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May
19

Beauteous Musical Books

Though it may be a cliché, it is nevertheless true that writing the book for a musical is a terribly misunderstood craft. Moreover, book writers cannot win. If the show is a success, its book is rarely mentioned as a reason why. If the show is flawed or completely fails, the blame is immediately put on the book writer. Many people think the book is just the dialogue, but there is much more to it. Dramatic structure, choices of what to musicalize, and the ability to set up a song properly all factor into the job.

The books I have chosen to discuss don’t constitute a 10-best list. Indeed, I have avoided some of the most obvious choices, shows such as Gypsy, 1776, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Oklahoma!, all of which are largely acclaimed examples of good book writing. Instead, I have chosen 10 shows that all have detractors but which I consider successful, sometimes in spite of flaws, in part because of the quality of their books.

She Loves Me
This 1963 succes d’estime was playwright Joe Masteroff’s first attempt to write the book for a musical, and he did an unusual thing: He wrote this adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie (also the basis for the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) as a complete play, then handed the script to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They found the opportunities for singing to be so bounteous that the show ended up with far more music than usual. Nevertheless, Masteroff provided a strong dramatic spine, beautifully drawn characters, and generous story-driven momentum. This quiet, romantic show was overshadowed in its initial 301-performance engagement by bigger, noisier entertainments (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl), but the years have proven its durability and appeal, thanks in part to two well-received Broadway revivals by Roundabout Theater Company in 1994 and 2016. It is, I think, and at long last, finally considered a classic musical.

My Fair Lady
You may think that this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe megahit is recognized as an example of a great book for a musical, and perhaps in one sense that’s true. However, I find that often its quality is ascribed to its source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, rather than to Lerner’s masterful adaptation of it. Indeed, in its last two major professional productions, on Broadway in 1993 and in the West End in 2001, English directors Howard Davies and Trevor Nunn were both allowed to put sections of Shaw’s text that Lerner had cut, including an entire character, Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s sister, Clara, back into the musical. Lerner removed Clara because the principal reason for her existence, a private tea party scene at the home of Higgins’ mother, had been transformed into a public journey to the horse races at Ascot in which Clara’s presence was dramatically superfluous. Putting her back elsewhere in the show, where she is little more than window dressing, just adds bloat. Lerner also did much more than just edit Shaw. His inspired decision to expand the play by musically dramatizing offstage events and his ability to write dialogue in expert Shavian style (Higgins’ speech about the beauty of the English language that provides the intro to “The Rain in Spain,” for example) were key to his book’s success. Here’s hoping director Bartlett Sher sticks with Lerner’s script for Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival.

Allegro
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1947 concept musical that follows a man’s life from his birth to his 35th year made money but was considered a failure because it fell short of the tremendous commercial success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Famously, its flawed second act, in which Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. forsakes serving his rural hometown to work as a doctor for the wealthy in Chicago, seems to say that country life is good and city life is bad. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that; Hammerstein even goes out of the way to explicitly say the reverse in one dialogue exchange. Still, I’ve seen it leave that impression in the four full productions I’ve attended over the years. Only John Doyle’s 2014 condensed chamber version Off-Broadway managed to clearly convey Hammerstein’s message: That a good man can still lose track of himself. I don’t care, however. Hammerstein’s inventive use of a Greek chorus to both voice Joseph Jr.’s innermost thoughts and feelings and provide commentary gives the deliberately conventional story the kind of size it needs to soar emotionally, and when Joe finally wises up and heads home I never fail to be moved. Oh, the score ain’t bad either, but it’s really the wise and humane book that gets me on this one.

Anyone Can Whistle
The general wisdom on this 1964 piece of musical theatre of the absurd is that Arthur Laurents’ unwieldy, pretentious, hard-to-follow book gets in the way of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score. Rubbish. Sondheim’s score wouldn’t even exist without Laurents’ vivid original characters and quirky story about an economically dying town and the false miracle devised to save it and its venal politicians. If Sondheim’s score is wonderful (and it is), then it is so in part because of the Laurentian creations it is dramatizing. I’ve particularly never understood the “hard-to-follow” accusations. I find it all quite clear, and if people are so confused, then why does Laurents so consistently land his abundant laughs? (I’ve seen at least six stagings and, trust me, he does.) It’s faults? It does tend to run its themes into the ground a bit before it ends; a two-act structure, not the three-act one it has, would probably have been a better idea. These days Sondheim belittles it as the smart kids in the class showing off. Personally, I think that’s part of its cheeky, subversive charm.

Annie
I saw this 1977 Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Martin Charnin (lyrics and direction) hit from standing room shortly after it opened, but I wasn’t persuaded, mostly because of my jejune disdain for musical comedy at the tender age of 23. However, in the summer of 1981 I went on tour with it to L.A. and D.C. for three months total, selling souvenirs, LPs etc. in the lobby. As a result, I got to see it many, many times (again, from standing room), and what I got was an education in good structure and proper pacing. In particular Meehan makes damn sure to have the right laugh at the right time to keep the audience consistently engaged. I still find the score rather uneven, though all the best numbers are in the right places, for which, again, Meehan is at least partially responsible. His book is a Swiss watch of comedy.

Sunday in the Park With George
Back in 1984, the naysayers for this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical about the French painter Georges Seurat, and they were legion, whined that Act 1 was complete as a show and Act 2 was superfluous. You still hear the complaint, but not as much. It’s nonsense, of course. What the authors wanted to say about the difficulty and costs of creating art was at the heart of the second act, which is set 100 years later. The structure is theme and variations, and Lapine employs it to maximum effect. The connections among the characters in each act are meticulously planned and elegantly rendered. Is there a more cathartic moment in musical theatre than the second act climax, “Move On”? Yes, it’s a great song, but it has also been spectacularly prepared for by Lapine’s rock-solid construction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Terrence McNally learned a lesson in storytelling on this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser, sharing a jail cell with Valentin, a macho straight revolutionary, in an unnamed South American country. Originally, to escape into fantasy, Molina narrated to Valentin the story of one musical movie that starred his beloved Aurora, also known as the Spider Woman. The audience couldn’t keep that story in its head for the whole show while also following the Molina-Valentin plot, John Kander and Fred Ebb couldn’t successfully unify their twin scores (one for the movie and one for the characters), and the result was chaos. It took McNally realizing that Molina should instead narrate individual scenes from many movies, relieving the audience of the need to follow twin dramatic threads, to turn the show into a success. Happily for Kander and Ebb, they didn’t have to rewrite quite as much as he did. It’s been 24 years since Spider Woman debuted on Broadway in 1993. It’s time for a revival!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart based their ingenious book for this bawdy 1962 musical on the Roman comedies of Plautus, which means that it inevitably traffics in extremely low, sometimes even vulgar humor. Stephen Sondheim’s score doesn’t dramatize the heavily plotted shenanigans; instead, it serves as a respite, giving the show moments in which to breathe but never derailing the farcical momentum. It’s also written in a more refined, almost intellectual humorous style, but the tonal mismatch isn’t a problem; instead, one complements the other. Still, at the end of the day it’s the book that makes this show work like gangbusters. The score is ornamentation, though of a very high order.

