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Jun
08

Tonys 2018

It's Tony Awards season, and so Ken and Erik are offering columns about this year's awards, some predictions, and other thoughts on the history of the Tonys in general. These are both perfect lead-ins to Sunday's ceremony!

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • 2018 Tony Awards Season  - You'll find tracks from this year's Tony-nominated shows--as well as the other musicals--that opened this season, along with a couple of terrific surprises on this just-out album.
  • A Letter to Harvey Milk - This show couldn't get a Tony nomination this year, because it opened off-Broadway. Nonetheless, it's an intriguing piece of writing (and listening), and as all of the other cast albums for the season are mentioned in Erik's and Ken's columns, I put it here.

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. 


You'll hear Broadway's 2017-2018 season unfold with this week's Spotify playlist. I've included cuts from all of the cast albums of the shows that have opened, augmented with tracks featuring Tony-nominated performers in other roles and a few other surprises. Hope you have fun with it!


Harbinger Records has just released its most recent edition of its Songwriter Showcase Series. A two-disc set featuring songs by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, it contains an incredible selection of never-released demos and other gems! It’s our current free download.


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

  • Carousel - Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 classic has gotten a much-discussed revival with a great array of vocalists! Five of them, in fact, are Tony nominated. Listening to this new album will help you understand why.
  • My Fair Lady - Lerner and Loewe's beloved musicalization of Shaw's Pygmalion is delighting audiences at Lincoln Center Theater, and this new cast recording will let you savor the joys of both the writers' work and the lead performances of Harry Hadden-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Norbert Leo Butz.

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.

  • Mean Girls - The new musical based on the Tina Fey movie has some bubbly tunes from Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin that prove to be wonderfully infectious! Plus there are some great performers delivering them, notably Tony nominee Taylor Louderman.
  • Hair - 50th Anniversary Cast Recording - It's hard to believe that this rock musical is squarely hitting middle age. This new album from England reminds us of how the tunes are still remarkably vibrant.
  • Frozen - You can enjoy the Broadway incarnation of this hit movie at long last! Caissie Levy and Patti Murin headline this company and are in great voice, and there are also 12 new tunes by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to enjoy.
  • Sing Happy - The amazing Audra McDonald's recent New York Philharmonic concert is captured in all its glory on this release. What makes it particularly exciting are the number of songs on here that she's never recorded before.
  • Prince of Broadway - The recording of this celebration of the career and vision of director-producer Harold Prince allows listeners to savor both his genius and the history of musical theater while delighting in some terrific new interpretations of classic songs.
  • Hello Again - A host of Broadway vets, from Tony winners Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton to Cheyenne Jackson and Sam Underwood, are featured on this soundtrack recording for the movie version of Michael John LaChiusa's 1993 musical.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar - John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered terrific performances on NBC's live broadcast of this Andrew Lloyd Webber--Tim Rice classic. It's fantastic having this soundtrack recording that preserves their work.
  • Cy Coleman - A Jazzman's Broadway - The songwriter-performer lends his distinct jazz sensibility to a trio of musicals on this new release. He covers songs from two Rodgers and Hammerstein tuners (Flower Drum Song & South Pacific), as well as ones from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's Jamaica.
  • "True Love" - Patti Murin is sounding pretty extraordinary on this last of four singles of new songs written for the show that's based on the phenomenally successful movie. It's a show that's garnered some raves. This might be one reason why.
  • "Word of Your Body" - The new NBC series Rise is doing the same thing that Fox's Gleedid: release singles of songs performed on the show. Here's one that's a cover from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening.
  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 70th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.
  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.

I'm going to be traveling for the rest of June and most of July, so there will be a corresponding sabbatical for me in terms of updating BwayTunes. Dodgy WiFi will make big changes to the site difficult at best.

While I won't be sending you a newsletter for a while, I will be keeping new releases up to date on the homepage, and I hope to offer up a couple of free song downloads during this temporary break as well.

Enjoy the beginning of summer, and to send you on your way I suggest a listen to some tracks from Noël Coward's Sail Away, including "The Passenger's Always Right" and "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?"

 

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Jun
08

Everything Old is New Again

Tony season is upon us and it’s a year that careened wildly between the sublime The Band’s Visit to the ridiculous SpongeBob SquarePants.

Those two shows plus Frozen and Mean Girls are the nominees for Best Musical. For a while The Band’s Visit seemed to be a shoo-in but recently some have posited that SpongeBob might actually get the Tony nod.

Of course, there’s a whole coterie of theatergoers who look down on SpongeBob as simply a cartoon blown-up to fill the Palace Theatre stage. And others feel that The Band’s Visit is heartfelt and sincere but missing that Broadway razzmatazz. And after it’s opening the much heralded Frozen turned out to be a pretty slushy fairy-tale in the Disney manner. As for Mean Girls, the snarky movie became a snarky musical with the addition of some forgettable songs.

Well, whatever you think, it was ever thus on Broadway.

Take SpongeBob for example. Broadway history has long (very long) list of shows based on cartoons and their close relatives comic strips.

The comic strip Happy Hooligan premiered in 1900 and had a musical version as early as 1906 with Happy Hooligan’s Trip Around the World. The next year saw a show of the same name but with different production credits. We don’t know much more about the show but the fact that both played Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania shows the level of humor on stage.

Hard on Happy Hooligan’s heels were a series of shows based on Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff newspaper strip that was first published in 1907. Only six years later a musical version of the same name toured the country under the auspices of producer Gus Hill. There were a series of Mutt and Jeff musicals produced by Hill for nine more years. There were Mutt and Jeff at the Races, Divorced, in Chinatown, in College,in Mexico, and Mutt and Jeff’s Wedding (not to each other—that would be asking too much for 1917). So, between 1913 and 1922 there were no less than eight Mutt and Jeff musicals, none of which went to Broadway because Gus Hill knew that people in the sticks would sell out his shows but Broadway’s so-called intelligentsia wouldn’t go for the corny jokes.

And if you think that comics were only for rubes at the start of the last century may we draw your attention to a great big Broadway hit, 1956’s Li’l Abner based on the strip by Al Capp. And class-A songwriters Gene DePaul and Johnny Mercer provided a terrific score.

Closer to our own age (and you knew it was coming) was Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s smasharama, Annie. There hasn’t been a year and maybe even a day that has gone by without a production of this smash hit musical that ran for over 2,000 performances. And like Mutt and Jeff, there were sequels. There was Annie Two: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge that flopped out-of-town in 1990. And that morphed into 1993’s off-Broadway flop, Annie Warbucks. Sometimes the magic works but it’s damned hard to recreate past glories. But that’s fodder for another column.

And please note: Li’l Abner especially was written for adult consumption much as was the comic strip. And Annie also walked the same fine line but usually erred on the side of the younger set in the audience.

Now on to the new fairy tale of Frozen. Again, fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and others have been around since the beginnings of Broadway. Most of the early ones were based on English pantomimes but they soon grew into full-fledged musicals and, again, they were meant for children of all ages, as their publicity was wont to crow.

