Posted in Broadway Musicals, Opera, Theater

Corona Interlude

Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Production image: Manuel Harlan for the Bridge Theatre).

God bless the internet.

Weathering the lockdowns of COVID-19 may have robbed us of in-person live performance, but there is so much to see and hear online. The availability of free opera from a variety of sources has been amazing, from the Metropolitan Opera to Salzburg to the Vienna State Opera. I particularly enjoyed Vienna’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” featuring a very young Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and the wonderful Zerbinetta of Erin Morley. But what made it special was a particular feature that was so obvious, but which I had never seen done before. In this production which, judging by the costumes in the Prologue, appeared to be set in the early 1920’s, the Composer, sung by the excellent mezzo Rachel Frenkel, was on-stage throughout the opera proper. It makes a great deal of sense—it is the Composer’s opera after all, and while he had nothing to sing or speak, his attentiveness in “cueing” the singers was amusingly apt. The high point came when he “accompanied” Zerbinetta at the piano during her big aria. While the actual music came from the orchestra pit, Ms. Frenkel was so accurate in her keyboard locations throughout this long piece that I’d have to think she’s a pretty skilled pianist offstage. And the ending of the opera, which saw Zerbinetta and the Composer together as the earthly counterpart to Ariadne and Bacchus, was sweet indeed.

I had been thinking I wasn’t the Janacek fan I used to be until I recently saw the San Francisco Opera production of “The Makropoulos Affair.” When I last attended a Met performance a couple of years ago I longed for the opportunity to see the opera in HD. Since the springboard of the plot is a law suit involving an estate, it’s a very “talky” work that demands subtle acting that’s not always visible from the Family Circle. The SFO production certainly delivered with a uniformly excellent cast. While Karita Matilla, as the 337 year-old heroine, was a bit more Norma Desmond-ish than I would have liked, you couldn’t have asked for more musically. Bravi tutti!

Theater is thriving on the internet, and I have enough stockpiled links to performances to keep me busy for the next five decades. Some were especially enlightening—a regional production of “Fun Home” that proved this work loses its necessary intensity when performed on a proscenium stage instead of in the round as I saw it on Broadway, and a British production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” which I particularly enjoyed. I had never seen this musical before though I own three different cast recordings, and it was especially gratifying to finally experience the intended dramatic settings of the songs.

Of course the big event of this COVID-19 interlude was the premiere of the taped performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus featuring the show’s original cast. This was my second time around for “Hamilton”—I was fortunate to have seen it live on Broadway about 18 months ago by way of a win in the show’s perpetual ticket lottery. That performance’s strengths differed somewhat from the taped version—I had the benefit of a tall, handsome Hamilton who somewhat outshone the shorter, slighter, balding actor who played Burr, and while the electric give and take between audience and actors is a given in live theater, in “Hamilton” it was off the charts (Yes, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” brought down the house). However, all bets were off at the juncture of “The Room Where It Happened” when Burr tore into that number like nobody’s business, making it the best performed part of the show. I missed that level of excitement in the taped version as well as a more consistent view of the full stage in order to see how inventively the chorus is used. Nevertheless this was more than compensated for by the superb performances of the original cast, especially that of Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr. He had me with his melting version of “Dear Theodosia,” and it was easy to see why he, along with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson won Tony Awards.

But without a doubt what I’ve most enjoyed during live performance exile was the National Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Nicholas Hytner. This was an immersive, anything-goes presentation with aerial stunts, the former Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) as Titania and a quartet of lovers in which the girls seemed more interested in each other than in their interchangeable boyfriends. However, the neatest trick of this production was flipping Oberon’s and Titania’s lines so that he, not she, falls in love with the donkey-fied Bottom. It was so divinely silly, and Hammad Animashaun, braying nicely as Bottom, and especially Oliver Chris as the besotted Oberon, were simply superb. But above all, a special nod goes to whomever came up with the idea of using Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” as “their” song—he or she deserves both a bonus and a raise. Simply wonderful.

Stay safe everyone. Till next time.

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Company

 

The new production of “Company,” now in previews on Broadway, asks a fundamental question: Can Bobby legitimately become Bobbie? (She can, since the role is now played by Katrina Lenk). Can the show work with a female protagonist? After seeing a performance last night, I have to say “Sometimes.” Like its leading character, Director Marianne Elliott’s production doesn’t necessarily have the bad things, but it doesn’t consistently have the good things either.

At first blush, seeing a female Bobbie isn’t that much of a stretch. However, the main problem with this version is that the premise of the show, which premiered in 1970, is passé. I mean, does anyone really care anymore if someone is married or not, except perhaps for your mother? Fifty years ago marriage was viewed as an essential step in life. Not so now, and not for several decades. And despite some astute updating—Paul and Amy are now Paul and Jamie, a gay couple—other scenes, retained from the original, are quite dated, especially the pot-smoking vignette. Hello: It’s now legal in how many states? Seeing upper middle class folks get stoned doesn’t quite have the daring effect it had 50 years ago.