Fun Home
Playwright-performer Lisa Kron made an extremely assured debut as a book writer with this 2015 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s popular autobiographical lesbian-coming-of-age graphic novel. Kron made an audacious choice to split the leading role in three: “Small Allison,” “Medium Allison,” and “Allison,” the last in the process of writing her book. She also told the story in nonlinear fashion, mixing up events from different time periods with stunning effect. These choices gave the material richness and depth and more fully explored the maturation of her central character. Yet Kron always kept the action clear and engaging. The story is ultimately heartbreaking, but the telling of it in Kron’s inspired construction proves purgative, not depressing, just as it was for Bechdel in real life. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, to Kron’s lyrics, is a vital component, but in this case I think what makes the show is the way the story is told.

Assassins
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that John Weidman’s book for this musical about a very dark strain in the American psyche, seen by exploring the lives of the various people who assassinated (or tried to) a succession of American presidents, may be the best book ever written for a musical. Allowing the various assassins to interact with each other, the inspired metatheatricality of setting it in a cosmic shooting gallery, the compact but detailed character writing are all assets, as is using a musical revue structure rather than a more conventional plot-oriented one. Stephen Sondheim’s coruscating score works with Weidman’s book hand in glove, and the result is ferocious. The climactic scene of the assassins materializing in the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with killing John F. Kennedy is so shattering that they recorded it for both the original 1990 off-Broadway cast recording and the 2004 Broadway revival one. How often does an entire book scene get that treatment?

Bonus: The Golden Apple
Well, I was going to stop at 10, but seeing the extraordinary Encores! presentation of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross masterpiece this past weekend changed my mind. Just because it is through-sung doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a book. Resetting the story of the Greek myths of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state, Latouche finds consistently amusing character parallels while also managing to put the story of Ulysses and Penelope’s troubled marriage front and center with affecting clarity. The Golden Apple is a unique show told exactly as its authors wanted without bowing to any established rules, and it is never going to be embraced by everyone (as the mixed reception from critics and on chat boards showed). Still, its glorious mixture of show biz, sentiment, psychological exploration, and cultural dialectics, all told in brilliantly rhymed lyrics set to Moross’ giddy and gorgeous Americana score, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least for some of us.

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May
19

Top Ten Books for Musicals

Wow! This is a really tough one. In fact, it’s impossible. But here’s my list of more than ten libretti – some from the far past, some from mid-century and some from today. All of which keep the audience involved and have humor, drama, and realistic characters. Beyond that these shows’ songs and scripts compliment each other perfectly, making a beautiful whole.

First on my list is Show Boat. Yes, it’s ungainly especially at the end when the passage of time has to be sped up to the then-present. Edna Ferber’s book is huge and making the many episodes and characters into a three-hour show is a bitch.  But along the way, Oscar Hammerstein showed how a musical could be perfectly integrated and speak to larger societal issues. Heck, Hammerstein even makes the Mississippi River a character in the show. In the right hands it might just be the most emotional musical ever written. And Hammerstein also deserves credit for the second place musical:

Carousel. Of course, it’s difficult to separate the book from the score they’re so perfectly integrated. But each element, while seemingly simple, speaks to great emotions. And the characters are true and complicated even if sometimes our political correctness demands all edges be sanded down to make us comfortable. But it’s Hammerstein’s point to keep the edges and, like in all his musicals, develop characters that are flawed but have the power to be redeemed.

Speaking of redemption, Gypsy has the most powerful punch; in it a character finds herself stripped bare and acknowledging her own truth and coming to acceptance. It’s often cited as the greatest musical libretto of all time and that may be true. Women who have played the title role like Merman, Lansbury, and others make it look easy, but it’s an incredibly difficult part to do well. A gorgon who reveals the insecurities and needs she has inside.

In the above musicals characters come to a realization and either actually change or consider change and reject it. My Fair Lady probably has the most impressive about-faces in the theatre. Eliza Doolittle is literally changed from a “guttersnipe” into a presentable upper-class woman. But the teacher also changes, and Henry Higgins finds his own humanity, and even though at the end of the show he asks Eliza to fetch his slippers, the audience knows that he has come to terms with himself also.

Prejudices are also overturned in Guys and Dolls, perhaps the second runner-up in the best libretto race. Sister Sarah is prejudiced against gambler Sky Masterson, but each is open enough to slowly see the humanity and even insecurities of each other (even if a few rums help to loosen pre-determined prejudices). This show has abundant humor, true emotions, and leaves the audience in a state of bliss. Come to think of it, Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s book for The Music Man has a lot in common with Guys and Dolls. A gambler/conman loosens up a prim Salvation Army girl/librarian.

And for pure humor with no pretension of greater good, no message, characters that don’t change essentially our vote goes to On the Twentieth Century. Especially the original production, which under the direction of genius Harold Prince, roared down the tracks in a barrage of humor. Hand it to the great Betty Comden and Adolph Green for scribing a hilarious farce. And speaking of Betty and Adolph their other scripts for On the Town and Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing, etc., etc. are also hilarious, realistic (true!), and emotional.

Before we get to some shows that are currently playing here’s our vote for the most unusual great script – 1776.  Really – a  musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Strong characters, real drama, important issues like slavery, and something no other musical has had in such abundance: suspense. Yes, we already know the outcome but if it’s a really good production we actually have our doubts as the pages on the calendar on the wall slip away.

Now I’m may be an old curmudgeon but there are three terrific libretti currently on Broadway.

Translating the novel Wicked for the musical theatre was, like Show Boat, a humongous task, and Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work distilling the immense plot into a clear, entertaining musical that still carried a powerful message for the audience. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s one of the few musicals in which the book is better than the score…which is rare.

The Book of Mormon seems to have nothing on its mind but to make us laugh. Yes, it can be somewhat scatological and religiously impertinent and though it’s completely in the South Park mode with plenty of subversive, and often raunchy humor, its greatest accomplishment is its underlying heart, which carries a real emotional punch. To the audience’s surprise they actually care for characters that they thought were only caricatures.

