In his 20-year career in the recording industry (1990 - 2009) Bill Rosenfield was responsible for over 65 Original Cast Recordings which garnered over 30 Grammy nominations.
As a playwright his play, True Fans recently premiered at the Abbey in Orlando, Florida. His other plays (Let Me, 46 Beacon) have had reading at various theaters around the country. In April of 2014, City Center Encores! premiered his script adaptation of The Most Happy Fella directed and choreographed by Casey Nicolaw.
Bill is the recipient of 2 Drama Desk Awards in 1992 (on behalf of RCA Victor) and in 2002 for Lifetime Achievement as well as a Richard Rodgers Award and a SDC Governor's Award.
Songs that are color-centric in honor of the change of seasons?
The first song I thought of was the Marvin Fisher/Jack Segal cabaret classic "When Sunny Gets Blue." It's not a Broadway Tune but it sure is packs a wallop whether sung by a very young Barbra Streisand where it reflects the heartbreak of an early love or Barbara Cook on her Loverman album of a few years ago, where her vocals express an entire lifetime of heartbreak.
Andy had suggested the Cy Coleman / Michael Stewart classic from Barnum, "The Colors of My Life," and it's lovely song, but even when I first saw the show early in its run I thought they had their eyes on a Kodak theme song rather than a tune suitable for the show. Speaking of which another Kodak song, Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" would fit the bill for this blog except it's not from a show. At least that's what I thought, but then I found it had been used in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so I guess it counts as a sort of Step-ShowTune. Later, I found a much more preferable version of the song on Volume 2 of the many soundtracks from the TV series Glee. The song is over-produced in the manner consistent with the musical numbers on that show, but it still shows what a marvelous composer and lyricist Ms. Lauper is. If "True Colors" wasn't written for the theatre, it certainly signaled that its author has a genuine talent for it.
And speaking of songs not written for the theatre but which signaled an understanding of it, one could do no better than to look at John Kander & Fred Ebb's very first collaboration: "My Coloring Book." The song is deceptively simple in its straightforward construction, but the complexity of the lyric and fullness of the backstory it evokes is a thing of wonder. What an astounding song on which to begin one of the great musical theatre collaborations of all time. For me the most satisfying version of the song (and probably the most famous ) is the one recorded by Barbra Streisand. But if proof of the durability of the song is needed, there are other versions from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Perry Como, Cliff Richard and most recently a beautifully performed version from Kristen Chenoweth. Color it "Perfection."
And since I am sliding down a Kander & Ebb rabbit hole I figure I'll mention a gem of theirs which is either underrated or ignored. It's from The Happy Time and it's called "Walking Among My Yesterdays," beautifully sung by Robert Goulet on the Original Broadway Cast recording but performed with the fullness of time and experience by Barbara Cook (again!) on her Barbara Cook's Broadway and on her tribute to musicals staged by Gower Champion, That Champion Season, where it is paired with the buoyant title song of "The Happy Time." Come to think of it, this song sung in the show by a world-roaming Photographer would be a perfect fit for "that Kodak moment."
Has there ever been a more powerful endorsement for appreciating a color than that from Alice Walker in her novel The Color Purple?
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.”
Attention must be paid to The Color Purple. It's a beautiful, passionate, let me get a color metaphor in here, rainbow of a show. If you have never seen it, do so. If you have, you know what I'm talking about. I loved the Brenda Russell-Stephen Bray-Allee Willis score for this show in its initial Broadway production as well its fast-moving pulsating cast recording (yeah, I worked on it so I'm prejudiced). However, the John Doyle directed re-invention of it from the Menier Chocolate Factory in London mined depths and beauty in the show which had hitherto been largely ignored.
LaChanze's well-deserved Tony-winning performance was thrilling in the Broadway original, but we all knew that LaChanze was terrific before she appeared in the show. With this new version we discovered a star in Cynthia Erivo. This kind of breakthrough performance is the stuff of Broadway legend, and the fact that it's happening NOW means that you shouldn't be reading this; you should be booking tickets to see the show or at the very least listening to the New Broadway Cast Recording. Just play it through from start to finish.It's a different, less smooth (thanks to the artfully reduced orchestrations) experience than the first album; but alongside Ms. Erivo you have the pleasure of Jennifer Hudson's sassy portrayal of Shug Avery and the fabulous Danielle Brooks performance of the very sassy Sofia. (There's a lot of sass in The Color Purple.) On a personal level I'm sorry that I won't be able to see Heather Headley (who replaced Ms. Hudson last spring) in her wildly acclaimed portrayal of Shug. Everyone I know (and seemingly all the critics) agree that she lifts the show up even further than before. Those tears which stream down the cheeks of every member of the audience nightly are something to which every musical aspires.
Purple: now there's a color to brighten up the change of seasons.
I had a lot of fun writing this week's blog. I got out the iPod and started scrolling through show after show after show playing my favorite songs obscure and popular in search of my favorite bits of linguistic play. Instead of just a playlist of 10 lyrics, though, I'm highlighting the work of five lyricists whom I admire. So what follows aren't necessarily the best songs, or even the best lyrics, but lyrics that give me some sort of genuine pleasure; either for their cleverness or outrageousness or they just make me smile. I've tried to avoid songs with lyrics I adore which I've highlighted in other blogs so no "Three Bedroom House" from Bat Boy or "Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits will be found here.
See what I did there?
Anyhoo, I've put them in random order because, well when there is so much fun to be had why make it a competition?
