concert, gets the next look back. Opera singer Giorgio Tozzi, who dubbed the singing for Rossano Brazzi in the film version a few years earlier, got to play the role in body as well in this 1967 presentation and the performance on this album was more relaxed, singing through the melody line with grace and skill but a decided lack of passion and emotional connection. He's cast opposite Florence Henderson, who'd at this point already sung the leads in major productions of The King and I, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma!. She made a spunky Nellie, with the sometimes odd back-and-forth of brassy chest voice and legit head tones, but some fresh phrasing. Other singers are fine in standard takes on the score. This is one of the South Pacific albums that includes the reprise of "Bali Ha'i" sung in French by the character of Liat (soprano Eleanor Calbes, contributing one the prettiest tracks.)
Candide the musical has had a journey almost as checkered as that of its title character finding his way in what he hopes will be "The Best of All Possible Worlds." Each incarnation has been different, with some songs coming and going. This mid-70s version which began at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and transferred to Broadway was directed by Hal Prince. Leonard Bernstein's music got some new lyrics on four numbers courtesy of Stephen Sondheim, added to the surviving songs with lyrics mostly by Richard Wilbur and some by John Latouche and the composer himself. Its chipper cast had lighter voices than those heard on other more operatic versions, but I've always found this recording to be more of a piece, and the inclusion of a tremendous amount of dialogue from the book by Hugh Wheeler (new for this production) certainly lets a listener get into the irreverent and quirky feel. I confess that the dialogue gets tedious on repeated listenings, and the sound of Lewis J. Stadlen's squeaky witch-like old man voice as Voltaire wears on my nerves(though he's a performer I generally like very much and his other characters and sung sections are terrific). The big numbers, of course, don't soar in the same way; this was more of an actor's romp. Mark Baker as the title character came off as genuinely innocent and consistently likeable with many wonderful comic moments. Maureen Brennan's Cunegonde offered sweet tones. June Gable as The Old Lady laid on the accent and hammy schtick pretty thick, but her sarcastic asides worked well. The 2-CD set is a long way to go to find the meaning of life, the ultimate lesson of the show, and the "Make Our Garden Grow" finale is always touching after all the broad comedy.
Collectors of alternate takes on well-known shows will find intriguing variations and voices on some especially satisfying individual tracks on each of these four revival recordings.
CAPATHIA JENKINS & LOUIS ROSEN
Early relationships and experiences that leave their long-lasting marks on one's heart and mind are the focus of the songs that make up South Side Stories. South Side refers to the area of Chicago. Composer-lyricist Louis Rosen also used growing up white and Jewish there during the sometimes uneasy ethnic neighborhood changes of the 1960s as his point of reference for his 1999 book The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, for which he interviewed a number of fellow residents. In his original songs, the experiences are specific in their storytelling detail, but the tugging bittersweet emotions attached are universal. And they sure come through, whether told in first person or third. The writer evokes a mix of deeply etched memory and latter-day perspective in the lyrics. Rather than having the music show a searing, very present passion, it's more muted and subtle. Much of it is tender, although there's more of an edge and sense of irony in the three pieces he takes as vocal solos. Capathia Jenkins, bringing an enormous amount of warmth and humanity to the project, has seven solos and they duet on just two tracks.
In the duetted tale "Fast," the "nothing seemed impossible" mindset of impatient teenaged lovers is effectively expressed and looked upon with grown-up understanding. It's typical of the approach on much of this collection: there's nothing condescending in the looks back at younger outlooks, but there's a sadder-but-wiser wisdom in the writing and interpretations that steers clear of gazing through rose-colored glasses. Serious reflection - make that analysis - about the past makes a sense of understanding pervade the proceedings. It doesn't take away the sadness inherent in the situations presented, it just creates some intellectual distance. The other duet is the soothing "Lullabye for Teddy," a soothing and lovely embrace of that ends the CD. It has one of the most memorable melodic lines, whereas the strength of many of the other compositions comes in the details: it's often the catchy shorter phrases and licks that captivate.
Capathia Jenkins' musical theater resume includes the current Fame Becomes Me starring Martin Short and Caroline, or Change. This recording shows her tender side rather than sass or brio. Her performance shows impressive vocal control and attention to detail. Floating head tones are especially pleasurable to hear. I find myself returning to the CD's opener, her solo "Lucky, Lucky Girl" over and over. It's one of he seven of the tracks where the pianist is David Loud (musical director of the current Kander and Ebb production, Curtains, and of The Look of Love where Capathia was in the cast). Louis is pianist on the other cuts and also plays organ and guitar, as well as providing the instrumental and vocal arrangements. The arrangements and sound mix favor the voices over the instrumentalists (also vibes, marimba, bass, percussion, drums) who seem far back at times. A layering of voices. letting the singers harmonize with themselves, is perhaps overdone; it's often musically attractive, but sometimes seems to work against a theatrical immediacy.
Showing a modest but effectively crisp singing voice, Louis is the vinegar to contrast with Capathia's honey tones and gentler persona. In "If I Were a Reincarnationist," he rattles off the resentments and real hurts in generational interactions - here he creates his own balance by somewhat cutely/sarcastically imagining the point of view that might let him see things differently.
Following the world premiere of the concert of these songs at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, the pair have been performing South Side Stories in New York City recently, with a final performance this Sunday night at Joe's Pub. Capathia and Louis have worked together before, with sets of songs musicalizing the writings of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. They make a noble and noteworthy team.
UNDER THE RADAR
This singer was a new name to me, a welcome surprise in this week's mail, though it
turns out to be her second album. It seems she looked back at the work of other
prominent jazz singers of past eras and picked up some stylistic tips, but she's no
She lives and performs in Omaha these days, but I think many of us in the rest of the world will want Susie Thorne to get out more. She's a very cool and captivating singer who is able to bring a refreshingly original sensibility to songs of various stripes. That includes some from Broadway and movie musicals. Her choices on this album include a snazzy "Old Devil Moon," that perennial from Finian's Rainbow. It's also one of the best showcases for the band's soloing. She does well, too, with two Cole Porter tunes, "Night and Day" and "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To." Playful and creative with melodies and shifting rhythms, and very capable at scat-singing, she's very much a jazz vocalist with solid jazz musicians just as ready to experiment. This is not a borderline "jazz influenced" vocalist or a straightforward balladeer who happens to be accompanied by some jazz players - she's the real thing.
Her sound grabbed me right away: it is youthful and energetic, pure and sweet in higher tones, with a moody or salty quality at times in her lower register. Susie can really swing confidently and easily. Same goes for the band members: pianist Christine Hitt (full of interesting touches and mini-side trips) and bass player Tom Kennedy are also the co-producers. The other very able players are drummer Miles Vandiver, and two more who each play on six of the eleven tracks: guitarist Rick Haydon and sax player Jason Swagler.
When the tempo relaxes, Susie shows a more sensitive side: the Ellington elegance of "In a Sentimental Mood" reveals more emotions without risking being overly sentimental. Dreamy moods are created when she drifts through "Moon River," relishing the Johnny Mercer words and adding twists and turns to the Henry Mancini melody. If you're assuming that the title means she sings both Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and the title song of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, well, yes and no. Yes on "Blue Skies," an especially catchy version. I guess the "clear day" is an extension of that song's feel and the album design. (As it turns out, she has an earlier album, Love for Sale, that includes "On a Clear Day.")
I look forward to more from this singer, and have enjoyed "looking back" at musicals and at the South Side of Chicago with the albums above.