Dear Evan Hansen is the most recent great book of a musical. When was the last time you saw a show and really and truly couldn’t figure out how the heck the authors were going to wrap up the story? That they do so with such skill, logic and audience satisfaction is an admirable thing. And they have a wonderful score, production, and strong cast to carry the remarkable story forward.

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May
19

Our Best Books...

Any given musical book can often be either its most overlooked or its most maligned element. This week I've asked Ken and Erik to talk about the shows that they think have the best (or feature their most favorite) books. It's fascinating to see what they've picked!

To complement Erik's and Ken's columns, allow me to offer up the following:

  • On the Town - It's pretty easy to dismiss the book for this World War II--era lark, particularly given Leonard Bernstein's music and Jerome Robbins' choreography. But Betty Comden and Adolph Green provide an entirely original book where those elements, plus comedy and a certain amount of bittersweet drama blend seamlessly.
  • Bring It On - No. I'm not saying that this one breaks any ground or is particularly profound. At the same time I think that Jeff Whitty crafted a pretty smart piece and the fact that he managed to sneak in a whole All About Eve plotting device that I never figured out does impress me no end.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


What I've done for this week's playlist over on Spotify is to choose one big number from each of the shows that Erik, Ken, and I have all chosen. It's turned out to be a pretty cool potpourri of tunes, and I hope you enjoy!


Our current free song download comes from a beautifully remastered (and most welcome re-release) of Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver's 1983 musical Blondel!


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Hello, Dolly! - Bette Midler's gotten some rave reviews for her performance in this Jerry Herman classic. You'll understand why as you listen to this fantastic just-released cast album that's been getting a lot of play here at BwayTunes.
  • Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - A marvelously adventuresome musical that's traveled from off-Broadway to Broadway get a new cast album to preserve its latest incarnation, including Josh Groban's terrific sounding central performance. 

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • In Transit - Billed as "Broadway's first a cappella musical," this show features tunes by the likes of Frozen's Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some grand performances by Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, and Margo Seibert, among others.
  • Iowa - This Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz musical had its New York premiere back in 2015, and it's great to finally have a cast recording that preserves the show's tuneful zaniness!
  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!
  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • A Bronx Tale - Chazz Palmintieri's autobiographical one-man show has returned to Broadway as a full-blown musical replete with a terrific score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.
  • Come From Away - This new cast recording allows listeners to savor the heartwarming tales of the airline passengers who were diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11 and the community that welcomed them.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 
  • #ThrowbackThursday - Corey Brunish takes the Facebook/Twitter hashtag in a musical direction with this album of classic tunes by songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin; Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; and Bart Howard.
  • Philip Glass: Music for 'The Crucible' - Last season a fascinating revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible hit Broadway and one of its chief assets was an intriguing score by Philip Glass, which you can now savor on this cool new release.
  • Dream Ago - This remarkable album comes from a remarkable talent: Gabrielle Stravelli. Her voice has power, warmth, and, sometimes, great humor. It's been hard for me to stop playing this one. If you don't know her work, you should certainly sample some now!

You'll be getting our next newsletter just a little over a week before the 2017 Tony Awards are handed out.

In honor of this annual celebration of the best on Broadway, Ken and Erik will be sharing some of their predictions about who will be picking up prizes come June 11.

Of course one of the biggest questions this year is, which show will pick up the award for Best Musical...Come From AwayDear Evan HansenGroundhog Day, or Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812?

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May
05

Betty From Brooklyn

Betty Comden was my neighbor. She moved into the apartment building across the street from me on Manhattan’s Upper West Side not too many years after it was erected in 1986. I would see her out and about in the ’hood, and it was also not unusual to spot her writing partner, Adolph Green, walking down Broadway toward her building, Tower 67, from his home in the Beresford on Central Park West. Throughout their long career, they apparently always worked at Betty’s place.

They wrote the lyrics for their last Broadway score, 1991’s The Will Rogers Follies, music by Cy Coleman, in that apartment, and I remember imagining them working on it just a stone’s throw away. I hadn’t yet met Betty when she first moved in, but I did so eventually, and although I hardly knew her well, she was always pleasant and welcoming if we bumped into each other. Once we were on the same train to the Hamptons (she had a home out there) and my husband and I (we were visiting friends) almost gave her a lift in our cab when a friend was late in picking her up (she arrived at the last minute, darn it).

My husband knew her professionally from his job as, first, associate director and then, later, director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. One year, during NAMT’s annual festival of new musicals, he and I were walking with Betty from one concert reading to another when I told her how excited I was that the AMC TV channel was about to show the 1964 film What a Way to Go! uncut and in widescreen format (I had only seen it pan and scan and chopped up for commercials.) It’s a star-studded comic vehicle for Shirley MacLaine as a woman who becomes increasingly wealthy as husband after husband suddenly drops dead, and Adolph and she had written the screenplay, as well as the lyrics for two songs (music by Jule Styne) for a mini-musical sequence featuring Gene Kelly as one of the husbands. Nevertheless, she fixed me with a withering glance and asked, “Why? It’s terrible!” I hadn’t liked what I had seen, but I was hoping to have a different opinion of the unaltered product. As it turned out, she was pretty much on the money, but when it came out on DVD I bought it anyway: It was by Comden, Green, and Styne!

I confess I was late to the Comden and Green party. As a teen I enjoyed their work, but I was much more enamored of the “serious” book musical and its authors, people such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Comden and Green were rooted in their comic-revue beginnings, even when writing book shows, and I thought that was a lesser form. Oh, I loved On the Town and liked Wonderful Town, but I chalked that up to Bernstein’s music. It took some getting over myself to realize my mistake.

Probably my first corrective was seeing A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the now long-gone Morosco Theatre in the winter of 1977, just months after arriving in NYC. It was the first Broadway revival of a show they premiered in 1958, which was inspired by the fact that though they had started on stage, they had become relegated to only performing at parties. I was enraptured by their ferocious energy, great style, and unpretentious intelligence. Their witty repartee about writing together drew this playwright-lyricist hopeful right in, and it was fascinating to hear them doing songs that I associated with other actors. Of course, I already knew their hilarious “I Get Carried Away” (from On the Town, which you can see on YouTube), but when Betty sang “If,” from the 1951 musical revue Two on the Aisle, or partnered with Adolph on the manic “Inspiration,” from 1947’s Bonanza Bound (which closed before reaching Broadway), it was clear how her performance style at times influenced her writing choices. She was also very adept with a ballad, whether it be “The Party’s Over,” from 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, or “Some Other Time,” from On the Town.