It's quite possible that Tim Rice is the most financially successful theatrical lyricist of all time. Between Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Beauty and the Beast, and oh yeah, The Lion King, he's done ok. Surprisingly though when people write about the musical theatre's great lyricists his name, more often than not, doesn't appear. I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard, and yet, he's given us some extraordinary work over the years and he's a master craftsman. He rarely takes the easy way out. He has a way of winking at those members of the audience who are actually listening to the words of a song rather than being swept away by whatever spectacle is put in front of them. My two favorite bits of linguistic play of his are from none of those smash shows. The first is from the usually ill-fated musical Chess and the show's hit song "One Night in Bangkok:"
Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.
How can you not love that?
The second is from his (and Elton John's) Tony-winning score of Aida. Let's face it, Aida isn't a great show, but it is lots of fun and never more fun than in Amneris's introductory self-aware number "The Strongest Suit." It was this song, as smashingly performed by Sherie Rene Scott on Broadway, that I sat back and relaxed and allowed the show to just give me a good time, rather than have me analyze it to death. When a creative team is confident enough to put a number like this in their show, they clearly know what they're doing. But back to the lyric:
From your cradle via trousseau
To your deathbed you're on view, so
Never compromise, accept no substitute.
I would rather wear a barrel
Than conservative apparel
For my dress has always been
My strongest suit
The list of comic musicals where the lyrics are as smart and funny as the book is very short. Near the top of that list is City of Angels written by Larry Gelbart, Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Mr. Gelbart's libretto contains wit and triple entendre in virtually every line and one would have forgiven whoever the lyricist of the show was for not being able to keep up with him. But in fact we don't have to forgive Mr. Zippel anything, his lyrics are as smart and biting as Mr. Gelbart's book and sometimes unexpectedly vulgar as in this excerpt from this book song with a beat, "It Needs Work" smartly sung by Kay McClelland:
With dangers cropping up
And sweet young strangers popping up like weeds
So if you wish official pardoning
You better do a little gardening
Ya know ya needn't be so gen'rous with your seeds
Your fertile lies don't fertilize
It needs work
There's a teeny bit of a yuck factor there, but golly it's clever.
One of the true giants of the musical theatre he's responsible for two of the best musicals ever written (Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella since you asked) and was capable of deep emotion as well as easy laughs. For me though, the score of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the great achievement. The show was a deeply cynical and incisive indictment of corporate life in the early 60's or it was a simply a delightful though somewhat sexist musical comedy. Mr. Loesser, and his chief collaborator on the show Abe Burrows, let the audience decide which show they were seeing. The Pulitzer Committee saw the former and gave it their prestigious prize. The audiences of the initial four-year run of the show on Broadway saw the latter. I have always been in awe of the following lyric in the "Coffee Break" number:
If I can't make three daily trips
Where shining shrine benignly drips
And taste cardboard between my lips
Something within me dies
And something within me dies
I mean really: Where shining shrine benignly drips? That's genius.
Growing up I'd always heard of Noel Coward but never really knew his work until I saw A Noel Coward Revue at the small Theatre-in-the-Dell in Toronto. (The revue later became Oh, Coward!) Soon I found a copy of the original cast album of Sail Away and devoured it. Listen to Elaine Stritch's gravelly voice croon these words from "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?"
Please do not think that I criticize or cavil
at a genuine urge to roam
But why, oh why do the wrong people travel when the right people stay back home
made me sit up and expand my world view. I'm sure at dinner that night I had to ask my father and step-mother what "cavil" meant. I only wish I remember what I said when they asked why I wanted to know.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green
The brilliance of Comden and Green is unquestioned. They wrote great shows, classic films, and were always wonderful guests on talk and variety shows. Their lyrics could be heart-breaking ("Some Other Time" from On the Town), inspiring ("Never Never Land" from Peter Pan), or just plain smart ("I've Got it All" from On the Twentieth Century). But I think my favorite lyric is one that still has the ability to make me laugh more than 50 years after a first heard it. It's from Bells are Ringing and it's the end of the song "Drop That Name." The song itself always amused me: who were all those people: Daniel Mann and Lynn Fontanne; Bernie Baruch and King Farook; Carol Reed and Sammy Snead? I had so much to learn! The genius part of the song is that the main character Ella is as much as outsider to the litany of celebrity as we are and the only "name" she can drop is "Rin Tin Tin" until the climax of the song which goes like this:
(Errol Flynn!) Rin Tin Tin!
(Edmund Gwenn!) Ren Ten Ten!
(Ali Kahn!) Rahn Tan Tan!
(Raymond Massey!) Lassie!
The name "Lassie" makes me smile every time. Even now as I type this - see I'm smiling. Oh, to have been in the room when that happened!
A new season where everyone is hopeful and optimistic about what's coming up and the doom-sayers are keeping quiet until the first hint of disaster rears its head (as it inevitably will). And by saying that I've become a doomsayer right out of the gate.
I'm going to concentrate on the musicals which open before Christmas and not discuss all the big guns which are headed our way in the annual spring pre-awards season crush. And frankly it's a bit thin this fall. Already there is a revival of Cats about which people are either a) enthusiastic or b) resigned to. I offer no further comment.