Equally troublesome is the sense that the dynamic of the relationship between Bobbie and her married friends, with the possible exception of Paul and Jamie, is wrong. Bobbie seems to rely more on the male half of the couples, but a single woman, particularly someone in her 30’s, would be more apt to have initially made friends with and be closer to the women (I speak from my long experience as a single woman). In fact the “Company” women, with the exception of Joanne, seem somewhat marginalized here. It felt somewhat jarring to hear Bobbie ask Harry “Are you ever sorry you got married?” That was a natural question for a male Bobby to ask his buddy, but it’s odd hearing it from a female protagonist, notwithstanding the fact that Christopher Sieber who plays Harry, is a big huggable teddy bear. You’d think she’d ask Sarah, his wife. But the central problem with Bobbie, as it is with Bobby, is that the character is an observer. Katrina Lenk projects intelligence and humor, which help, but the character remains something of a cipher.

There’s no doubt this production works best when the focus is on Stephen Sondheim’s terrific score which has been newly re-orchestrated. It’s a bit more mellow now, and occasionally jazz-inflected—less piercing perhaps than the original. It’s played by a multi-piece orchestra (strings included) that sits above the stage and is revealed toward the end of the opening number. There are some wonderful musical surprises along the way: “You Can Drive a Person Crazy,” now sung by Bobbie’s three boyfriends who have been re-harmonized not to sound like the Andrews Sisters anymore, but like The Four Freshmen, minus one. And Bobby Conte Thornton, who plays P.J., gives fine voice to “Another Hundred People.” This is all topped off by some exceptionally clever staging, especially for “Side by Side by Side” and “Getting Married Today,” complete with levitating wedding cake, which has to be seen to be believed (and got the biggest laughs in the show).

As expected, “The Ladies Who Lunch” remains the most striking moment in “Company,” especially now when it’s sung by a woman to a woman. Joanne’s outburst finally made dramatic sense to me—she’s speaking not only of her herself but of what Bobbie may become. It’s wonderfully performed by Patti LuPone who sings it cleanly without a hint of camp or eccentricity. What laughs she gets are not the result of shtik, but are native to the lyrics. It’s an excellent performance (By the way, it’s Ms. LuPone who delivers the pre-show directive to the audience to shut down all cellphones. You never saw a mass of people snap to so quickly in your life). 

On balance this production of “Company” remains worth seeing. It opens on March 22, Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday. Enjoy.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music, Opera

Confluence

Mabel (Alexandra Socha, seated) Just Came in the Room

This past week I had the happy experience of seeing a performance from each of my current arts subscriptions, one every other day. The result? Two near misses, but ending with one smashing hit.

First up on Friday night was Jerry Herman’s “Mack and Mabel,” as presented by the Encores! series, which revisits musicals that initially flopped (rightly or wrongly) or which haven’t been revived in quite some time. Originally Encores! presented these shows in concert form, but now they’re given fully staged productions with the actors down front and the orchestra at the back of the stage.

Although “Mack and Mabel” ran for only 66 performances in 1974, it’s been kept alive in the years since via a very fine original cast album featuring Robert Preston as Mack Sennett and Bernadette Peters as Mabel Normand. The show’s flop status has been primarily blamed on the book, which in truth is unavoidably depressing, given that Mabel, reputedly a drug user (though not proven), died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. There are other problems, too, namely major departures from reality, such as showing Fatty Arbuckle making movies with Sennett at a time when he was in actuality standing trial for murder, and fingering William Desmond Taylor as Mabel Normand’s drug supplier, which is patently false.

But to me the biggest problem with the show is that Mack Sennett is a very unpleasant character, “I Won’t Send Roses” notwithstanding. It’s obvious that in its original production, the creators, including Michael Stewart who wrote the book, and Gower Champion, who directed it (the same team that brought “Hello, Dolly” to life), relied heavily on Robert Preston’s natural warmth and charm to fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, Douglas Sills, who played Mack in the Encores! presentation, failed to exhibit these traits. He alternately blustered and threw away his lines to the extent that if I caught 40% of what he was saying, it was a lot (and based on what I’ve read online, I wasn’t the only one with this complaint). Mabel’s role is better written, and she gets three terrific numbers: “Look What Happened to Mabel,” “Wherever He Ain’t,” and “Time Heals Everything,” which is even more devastating in the context of the show than I had imagined.

In order for “Mack and Mabel” to succeed, we need to be able to see what she sees in him, and unfortunately the view was of a bully who took her for granted until it was too late. It was eye-opening to see the cast perform “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” and to realize what had been missing from the show up until this point—charm and plain old love. It was a treat to see Mabel do a ballroom turn with each of the crew welcoming her back to the studio, and I wish there had been more of it.

Alexandra Socha was an excellent Mabel, but Lilli Cooper, as Lottie Ames, Sennett’s other leading lady in the role originated by Lisa Kirk, was an absolute knockout. Director/Choreographer Josh Rhodes did a terrific job recreating Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and Keystone Kops, but top marks have to go to Music Director Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra for their fabulous performance of the restored orchestrations. Their artistry makes me look forward to the next musical in the series, a true rarity, Kurt Weill’s “Love Life.”