Cinderella had her moments on stage in a series of shows including 1881’s Cinderella at School; 1904’s Cinderella and the Prince of Castle of Heart’s Desire; 1920’s Cinderella on Broadway produced by the Shubert brothers; and 1916’s flip on the fairy tale, The Cinderella Man with music by none other than Victor Herbert. Of course, in 1957, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized the story for television and subsequently there was a 2013 readjustment for modern sensibilities.

And speaking of Victor Herbert he had the most successful fairy tale musical of all time, 1903’s classic Babes in Toyland. Along with lyricist/librettist Glen MacDonough, Herbert wrote one of the greatest scores in Broadway history. And it was a lollapalooza of a production. You think that The Phantom of the Opera is a spectacular show? Well, it can’t hold a fairy godmother’s wand to Babes in Toyland when it first opened.

Our final two musicals don’t really have Broadway antecedents. First of all, The Band’s Visit, excellent though it is, is at heart an off-Broadway musical especially in terms of its physical production. It’s an excellent, moving show but seldom has there been an original Broadway musical on such a small scale. It certainly owes a lot to the success of Avenue Q, another modest show that made it on Broadway from Off and then subsequently went back to Off-Broadway.

And Mean Girls. Well, it does follow in the questionable tradition of slapping songs into what is basically a script from Hollywood. That’s not to say that the show isn’t enjoyable or acted and directed well. But it’s somehow still a movie on stage much in the same as were Legally Blonde and Sister Act.

Have a wonderful Sunday. Everybody into the pool (that is the betting pool).

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Jun
08

Not Just Another Tony Year

Another year, another Tony Awards. Except it’s not just another year for me. For the first time in at least 15 sun orbits, I have not seen every Broadway show of the season. That’s because the Drama Desk tightened its rules for eligibility, and my gig here at BwayTunes was no longer enough to qualify me for membership. As being a Drama Desk voter required me to see not only every Broadway show but also as many off- and off-off-Broadway shows as I could, it has meant a sizeable drop in my theatregoing. I went from attending nearly 100 shows to a little fewer than 25. Of course, that 100 was already a reduction from my days as theatre editor and head theatre critic for Backstage, when I would see as many as 250 shows in a season (and was also a Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award voter).

I confess I don’t miss the volume or the voting. Going to the theatre only when I want to has been a blessing, though it’s not so easy on the pocketbook, while deciding between two or more different but equally worthy efforts just for the sake of choosing was never fun. I prefer noncompetitive awards saluting excellence, such as the Obie and Theatre World awards.

However, not seeing all the nominated shows does make Tony prognostication harder. In recognition of that fact, I have eliminated the “should have been nominated” category, except in two instances in which I felt that an artist should have not only been nominated but should win the category as well. Both of those cases involve the musical revue Prince of Broadway, which was egregiously denied any nominations at all. For my money it should have been tapped in the categories I’m looking at here for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Emily Skinner and Bryonha Marie Parham), Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Tony Yazbeck), Best Orchestrations (Jason Robert Brown), Best Choreography (Susan Stroman), Best Director of a Musical (Harold Prince), and Best Musical. To see which two I think it should have won, you’ll have to read below.

To be as transparent as possible, here are the shows nominated for the following awards that I have not seen: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2, Frozen, and the revival of Once on This Island (though I have heard the OBCRs of the last two). I also skipped Escape to Margaritaville, but so did the Tony committee when handing out nominations, so bullet dodged there. No doubt in part due to the lack of Tony love, the poorly reviewed Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical will be closing on July 1 after a run of only three-and-a-half months.

And now, without further ado…

Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Renée Fleming, Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Carousel
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Will Win: Lindsay Mendez
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Emily Skinner

However good her work may be, DeBose is stuck in a badly reviewed jukebox musical. Rigg is superb, but it’s a very small role and she doesn’t sing. Park is appealing, but the part lacks definition and good songs. This brings it down to Fleming and Mendez. The former sings beautifully but fails to impress in the acting department. Mendez has been better elsewhere, but it’s a good role, she was well reviewed, and it’s her first time at the dance. That makes it Mendez by process of elimination. Also, she won the Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk awards. Personally, I think Skinner’s consistently fresh and vital takes on “Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Send in the Clowns,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and especially a stunning reinvention of “Now You Know” constituted the best work I saw by a featured actress in a musical this season.

Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Carousel
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Will Win: Norbert Leo Butz
Should Win: Ari’el Stachel

Gemignani is very good indeed as Enoch Snow, but director Jack O’Brien has cut the role to ribbons. Henson is agreeable but playing an awfully tired gay cliché. Lee is fine, but the role of Squidward Q. Tentacles is pretty much what it sounds like, and Lee was more impressive in Mary Poppins. I think it’s a race between Butz and Stachel, and I’m predicting Butz because he doesn’t just put the numbers over with style; he also absolutely nails Doolittle’s big scene with Higgins. Plus he’s a Broadway favorite. Still, he doesn’t banish my memories of Stanley Holloway and George Rose, while Stachel’s subtle and original take on a macho Egyptian ladies man cum musician was seriously compelling. Lee did take the Drama Desk, but in a field that included neither Butz (ridiculously not nominated) nor Stachel (nominated last year but lost to Gavin Creel for Hello, Dolly!), and Butz beat Lee for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. So Butz it is. My vote, though, would be Stachel by a hair.

Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once on This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Will Win: Katrina Lenk
Should Win: Lauren Ambrose

Six nominees. Really? Still, I shouldn’t be snarky, as I haven’t seen the work of LaChanze and Hailey Kilgore. For the former’s chances, though, see Ariana DeBose above. For the latter’s, she sounds charming on the OBCR, but LaChanze herself couldn’t win in the role back in 1991, when it was unaccountably in the featured category. Louderman should be in the featured category, and her performance, though certainly successful, is by requirement one loud note. Mueller isn’t doing her best work as Julie Jordan and already has her Tony. She did win the Drama Desk, but in a race that didn’t include either Lenk or Ambrose, the former inexplicably denied a nomination last year and the latter equally inexplicably denied one this year (see above for Norbert Leo Butz; those nominators really do seem to have had a bee in their bonnets when it came to My Fair Lady). Thus, once again, it’s a two-way race. Ambrose has the harder part and inhabits it more fully than any stage Eliza I’ve seen. Lenk is every bit as good, though, doing rich, flavorful, surprising work. Unfortunately, Ambrose missed at least four performances during peak Tony voter attendance (no word as to why), which won’t help her. Also, there seems to be a segment of the community that resents her for moving into musical theatre, despite the fact that she is clearly more than talented enough to do so. I’ll be happy with either winning, but my vote would go to Ambrose.

Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Carousel
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tony Shalhoub
Should Win: Tony Shalhoub and Harry Hadden-Paton in a tie

This, for me, is the hardest category in terms of predictions, because I think any of the four could take it. I don’t understand all the over-the-top raves for Ethan Slater’s helium-voiced sponge (he does the job well enough, but some job), but they exist, and he prevailed at the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle competitions and won a Theatre World Award, so he should certainly be considered a front-runner. Henry is done no favors by director Jack O’Brien’s defenestrating revival, which, between ill-advised cuts and head-scratching additions and alterations, definitely throws the show out the window. Nevertheless, Henry’s reviews were largely good, he sings the role impressively, and many think his hard-shelled, raging macho swagger is how Billy Bigelow should be played (I don’t). Over at the Gold Derby website practically none of the “experts” think Hadden-Paton has a chance. As his Henry Higgins is the first to make me forget Rex Harrison, I find that shocking and unpersuasive. But perhaps Higgins is not an award-winning role at this juncture in our social politics. Shalhoub was the heart and soul of The Band’s Visit, the glue that held everything together, and his reviews were stunning. Nevertheless, he only had one song, and it wasn’t a character song. Also, though he returned to do some performances for Tony voters in May, he’s now out of the part for good, which is never a good thing if you want to win a Tony. Slater won both times without Shalhoub in the mix, as he was eligible for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle awards last year. I prefer to believe that the Tonys will go with substance over flash, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
Adrian Sutton, Angels in America
David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen
Jeff Richmond and Neil Benjamin, Mean Girls
Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: David Yazbek
Should Win: David Yazbek

I think Yazbek is a lock for best score. His only possible competition is the starry horde of pop tunesmiths for SpongeBob SquarePants (I think the nomination should ditch the long list and simply read “Far Too Many Writers”), but The Band’s Visit is the best work of his career, and he’s already been the bridesmaid for three fine scores.

Best Orchestrations
John Clancy, Mean Girls
Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, Once on This Island
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
Jonathan Tunick, Carousel

Will Win: Jamshied Sharifi
Should Win: Jamshied Sharifi

The majority of Tony voters don’t really understand what an orchestration is and generally end up voting for whatever they choose for best score. However, this is a tough category, with only John Clancy’s bland work on a generic score not, I think, in the hunt. Kitt amazingly made SpongeBob almost sound like a coherent, and theatrical, score; Milazzo and Starobin brought a whole new, more acoustic approach to Island using found objects as instruments; and Broadway legend Tunick elegantly reduced the size of Carousel’s orchestra without sacrificing (well, not too much) the lush sound of Don Walker’s classic original charts. Sharifi’s hypnotic scoring of Middle Eastern–flavored sounds not normally heard on Broadway is exhilarating, and, when the band plays without vocals, positively electric. If he doesn’t win, I think Tunick, who won the Drama Desk, though without Sharifi in the race, is most likely to take it away from him.

Best Book of a Musical
Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit
Jennifer Lee, Frozen
Tina Fey, Mean Girls
Kyle Jarrow, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tina Fey
Should Win: Itamar Moses

Lee is there merely to fill out the category (the Tony committee did that to the Disney production in each of Frozen’s three nominations), while Jarrow’s picaresque cultural pastiche is pretty ramshackle. Moses’ work is light years ahead of Fey’s in craft, but she is a big name and can write good one-liners. Plus the voters are going to want to give something to Mean Girls, and this is the most likely category. However, I really hope I’m wrong.

Best Choreography
Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Steven Hoggett: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Justin Peck, Carousel

Will Win: Justin Peck
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Susan Stroman

This is only the second category so far that I think is a lock, and that would be Justin Peck’s highly lauded work on Carousel. It’s big and showy, but it also unbalances the musical and comes up short in the storytelling and character departments. Nicholaw is repeating himself to lesser effect; Gattelli admirably displays his command of two very distinct vocabularies, but dance is not centrally important to either show; and Hoggett is not going to win for movement in a play. Stroman did yeoman work rethinking classic numbers in Prince of Broadway in fresh ways that honored the originals. Her wrenching staging of “The Right Girl” alone, particularly as interpreted by the astonishing Tony Yazbeck, should have brought her the prize. Yazbeck, by the way, just won the 2018 Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway Show for his work in Prince of Broadway.

Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Once on This Island
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

Will Win: David Cromer
Should Win: David Cromer and Bartlett Sher in a tie

I see this as a three-person race among Landau, Cromer, and Sher. For Nicholaw’s chances, see choreography above. Arden’s conceptual reimagining of Island was critically praised, but the show is struggling to break even in a small theatre. Landau gets points for bringing her avant-garde sensibilities to commercial material without alienating audiences, and she tied with Sher for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award and beat him for the Drama Desk. However, SpongeBob, underperforming at the box office for six months now, is not milking its brand. Sher has once again made a classic Golden Age musical bracingly relevant and fresh, while Cromer performed that hardest of all tasks: shepherding a new and unconventional musical to commercial success. Also, Cromer won the 2017 Drama Desk Award for best director of a musical when The Band’s Visit debuted at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a rare Drama Desk win for an off-Broadway show. As Cromer was not in the Outer Critics’ and Drama Desk races this year, I think the Tony will go to him.

Best Revival of a Musical
My Fair Lady
Once on This Island
Carousel

Will Win: My Fair Lady
Should Win: My Fair Lady

Because there were only three eligible revivals this season, a nomination here is not an achievement, as the Tony committee is required to fill out all categories. As I noted above, I haven’t seen Island, but as a property it is not on the same level as the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe masterpieces, so that doesn’t bode well for its chances. For me, director Jack O’Brien ran away from the dark themes of Carousel, choosing instead to gussy things up gaudily (it’s worth noting that he was not nominated for best director for the Tony and the Outer Critics’ Circle awards), while Sher delivered a bracingly modern take that made My Fair Lady feel newly minted. However, both productions have their champions and detractors in the theatre community, and I think it will be a close race. Interestingly, My Fair Lady won the Drama Desk even though the nominators clearly preferred Carousel. I’m going with Alan and Fritz.

Best Musical
The Band’s Visit
Frozen
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: The Band’s Visit
Should Win: The Band’s Visit

This is my third lock of the night. I can’t conceive of any other outcome, as I do not want to live in a world where The Band’s Visit loses to any of its three competitors. I’m sure the hubby is planning to hide all the sharp objects just in case.

 

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May
25

Being Completist

With Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band finally on Broadway, we remembered how the show had been recorded in toto when it premiered off-Broadway in 1968. This got us to thinking about other shows, musical and non, that have been preserved completely. You'll find Erik and Ken waxing eloquent on them in their current columns.

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • Dreamgirls in Concert  - The Broadway cast album for this tuner severely truncated the Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen score in an effort to make the recording sound more like a pop album. Thankfully, we've got this 2005 release that allows all of the textures and motifs in this richly conceived show to shine through.
  • Songs From an Unmade Bed - Also from 2005 is this zesty recording, featuring a beautiful performance by Michael Winther, which gives you the chance to savor all of the tunes in this amusing, bittersweet, and sometimes heartbreaking song cycle.

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. 


A playlist based on  this week's theme seems a little silly; after all, the idea of a complete recording is to give listeners the chance to enjoy a show from beginning to end. Still, there are some grand cuts on all of the albums we're talking about this week, and I think they end up making a swell Spotify playlist.


Stage Door Records continues to comb through fascinating rarities, and with its newest release the label turns the clock back to 1959 and the musical Redhead. We couldn't be more pleased to share a track from this terrific disc as a free download with you this week.


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

  • Mean Girls - The new musical based on the Tina Fey movie has some bubbly tunes from Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin that prove to be wonderfully infectious! Plus there are some great performers delivering them, notably Tony nominee Taylor Louderman.
  • Hair - 50th Anniversary Cast Recording - It's hard to believe that this rock musical is squarely hitting middle age. This new album from England reminds us of how the tunes are still remarkably vibrant.

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.