Betty’s simple, direct, clear way with a song is on most obvious display on an LP she recorded in 1963, Betty Comden Sings ‘Treasure Girl’ and ‘Chee Chee.’ Both shows were fast flops in 1928, but the former has songs by George and Ira Gershwin, while Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart scored the latter. Neither show generated any song hits, but, as I wrote in my suggested Christmas gifts column last year, “all 10 songs, five from each show, sound fresh as paint and feature melodic and inventive music married to witty lyrics filled with fun wordplay and ingenious rhymes (my favorite was Hart’s pairing of “appetite” with “wrap it tight” in “Better Be Good to Me”). Comden’s light soprano and conversational phrasing highlight their musical charm, and she mines every bit of gold from the lyrics, no doubt aided by being a wordsmith herself. Richard Lewine, a Broadway composer and successful producer of television musical specials, has arranged them splendidly for piano, bass, and guitar, and his deft musical direction and piano playing are pure pleasure.” Once again, I urge you not to miss this one.

My two favorite Comden and Green musicals are On the Town and 1978’s On the Twentieth Century, the latter featuring a wonderful operetta-spoof score by Cy Coleman. As far as songs go, I am particularly partial to some of their goofier comic pieces, usually written for supporting characters. Songs such as “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged,” from 1964’s Fade Out—Fade In, sung by Carol Burnett and Tiger Haynes doing spot-on impersonations of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at their most irritatingly upbeat. And then there’s “Salzburg,” from Bells Are Ringing, in which a geographically challenged con man played by Eddie Lawrence (“lovely Salzburg by the sea”) tries to bilk Jean Stapleton’s telephone answering service owner out of her nest egg (“With your life savings in a little blue sock/We will have enough to keep us out of hock”) while giddily promising “We’ll live in style/Gold by the pile/Goulash for two as we barge down the Nile!” Perhaps the best of them all is “I Was a Shoo-In,” from 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping. Phyllis Newman played a Southern beauty queen who spent the whole show clad only in a towel, a tactic to keep her hotel from evicting her. The song is her account of her beauty pageant successes, and not only is it a hilarious tour de force, it probably won Newman her Tony for best featured actress in a musical (beating out Barbra Streisand for her performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale). The OBCR, alas, is out of print and not available digitally, but you can hear Newman sing it on YouTube. I saw Newman perform the number live several times over the years, the last being in 2007 at Betty’s memorial tribute at the Majestic Theatre. Though 74, she still hit it out of the park. I always hoped someday to see Betty do it; I’m sure she would have been equally sensational.

In December of 1998 Betty attended the Richard Rodgers Award–sponsored reading of my musical Summer, based on the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. Though we had met by then, it was only cursorily, and I don’t think she would have remembered me. She wasn’t present on my account but rather because the show’s composer was Paul Schwartz, son of Broadway giant Arthur Schwartz, whose song catalogue with Howard Dietz formed the basis of Betty and Adolph’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. After the reading I was talking to friends in the crowded York Theatre lobby when a woman came up to me to offer her congratulations. I was completely floored when I turned to find Betty Comden standing there. She had specifically sought me out to tell me how much she had liked the show and to offer praise to a fellow book writer and lyricist. She could easily have left without doing that. It was a classy and generous gesture from a great lady and a moment that I will always treasure.

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May
05

Betty Comden

During the 1950s and ‘60s the preeminent lyricist-librettists-screenwriters of the musical theatre were Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Their film scripts include what is considered by many to be the greatest film musical, Singin’ in the Rain. They were also responsible for other MGM blockbusters such as On the Town, The Band Wagon, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Good News., and many more MGM blockbusters.

And their Broadway output as authors and lyricists is just as impressive. From their debut with 1944’s On the Town to their last show, The Will Rogers Follies, in 1991, their output is unsurpassed. Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, Hallelujah, Baby!, Applause, and On the Twentieth Century are just some of the great musicals they wrote. And they wrote with the best songwriters, primarily Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and Cy Coleman.

Comden and Green met every day in Betty’s apartment whether they had something to work on or not. They also made time to appear on Broadway and in regional theatres in their two-person career retrospective, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

And their shows spawned many a hit song. Think of “New York, New York,” “If,” “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “Make Someone Happy,” “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.”

But they weren’t hit writers per se. They wrote for characters and situations. Which is why the songs that weren’t played on the Hit Parade were every bit as good as their better-known songs.

Their output was marked by humor and heart and that’s why their shows and their songs will be sung and revived for generations to come.

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May
05

Happy Birthday, Betty!

Betty Comden, who for more than 60 years partnered professionally with Adolph Green, would have turned 100 on May 3. The team of Comden and Green is, of course, responsible for such Broadway hits as On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Bells Are Ringing and such landmark films as Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon.

Erik and Ken have both written terrific columns that celebrate this writer-performer's centenary. 

To complement Erik's and Ken's columns, allow me to offer up the following:

  • Comden and Green Perform Their Own Songs - Comden started out her professional life as a performer, and she and Green would perform their Party With... on Broadway and around the country from 1958 forward. This album preserves some recordings they made of their work before they had resumed their stage careers.
  • Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green - On this album you'll find chanteuse Dearie lending her airy vocals to some of Comden and Green's most popular tunes and some of their lesser-known gems, such as "Dance Only With Me" from Say, Darling.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


Selections from hit Broadway shows and the soundtracks of classic movies are at the center of this week's playlist on Spotify. All of the selections, naturally, relate to this week's celebration of Betty Comden's centenary. To round out the list, I've put in a bunch of swell covers of some of her most popular tunes.


In our ongoing efforts to bring you the latest in new theater-related music, we've got a track from the just-released cast recording of Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz's musical Iowa as our current free song download.


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • In Transit - Billed as "Broadway's first a cappella musical," this show features tunes by the likes of Frozen's Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some grand performances by Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, and Margo Seibert, among others.
  • Iowa - This Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz musical had its New York premiere back in 2015, and it's great to finally have a cast recording that preserves the show's tuneful zaniness!