<<<<>>>>

On Sunday I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies 6 and 7 by John Eliot Gardiner and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, part of Carnegie Hall’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. This orchestra performs on original instruments, which presented both pluses and minuses. On the one hand, hearing the strings play with taut bows made for a lovely sonority. Woodwinds were brighter sounding than their modern counterparts, if occasionally hooty, and it was amusing to see a contrabassoon, tall as a chimney, unwound to its full sixteen feet, as well as the length of the uncoiled trumpets.

While the first two movements of each of the symphonies were beautifully rendered, expecially the second movement of the Seventh, Gardiner’s tempos for the scherzos and final movements were far too fast, despite his claim of historical accuracy. Quite honestly I felt sorry for the principal horn who simply could not get her lip around the runs of the third movement of the Pastoral at the speed set by Gardiner (If I’m not mistaken, the principal clarinet also missed a couple of notes). As a former violinist and bassoonist, I have to ask: If the tempo is so fast that the musicians can’t articulate the notes, what good is it?

 

Agrippina (Joyce DiDonato) and Nero (Kate Lindsey): “Your Mother’s Got This”

The absolute winner in this sequence was Tuesday night’s performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s “Agrippina,” which the Met notes is the oldest work (1709) this house has ever performed, though you’d never know it from David McVicar’s incredibly clever production. Handel wrote it when he was 24, and while he’s far from the mature composer of “Ariodante” and “Alcina,” there are fascinating glimpses of what’s to come: Agrippina’s first big aria with its dizzying runs and oboe duet, Ottone’s lament, which closes the first half of this new production, in a string setting that seems to suspend time, and an “at the end of my tether” string-accompanied recitative for Agrippina in the second half that points the way to so many future developments in opera.

Despite the libretto, this is a modern dress production that seems to take its cue from the political skullduggery of “House of Cards,” British and American versions both. The opera covers Agrippina’s machinations resulting in her son Nero’s succeeding Claudius as Emperor (and we all know how well that turned out). Although it’s the same ground covered by the book and TV show “I Claudius,” the scheming is never boring, considering that mezzo Joyce DiDonato is onstage as Agrippina, having the time of her life. I can’t remember when I last saw an opera where all the singers were so consistently excellent, all the way down to baritone Duncan Rock and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna, who play Agrippina’s unfortunate pawns.

Although countertenor Iestyn Davies as the put-upon Ottone and bass Matthew Rose as the not-too-bright Claudius are wonderful, this production is definitely Ladies’ Day. There’s not one moment of boredom, whether it’s Joyce DiDonato, shimmying across the stage while thinking up her latest scheme, or soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, who proves smarter than Agrippina but who’s funniest when drunk in the bar scene that begins the second half, or Kate Lindsey, mistress of physical comedy, as that bad boy Nero, who’s probably the most fun to watch. She’s got that spoiled teenager thing down so well you half expect Joyce DiDonato to bring her stage son up short with “Ya rotten kid, ya.” In addition to the pouts, Ms. Lindsey illustrates Nero’s whiny petulance by singing certain phrases in straight tone, and it’s a marvel to hear her alternate between this and her normally rich mezzo.

Conductor Harry Bicket does his usual fine work with baroque opera here. There’s also a special guest appearance by the superb Bradley Brookshire who serves as the cocktail pianist harpsichordist during the bar scene. And while we’re on that subject, kudos to choreographer Andrew George for his clever work, not only with the dancing bar patrons, but also with the soldiers, whether marching or gyrating to the strains of Handel.

“Agrippina” will be shown in movie theaters on Saturday, February 29, as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. Don’t miss it.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Oklahoma!

Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curley (Damon Daunno)

The overture’s missing. Ditto the chorus.

The first act ends not with a dream ballet, but with Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) singing a stunning one chorus reprise of “Out of My Dreams,” a capella. The ballet opens the second act. It’s a solo dance—Dream Laurey, Curley and Jud, not to mention the dance hall girls of Ali Hakim’s dirty postcards, are nowhere to be found.

Two key scenes are played in total darkness.

These are only a few of the many differences in the Tony-winning revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, probably the most controversial show now running on Broadway. Battles over this production’s merits have been raging in on-line forums for months; critics have either loved it or hated it. I saw it on Friday night, and while a lot of the show made me grin with delight, I nevertheless appreciated those aspects of the production that failed to make me do so. Director Daniel Fish’s vision is never less than thoughtful, and the choices he’s made that result in Rodgers and Hammerstein purists screaming “Betrayal!” in fact grow organically out of the text. Perhaps what disturbs people the most is that he’s divorced the show from the times that gave birth to it. “Oklahoma!” premiered during the World War II year of 1943, when unstinting American optimism was essential. In the years since we’ve come to realize our history as a nation wasn’t as squeaky-clean as those of that era believed.