Ahead of us in order of opening are:
I've got high hopes for Holiday Inn a "new" Irving Berlin musical with a book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, directed by Mr. Greenberg and choreographed by Denis Jones, if only because all it has to do is entertain me with songs, dances and jokes. It's not out to be a game-changer; it's not out to bring in audiences who "don't usually go to the theatre." I believe it's there to simply celebrate Mr. Berlin's extraordinary catalog of music and give us a good time. And with Bryce Pinkham and Megan Lawrence heading the cast I'm pretty sure that's what's going to happen.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. At long last the Broadway transfer of Dave Malloy's inventive and audacious off-off Broadway musical of 2012. As I said in blog a few weeks ago, I adored it in the intimate off-off Broadway space Ars Nova, but didn't have a good time when it transferred to an uncomfortable tent in the meat-packing district. I'm hopeful that the talented director Rachel Chavkin and the rest of the creatives, as well as the casting of pop vocal superstar Josh Groban, make this a huge distinctive Broadway hit.
Dear Evan Hansen. With a heartfelt score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (and a smart book by Steven Levenson) makes the leap from an off-Broadway run where it garnered unanimous raves to Broadway. It's a musical of this moment in time where whether we like it or not social media guides our responses to most everything which happens in our lives. Aside from the emotional power of the show, it boasts at least two award-worthy performances come season-end: that's the amazing Ben Platt and the heart-breaking eloquence of Rachel Bay Jones. (And as far as I'm concerned she should've been at least nominated, if not won for the revival of Pippin).
When I walk into A Bronx Tale with a book by Chazz Palminteri and a score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (who have collaborated on Sister Act and Leap of Faith), I'll be at a disadvantage as I've never seen or read or listened to any incarnation of the story. Everybody involved is really talented (though I honestly never thought that a Broadway musical would be co-directed by Robert DeNiro). Part of me says that I should use this time to familiarize myself with one of its incarnations, but the other part of me says-if I come in with no expectations of favorite scenes or incidents, I can actually judge it on its own merits. So I 'm pretty sure that's what I'm going to do.
I'm faced with a similar situation with the long-gestating In Transit. Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (yes of Frozen fame), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth and directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. The only thing I know about it is that it's an a cappella musical being performed in the relatively intimate space of the Circle in the Square Theatre. Maybe it's the "sleeper" musical which captures the hearts of critics and audiences that every small show opening on Broadway hopes to be? Fingers crossed.
As for revivals on Broadway this fall there is just one: Falsettos, Bill Finn and James Lapine's emotional, hilarious, and heart-breaking musical. Readers of this blog know of my deep affection for this show, so I won't go on and on about it again but with a gold-plated cast headed by Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, and Brandon Uranowitz I just can't wait to see it and probably see it again and maybe one more time after that.
I'm going to step away from the musical front for a moment and tout a Broadway show this season that isn't a musical but is an astonishing experience and that's Simon McBurney's wondrous one man play The Encounter. Ostensibly it's about a trip up the Amazon, but actually it's about so much more. It's a theatrical experience like no other I've ever had and one that you'll probably never forget.
Three words which strike terror in my heart
As much as I love the idea of "summer" more often than not when I was growing up it filled me with a certain dread. This week, I'm to choose five "outdoorsy" songs which relate to "camp, recreation, and sports," three of the most horrifying words in the English language as far as I'm concerned.
Growing up what I loved about summer was reading the Summer Theatre Schedules: Ann Miller in Can-Can. Oh wow! Noel Harrison in Half a Sixpence. Sign me up! Alas, that's probably not what Andy had in mind.
So here is something close to the assignment:
"Hello Muddah Hello Faddah." It seems almost impossible to believe but this Allan Sherman gem was a mainstream pop hit in the summer of 1963. (According to Wikipedia it was #2 for three weeks in August of that year!) I grew up on Allan Sherman's seriously funny Jewishy parodies of popular and classical tunes, and I was one of those obnoxious kids that knew every lyric from the first three albums. (I still do.) His score for the affectionately-thought-of flop The Fig Leaves Are Falling is sadly, surprisingly bland. And the misconceived off-Broadway musical revue of his songs entitled Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah wasn't very good. The parodies which I love so much seem too rooted in their particular time and place to feel fresh anymore. Still, listening to this song harkens back to a much more innocent time in our country's history and during this divisive and brutal election year we should try and remember that time when something relatively gentle and funny captured the nation's heart.
"The Baseball Game." In Bill Finn's amazing musical Falsettoland, "The Baseball Game" is an uproarious scene in which a very "modern family" observes a genetically klutzy Jewish boy play baseball. Needless to say I identified with it very strongly. In the show it's a delightful sequence, however my favorite performance of it was in the Infinite Joy concert which was performed for a few Monday nights at Joe's Pub in New York wherein the wild Stephen Da Rosa delivered a musical theatre tour de force by performing all of the roles at the same time. Listen and be dazzled!
"A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd." I'm stretching a bit here. File this selection under "recreation. In the flawed, but rather wonderful musical Ballroom, the recently widowed Be—a taking the advice from her friend Angie—goes to a ballroom for a night out. This song, "A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd," memorably performed by the late great Dorothy Loudon is an "I Want" song of the highest order. And my favorite lyric in the song is also a subtly inspiring one as well: "It's not the Matterhorn, it's only a flight of stairs." It never fails to move me. Thanks both to the words themselves and Ms. Loudon's gutsy delivery of them.