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!
  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • A Bronx Tale - Chazz Palmintieri's autobiographical one-man show has returned to Broadway as a full-blown musical replete with a terrific score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.
  • Come From Away - This new cast recording allows listeners to savor the heartwarming tales of the airline passengers who were diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11 and the community that welcomed them.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 
  • #ThrowbackThursday - Corey Brunish takes the Facebook/Twitter hashtag in a musical direction with this album of classic tunes by songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin; Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; and Bart Howard.
  • Philip Glass: Music for 'The Crucible' - Last season a fascinating revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible hit Broadway and one of its chief assets was an intriguing score by Philip Glass, which you can now savor on this cool new release.
  • Freaky Friday - There's a lot of giddy fun in this new tuner that's based on the movie of the same name. This new album features two great central performances from Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton.
  • Len Cariou Presents These Are My Friends - Tony winner Len Cariou is joined by some incredible folks on this album that revisits some of the hits from his career and then moves on to other favorites from the likes of Liz Callaway, Judy Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, and Anita Gillette.
  • Song of Solomon - Ramin Karimloo, who's thrilled audiences in Les Misérables and Love Never Dies, heads up a grand cast on this lavishly produced concept album for a new biblical musical.
  • Dream Ago - This remarkable album comes from a remarkable talent: Gabrielle Stravelli. Her voice has power, warmth, and, sometimes, great humor. It's been hard for me to stop playing this one. If you don't know her work, you should certainly sample some now!

When you get the next BwayTunes newsletter you'll find Ken and Erik offering up their thoughts on this question:

"What are the ten best books for musicals ever written?"

I know I can't wait to see what their choices are. Will either of them include Show Boat? Or what about Hamilton? How's that for hitting two ends of a historical spectrum?

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Apr
21

Growing Up With Jerry

Though of course I already knew some of his hit songs, I first really became aware of Jerry Herman on the evening of Wed., April 10, 1968, when, three days after turning 14, I, along with my fellow suburban Cleveland high school thespians, saw Jane Morgan as Mame at the Winter Garden Theatre. It was the third Broadway show of my young life, but the first one that hit home. Tuesday night had been the APA Phoenix Repertory Theatre production of Ionesco’s Exit the King at the Lyceum Theatre, and Wednesday afternoon was Fiddler on the Roof, at the Majestic Theatre. Dinner in between shows was at the famed Hawaii Kai, right next door to Mame. To this day I regret that I accidentally left my Fiddler program under my restaurant chair. I still have all the others from that trip.

We had balcony seats for all three shows, but both Exit and Fiddler had us in nosebleed heaven at the very, very back, and I just wasn’t able to connect with either one (both of which have subsequently become favorites). For Mame, however, we were in the front of the already much shallower Winter Garden balcony, and it felt like the musical was right in my lap. I didn’t know the source material, so the story was a surprise. I identified strongly with young Patrick, and I had my own Auntie Mame in the person of my Auntie Dot, who had been a very successful Manhattan fashion model but was now married off to an advertising man and living in the cornfields of Bloomington, Ill., with four young kids. Let’s put it this way: When I climbed the Statue of Liberty at age 5 and immediately proposed doing it again, Dot was the only adult who was game to go (my parents and grandparents overruled her). I also saw her dive fully clothed into New York’s Lake Kitchawan from a rowboat after my father bet her five bucks that she wouldn’t.

I immediately bought the OBCR LP for Mame upon returning home and played it incessantly, learning every note and word by heart. And when the film of Hello, Dolly! came out the following year, I became a fan of that as well, acquired the soundtrack, and did the same thing. I gave many a bedroom performance of both albums, milking “If He Walked Into My Life” for every ounce of torchy sentiment and doing my best to hold the last note of “Before the Parade Passes By” just as insanely long as Barbra Streisand had. I saw Dolly! with my frequent movie-going companion, my mild-mannered maternal grandmother, Molly Marsh, a working-class flower of Yorkshire, England. I will never forget Molly’s rare disapproving rejoinder to my opinionated and veddy British striver of a mother when she criticized Streisand as too strident and not pretty enough for the silver screen (even though she hadn’t seen the film). “I don’t know why you would say that Gwen,” snapped Molly. “She is a very talented girl.” As Herman would later write, my heart leaped up. Go Grandmar!

I bought the Dear World cast recording at some point and loved it as well. I remember swimming laps in gym class while belting out the title song in my head. Somehow it helped. I also picked up his first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, but though I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t warm to it in the same way, possibly because the rather quiet story of middle-aged love didn’t resonate with teenaged me.

My Herman phase was soon cut short, however, with the arrival of the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, in the spring of 1970. I already had a predilection for more-serious book musicals—think Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe—over musical comedies, and this was something brand new and astonishing. Sondheim quickly became God, and I started thinking of Herman as just an OK tunesmith (for years I was equally as hard on the work of his idol, Irving Berlin). The Mack & Mabel album came out when I was at college, in the fall of 1974, and though my friend John McGlinn and I pooh-poohed it to each other, it was a secret guilty pleasure that I played often in my dorm room. (I can still do a mean “Wherever He Ain’t.”)

The failure of that show apparently shook Herman’s confidence (even I was aghast when The Lieutenant, a quick flop of a rock musical about the My Lai massacre, got a Tony nod for best score while Herman was shut out in what was clearly a pointed snub), and he didn’t return to Broadway for five years. When he did, with The Grand Tour, I was finally a New Yorker and sixth row center at the Palace Theatre shortly after the opening thanks to the TKTS booth (which tells you how badly the show was selling). I’m afraid Herman, as he has since admitted in interviews, seemed less than inspired by the subject matter (S.N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, about a scrappy Polish Jew fleeing the Nazis), and I concurred with the poor notices, but I will always recall Joel Grey soldiering on and playing the show as if he was in the biggest hit in the world. I skipped the following year’s A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, an English musical revue by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus for which Herman supplied a few new numbers at the request of director Tommy Tune to punch up the score, because it didn’t sound like my thing and I couldn’t land a free ticket.

As an out and proud gay man, I was very excited to see 1983’s La Cage aux Folles, and my ex and I ponied up for house seats, attending almost as soon as it opened. While I saluted it as a political achievement and especially appreciated the songs “I Am What I Am” and “Look Over There,” I felt that both Harvey Fierstein’s book and Herman’s score could have been written with more depth and nuance, an opinion shared by my classmates in NYU’s graduate program for writing musical theatre. To a person we were outraged when La Cage beat Sunday in the Park With George for the major awards at the 1984 Tonys.

Arthur Laurents, who directed the show, was our teacher, and he arranged for our class to see it in the fall of 1984. When he asked our opinions, we tiptoed around our dissatisfaction with polite questions phrased, for example, as “Why did you choose to do such and such?” But Arthur soon caught on and was not happy; he didn’t entirely disagree, but he believed that he had made necessary concessions to get the audience applauding a gay couple happily strolling off romantically into the sunset together. Today I am inclined to see his point; experience will do that to a person.