  • Frozen - You can enjoy the Broadway incarnation of this hit movie at long last! Caissie Levy and Patti Murin headline this company and are in great voice, and there are also 12 new tunes by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to enjoy.
  • Sing Happy - The amazing Audra McDonald's recent New York Philharmonic concert is captured in all its glory on this release. What makes it particularly exciting are the number of songs on here that she's never recorded before.
  • Prince of Broadway - The recording of this celebration of the career and vision of director-producer Harold Prince allows listeners to savor both his genius and the history of musical theater while delighting in some terrific new interpretations of classic songs.
  • Hello Again - A host of Broadway vets, from Tony winners Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton to Cheyenne Jackson and Sam Underwood, are featured on this soundtrack recording for the movie version of Michael John LaChiusa's 1993 musical.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar - John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered terrific performances on NBC's live broadcast of this Andrew Lloyd Webber--Tim Rice classic. It's fantastic having this soundtrack recording that preserves their work.
  • Cy Coleman - A Jazzman's Broadway - The songwriter-performer lends his distinct jazz sensibility to a trio of musicals on this new release. He covers songs from two Rodgers and Hammerstein tuners (Flower Drum Song & South Pacific), as well as ones from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's Jamaica.
  • "True Love" - Patti Murin is sounding pretty extraordinary on this last of four singles of new songs written for the show that's based on the phenomenally successful movie. It's a show that's garnered some raves. This might be one reason why.
  • "Word of Your Body" - The new NBC series Rise is doing the same thing that Fox's Gleedid: release singles of songs performed on the show. Here's one that's a cover from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening.
  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 70th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.
  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.

The Tony Awards will be handed out on June 10, and the next BwayTunes newsletter should hit your email just two days before. When you open it you'll find Ken's and Erik's prognostications for the ceremony.

I'll be curious to see who they think will win in the various categories, including Best Musical, where the nominees range from The Band's Visit to Frozen to Mean Girls to SpongeBob SquarePants.

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May
25

Complete Recorded Shows...

Like early versions of books on tape, some shows were deemed so important, neigh impossible to appreciate without a full airing, that several record companies (mainly Columbia) recorded complete shows.

We’re not going to discuss the plays that were captured on vinyl. And actually, we’re going to skip all the also-rans in the musical field and concentrate on the greatest of all complete recordings, Frank Loesser’s masterpiece (yes, masterpiece) The Most Happy Fella.

Why does this recording best all the others? Because, like operas that usually got the 3-LP treatment, The Most Happy Fella is best appreciated as a whole rather than a series of songs without the recitative and sung ligaments holding the entire thing together. Not quite an opera, not really a musical in form, Loesser’s achievement (and he wrote the music, lyrics and dialogue) ably captures it’s source, Sidney Howard’s play, They Knew What They Wanted.

The score is wildly divergent. It ranges from the traditional musical comedy comic song “Ooh My Feet” to the operatic “My Heart Is So Full of You,” from large choral numbers “Abbondonza” and “Sposalizio” to popular hits “Standin’ on the Corner” and “Big D” to simplicity of “Love and Kindness” and “Warm All Over.” This is one of the richest scores in musical comedy.

It’s interesting to note that in 1954, Harold Rome’s emotionally rich show Fanny opened. Also with an opera star in the lead and also the plot revolving on an older man adopting the baby of a younger man and the woman they both loved as his own. And in 1956’s The Most Happy Fella it’s Tony, self-described as “An Old Man” who adopts the newborn of his mail-order bride, and the young man whose wanderlust makes him go wandering.

And some of the score of The Most Happy Fella is also reminiscent of Harold Rome’s  Fanny. The former’s “Joey, Joey, Joey” as sung by the character Joey (natch) is all about having the need to constantly move on at the impossible task of finding oneself. And in Fanny, Marius yearns for a life on the sea when he sings “Restless Heart.” Both leave newborns behind to be adopted by the older leading characters as their own.

Both shows are achingly poignant. Sadly, Fanny has slipped somewhat into obscurity like many of Harold Rome’s scores. But The Most Happy Fella lives on with as complete a recording as could fit on three LPs. It’s a glorious score with operatic ballads, hilarious character numbers, and something rare that both scores share, poignancy.  And that’s what gives both their strengths. Flawed characters trying to be true to themselves while dealing with each other in sometimes dramatic, sometimes humorous ways.

Do yourself a favor and check out both scores on CD and downloads.

 

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May
25

Some Compleat Complete Recordings

Director Joe Mantello’s excellent production of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, opens on Broadway next week. I saw it during early previews, just a couple of days prior to Jim Parson’s curtain call slip-up, which fractured his foot. He’s now playing the show in a boot and with the aid of a cane, but I’m sure that will make no difference in his dynamic performance as Michael, the self-hating gay man and party host, though navigating the two-story set may prove a challenge. Already a hot ticket, thanks in part to its starry cast of out gay actors, the show will be harder than ever to get into once the reviews arrive, so I advise you to get your tix now.

The original 1968 production was a landmark cultural event, captured on screen in 1970 in William Friedkin’s definitive film version, also featuring the original stage cast. But before the movie, the show was available on a complete double LP set, which as a closeted teenager I listened to at my local library (it was too dangerous to take it home). Boys was hardly the first Broadway play to be waxed in its entirety. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Murray Schisgal’s Luv, Sidney Michaels’ Dylan, Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among others, were also preserved for posterity by their original casts. And there was even an entire record label, Caedmon Records, devoted to recording classic plays with top actors. Alas, none of that repertory appears to be available today in digital form, whether on CD or for download, except for the Albee drama. Still, in honor of that tradition, and The Boys in the Band in particular, our topic today at BwayTunes is favorite complete recordings of musicals. Here are 10 of mine, in alphabetical order.

Candide (1974 Broadway Cast Recording)
I was already a fan of this classic Leonard Bernstein–Richard Wilbur (mostly) score thanks to its 1956 OBCR starring the incomparable Barbara Cook. So when I heard that director Harold Prince and book writer Hugh Wheeler were doing an off-Broadway revisal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I was thrilled. I had read Lillian Hellman’s published script for the musical and found it problematic; perhaps they would fix the flaws. Hellman forbade the use of any of her text, so Wheeler was allowed to start afresh, and he brought the show closer in tone and style to Voltaire’s original, freewheeling “schoolboy jape” satire on unbridled optimism. The production pleased the critics and transferred to a commercial Broadway run of 740 performances, of which I finally managed to see the 738th. But before that I listened to this over and over; it was the next best thing to being there. Also, it had the scintillatingly cynical “Auto-da-Fé (What a Day)” sequence, with its brilliant John Latouche lyric (augmented a bit by Stephen Sondheim), which was not recorded in 1956. The reduced orchestra didn’t bother me; it felt in keeping with the cartoon-like style. To this day it’s also the only version of Candide I have seen that I think worked as a piece of theatre, and I have seen more than my share, even writing narration for a concert version given by the San Francisco Symphony in 1993. My husband, who saw the show at BAM, was such a fan of this recording that he bought two of them, so he could stack his record player up and play the show straight through without getting up to flip sides. We didn’t know each other then, but now, whenever we encounter one of life’s confounding moments of arbitrary cruelty, we are apt to share a glance and mouth Wheeler’s curtain line, spoken at the end of the soaring “Make Our Garden Grow” when a cow suddenly shudders, falls over, and dies: “Ah, me. The pox!”