Daniel Fish’s production is an intimate one. The show is presented in the round, more accurately in a rectangular playing area lined with picnic tables (chili and corn bread are served at intermission). The cast is pared down to speaking roles only and all act as chorus. You’d think the musical aspects of the show would suffer, but never fear. When the cast sings the title song, those soaring choral lines are neatly covered by eleven actors, including four women, sopranos all, who absolutely fly. The songs are performed country & western style, and accompanied by a seven-person band, consisting of accordion/snare (conductor), violin, cello, string bass, banjo, steel guitar/mandolin/electric guitar and an additional electric guitar, supplemented at times by Curley (Damon Daunno) on acoustic guitar. 

If you think there’s no way to shoehorn Richard Rodgers into country & western mode, guess again. It all works, but with one exception—“People Will Say We’re in Love,” which sort of goes clunk though it’s easy to understand why. One of the best aspects of this production is the refreshing youth of its principal actors. As a result Laurey’s initial brattiness and Curley’s near-adolescent boasting make perfect sense. Their solo numbers, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams” reflect their youth, but the lyrics of “People Will Say We’re in Love” struck me as a bit too sophisticated for this Curley and Laurey. After all the energetic country & western twang we’d been hearing, this song’s music comes across as staid ’40’s pop. This is a reversion to your parents’ “Oklahoma!,” and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially after all the musical fun we’ve been having.

This is at times a dramatically raw production. Its take on Jud is interesting—though Laurey calls him a “growly man,” Parick Vaill, who plays him, is tall and rather poetic-looking (and has a terrific singing voice).  What makes him frightening is neither his physique nor his manner but rather his obsession with Laurey. When Curley confronts him in his smokehouse lair, the lights in the theater go dark, further putting the audience on edge. Critics have protested that this is too much for such a sunny work, but is it really? Think about it: Curley basically urges Jud to commit suicide, casting the funeral that would follow as a celebration of his character. Director Daniel Fish suggests that Curley and Jud are two sides of the same coin, and he may be right. Curley is universally liked, but nobody likes Jud, a fact made obvious in the scene where Laurey’s picnic hamper is put up for auction at the social. There’s a strong sense that the men Aunt Eller urges to bid don’t do so to help Curley win the girl, but are instead doing it because they hate Jud., the eternal outsider. 

Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) gets her big “Oklahoma hello” from Will Parker (James Davis)

The last 15 minutes of the show are a roller coaster. Curley and Laurey’s wedding scene of course features “Oklahoma!,” performed as joyfully as you remember it, the audience clapping along, only to end abruptly when Jud shows up. The gun he presents to Curley as a wedding gift is fired when Jud rushes toward Curley and Laurey, whose faces and wedding clothes are spattered with blood. In contrast to other productions as well as the “Oklahoma!” film, the on-the-spot trial which follows is played not for laughs, but in all seriousness. The actors’ delivery slows to a crawl with pauses between each line. The audience is completely silent (though I was becoming irritated at how much this scene was being stretched out). When Cord Elam, the US Marshall, protests the absence of legal formality, Aunt Eller’s responding threat to him for interfering is deadly serious; while the tension is eventually broken, it doesn’t go away. At the conclusion of the show, when the cast reprises “Oklahoma!,” Cord approaches Laurie, looming over her, as if to say “This is your fault” (Does he think she led Jud on?) She joins in the song, but angrily, with full awareness that her future with Curley has been literally and irrevocably stained (This was the version of the song that was performed at the Tony Awards, which made viewers ask “Why is she so pissed off?”). It’s not a happy ending, but I think a valid one, given what we’ve seen, and a logical conclusion to that trial scene.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I especially enjoyed Will Brill, sharply funny as Ali Hakim, and was intrigued by Patrick Vaill’s Jud. But most of all, Ali Stroker as Ado Annie simply exceeds expectations. What a voice! That Tony she won was deserved tenfold.

This is a show that requires open minds. I strongly urge you to see it and make up your own. 

 

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music, Theater

The Sound of Broadway–Reprise

Ah. Broadway! It’s been a while since I did a round-up of some favorite cast albums, so a sequel is definitely in order. All of these have taken up residence in my MP3 player, as they’re well worth the listen.

The New York City Center’s “Encores!” series has rescued a number of musicals which have fallen into obscurity, closed prematurely due to plain bad luck or are just ripe for revival. “Encores!” productions, all of very limited runs, were initially semi-staged, but later blossomed into more elaborate performances. Some have transferred to Broadway: the current production of “Chicago” that’s been running for the last 20 years began as an “Encores!” presentation, and many fine recordings have resulted from the work of this series.

The latest is an absolute gem that memorializes the revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon,” that starred Patrick Wilson and Kelli O’Hara. Before this I had never really been a fan of the show, which relies on the fairy-tale premise of a magical village that avoids the strife of the world by appearing for only one day each century. It has some lovely songs: “Come To Me, Bend To Me,” “The Heather on the Hill,” and especially “Almost Like Being In Love,” the musical’s hit tune. A number of years ago John McGlinn, the conductor responsible for the classic recording of “Show Boat,” recorded “Brigadoon” with Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker. Much as I admire these performers, I wasn’t impressed. The tempos were slower than they should have been, and the approach taken was too sunny bright, even though there’s a darker side to the story. It seemed like a first tentative reading of the score. I listened to it once and put it away.