I missed the 1985 Broadway musical revue Jerry’s Girls, because I had seen its more modest off-Broadway incarnation in 1981 at Ted Hook’s Onstage. Four talented but largely unknown ladies (Evalyn Baron, Leigh Martin, Alex Korey, Pauletta Pearson) were replaced by three Broadway stars (Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon), a chorus, and greater production values, but the material remained essentially the same, and my theatregoing funds were, as always, limited. Besides, it was just Jerry Herman songs that I already knew. (The cast recording, by the way, is of the show’s national tour, in which Carol Channing and Andrea McArdle replaced Rivera and Loudon.)

My Herman turnaround happened in 1995, with Carol Channing’s final Broadway appearance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I had missed Channing in the show’s 1978 revival, which only played for four months, and so had never seen it on stage. My new husband of but a single year convinced me that I should attend, and I was stunned by the brilliance of the whole thing, especially Gower Champion’s direction and staging, re-created by Lee Roy Reams under Herman’s supervision. And though at 74 Channing was too old for the role and her powers were past their peak, the outlines of the performance were still strong enough to understand what it once was. I had criminally undervalued this thing called musical comedy.

1996 brought the TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus, and if the score was perhaps minor Herman, I still found it and the show, especially Angela Lansbury in the title role, delightful. Alas, except for the studio recording of tunes intended for Miss Spectacular, a planned Las Vegas show that never happened, this was Herman’s swan song, highly frustrating for me, who was at last seeing the error of his ways. In particular, in reevaluating Herman’s oeuvre, I realized what a fine lyricist he had always been. The song ideas tended to be simpler ones, but the words were invariably well chosen for character, beautifully situated on the music, and smartly rhymed, whether sparingly or inventively. Herman was writing a different kind of musical than Sondheim was, that’s all.

Now back to La Cage. Because of the subject matter, it has always been Herman’s most important show to me, despite my cavils with the writing. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the 2003 Tony-winning revival directed by Jerry Zaks, though I still thought there were seams showing. I even went back when Robert Goulet replaced the excellent Daniel Davis as Georges, because somehow I had never seen Goulet on stage, and I found him remarkably effective and the epitome of charm. I was sorry that there was no OBCR, which would have captured the new counterpoint Herman wrote for Georges to sing during “Anne on My Arm,” which for me considerably enhanced the song.

The 2010 revival, imported from London, also won the Tony, but I didn’t care for Douglas Hodge’s highly lauded, super-aggressive British music hall take on Albin. However, when Harvey Fierstein replaced him in the role, I finally had the experience I always wanted to have with La Cage. Somehow Fierstein connected the dots in a way I’d never seen before, and all the substance I thought was missing in the writing was suddenly present. And since he could play it, it must have always been there, right? In any event, I was moved to copious tears by the end, and there I was, just 14 years old again, completely captivated by the theatrical magic of Jerry Herman.

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Apr
21

Jerry Herman

The Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart musical smash hit Hello, Dolly! is opening at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway and that got us thinking about Jerry’s shows and why they have such lasting appeal:

  1. Jerry is in love with the main characters in his shows. There’s no snark or condescension in his treatment of his characters. They’re human like the rest of us; usually looking for their place in the world, which includes finding love and giving love, too. Think of such songs are “I Will Follow You” in Milk and Honey, “If He Walked into My Life” in Mame, and “Ribbons Down My Back” in Hello, Dolly!
  2. He writes humorous songs better than anyone else. One of the musical theatre’s funniest songs is “It Takes a Woman” in Dolly. And not only is every line really funny but it perfectly sums up the character of Horace Vandergelder. “Chin Up Ladies” in Milk and Honey is another example of Jerry’s fondness for his characters  expressed in a funny way.
  3. Jerry’s characters may have obstacles in their search for fulfillment but they have an unswerving optimism and belief that everything will work out in the end. The most iconic of these is when Mame sings, “It’s Today.” There’s a story behind that song that perfectly describes Jerry’s upbringing. One day the young Jerry came home from school only to find the house festively decorated. He asked his mother what was the occasion and she answered, “It’s today!!” That was a remarkably important moment in Jerry’s life and one he never forgot. In fact, throughout his life, Jerry has lived by that philosophy.
  4. The “villains” in Jerry’s shows are treated with bemusement. One thing Jerry has never tolerated with his friends is an overly developed self-importance. From Vandergelder to the Connecticut Uptons in Mame to the homophobic in-laws in La Cage Aux Folles, they’re all treated with an understanding and they all get their comeuppance in hilarious ways.
  5. Jerry is as fine a lyricist as any of the Broadway greats but he never draws attention to either the hard work behind the easy, conversational lyrics or flights of tortured, showoff rhymes that celebrate
  6. The characters in a Herman show have real doubts and insecurities. And much of the drama of his shows comes with insecurities. “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Hymn to Hymie” in Milk and Honey, and “I Don’t Want to Know” in Dear World perfectly illustrates human needs.
  7. His shows are known for their big title songs and splashy set pieces but the things that make these shows classics is the emotion behind the characters. Yes, “Before the Parade Passes By” is both an anthem for Dolly that evolves into a grand production number but it’s songs like “Ribbons Down My Back” that give the shows their heart. And it’s that heart and love of humanity flaws and all that make Jerry’s shows unique in musical theatre history.
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Apr
21

Hello, Jerry!

Legendary singer Bette Midler has just opened in a revival of Hello, Dolly!, and we wanted to welcome her and the show back in our own unique BwayTunes fashion. So this week Erik and Ken have devoted their columns to Herman's superlatively melodic, toe-tapping shows!

To complement Erik's and Ken's columns, allow me to offer up the following:

  • Hello, Dolly! - Yes, I know this one's hardly under the radar. However, this album contains seven bonus tracks of interviews with Carol Channing that make it indispensable. (There are also extra tracks featuring performers who succeeded her in the role, including Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Pearl Bailey.)
  • I Am What I Am - For some it might be heresy, but I have to admit that I think that Gloria Gaynor's disco version of this song from La Cage aux Folles manages to capture the defiance and exuberance of Herman's lyric while pushing it to an exhilarating new level.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


Jerry Herman reigns with the current BwayTunes playlist on Spotify. Lots of tunes you know are mixed together with lesser-known gems, some rarely thought-of covers, and more. I'm hoping you enjoy this one a lot. I know it made me smile putting it together.