"How Shall I See You Through My Tears?" And speaking of stretching...One of the most underrated and misjudged musicals of the last 50 years is Bob Telson and Lee Breuer's extraordinary The Gospel at Colonus. Here's a show that was a Pulitzer finalist, had a PBS Broadcast, played BAM and on Broadway. It fused genuine gospel music and performers with the purity of Greek tragedy together into a musical evening of pulse-quickening power. Confession time: Not being familiar with gospel music when I first saw it (on PBS before it came to Broadway) I didn't actually understand that all the music was original. And I think that there were others like me so that when it did finally appear on Broadway Bob Telson & Lee Breuer's achievement was under-appreciated. How, you may ask, does this relate to the subject of "Camp, Recreation, and Sports"? Well the opening number of Todd Graff's indispensable movie Camp is Sasha Allen's rendering of one of many beautiful songs from the show: "How Shall I See You Through My Tears?," and I thought this is an opportunity to give a shout-out to an over-looked theatre score that was decades ahead of its time.
"The Sun Is Gonna Shine Again." Not falling under the category of "Camp, Recreation, or Sports" but most definitely an "Outdoorsy" tune is Steve Martin & Edie Brickell's ridiculously optimistic "The Sun is Gonna Shine Again" from their infectiously melodious score for Bright Star. Just let the new Broadway star Carmen Cusack and the rest of the company fill your heart with joyful end-of-summer optimism. And besides, you know what the end-of-summer signals? That's right - a new season of musicals is upon us!
If a show has a good strong opening number, it buys at least 20 to 30 minutes of the audience's indulgence in its story. It's up to the creative team to deliver on the promise of a strong opening. One of my most favorite opening numbers is "20 Million People" from Ahrens & Flaherty's My Favorite Year. If you were to listen to it, you'd be sure you were at a hit. Unfortunately by three songs into the first act that show had somehow lost its way. And while there is a lot of gold in the score and its performances, there's also a fair amount of silver-plate as well.
The five openings I've chosen (in random order of course) all find ingenious ways to let the audience in on what's in store for them over the next two hours or so. For some of these shows the opening number was the best part of the evening; happily for playlist purposes we don't have to worry about what follows them. Let's just enjoy the riches that these numbers offer on their own.
Once. Nothing in Once happens by accident and the brilliant opening of this deceptively modest show is one of the more unusual opening numbers ever conceived for a musical. It's a fairly short instrumental— "The North Strand"—that utilizes the Oscar-winning main musical theme of the show "Falling Slowly" in a vibrant aggressive acoustic arrangement by Martin Loewe. What makes it special is that it establishes from the outset a couple of things. 1.That the actors/musicians doubling which takes place throughout the show is organic to the language (musical and dramatic) of the show. 2. All of the characters are musical, and the way they think and interact is musical. 3. By rejiggering the familiar tune into a lively barroom ballad, the show takes us on a journey where everything about these characters is revealed in either music or movement. Stunning.
Something Rotten. I may have some reservations about this show-bizzy period musical, but none whatsoever about its sparkling cast (Brian D'Arcy James, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar and Christian Borle) and very few about its robust tuneful score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. This opening number "Welcome to the Renaissance" lets us in on the cheeky humorous anachronistic tone of the show from the start. That the show starts to overstay its welcome by the time Act Two comes along is beside the point. There's enough to revel in during the first half to satisfy even the toughest of theatergoers.
The Fortress of Solitude. I've previously written about this lively ambitious show with a dirty 70's funk score by Michael Friedman. This is an opening number which announces a melody line ("Oh Baby, You're the One I Remember...") that lands in your ear and stays there for months on end. If I even think of this show, that line comes back into my head and before you know it this number is blasting through my headphones. In the theatre I was confused by it because of the staging, but that confusion evaporates on the fabulous recording, powerfully orchestrated by John Clancy and Matt Beck.
If/Then. This is one of the more overlooked shows of recent years, If/Then has a skillful score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and bang-up orchestrations by Michael Starobin. The opening number "What If" is a supremely confident soaring ensemble ballad which showcases the remarkable voice of Idina Menzel and a fine supporting cast. It does what all great opening numbers should do, tells the audience what the evening's journey is going to be. I love it.
Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Author Dave Malloy's (Book, Music & Lyrics) tour de force musical of an incident in War and Peace simply astounded me when I first saw it at off-off-Broadway at the extremely intimate Ars Nova. I was less impressed the second time I saw it, downtown in a vast tent where faux-Russian waitresses attempted to up-sell me wildly over-priced bottles of vodka. ("I ain't buying.") But that doesn't stop me from loving the show's opening number which freely acknowledges all the fears we have about being able to follow an adaptation of anything from the pen of Leo Tolstoy. The show's "Prologue" is an irreverent musical master class in exposition. It could easily be retitled "...Previously, on War and Peace."
But my favorite opening number of the past 16 years isn't from a musical at all, it's from the 2013 Tony Awards broadcast where it was sung by Neil Patrick Harris and a cast of thousands. It's called "Bigger" and it's by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manual Miranda, and if it doesn't get you excited about what the musical theatre is able to accomplish nothing will. Visit YouTube and even if you've seen it before, watch again and be thrilled.
Here's Andy's instruction of this week: "Finales - let's pick 5 that we think are the most unusual or daring."
Just what constitutes unusual or daring? People coming back from the dead for a finale should be considered unusual or daring but frankly in musical theatre it happens far too often and too effectively for it to be considered either of those things. Mega-mixes reprising all the great songs that we heard earlier in the evening? That's a posrt-ending device, but it doesn't mean I don't love them. So I'm just gonna go with five finales that I love listening to again and again with the understanding between us that next week their might be five that I love more. Ok?