The Cradle Will Rock (1985 Original Cast Recording)
Marc Blitzstein’s Brechtian broadside about prostitution in all its forms eluded me until I saw the Acting Company perform it off-Broadway in 1983, I think because previous recordings were limited to the songs, and I had never really understood their dramatic context and the piece’s overall performance style. This production traveled to London’s Old Vic Theatre and was recorded there by Jay Records two years later. Patti LuPone won an Olivier Award for her performance (in tandem with her work in Les Misérables the same season), but the whole company is superb, and director John Houseman’s opening narration recounting the piece’s dramatic history is as riveting on disc as it was in the theatre. (Houseman co-produced the original in 1937 as part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre.) This complete recording lets you hear Blitzstein’s scorching sui generis blending of spoken dialogue, Sprechstimme, underscoring, and song in its full glory.

Dessa Rose
Jay Records producer John Yap made the fortuitous decision to record this ambitious 2005 off-Broadway musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) in its entirety because the show seamlessly interweaves dialogue and song. Employing story-theatre techniques, song fragments and set pieces, nearly continuous underscoring, commentary and action, time shifting, and fluid movement, the end result was a work of total theatre. LaChanze and Rachel York are outstanding as, respectively, Dessa Rose, a runaway slave who incited a rebellion, and Ruth, an abandoned Southern wife who shelters runaways to keep her plantation going. Michael Hayden as a journalist obsessed with Dessa Rose and Norm Lewis as a runaway slave who helps her but becomes romantically involved with Ruth provide strong support. Ahrens’ use of twin narrations—as old women Dessa Rose and Ruth each narrates the other’s story in flashback—is marvelously sophisticated, giving the show a novelistic texture that could only be captured by a complete recording. Oh, and the luxurious CD packaging, including a hardcover full script, is faboo.

Falsettos (March of the Falsettosand Falsettoland)
William Finn’s one-act Marvin musicals were as groundbreaking in their way as The Boys in the Band, coming in 1981 and 1990 and eventually being combined on Broadway in 1992, though the Broadway version, which contained rewrites and changes, wasn’t recorded until 2016’s phenomenal revival, helmed by original director and co–book writer James Lapine. In 1981 leading gay characters in a musical were as new as Mart Crowley’s open homosexuals were in 1968. The 1981 and 1990 recordings are necessary both as documents of Finn and Lapine’s initial impulses and for the definitive performances of Michael Rupert, Chip Zien, Stephen Bogardus, Alison Fraser, Faith Prince, Lonny Price, Heather Mac Rae, Janet Metz, James Kushner, and Danny Gerard. The 2016 recording is a heart-stopping rendering of the extraordinary final product, with great work from Christian Borle, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Rannels, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, and Anthony Rosenthal that resoundingly honors their predecessors.

The Golden Apple (2014 Lyric Stage Cast Recording)
Lyric Stage of Irving, Texas, did musical theatre lovers a great service by programming a production of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ delicious 1954 retelling of the myths of the Trojan War set in bucolic turn-of-the-20th-century America with the explicit intent of recording the whole thing live in performance. The show’s OBCR, released by RCA in 1954, was confined to one LP and far too truncated to convey what the through-sung musical was, though the faultless performances of Kaye Ballard, Priscilla Gillette, Stephen Douglass, Jack Whiting, Martha Larrimore, Shannon Bolin, Portia Nelson, and Bibi Osterwald are happily captured for all time. If Lyric’s able regional company can’t match their brilliance, or the wonderful work done by the company of the 2017 production mounted by Encores! at City Center, they are more than good enough to let the piece speak for itself. What’s more, who knows if Encores! would ever have produced the show if the Lyric Stage recording hadn’t come out?

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
When Mass, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to open the Kennedy Center, premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, it was the first new stage work from Leonard Bernstein since West Side Story opened in 1957. As I was only three years old then and not yet aware of the musical theatre, Mass was really the first Bernstein “musical” of my life. I was tremendously excited by the prospect but confess to being disappointed when I first heard Columbia’s two-LP boxed recording. While I liked a lot of the music, the lack of a detailed story and characters frustrated me. It wasn’t until I saw the piece broadcast by PBS in a 10th anniversary production that I “got” the work, and I have loved it ever since, despite being as secular a person as one could possibly be. Alan Titus is a commanding yet vulnerable Celebrant, and his fury at the chorus of questioning believers during the consecration of the bread and wine is coruscating. Indeed, I remember the outraged cries of “Sacrilege!” against Bernstein at the time. Lenny being controversial. Who’d a thunk it?

The Most Happy Fella
The three-LP boxed set OBCR of Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical comedy opera based on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted was long out of print by the time I became interested in the show. Even the well-stocked Cleveland Public Library didn’t have it. I had to settle for a single, tantalizing disc of excerpts. When I finally acquired the full-length recording from Chicago’s Rose Records while at college at Northwestern University, it was like finding the Holy Grail, and listening to it was an ecstatic and revelatory experience. And, yes, I know it’s technically not complete, because the short comedy dialogue scene in which Shorty Long teaches Susan Johnson to paste labels on crates is missing, but I’m including it in this list anyway. Uber completists will find that scene on Jay Records’ 2000 studio recording, which also has a useful appendix of cut numbers, including two for Tony’s sister, Marie, that I think should be restored in performance: “Nobody’s Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You” (a duet with Tony) and “Eyes Like a Stranger.”

Porgy and Bess (1976 Houston Grand Opera Cast Recording)
I spent my weekend food money to get a prime orchestra seat at the Mark Hellinger Theatre to see Houston Grand Opera’s acclaimed production of George Gershwin’s masterpiece of an opera, and it was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. You forget living on leftover cereal and stale bagels for two days, but I’ll remember that performance all my life. I didn’t see Clamma Dale’s Bess, alas (though Esther Hinds was excellent), but Donnie Ray Albert’s transcendent Porgy and Larry Marshall’s galvanic Sportin’ Life are burned into my duodenal lining forever. This was only the second full-length recording, coming within a year of the release of one done by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of its new (at the time) maestro Lorin Maazel. (A 1951 studio recording conducted by the eminent Broadway musical director Lehman Engel for Columbia Masterworks claimed it was complete but only included about two-thirds of the score, clocking in at 129 minutes. Nevertheless, it was my introduction to the work, and I will always think of it fondly. It’s available on CD but not for digital download.) I had Maazel’s recording, but once I heard the Houston discs I could never go back to it. Maazel was too “legit” and stodgy for me. And, of course, the singers on Maazel’s opus didn’t have the advantage of having played the roles on stage.

Putting It Together
This musical-revue-with-a-wisp-of-plot utilized the songs of Stephen Sondheim to tell the tale of a troubled upper-class WASP marriage. Conceived and directed by English musical theatre star Julia McKenzie, it played a limited run of 96 performances off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993. The run sold out before the show began performances because the star was none other than Julie Andrews, in her first appearance on the New York stage since Camelot, 33 years earlier. I didn’t think the wisp of a plot worked very well, but nevertheless I somehow managed to see the show three times (once taking advantage of a blizzard) because Andrews’ work in it was so extraordinary, supremely intelligent and bracingly adult. She gave textbook acting lessons on songs such as “Could I Leave You?,” “Country House,” “My Husband the Pig/Ev’ry Day a Little Death,” “Like It Was,” and especially a virtuosic rendition of “Getting Married Today” in which she sang all the parts. I enjoy the contributions of Michael Rupert, Stephen Collins, Rachel York, and Christopher Durang as well, but I listen to this for Andrews.