The new “Encores!” recording, which was only released a few months ago, is another matter entirely. It’s wonderfully alive. There’s an urgency to the performance—the chorus of villagers in “Down on MacConnachy Square” is brisk and beautifully sung. Kelli O’Hara is such a natural for Fiona that it’s almost ridiculous. Listening to this recording, I was struck by how high her music lies—I believe only Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” sits higher. But it’s Patrick Wilson who makes the difference in this recording. Whether in song or dialogue, he presents as a true believer in the magic of Brigadoon, which in turn makes true believers of us. These two performers, along with a vibrant Stephanie J. Block as Meg , Ross Lekites as Charlie, and the rest, seem to have had a wonderful time playing this show, as you can see here. My recommendation: Buy it before it goes out of print or otherwise disappears.

Moving from the introverted to the extroverted (to say the least), perhaps the best represented Broadway show on disk is “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an exceptionally strong book by Arthur Laurents.  The gifts this show provides are endless: that classic overture during which the audience always loses it when the strip music begins; a female starring role that’s generally acknowledged to be the Mount Everest of musical roles; and the strippers’ “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” perhaps the best showstopper in Broadway history, among other charms. The musical runs an emotional gamut ranging from show business love letter to wrenching self-confession. Louise, aka Gypsy Rose Lee, isn’t the only one who strips; her mother Rose peels away many emotional layers to admit a core desire: “Someone tell me when is it my turn?”

The original cast album with Ethel Merman is of course the blueprint of performance, presenting the creators’ original intentions. It’s been followed by a number of worthy Roses: Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton, all of whose performances are available on CD or through streaming services. Each of their recordings is interesting, all valid in one particular or another. I saw Bernadette Peters perform the role onstage (twice) and Bette Midler in the made for TV version, though after listening to the Tyne Daly recording, I really wish I had seen her on stage.

Which recording do I prefer? Your mileage may vary, but my vote goes to  Bernadette, not just because I’m a fan. This seems to contain every note of music in the show, with if not the original orchestrations, some accurate facsimiles. I like her approach to the role–she charms more, shouts less, though there’s some steel there. She’s partnered by John Dossett as Herbie, and refreshingly, the man can really sing. The other recorded Herbies are funny and cute when they can’t carry a tune, but it makes a big difference when there’s a Herbie who can be Rose’s musical foil. And we finally get to hear in their entirety the four strip acts Louise performs on her way to becoming a Minsky’s headliner (This was a wonder to see in the theater—there must have been an army of dressers on each side of the stage to facilitate each costume change). Beginning as a scared to death newbie, she audibly grows in confidence and delight in performing.

The runner-up in the “Gypsy” recording sweepstakes for me is the one with Patti LuPone. I’m not a particular fan of hers, but Laura Benanti is the best Louise on disk. It’s interesting to hear a soprano sing it, plus she plays the comedy exceptionally well—her wickedly accurate imitation of Patti LuPone during one of her strips is worth the price of the recording. Whichever one you favor, enjoy the score of one of the greatest musicals ever written.

One of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen is “The Prom,” now running on Broadway. The story begins with four narcissistic Broadway actors in need of some good publicity who come to the aid of a gay Indiana teenager. The problem? Her desire to take her girlfriend to their prom has resulted in the event’s cancellation by the town’s powers that be. The results are hilarious but with an underlying sweetness that makes the audience cheer. And yes, there’s a prom for all at the end where girl gets girl.

The original cast album is an excellent representation of the work of composer Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, author of the exceptionally witty lyrics. When I first heard the score I thought it a bit generic, but subsequent listening reveals the frequent references to other Broadway shows, in the same fashion the lyrics allude to these other musicals. Broadway diva Dee Dee’s song, “It’s Not About Me” has the rhythmic pulse of “America” from “West Side Story,” and the ending of Emma’s ballad, “Unruly Heart,” is reminiscent of “One Boy” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” as if to say straight or gay, a teenager is still a teenager. Taking the cake, though, is “Zazz,” a Kander & Ebb/Bob Fosse send-up sung by Angie, a girl who’s been in the chorus of a “Chicago” touring company for twenty years, who instructs Emma in the art of strutting her stuff.

“The Prom” cast album presents many other rewards: Christopher Siebert’s ringing tenor in “Love Thy Neighbor,” as he demonstrates that cherry-picking the Bible is not a good idea; Brooks Ashmanskas’ “Barry’s Going to the Prom,” as he finally has the opportunity to make up for what he missed out on as a gay teenager; and Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla as Emma and Alyssa, who share the same vocal range and sing in tight harmony, the universal signal that they’re meant to be together. And because this is a show about a prom, the dance music is a great way to get your blood flowing in the morning if you’re slow to wake up. Here’s a taste, which juxtaposes the recording of the prom-posal scene with scenes from the show.

There’s nothing like a Broadway show, is there?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Artistry of Barbara Cook

She had the blessing of two phenomenal careers, both of which remain unparalleled.