Candide. This always flawed and frustrating musical has one of the most glorious scores ever written for the theatre. Leonard Bernstein's music and the exquisite lyrics of John Latouche, Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker on the 1956 Cast recording are something to be studied and cherished by everyone who loves the musical theatre. I first heard this recording when I was 16 years old and from the magnificent "Overture" forward I was hooked. Did I understand it all? No, of course not, I was only 16. However, when I got to the breathtaking finale "Make Our Garden Grow" I had found a new philosophy of life. How could someone listen to that song with its stunning acapella section (in the pre-Stephen Oremus era) and not stand and cheer? Now that's a finale to change one's life!
Avenue Q. Lately I've been listening to this recording more than in the past. It's easy to dismiss the show as sweet, funny charmer, but part of the reason this Jeff Marx/Bobby Lopez/Jeff Whitty concoction has had such a long life is that underneath it all there is an optimistic view of the world to which we should all subscribe. It's summed up in a characteristically witty manner in the finale "For Now." No one expects to go into a puppet show and find the human condition so sympathetically and smartly illuminated. That surprise is at the heart of this upbeat finale.
Titanic. Well we all knew how it was going to end. The surprise in the tear-filled, emotionally manipulative (in the best possible way) "Finale" is that we come to care about the passengers as a group rather than the specific characters. The show has one of the best opening sequences in Broadway history, but somehow finds a way to evoke that exhilarating opening number in its heartbreaking finale. Instead of the joy found in the anticipation of the journey the finale probes the depth of the grief in the lives that were shattered by the ship's sinking. Maury Yeston's score never fails to thrill me and the "Finale" never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
But enough of tears at the end - let's leave the theatre with a happy buzz. Let's leave wanting to dance our way home and for that we look no further the next two shows:
Kinky Boots. I don't care what you thought about this show, you cannot deny that its Finale sends you out into the night on a high, loving your fellow man and hoping for a better world. Thanks to Cyndi Lauper's upbeat score (with a deep nod to Mr. Oremus for his orchestrations and arrangements), Jerry Mitchell's take-no-prisoners staging and a kick-ass performance by the band and cast, the finale "Just Be/Raise You Up" delivers what any audience wants from a musical. Happiness and a well-ordered fair-minded world in which to live.
Hairspray. Has there ever been a more infectious get-up-and-dance tune written for a Broadway musical than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "You Can't Stop the Beat?" I don't think so. Put it on, and I defy you to sit still or not singalong. For a musical which is pretty upbeat from the word go, it's a major achievement by director Jack O'Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell and their fabulous cast to top all that giddiness which preceded it with this pulse-racing finale.
As a rule I'm really not a spectacle guy. My favorite musicals are the ones that are more human in scale and ones which rely more heavily on individual performance rather than budget-busting scenic design. For that reason this is a hard column for me to write.
Nevertheless this is where I admit that I loved Phantom of the Opera the first time I saw it 18 years ago. The sweep and grandeur of the design and the lushness of all those strings in the orchestra-wow. I played the London album quite a bit before I saw it so musically I knew what I was getting when I entered the Majestic Theatre. It was the visual impact that surprised and thrilled me. Strangely though once I had seen it, I stopped playing the recording. The music was ever-present in the world around me, so I didn't feel the need to listen to it on my own.
But let's not go negative here.
So let's move on to Ragtime. The Terence McNally/Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical which miraculously told a dark, human and emotional story of a family confronting change on all sides. It had plenty of spectacle: the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, Emma Goldman speaking in Union Square, a hostage drama played out in the Morgan library, etc. Yet despite those larger than life production values the essential emotional core of the story retained its human scale. The truth is that there were really too many genuine show-stoppers in the show: "Wheels of a Dream," "New Music," "The Night Goldman Spoke in Union Square," "Back to Before," and… oh, of course, the thrilling opening number "Ragtime." Every show should be cursed with too much caviar.
Show Boat is a great musical. I've seen at least 5 or 6 different productions of it multiple times. I'm always thrilled by it, and because there are so many different "improvements" in the book over the years it's always a different experience. Part of my enjoyment of it is wondering how the first Florenz Ziegfeld production must have been. It's a show that simply can't be done on a shoe-string; it needs size and scale and a great orchestra. It needs to impress in an epic way. The massive over-scale Hal Prince revival in 1994, I think, has put the kibosh on the prospect for another Broadway production within my lifetime. Here was a physical production that exceeded the demands of the script and while deeply impressive was also simply exhausting to witness. The recording of that production is unavailable due to some legal issues, but I happen to like the highly abbreviated 1966 Music Theatre of Lincoln Center recording featuring Stephen Douglass, Barbara Cook, Constance Towers and William Warfield. It offers a spirited performance of the magnificent Jerome Kern /Oscar Hammerstein score featuring "Old Man River," "Bill," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".
Wicked. Yeah, Wicked. When I first saw this show in previews I sat there passing judgment: "this doesn't work, that doesn't work blah blah blah" And then Idina Menzel sang "The Wizard and I," and I was hooked. "Popular," "I'm Not That Girl," "For Good"—and let's not forget "Defying Gravity"—are emotionally satisfying. They're funny and/or eloquent and/or show-stopping theatre songs. When Stephen Schwartz gets it right (and that happens an awful lot) he's simply one of the greats. The achievement of a spectacular show like Wicked is that for a lot of the audience they are at first entranced by the lavish physical production and they enjoy the music; whereas for me, it's the emotional truth and intelligence of the songs and the characters that makes it so satisfying. It's that rare show which found the balance between the two.