Regina (1958 New York City Opera Cast Recording)
In 1979 Encompass New Opera Theatre did a vest-pocket off-off-Broadway production of Marc Blitzstein’s masterful musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Incorporating some jazz-band-inflected material for the African-American characters that had been cut at Hellman’s request originally, it was a triumphant evening in the theatre and cemented a love of this show in my heart then and there. Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949 to mixed notices and a run of only 56 performances, but its reputation was greatly enhanced by New York City Opera’s 1958 production starring the great Brenda Lewis in the title role (she had played Birdie on Broadway in 1949), with George S. Irving, in a rare non-comedic part, opposite her as Regina’s ruthless older brother Ben. The recording positively crackles with theatrical electricity. That said, in 1992 conductor John Mauceri recorded his and Leonard Bernstein’s restoration of the opera, including the material that Encompass did back in 1979 and more, based on Scottish Opera’s 1991 production. Alas, it’s out of print, but copies of the CD do sometimes show up on Amazon.com. It’s not as theatrical as the NYCO version, but if you want to know Regina, you need both recordings.

 

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May
11

He’s a Waldorf Salad!

The songs of Irving Berlin have never not been a part of my consciousness, probably dating back to in utero, as my mother had a penchant for bursting into popular song, whether at home or out in public, at the slightest provocation. However, when I was born on April 7, 1954, Berlin was only a dozen years away from the end of his 59-year songwriting career (56 of them spent on Broadway). His last original full-length score for a Broadway musical, Mr. President, opened in 1962, the same year in which I saw the national tour of Camelot and at age 8 decided upon a career in musical theatre. His last new songs for Broadway were “Who Needs the Birds and Bees?” and “Old-Fashioned Wedding,” written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun, though only “Wedding” made it to New York City, with “Birds and Bees” getting cut during the show’s out-of-town tryout in Toronto. Though I was 12 by then and starting to follow the Broadway season, I somehow wasn’t aware of that revival when it was happening (nor did I see its now-lost TV broadcast), though its original cast recording quickly became a favorite of mine. To this day I vividly remember the frisson of excitement it gave me to listen to a first-rate new Berlin tune. All of this is by way of saying that I spent my youth longing for a new Irving Berlin musical, but though he lived to the age of 101, dying in 1989, I never got one. I was born too late.

In 1924 composer Jerome Kern was asked by a reporter what Irving Berlin’s place was in American music, and his reply is always the first thing that comes to my mind about the songwriter: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Musically completely untutored (Victor Herbert advised him against learning music theory on the grounds that it might “cramp your style”), Berlin was fond of saying that there are only six tunes in the world, and yet he wrote over 1,500 songs in the course of his lifetime and certainly seemed to have more standards in his oeuvre than anyone else. And it’s as a songwriter that he resonates with me, not a dramatist. He never cottoned to the integrated book musical, preferring the plotless revues or ramshackle musical comedies of the teens, twenties, and thirties and resenting narratives that “got in the way” of his songs. Indeed, he initially turned down Annie Get Your Gun, ultimately his greatest theatrical success, because its plot was primary. Nevertheless, even the great Berlin couldn’t stand in the way of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and his subsequent Broadway shows—Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Mr. President—all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to be story- and character-driven.

Ironically, it was problems creating a workable story and characters that ultimately scuttled what was conceived of by Berlin as his great swan song, an MGM movie musical called Say It With Music. Titled for a hit tune from Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1921, it was intended to be the mother of all songbook catalogue musicals, a genre Berlin was adept at, having already had Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and White Christmas, all of which are named for Berlin standards and had scores that mixed his older tunes with a few new ones. In 1963 Berlin sold legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed on the property via a clutch of new songs he had written and walked away with a deal for $1 million. However, then someone had to cobble together a suitable script around the songs, and a number of high-profile scribes—Arthur Laurents, Leonard Gershe, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, George Wells, and, finally, Blake Edwards—were stumped by the task. (I recently had the chance to read Comden and Green’s version, which interweaves three love stories taking place in different years—1913, 1925, and 1966—“carrying out the thesis that no matter how the times change, human relationships and the need for love remain the same.” Alas, it’s not their finest hour.) Along the way such stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Sophia Loren, Ann Margaret, Brigitte Bardot, and Fred Astaire were attached to the project at various times. The film was at last slated to start filming in September 1969, produced by Freed, written and directed by Edwards, and starring Andrews, but rapidly changing popular tastes coupled with the financial collapse of MGM ended those plans. So much for my new Berlin musical. The lyrics for 12 new songs can be found in Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, but to my knowledge no one has ever recorded them. I sure wish somebody would.

Here is a list of the Irving Berlin tunes that mean the most to me and why.

“White Christmas,” from the film Holiday Inn
I don’t remember a Christmas without this Berlin classic, and watching White Christmas, the 1954 color remake of the 1942 black-and-white Holiday Inn, on TV was an annual family ritual. Whenever I hear it, I think of the brightly colored bubble lights on our tree.

“Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from Yip Yip Yaphank
My father would belt this tune to raise his two errant sons from their slumbers. “Ya gotta get up” on the notes of reveille comes as natural to me as breathing. Here’s Berlin himself singing it in the film version of This Is the Army.

“Easter Parade,” from As Thousands Cheer
My mother’s family lived in Manhattan, and we always visited from Ohio for Thanksgiving and Easter. Watching the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue was another ritual, and of course we always sang along. To this day it seems wrong to me when Judy Garland sings the sex-reversed lyric to Fred Astaire in Easter Parade. Bing Crosby sings the original in Holiday Inn.

“The Old Man,” “What Can You Do With a General?,” and “Gee! I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” from White Christmas
My dad was a lieutenant in England’s Royal Navy during World War II, and though he was very self-effacing about his service, he loved these three military-themed numbers, though we substituted “navy” for “army” when singing the last one. To this day I think of him when I hear them and mist up.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a pop song
I remember my mother singing this to me when I was very small, often when it was time to get a move on and go somewhere. I think it was the first piece of ragtime music I knew, and I adored it. Here’s the Mighty Merman joyfully blasting as only Ethel can.

“Heat Wave,” from As Thousands Cheer
Another of my mom’s favorites, as she hated the heat, which could get fierce in an Ohio summer. I also remember being entranced by “she certainly can can-can,” one of the first pieces of lyric wordplay that I noticed. And here’s the lady who introduced it, the great Ethel Waters.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from Annie Get Your Gun
One more song I don’t ever remember not knowing, it was chosen as the theme song of our Stagecrafters group in high school, the lyric prominently displayed full-time on our bulletin board in the hallway. I sang it for years before I knew what “turkey” really meant.

“Supper Time,” from As Thousands Cheer
I think I first heard this on the radio as a boy, though I don’t remember who sang it. I was struck by the starkness of its content. Later, when I started to pay attention to such things, I was surprised that it came from Berlin’s pen. It’s another Ethel Waters number.