We've got a great track that's both pop and Broadway for you as this week's free song download. It comes from Doreen Montalvo's album American Soul/Latin Heart, recently released by Broadway Records.


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • A Bronx Tale - Chazz Palmintieri's autobiographical one-man show has returned to Broadway as a full-blown musical replete with a terrific score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.
  • Come From Away - This new cast recording allows listeners to savor the heartwarming tales of the airline passengers who were diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11 and the community that welcomed them.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 
  • #ThrowbackThursday - Corey Brunish takes the Facebook/Twitter hashtag in a musical direction with this album of classic tunes by songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin; Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; and Bart Howard.
  • Philip Glass: Music for 'The Crucible' - Last season a fascinating revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible hit Broadway and one of its chief assets was an intriguing score by Philip Glass, which you can now savor on this cool new release.
  • Freaky Friday - There's a lot of giddy fun in this new tuner that's based on the movie of the same name. This new album features two great central performances from Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton.
  • Len Cariou Presents These Are My Friends - Tony winner Len Cariou is joined by some incredible folks on this album that revisits some of the hits from his career and then moves on to other favorites from the likes of Liz Callaway, Judy Kaye, Lee Roy Reams, and Anita Gillette.
  • Song of Solomon - Ramin Karimloo, who's thrilled audiences in Les Misérables and Love Never Dies, heads up a grand cast on this lavishly produced concept album for a new biblical musical.
  • Bare Naked - A bevy of great singers offer up tunes by songwriter Lynne Shankel on this new release, which includes both material from the revised off-Broadway production of Bare as well as some of her more recent writings.
  • Dream Ago - This remarkable album comes from a remarkable talent: Gabrielle Stravelli. Her voice has power, warmth, and, sometimes, great humor. It's been hard for me to stop playing this one. If you don't know her work, you should certainly sample some now!
  • Ruthless! - The cast recording for the often hysterical mash-up of The Bad Seed and All About Eve. Definitely worth checking out.

May 3 would have been lyricist/book writer/screenwriter Betty Comden's 100th birthday. As you'll be getting our next newsletter just a couple of days after that, it seemed only fitting that we pay tribute to this woman, who with partner Adolph Green penned such Broadway shows as On the TownOn the Twentieth Century, and The Will Rogers Follies.

Of course, they were also the writers behind films like Singin' in the RainGood News, and The Band Wagon, among others.

To get you started on an homage to Comden's zestful style (as a performer and a writer), take a listen to her as she and Green do their "Party With...."

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Apr
07

(Dis)Covering Coward

Kevin Kline opened Wednesday night on Broadway in a revival of Noël Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, so we are saluting either or both of those gentlemen this week here at BwayTunes. I have had the good fortune to see most of Kline’s stage performances, and though I will always treasure his work in his breakthrough role of Bruce Granit in On the Twentieth Century and as the Pirate King in the Public Theatre’s Central Park production of The Pirates of Penzance, one that stands out in my mind is his Captain Bluntschli in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, produced on Broadway in 1985 by Circle in the Square. Starring opposite Glenne Headley and Raul Julia and directed by John Malkovich, Kline was electric as he showed off his formidable chops for light and physical comedy, which augurs well for what appears to be his first crack at Coward.

The idea of Kline doing Coward led me to my organizing conceit for this column. The Master made many, many recordings of his theatre songs and appeared in his share of the shows on stage, but there are also scads of performers who have interpreted his work. Quite frankly, when I want a Coward fix, I tend to go to the source, especially the two indispensable 1950s recordings of his nightclub act: Noël Coward at Las Vegas (recorded live in performance) and Noël Coward in New York (done in a studio). But rather than discuss the familiar, I’m going to consider recordings of Coward songs made by others.

I became a Coward fan at a tender age (as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “When I was young and simple/I don’t recall the date”) when I watched the film of Blithe Spirit on TV with my mother (Gwen was a massive devotee of its star, Rex Harrison). Somehow my subsequent obsession with the serious, dramatically integrated American book musical as defined by the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II never affected my affection for him, even though Coward never really liked or, I think, understood that form. His lack of comfort with it was likely the reason why he never had a hit book show on Broadway (with the possible exception of his pre-R&H operetta Bitter Sweet, which opened late in 1929 and ran for about five months).

Coward’s songwriting influences remained operetta, revues, and the British music hall for his whole career, even when writing shows with a story. That’s why, for me, the standouts in his score for his last Broadway musical, 1963’s The Girl Who Came to Supper (based on Terrence Rattigan’s comedy The Sleeping Prince, which also became the film The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe) are two performance numbers, one plopped in each act with very little regard for the narrative.

In Act 1 British music hall star Tessie O’Shea stopped the show cold with a medley of four songs: “London Is a Little Bit of All Right,” “What Ho, Mrs. Brisket,” “Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army,” and “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown.” She was such a sensation that it brought her the Tony for best featured actress in a musical and was shown in its 11-minute entirety on The Ed Sullivan Show, which you can see on YouTube. By the way, a fifth song, “What’s the Matter With a Nice Beef Stew?,” was cut from the medley prior to Broadway, but you can still hear the chorus sing snippets of it as the number builds to its finale.

In Act 2 Florence Henderson, as an American chorus girl who falls in love with the middle-aged prince of the fictional middle-European country of Carpathia, had a tour de force when she got to recapitulate the plot of her show, The Coconut Girl, for the prince’s teenage son. She rattles through six songs while detailing Girl’s inane story; my favorite moment is when she enthusiastically sings her chorus part for “Lilies of the Valley” as a solo.

The rest of the score is pleasant enough, but for me the only song to hold a candle to these two sequences is the prince’s “I’ll Remember Her,” which closed the show. José Ferrer imbues it with the proper amount of rue and regret, and it’s proof that Coward could dramatize character in song quite effectively when he wanted to.

There aren’t, of course, a lot of full original cast recordings of Coward shows available to us, as most of his career predated the practice of making them. Nevertheless, many performances were documented in individual recordings of songs, and some choice ones include Beatrice Lillie’s rendition of “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” which she introduced in the 1938 musical revue Set to Music and can be found on A Marvelous Party With Beatrice Lillie, and Gertrude Lawrence’s “Someday I’ll Find You,” from the 1930 comedy Private Lives, which you can hear her sing on the collection Noël and Gertie in context opposite Coward in a recording done for radio of a scene from Act 1.