42nd Street. For sheer Broadway Musical Comedy spectacle there were few shows as satisfying as the original Broadway production of 42nd Street. It was a veritable pageant of one spectacular number after another. The initial opening image of 40 pairs of tap-dancing feet is one of the greatest opening moments of any musical I've ever seen. The sheer propulsive energy and sound of all that tapping is a theatrical thrill of a lifetime. What followed was a series of production numbers utilizing the great Harry Warren/Al Dubin songbook. Number after number, "We're in the Money," "Dames," "Lullaby of Broadway," and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," were all given their due to meet an audience's expectations of a lavish Broadway experience. The original Broadway cast album—with Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grimes, Lee Roy Reams, Wanda Richert and Carole Cooke—is a joy from start to finish. With that original company the show was a sterling example of a Broadway Musical Spectacular.
Generally speaking I love "Live" recordings. I love hearing an audience react to a show-stopping number or hearing them interrupt a number with applause midway through. It allows me to imagine what is happening on the stage. We're supposed to keep this column about Live recordings of shows or "big concerts" and not discuss cabaret based recordings. So I'll sing the praises of the utterly delightful Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley Unattached - Live at Feinstein's/54 Below recording another time.
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute would qualify as a "big concert". This was the first of a zillion musical tribute evenings to Mr. Sondheim (many of which have been recorded), and despite the fact that it did have some dull moments and erratic performances (mostly cut from the album's initial release) it remains one of the more ecstatic experiences I've ever had in a theatre. And that experience I had on March 11, 1973 (for those of you taking notes) was captured thrillingly on the recording. For me the first hint that the evening might be historic was when Alice Playten and Virginia Sandifur sang their version of "If Mama Was Married." Suddenly hearing it not just as the 10th cut on the Gypsy LP, but on its own with hilarious lyrics and no Ethel Merman waiting to appear on the next track, a song that I had previously sort of ignored sparkled. It was followed in short order by Chita Rivera and "America" and Ethel Shutta belting out "Broadway Baby" one last time. The theatre was on fire, and if you listen to the recording you can almost feel the audience getting more and more hysterical. However, it was the second to last segment for which this concert is most remembered. That was when six ladies took their seats on stage: Hermione Gingold ("Liaisons"), Nancy Walker ("I'm Still Here"), Angela Lansbury ("A Parade in Town") , Alexis Smith ("Could I Leave You?") , Glynis Johns,("Send in the Clowns") and Dorothy Collins ("Losing My Mind"). And one after another each stopped the show dead in its tracks. Because of re-record restrictions on the freshly recorded A Little Night Music Ms. Gingold and Ms. Johns aren't on the concert recording. Still the quartet that we are left with is simply stunning. And as far as I'm concerned no one on earth has ever matched Nancy Walker's rendition of "I'm Still Here." No one. This album captures a key moment in the development of the American Musical Theatre; when it almost became official that musicals were no longer also the pop hits on the radio, that shift in American music culture had been happening for awhile, but that night in the celebration of the arrival of Stephen Sondheim as a bona-fide genius of the musical theatre (and a bow to Harold Prince as well) the world of musical theatre and its place in popular American culture changed forever (for good or ill). And it was captured "Live" for us to experience again and again.
Follies in Concert. It's no secret that I'm a Follies freak. And because I grew up in Boston where it played its tryout engagement I was what we call in the 21st Century "an early adopter." The original cast album of Follies was one of the great disappointments of my youth (that alone should tell you more about my high school years than you need to know). Songs were edited or cut entirely and the quality of the recording itself was messy. This was rectified a few years ago by a glorious re-mastering of the original tapes by Bruce Kimmel for his Kritzerland label. If you can get a copy of it you're in for a revelation. But by 1985, thanks to Thomas Z. Shepard, RCA Red Seal, which had been steadily recording almost anything that Stephen Sondheim had written, sought to right the injustice which had been perpetrated by the first recording of Follies. And so on September 6 & 7 1985 an all-star concert version of Follies was presented with Paul Gemignani conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and it was recorded "Live" at Avery Fisher Hall. The hysteria that greeted every moment of the evening was probably a bit ridiculous and yet totally appropriate. There were big stars from California: Carol Burnett and Lee Remick, Broadway favorites: George Hearn and Phyllis Newman; there was perfect novelty casting with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and then there were two performances by two favorites of mine that qualify as legendary. The first was Elaine Stritch's deeply comedic rendition of "Broadway Baby," which got laughs where there were none, and finally if ever there was a heaven on earth it has to be Barbara Cook singing "In Buddy's Eyes." The joy of those evenings, the twice-in-a-lifetime energy of those nights is all palpably present on this recording. I believe it's this recording which for most people canonized the place that Follies holds in the pantheon of great musicals.
But enough about him!
When the Original Cast Album of Dreamgirls was first released my disappointment—no let's be honest, my anger—at the method in which it was recorded was palpable. Here was a show which was two hours of virtually continuous pulse-racing theatrical energy reduced to a little more than 45 minutes of glossy pop-tunes, still pulse-racing, but of a different kind. I understand the decision that was made from a record company's viewpoint but from a fan's viewpoint? I wasn't happy. When would we ever get the complete Dreamgirls that we longed for? Well we did when Dreamgirls in Concert was released. Finally with a sterling cast that included Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, Lillias White, Billy Porter, Norm Lewis, and Darius DeHaas we had the full show captured from a concert performance offered on September 24, 2001. The evening itself was under-rehearsed, but it didn't matter we were getting a Dreamgirls in all its musical glory. So finally we could hear a complete "Stepp Into the Bad Side" with all that dance music, or the Fashion Sequence which was cut from the original recording. It is by no means a definitive recording of the show, and frankly I don't know what that would be at this point, but it does give the listener a sense of the frenzy that the show creates in an audience.