“The Secret Service,” from Mr. President
By the time I became a serious musical theatre person this LP was long out of print. However, I eventually tracked down a copy, excited to finally hear a full Berlin score I didn’t know. Alas, I was largely disappointed, except for this comedy song in which Anita Gillette’s frisky first daughter complains about her Secret Service protection screwing up her love life. I clung to it as proof that Berlin hadn’t lost his touch. (I also rather liked Nanette Fabray’s manic “They Love Me,” but that was about it.)

“Better Luck Next Time,” from Easter Parade
When I was in college MGM records released a Silver Screen Soundtrack Series of “double features,” pairing the soundtracks of two MGM film musicals on one LP. I bought the Easter Parade one primarily for its partner, Cole Porter’s The Pirate, a film and score I did not know at all at the time. But though I had seen the Berlin picture, I hadn’t much noticed this gorgeous ballad that Garland delivers to Mike the bartender with muted melancholy. I played it over and over.

“Always,” cut from The Cocoanuts
I have to confess that I’m on George S. Kaufman’s side on this one; he removed “Always” from this 1925 Marx Brothers musical because he hated sentimentality. He told Berlin that if he would change the title to “Thursday,” he would believe it, and the song could stay. I thought that was very funny (and true), and then I discovered lyricist Howard Dietz’s parody, written in the style of Lorenz Hart: “I’ll be loving you/Always/With a love that’s true/Always/With a love as grand/As Paul Whiteman’s band/And ’twill weigh as much as Paul weighs/Always/In saloons and drab/Hallways/You’re the one I’ll grab/Always/See how I dispense/Rhymes that are immense/But do they make sense?/Not always.” Who wouldn’t love that? For Berlin’s original, try Kelli O’Hara’s take on her CD Always (though if you want to have some fun, plug in “Thursday” in your head).

“Let’s Go West Again,” cut from Annie Get Your Gun
Again during college an LP came out, this one from a scrappy homemade company dubbed Sound/Stage Recordings and labeled “a limited edition for the Judy Garland fan club.” That’s because it contained the unreleased soundtrack for Garland’s version of Annie Get Your Gun, a film she was fired from during shooting. It included this wistful ballad, which I later learned was written for but never used in the stage show (the notes for the album claimed that it had been composed expressly for Garland). It was exciting hearing a “new” Berlin tune, and I’ve always been partial to it. Garland’s replacement, Betty Hutton, also recorded and shot the number, but it was cut from the film before release. She did it well enough (check it out on YouTube), but Garland’s is the gold standard.

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May
11

Irving Berlin

In these days of irony, pseudo-sophistication, and snark Irving Berlin seems awfully out of step.

Sentimental, heartfelt songs like “Always,” “All Alone,” and “When I Lost You” are derided for being too sappy and simplistic. And don’t even bring up “God Bless America” which in our perilous times seems absolutely naïve.

But putting Berlin in the perspective of his times—and he had the longest-lasting songwriting career of any of his peers—makes his accomplishments even more impressive. After all, his music was the soundtrack to America (corny but true) for over 60 years.

His first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” written in 1907 with music by Nick Nicholson, was a surprise success. And his last song, “You’ve Got to Be Way Out to Be In,” was written exactly sixty years later.

By the 1960s Berlin knew his songs were out of step with the times. When Mr. President was trying out in Boston the reviews were not good. In fact, the Globe’s headline was, “Knee Deep Amongst the Corn.” It was decided that the negative reviews wouldn’t be discussed with Mr. Berlin. That morning, Berlin, book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, director Joshua Logan, and Anita Gillette were walking across Boston Common to the theatre, talking about anything but the reviews. About midway through the park, Berlin inquired, “Did any of you see the reviews?” Logan hemmed and hawed while everyone else didn’t know quite what to say. Berlin broke the silence and said, “White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “God Bless America,” I know my songs are corny. But so is “My Old Kentucky Home.”

In 1911, his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” made ragtime acceptable to the public at large. And was even a first step in race relations since the name Alexander was used in songwriting to indicate African American men. The song initiated a ragtime craze among the white population even though it wasn’t quite true ragtime. But its syncopated rhythm was a revelation in pop music.

For As Thousands Cheer Berlin wrote “Supper Time” about a black woman whose husband was lynched and wouldn’t ever return home to his wife and children. It was a unique moment in the history of American musical theatre. Ethel Waters sang it and her co-stars Clifton Webb and Marilyn Miller refused to take a final curtain call with her. Berlin set them straight, telling them that if they would not bow with her there would be no bows at all. Even before As Thousands Cheer opened in 1933 Berlin had written a song of unity for all Americans regardless or race or color, “Let’s All Be Americans Now.” The year was 1917.

He donated millions of dollars worth of royalties to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as well as to all the branches of the services, the American Red Cross and other charities. 1943’s This Is the Army featured the first integrated division unit in the Army.

Well, you get the point. And when you listen to even the most corny of Berlin’s songs remember he was the most famous and most successful songwriter in history.

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May
11

Happy Birthday, Irving Berlin!

May 11 is Irving Berlin's birthday. He was born 130 years ago in still-Czarist Russia. To celebrate the composer who brought us such shows as As Thousands CheerAnnie Get Your Gun, and Mister President, to name just a few, and such songs as "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas," I asked Erik and Ken to share some thoughts on his craft and legacy. They've given (no surprise here) us all two grand columns.

To complement Ken's and Erik's columns, I'd like to offer up the following two albums for your consideration:

  • Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook  - Elisabeth Welch was a big star back in the 1920s and 1930s. These days she's not talked about much. She should be, as the tracks on this album confirm.
  • This Is the Life - The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra brings period authenticity to a host of Berlin's songs on this album, which features both some of the songwriter's best-loved tunes and some of his lesser-known gems.

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. 


Irving Berlin's career spanned over 50 years, and his songs continue to be heard on Broadway today. The Spotify playlist this week represents what has become a 100 year legacy, with period recordings from the first decades of the 20th century and some of more recent vintage to bring us into the 21st.


As part of our tribute to the incomparable songwriter Irving Berlin, we've got a terrific track for you as a free download: a recent recording of one of his rarely heard numbers. It comes from the cast recording of Irving Berlin & Co.


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

  • Frozen - You can enjoy the Broadway incarnation of this hit movie at long last! Caissie Levy and Patti Murin headline this company and are in great voice, and there are also 12 new tunes by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to enjoy.
  • Sing Happy - The amazing Audra McDonald's recent New York Philharmonic concert is captured in all its glory on this release. What makes it particularly exciting are the number of songs on here that she's never recorded before.

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.