I’ve collected Barbara Cook’s recordings for years, and started to delve into them more systematically a number of months ago after I read “Then & Now,” her almost painfully honest memoir. Following her recent passing, I returned to her catalog of work, and once again found myself astonished by her way with a song.

I was fortunate to see her live twice. The first time she performed many of the songs on her “It’s Better With a Band” album, but what remains indelible in my memory is the encore she sang—Jerome Kern’s “Long Ago and Far Away,” without a mike—just that silvery sound with no electronic enhancement whatsoever. The song just floated throughout the hall. I later heard her with the New Jersey Symphony, conducted by Wally Harper, her long-time music director, and most of the material came from her “Disney Album,” which had just been released. Was there ever a more perfect match of singer and song? The most refreshing aspect of her performance was her lack of pretense. I remember her putting on her glasses to read the sheet music during the “Disney” concert (for lyrics–she famously never learned to read music). This carried through in an interview she gave at one point on WQXR, New York’s classical music station. She was asked “How long do you warm up before a performance?” Ms. Cook replied “I don’t warm up. I just hum a few bars to see what I’ve got to work with that night.” And she was also a knowledgeable and opinionated opera fan (Is there any other kind?) whose interviews during Metropolitan Opera broadcast intermissions were a treat.

I have to think being Broadway’s favorite ingenue during the 1950’s and early ’60’s was excellent preparation for her second act as a solo performer. Among her many accomplishments, she created three indelible characters: Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” Marian Paroo in Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” and Amalia in Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” She also graced revivals of  “The King and I,” “Showboat” and “Carousel,” both as Carrie Pipperidge and later as Julie Jordan (she famously preferred the former). While her performances in all of the these shows have been captured on disk, the one I always return to is “The Music Man.” Is there a more evocative number than “Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You?,” Marian’s duet with the barbershop quartet? The real 1912 was, I’m sure, far removed from the theatrical River City, but listening to that number automatically transports you to a long ago summer night. It’s the way we always wished that era had been.

As great as her Broadway career was, she set an even higher bar as a solo/cabaret artist. What I most liked about her was the emotional level she brought to a song. Nothing drives me up the wall faster than a singer who goes dramatically over the top, pedal to the metal, when the song is not intended to carry such heavy baggage. Singers who consistently resort to that approach don’t trust the material they’re performing, which makes me not trust them. Ms. Cook, on the other hand, knew what a song was saying, and within that context illuminated the composer and lyricist’s intent. Musically she sang what fit her voice, whether it was traditionally a “man’s song” or a “woman’s song;” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her His Face,” “This Nearly Was Mine” and “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” were standards in her repertoire, and on “Marianne,” a lovely Jerry Herman number which surprisingly fit her voice like a glove, she didn’t bother to change pronouns, letting the music carry the emotion of the song. Few singers possess the art of illuminating both music and words simultaneously, but Ms. Cook certainly did. Listen to “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” from her “Barbara Cook at the Met” album. She so obviously loved singing it–she relishes the phrase “corny as Kansas as August,” and leans on certain words to build to the eventual climax of the song: “fearlessly,” “loudly,” “flatly” finally, of course, “love.” Her musicianship was superb. I had no idea that Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” had such lovely music until I heard her sing it.

She never remained static in her approach, instead revisiting a song to find more within. Case in point: Jerry Herman’s “Time Heals Everything” from his show “Mack and Mabel.” Her first recording of this number, on “Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall,” presents an almost objective approach, as if she’s trying to give herself a pep talk to overcome the present grief of loss.  A number of years later, on her “Barbara Cook’s Broadway” album, she’s sadder but just as determined to survive the pain. On this recording the song is paired in a medley with a beautiful rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in which her ability to sing legato—the smooth transition from note to note—is on full display. She could go the dramatic route—she makes her voice break twice in an even later, more pain-driven version of “Time Heals Everything” on her live “The Champion Season” recording—but it really doesn’t suit her. Nevertheless she manages to save that performance with a floated final note so ravishing that a “Lovely!” from a man in the audience is audible.

Fortunately she left a considerable body of work covering the best of the American Song Book. It’s so hard to pick my favorite Barbara Cook recordings, but I’ll try. All of these are currently available:

“Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.” Her return to performing after many years away. Although the lady tells the audience “I’m not as nervous as I thought I’d be,” you can tell she is at the start, though two songs in, she’s totally relaxed. “Carolina in the Morning,” with its peach of an arrangement, and “Wait Till You See Him” are tremendous.

“It’s Better With a Band.” Here she’s in full command of her resources, with excellent material, and her confidence as an artist is off the charts. “Them There Eyes,” her vocal/kazoo duet with tuba, the medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, especially “I Can Cook Too,”and the aforementioned “Marianne” are highlights. You can see her perform a number of songs from this album in “An Evening With Barbara Cook,” on YouTube.

“Follies.” With all due respect to Dorothy Collins, who originated the role of Sally Plummer, Ms. Cook delivers what may be the definitive version of “Losing My Mind.”

“Oscar Winners,” consisting entirely of songs with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, on which Ms. Cook sings a stunning “All the Things You Are” and “The Gentleman is a Dope.”