That sense of what happens to an audience during a show which is a demonstration of spontaneous combustion is evident on the Broadway Cast Recording of Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk. In the theatre the score for this show (music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark & Ann Duquesnay, lyrics by Reg E. Gaines) had to play second fiddle to Savion Glover's mesmerizing choreography and George C. Wolfe's volcanic direction. But on disc while Mr. Glover's propulsive choreography is forever present, we also are given the chance to appreciate the beauty and variety of the hip/hop and rhythm & blues score and the additional depth Mr. Gaines's poetry slam lyrics. More than most live recordings of shows, the visceral reaction of the audience at Noise/Funk is something to treasure.
And finally I'd like to talk about the London Cast Recording of Legally Blonde. Though the show had a healthy run on Broadway and a successful tour, I always felt that the Broadway Cast album—while capturing the intelligent wit and musical comedy joy of the numbers and while wonderfully performed by a cast that included Christian Borle, Orfeh and Michael Rupert—suffered from the working-to-hard performance of the leading lady. In London, that central problem was rectified by the presence and star-quality ease of Sheridan Smith and because the recording was made during a live performance you can sense the warmth and connection that exists between Ms. Smith and her audience. So while the recording isn't as glossy as its predecessor to me it's more aesthetically satisfying because it captures the happy theatrical event that the audience experiences.
I'll take "Live" happy over glossy perfection any day.
Frankly, living here in the UK I'd probably only need 5 of them (if that).
Nevertheless, here are 10 songs (and 15 tracks), some depressing, some silly and some comforting to help you get through those heat-driven doldrums.
Let's begin with:
"Something Cool" - I've been racking my brain trying to remember who sang this Billy Barnes classic song on the Mike Douglas Show one weekday afternoon many decades ago. Or maybe it was the Merv Griffin Show? I just remember that when they did, it blew my very young mind. Instead of going with the June Christy original though, I'm going to point you toward this recent version by Judy Kuhn from her album All This Happiness; after all when it comes to illuminating the sad and lonely who is better than she?
"Lazy Afternoon" – The first time I heard this was Kaye Ballard's version on the seriously abbreviated cast recording of John Latouche & Jerome Moross's The Golden Apple. A few years later it was quite famously the title track on a Barbra Streisand album; after which it has become a standard of the Great American Songbook. I really like Vanessa Williams' smooth jazz version on her The Real Thing recording from a few years ago.
"In the Cool Cool of the Evening" - This is a simply great giddy Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer song that was originally performed by Bing Cosby and Jane Wyman in the film Here Comes the Groom. It won an Oscar. I have two versions to recommend to you. The first is the jazz-infused devil-may-care version by Billy Stritch and Klea Blackhurst from their Hoagy Carmichael songbook album Dreaming of a Song. The second is a glistening Big Band arrangement ( by Patrick Williams and Barry Manilow) with Better Midler from her Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook album. I love 'em both.
"Ice Cream" – Let's face it there is no better way to beat the heat than with some ice cream. I think music and ice cream are the only two things that bring happiness to all people the world over. This great Bock/Harnick song from She Loves Me is owned by Barbara Cook either on the Original Broadway Cast Recording or her In Concert at Carnegie Hall album. But I believe the song is currently being sublet with deep respect and affection by Ms Laura Benanti where you can hear her on the fabulous new Broadway Cast Recording of the show.
"Waters of March" – Arguably one of the greatest songs of all time, this Antonio Carlos Jobim classic transcends genres, cultures, sexes, well just about everything. It's been recorded dozens of times by an endless stream of artists from all parts of the world. The first time I heard it though it was breezily performed by the late great Mary-Cleere Haran and was included on her There's a Small Hotel - Live at the Algonquin album. There's a characteristically jazzy version by Rosemary Clooney and John Pizzarelli on her Brazil album and the always accommodating Mr. Pizzarelli recorded it again with his wife Jessica Molaskey on the album Sitting in Limbo, where it's deftly combined with Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" creating not so much a one-act play but a complete philosophy of life. And finally there is a heartbreakingly optimistic version by Nancy LaMott from her Live at Tavern on the Green recording. Play 'em all, trade 'em with your friends!
"Isn't it a Lovely Day?" – This is an Irving Berlin classic recorded over the years by just about everybody: Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald etc. This version is by the wonderful cabaret artist Jane Monheit from her thoroughly delightful recording Home. This song helps lighten the hot summer mood so that we can get to the next number:
"Air Conditioner" – This is Christine Lavin's deeply funny ("It's funny because it's true") song about the lengths some of us "will go/have gone to" to not spend the night without one of civilizations most important inventions. Sutton Foster does a bang-up job with it from her totally refreshing An Evening with Sutton Foster - Live at the Cafe Carlyle recording which brings us to the next track on that recording:
"Warm All Over" – It comes from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, and Ms. Foster's version of this song accompanied by the sensitive piano played by Michael Rafter, is an indispensable stunner.
Any playlist to beat the heat will inevitably include the Gershwin's "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess so why should mine be any different? But other than Mr. Pizzarelli this list has been noticeably short of men so let's remedy that situation. Here's Steven Pasquale's sultry steamy version from his sultry (and steamy) jazz album Somethin' Like Love.