  • Prince of Broadway - The recording of this celebration of the career and vision of director-producer Harold Prince allows listeners to savor both his genius and the history of musical theater while delighting in some terrific new interpretations of classic songs.
  • Hello Again - A host of Broadway vets, from Tony winners Audra McDonald and Martha Plimpton to Cheyenne Jackson and Sam Underwood, are featured on this soundtrack recording for the movie version of Michael John LaChiusa's 1993 musical.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar - John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered terrific performances on NBC's live broadcast of this Andrew Lloyd Webber--Tim Rice classic. It's fantastic having this soundtrack recording that preserves their work.
  • Cy Coleman - A Jazzman's Broadway - The songwriter-performer lends his distinct jazz sensibility to a trio of musicals on this new release. He covers songs from two Rodgers and Hammerstein tuners (Flower Drum Song & South Pacific), as well as ones from Harold Arlen and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's Jamaica.
  • "True Love" - Patti Murin is sounding pretty extraordinary on this last of four singles of new songs written for the show that's based on the phenomenally successful movie. It's a show that's garnered some raves. This might be one reason why.
  • "Word of Your Body" - The new NBC series Rise is doing the same thing that Fox's Gleedid: release singles of songs performed on the show. Here's one that's a cover from Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's Spring Awakening.
  • Unmasked - To coincide with the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber's memoir (which also goes by this title) and in celebration of his 70th birthday (March 22), Universal Music is releasing this four-disc set featuring some of the most acclaimed performances of his songs, along with a swell array of new interpretations. (A two-disc set is also available.)
  • Calendar Girls - This musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, has been delighting audiences in the U.K. for a while now. We can finally hear what they've been enjoying thanks to this just-out cast recording.
  • Working - This 1978 show based on Studs Terkel's interviews with regular folks about their jobs sounds utterly of the moment on this new London cast recording. You'll find all of your old favorites here and a couple of terrific new numbers.
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me - Lyricist Valerie Vigoda and composer Brendan Milburn have turned out yet another inventive score, this time for a tuner about a sleep-deprived mom who designs video games and late one night gets a visit from the noted (and long-dead) Antarctic explorer. It's a delightful show and album.
  • The Fiddler Expanding Tradition - Jerry Bock's classic melodies from Fiddler on the Roof sound newly minted on this beautiful new album that showcases the virtuosity of violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who was the principal soloist in the show's most recent Broadway revival.

Mart Crowley's landmark gay play, The Boys in the Band, arrives on Broadway for the first time next week, 50 years after the original off-Broadway production rocked the New York theater world. That production was famously documented in a complete spoken word recording featuring the original cast.

As a tribute to it I've asked Erik and Ken to talk about complete recordings of shows that are among their favorites: cast albums that capture musicals fully, concerts recorded in their entirety, etc.

I'll be upfront about one of my faves: the concept recording for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. I think the heavier rock orchestrations are electrifying, and Julie Covington's vocals in the title role have both power and an intriguing ethereal quality.

 

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Apr
27

Favorite Musical of the '90s

Okay folks. Here’s your chance to think me a fool and disagree with me on almost everything!

Andy wants me to write about my favorite ‘90s musical. Uh oh. There were some good musicals, but I can’t say I have any favorites. There are some shows with good qualities, but in each there’s something that isn’t top drawer. But here’s my list like it or not. And in no particular order.

I’d say the most artistically successful musical of the ‘90s was John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrance McNally’s Kiss of the Spider Woman that premiered on May 3, 1993 and ran a very healthy 904 performances.  The award here goes to the writers because Kiss had a tryout in Purchase, New York just north of New York City. It was a disaster. Just terrible. And on a stage so huge the jail cell could have housed a family of twelve along with assorted pets and couch surfers. The reviewers weren’t supposed to attend and write about the evening, but the logic was if the producers were charging for tickets the show was fair game for reviews. And the reviews were bad. Really bad.

But Kander, Ebb and McNally believed in the project and so they wrote and rewrote and opened in Toronto, a much stronger show. Strong enough to, after some more tweaking, come to New York and great success.

For me the second best musical of the ‘90s was Stephen Sondheim and James Lepine’s Passion. The opening was May 9, 1994, almost exactly a year after Kiss. It was highly anticipated, but the score was difficult for the average first-timer, although upon repeated listenings it’s special genius shines through. Sadly, the direction enabled some unintentional laughs. This is a show with real depth and apparently little mass appeal. It only ran for 280 performances.

Here’s a big bomb by a major songwriter that was disdained by almost everyone. Paul Simon’s Capeman, which  closed after only sixty-eight performances after its Jan. 29, 1998 opening. The problem was the direction and staging with much of the action taking place far upstage. Many years later I was asked to direct a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of a proposed Paul Simon weekend. My idea was to stage it like an oratorio since the songs didn’t actually contain drama. But the entire weekend was abandoned and that was that! I still think it could work splendidly in a concert situation.

Cy Coleman, David Newman, and Ira Gasman concocted The Life, as in “life on the streets.” Yes, streetwalkers and other denizens of the night made up mostly of pimps, whores and johns. A jolly show!! Actually it had drama and some no-nonsense songs. April 26 1997 marked the opening and after a total of 466 performances, the show closed. There were some laughs and good songs and the show did run an okay number of performances for a failure. It was an unapologetic score and story and had a very strong cast.

I hear the murmuring, the wheels turning in readers’ heads. Where the @)%$ is Ragtime? It’s a favorite with many people. I felt the New York production was over designed and strangely cast. And produced in too big a theatre. But the cast with one exception who I won’t name was excellent. Years later I saw it in what was basically a black box theatre and I enjoyed it much more. Still, never cottoned to the score much.  But obviously, I’m in a minority.

Ready for a really nutsy choice? Now don’t go cursing me out or sending out the men in the white coats but the Jule Styne, Marsha Norman and Paul Stryker musical version of The Red Shoes could have been a success. Let me explain. I saw many previews and the show was OK but not great and not a disaster. I saw it again as it neared its December 16, 1993 opening and it got worse. Then Paul Stryker was brought in to help with the lyrics. Don’t know Paul Stryker? That’s because he’s really Bob Merrill. And the show got worse. The director was the famed Hollywood director Stanley Donen, a genius of film direction, but it was an ignominious return to the Great White Way. Lar Lubovich came up with some very interesting dances, certainly a plus. And Leslie Browne, a noted dancer was enchanting when dancing. Finally, it closed after only five performances. Yes, Jule Styne, like many older composers near the ends of their careers reused some music (the Scherzo from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for one) and Roger Rees is not musical material but I thought he carried himself well but still he was replaced by Steve Barton, a bit of a stiff. Anyway, obviously it can’t be saved but I feel that if it might actually have been saved.

The biggest hit of the season was The Lion King, and it’s still running today and shows no sign of ever closing. Julie Taymor’s work is wonderful, but the book and score don’t do it for me.

Julie Andrews returned to a much heralded return to Broadway with Victor/Victoria. She had two “tracks;” one in which she was blocked to sit down a lot if she was tired. And I felt some of the Bricusse lyrics were smarmy. I didn’t like the movie much either. Still, the stage version ran 734 performances.

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Titanic was an even bigger success with 804 performances. Really terrific vocal arrangements and some very good songs, but Peter Stone’s book leaned too much on irony.

There were also (in no apparent order) Beauty and the Beast (a return to Shubert operetta production values), Miss Saigon (the big spectaculars just didn’t do it for me), and its opposite, Once on This Island (a nice, sweet little show that right now is enjoying an imaginative revival with a very good cast), Side Show, Smokey Joe’s Café (a favorite of the bridge and tunnel crowed that later flocked to Jersey Boys and today’s Beautiful), Parade, and the bitterest of the bittersweet successes, Rent.

 

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