“The Disney Album.” “Lavender Blue” alone is worth the price of the CD, though hearing Barbara Cook in triplicate, courtesy of over-dubbing, on “When I See an Elephant Fly” is an absolute treat. I love songs from the older Disney films, and I only wish she had recorded “Never Smile at a Crocodile.”

“No One is Alone,””Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” “You Make Me Feel So Young,” and “Loverman.” These four recordings date from 2007 to 2012, and though she was pushing 80, she could still sustain a phrase. Her voice maintained its quality, and in fact only became warmer when she lowered the keys in which she sang. If your only acquaintance with “I’m Through With Love,” is hearing Alfalfa sing it in an old “Our Gang” short, you need to hear Ms. Cook’s version on “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder,” as well as her superlative rendition of Sondheim’s “I Wish I Could Forget You.” That last song also appears on “No One is Alone,” which features a lovely medley of “Long Before I knew You”/”I Fall in Love Too Easily,” as well as Sondheim’s “One More Kiss.””You Make Me Feel So Young,” from a live 2011 performance, has some great up-tempo numbers on which she clearly has a ball—“Frim Fram Sauce” and “Love is Good For Anything That Ails You,” plus her discourse on how difficult it is to find a good kazoo. “Loverman” contains an arresting a capella version of “House of the Rising Sun.” While her voice by then was not what it once was, what she did have was far more than most singers, and she makes it work.

One last compelling example of Barbara Cook’s way with a song: “For All We Know,” on the “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” album (I had always thought of this as the quintessential World War II song, and was surprised to learn it had been composed in 1934). Accompanied on piano by her then-music director, Lee Musiker, Ms. Cook delivers an indelible performance. It’s easy to go over the top with this number, but she underscores the sentiment with just a touch of sorrow. She tells you volumes, not only about the woman who’s able to face such a parting while keeping it together, but also about the man she’s singing it to, who inspired such emotion.

Two minutes of heaven.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

The Sound of Broadway

Two recent events have once again proven there are few performances more iconic than those given in Broadway musicals. The death of John McMartin, an actor who graced the original Broadway productions of “Sweet Charity” and the landmark”Follies,” reminded me that the original cast albums of these shows are among my favorite listening experiences. And the sheer joy and exuberance that Zachary Levy brings to the recording of the recent “She Loves Me” revival are the perfect antidote to a down-in-the-dumps day.

Whether on 10-inch shellac 78 rpm disks, vinyl, cassette tape or CD, the original cast album has always served a dual purpose: as advertising for the show and its score and as souvenir for those lucky enough to have seen it on Broadway or on tour. But before we go any further, let’s get one of my pet peeves out of the way. A cast album of a theatrical production is not a “soundtrack,” no matter what retailers, web sites and streaming services may tell you. A soundtrack is what you hear when you see a movie; in CD form it’s the music and/or vocal score of a film. And the differences between a cast album and a soundtrack in terms of performers’ energy and the quality of sound involved can be amazing.

I’ve written before about the cast albums of “Parade,” “LoveMusik,” and “A Little Night Music,” but these are by no means my only favorites. One of my most listened-to recordings is of a show I’ve never seen on stage: “Sweet Charity,” which absolutely crackles with its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score; in its original form, it far outstrips the score of the film version starring Shirley MacLaine (surprise, surprise). Had the movie kept Sweet Charity“Baby, Dream Your Dream” and the Broadway version of the title song as sung by John McMartin, not to mention the guitars and mariachi of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” it might not have been the flop that it was. The sizzle of “Big Spender” (dum dum da-dum dum-dum) and the contrapuntal chorus in “The Rhythm of Life” are just icing on the cake. I can’t leave “Sweet Charity,” though, without singling out Gwen Verdon as one of the best in the original cast album universe. I only saw her on stage once, in the original production of “Chicago,” but the albums of her shows are among the most energetic and fun to hear.

Another Cy Coleman score, “Little Me,” is another great listen. Among its assets is an absolute knock-out performance by Swen Swenson of “I’ve Got Your Number” with the sexiest come-on baritone imaginable. For this show Mr. Coleman’s lyricist was Carolyn Leigh; one of the choruses of “Real Live Girl,” sung by World War I doughboys, never fails to make me smile in its fashion accuracy:

Girls were like fellas was once my belief
What a reversal and what a relief
I’ll take the flowering hat and the towering heel
And the squeal
Of a real live girl.

Follies PapermillThe late Mr. McMartin was Ben Stone in the legendary original production of “Follies.” It’s one of the biggest cheats in the history of Broadway musicals that Capitol Records, which produced the cast album, couldn’t or wouldn’t release it on two disks. Suffice it to say there’s a ton of missing Sondheim; verses, choruses, reprises and entire numbers vanished. Nevertheless, despite its truncated state this album is still a keeper. Every original cast recording is a direct expression of the composer’s and lyricist’s intentions—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak (This is perfectly apparent in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic documentary of the recording of the “Company” cast album). Given the fall and rise of “Follies” since its 1971 premiere, not to mention the various revisions to the show during these years, it’s always fun to return to the blueprint.