And as the sun sets on our sunny set of songs what better way to finish up than with the great Barbara Cook's version of Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow from her Rainbow Round My Shoulder recording. The sheer simplicity and honesty of Ms. Cook's singing can make any heatwave a joy to endure.
"I'll take Patti LuPone for $50, Alex."
There are so many genuinely funny women out there who make me laugh either with a raised eyebrow, a dry line reading, a pratfall, an eye roll, or the cagey use of a cigarette that to narrow them down to a list of just 10 proved impossible. Some of them can do all of those things at once: I'm looking at you Linda Lavin!
So I'm just doing A-L this time and when the subject comes up I'll be adding M-Z.
Sometimes it's not about being funny; it's about possessing that certain je ne sais quoi which translates into wit or charm. So what follows is a playlist of special performers who at the very least make me smile and at the most make me laugh out loud.
And of course they're in alphabetical order cause they may be funny but they can also be fierce.
Christine Baranski – "Everyone Wants to do a Musical"
In the midst of the promising mess that became Nick & Nora there were a few things which were delightful. Joanna Gleason's droll Nora, Faith Prince's hapless victim, and Christine Baranski's ego-driven diva. The show's score (Charles Strouse & Richard Maltby, Jr.) is underrated, and this song proved itself a show-stopper during the production's very short run. Ms. Baranski has done very well since then showing off her comedic chops in various places (most notably on The Big Bang Theory) and her dramatic ones on The Good Wife. For me though it's when she's in a musical that she truly shines and makes me laugh and cheer. (Follies at Encores!)
Laura Benanti – "Model Behavior"
I've made no secret of my affection for Ms. Benanti. In the current revival of She Loves Me she is at her best, only topped by her performance in the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella. It is one of my great regrets that I didn't see her in probably her most acclaimed performance in Jeffrey Lane & David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown because even without seeing it her performance of this song is simply dazzling.
Heidi Blickenstaff – "Right Hand Man"
I probably should've been aware of Heidi Blickenstaff before Hunter Bell & Jeff Bowen's [title of show] but I wasn't. I loved her in that hilarious production and I adored her in the aforementioned Encores! Happy Fella where she proved herself a worthy successor to the great Susan Johnson. (If you don't know Susan Johnson I guess that's ok, but if you do then you know what I'm talking about.) In Something Rotten! she has less to do than I would've liked but she does have a great musical comedy song near the top of the show to which she brings a gusto and humor that pleases me no end.
Carol Channing – "Little Girl from Little Rock"
Before Carol Channing became CAROL CHANNING she was as deft and delightful comedienne as one could imagine. This Jule Styne and Leo Robin song from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes never fails to surprise me with its risqué wit and sophistication. While this isn't my favorite rendition of the song (that would be Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell on the film soundtrack) it is a reminder of the many times I've watched Ms. Channing in the theatre and roared with laughter.
Marilyn Cooper – "The Grass is Always Greener"
Marilyn Cooper went from being a comedic girl in the chorus with a few lines (Gypsy, West Side Story) to a musical comedy lead (I Can Get It for You Wholesale) to stalwart musical comedy support (Two by Two, On the Town both in 1971) to hitting the jackpot with her less than 12 minute show-stopping Tony-Award winning appearance near the end of Woman of the Year. She landed every line in her scene and she practically stole the whole damn show out from under the formidable Lauren Bacall. (I say "practically" because if I didn't, Bacall would come back from the grave and throttle me.) John Kander & Fred Ebb are great at writing bitch duets but never greater than this one. Listen and laugh!
Barbara Harris – "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here"
It's hard to explain to people who don't know just what the appeal of Barbara Harris is. Few of her film appearances display her special magic, most notably in Nashville, A Thousand Clowns, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. In truth though, her best film performance and the one that best demonstrates her extraordinary presence is her Academy Award-nominated turn in the otherwise pretty unwatchable Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me? But if one goes to YouTube there is about 15 minutes of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast in 1965. Even though the quality of the video is questionable it's a chance to see this fine performer who while she could be quirky, funny, endearing and just as quickly could turn around and break your heart.
Jane Krakowski – " A Trip to the Library"
One of the happiest aspects of the recent revival of She Loves Me is the self-aware smarts that Jane Krakowski brings to the role of the easily-duped Miss Ritter. That would seem to be contradictory, but that twinkle of intelligence in the midst of a "dumb" blonde is Ms. Krakowski's stock-in-trade. Thanks to her television stardom Ally MacBeal, 30 Rock, and the current Kimmie Schmidt, the world has gotten to appreciate her special appeal. She's one of those actresses who lights up a stage and instantly makes me smile. Her rendition of "A Trip to the Library" on the new glorious cast recording of She Loves Me is like so much of that production: perfection.
Linda Lavin – "You've Got Possibilites"
I've written fairly recently about Ms. Lavin and her rendition of this song from It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. It's a great upbeat character song, and she delivers it like no one else. She's one of those performers who can tell a life story with the shrug of a shoulder. Her recent stage appearances have proven that time and again. Even in minor roles in films such as The Intern she is able to communicate a character's entire life with her middle finger. Linda Lavin =Hilarious.
Patti LuPone – "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"
Patti LuPone is one of the most hilarious creatures to walk the earth. She's outrageous, brutally funny, and knows no shame and that's just on Patti LuPone Live concert disc from 1993 just before she went over to London for Sunset Boulevard. (And we all know what happened there.) The concert put together with John McDaniel and Scott Wittman is the perfectly balanced showcase for Ms. LuPone and this throwaway song is emblematic of the giddy joy she is always eager to give her adoring audience.