Coward’s 1946 musical, Pacific 1860, was written as a vehicle for Mary Martin, who starred as a 19th century opera diva in love with a British plantation owner’s son on the fictional Pacific island of Sambolo. Martin, hopelessly miscast, was very unhappy in the role, which shows on her various cuts. However, Sylvia Cecil, star of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, famous for its stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan works, sounds great in the score’s best tune, “This Is a Changing World.” Cecil reappeared in the 1950 Coward book musical Ace of Clubs, whose truncated OLCR is paired with Pacific’s on CD, but my favorite number from that is Pat Kirkwood’s delicious rendition of “Chase Me Charlie,” a song she reprised years later in the Chichester Festival’s 1994 musical revue Noël & Cole: Let’s Do It.

And then there’s Graham Payn. A famous boy soprano from South Africa, he had bit roles in Coward’s 1932 musical revue Words and Music. Years later, pursuing a career as an adult on the British musical stage, he and Coward reconnected and shortly the Master cast him in the 1945 musical revue Sigh No More, where Payn memorably introduced the ballad “Matelot,” about the singer’s love for a wandering, unfaithful sailor. Daringly, the sex of the faithful lover is never specified, though audiences of the time undoubtedly assumed the song to be about a heterosexual romance. Recorded as a 78 single, it’s not available digitally, but you can hear it on YouTube.

Payn and Coward became lovers and lifetime companions, and the Master wrote him several roles before Payn decided to retire and devote himself full time to supporting the man he loved. My favorite Payn performances, after “Matelot,” are his renditions of “Sail Away” and “I Like America,” both from Ace of Clubs, and the hilarious “Uncle Harry,” added to Pacific 1860 after it opened to rectify the critics’ complaints of a lack of laughs in the show.

The final two original cast Coward performances I’d like to salute are by Tammy Grimes and Elaine Stritch. Grimes starred in High Spirits, the 1964 musical version of my gateway Coward drug, which tells the tale of a kooky medium who inadvertently materializes the ghost of a waspish writer’s first wife. The book, music, and lyrics were by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, with Coward directing. But Grimes’ big comic set piece, “Home Sweet Heaven,” in which her character discusses all the people she socializes with in the afterlife, wasn’t landing the way it should. Coward wrote a new lyric for it, turning it into a showstopper, but he didn’t take credit. A rare instance of a song collaboration by the Master, it isn’t available digitally. The out-of-print CD goes for an inordinate amount online, but you can hear Grimes sing it, taken from a rare 45 r.p.m. single, on YouTube.

Stritch was elevated to the pantheon of musical comedy greats by her role as a lonely cruise ship hospitality director who falls in love with a younger man in 1961’s Sail Away (yes, Coward appropriated and slightly rewrote his song from Ace of Clubs to serve as the show’s title song). The musical’s rather ungenerous portrait of the American tourist may be why it only ran 167 performances on Broadway, but the OBCR and the OLCR (Stritch crossed the pond to play the show in the West End after Broadway) are lots of fun. Alas, both are unavailable digitally and out of print on CD. However, you can hear Stritch sing her fabulous 11 o’clock number, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?,” on the OBCR of her autobiographical one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

Moving on from original cast performances, I’ll close with some of the legions of covers of Coward songs, starting with American vaudevillian Harry Noble, whom I’ve only recently discovered. His 1954 LP, World Weary: The Songs of Noël Coward, was apparently the first attempt by any artist besides the Master himself to record an all-Coward disc. He’s equally at home with satire and sentiment in these direct and well-judged renditions. I particularly like his understated version of “Imagine the Duchess’s Feelings.”

Saloon singer Bobby Short’s 1972 double LP set Bobby Short Is Mad About Noël Coward was as instrumental in acquainting me with Coward’s oeuvre as the two nightclub-act recordings mentioned above, and the incomparable Short ranges from delightfully insouciant to exuberantly wicked to achingly wry while playing a mean piano. His ability to knowingly articulate sophisticated lyrics is a joy.

When Christine Ebersole starred in a 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit as the titular ghost, she recorded some Coward songs to be played in the theatre as the audience was arriving. This led to a CD, Christine Ebersole Sings Noël Coward, on which her silvery soprano is beautifully employed in a ballad-heavy repertoire that includes a couple of lesser-known songs, “When My Ship Comes Home” and “The Dream Is Over.”

And speaking of rarities, Steve Ross’ 2012 CD Noël Coward Off the Record features nothing but and is a must-have recording for the Coward connoisseur. It grew out of a concert I saw him give at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium, and his illuminating commentary is also included. I’m partial to “We’ve Got the Country at the Corner of the Street,” intended for working-class Londoners to sing about their blitzed city at the end of World War II. It was meant for the unproduced musical Hoi Polloi, written in 1949, which got a very enjoyable belated debut earlier this season off-Broadway thanks to Musicals Tonight! The song worked very well in context, by the way.

For a change of pace try Carmen McRae’s 1958 LP Mad About the Man: Carmen McRae Sings Noël Coward. This is another recent discovery for me, and it’s revealing to hear the singer’s forthrightly American, often jazzy take on such English material. Some of Jack Fleis’ pop arrangements are a bit startling, but they prove that the songs can support a wide range of interpretation. McRae’s ebullient “A Room With a View” is one for the ages. I have a hunch that I’ll be listening to this CD repeatedly in the future.

The most surprising McRae cut is her upbeat, swingy take on “If Love Were All,” working against its inherent introspection with unexpected success. I consider this song to be the quintessential Coward tune, thanks in part to the lines “I believe that since my life began/The most I’ve had is just/A talent to amuse,” and my favorite version of it is Julie Andrews’ performance at Alan Jay Lerner’s 1986 memorial at the Shubert Theatre (I have a live tape). It was Lerner’s favorite song. Andrews can be heard doing a lovely, straightforward rendition on her 1961 LP Broadway’s Fair Julie, though the arrangement is a bit syrupy. Jazz great Helen Merrill gets sad and sultry on Merrill at Midnight, while Shirley Bassey is bold and biting on Love Songs. Judy Garland imbues it with charged vulnerability on her classic Judy at Carnegie Hall, and Barbara Cook’s understated performance on It’s Better With a Band is simple and stunning. But for the absolutely definitive take, you must go to the original: French cabaret star Ivy St. Helier, for whom it was written. You can hear her on Noël Coward: The Great Shows, which offers many early original cast performances of Coward songs. The best, however, is to watch her do it on YouTube in the 1933 British film version of Bitter Sweet. Perfectly capturing what New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently called “the quintessential French equation…sentimentality plus cynicism,” it’s pure Gallic magic.

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