However, I’m equally fascinated by the songs written for “Follies” that never made it to opening night. Although they’ve popped up on various recordings of lost show tunes and in reviews based on Sondheim scores, you can hear all of them sung in character on the recording of the Paper Mill Playhouse production that set the bar for all “Follies” revivals. Donna McKechnie and Tony Roberts may not totally measure up vocally as Sally and Buddy, but Dee Hoty and Lawrence Guittard certainly do as Phyllis and Ben. This two-disk version of “Follies” contains every song ever written for the show, among which are some of Sondheim’s finest work. You’ll wonder why these songs were cut, especially “Bring on the Girls,” which, with its emphatically descending bass line, is a perfect accompaniment to show girls making their entrance (In his book “Finishing the Hat,” Sondheim admits that he should never have replaced it with “Beautiful Girls”). However, the cut song that remains in memory the longest is the original version of the double duet in the “Follies” section of the show, in this instance sung by the younger versions of Ben and Phyllis: “Who Could Be Blue/Little White House.” Its haunting melody and the wistful innocence of its expression are lovely; the contrast with “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through” is particularly poignant. By the way, this recording includes all three versions of Phyllis’ “Follies” number: “The Story of Lucy and Jessie,” “Uptown, Downtown,” and “Ah, But Underneath.” For my money, the first of these remains the best; who else but Sondheim would write the line “That’s the sorrowful précis”?

Other cast albums bring standout moments: Kelli O’Hara’s successive astonishment, wonderment and delight as she sings “I’m in love!” at the climax of “A Wonderful Guy” in the revival of “South Pacific;” Beth Malone’s desperation, singing “Telephone Wire” in “Fun Home,” as her character so longsKismet for a different past; Ms. O’Hara again, this time with Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael McKean, in the revival of “Pajama Game,” doing a bang-up job on “I’m Not at All in Love” (As a devoted fan of 50’s pop, I love this score).  There’s an entire series of recordings from the revivals produced by the Music Theater of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s; I frequently play the disk of “Kismet” to hear soprano Lee Venora as Marsinah sing a tremendous”Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (and Alfred Drake’s “Olive Tree” ain’t too shabby either).

Which brings me to the recent revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “She Loves Me.” Its excellent recording comes with a substantial bonus: the performance of Zachary Levi as Georg. I saw the show in June (thanks again, Jane!), and while the four principals were well matched, it was Jane Krakowski as Ilona who was just a bit more memorable. On disk, however, it’s Mr. Levi who takes the honors; it’s impossible to hear him sing the show’s title song without grinning from ear to ear. Here’s hoping he comes back to Broadway to do another musical soon.

And your favorites are?

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Fun Home

Not One Big Happy Family
“We’re a typical family quintet” “And yet….”

On Thursday night I saw “Fun Home.” this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical. I think it’ll be a while before the mulling over stops.

Based on Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, “Fun Home” plays on a specific as well as a universal level. While it’s her story—her childhood and her coming out—it also appeals to a fairly widespread desire: to know what our parents are really like, to solve a mystery that no child really can. We want to know them not as parents, but as people, particularly people our age. Is it any wonder films like “Back to the Future,” in which this wish plays out, are so popular? But “Fun Home” is about an even greater enigma: Alison’s father, Bruce, married, father of three—and gay. And who evidently committed suicide by stepping into the path of a truck not long after his daughter came out.

Shortly To Be Changing Her Major
Shortly To Be Changing Her Major

“Fun Home,” the musical, features 43-year-old Alison looking back on her childhood and adolescence, and trying to understand her father’s life and death (It’s no accident she’s doing this at almost the same age he was when he died. Take it from one who’s been there—realizing you’ve surpassed your parents’ ages certainly makes you reassess your life). Alison is aided and abetted by two younger selves: Small Alison, who’s about 9 or 10, and Middle Alison, in her freshman year at Oberlin. Her father Bruce is a high school English teacher who also runs the Bechdel Funeral Home, the family business he inherited which his kids call “Fun Home.” But Bruce’s real passion is historic restoration, an avocation he takes to an extreme. As the adult Alison notes, “The real object of his affection was his house.” The family residence closely resembles a museum in which Bruce insists everything must be in its place. With his private life in chaos it’s not surprising he’s something of a control freak capable of raging over minutiae.

Even discounting the subject matter, this is definitely not your daddy’s musical theater. The show is played in the round, so that fourth wall feels practically non-existent. There’s no intermission so there’s never a loss of momentum in the story. It’s non-linear—what we experience is the adult Alison’s looking back and trying to make sense of a jumble of memories and impressions. But what ultimately makes “Fun Home” so refreshing is that this is a quiet show, both literally and figuratively. Seven musicians accompany the characters as they express themselves in language, both musical and lyrical, that seems made to measure. Composer Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, book author and lyricist, have produced a wonderfully honest work—there’s no grandiosity of expression or hyper-intellectualism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Small Alison’s number, “Ring of Keys,” which Sydney Lucas performed so memorably at the Tony Awards. The character expresses herself as a child would, albeit one with a growing realization of who she is. Similarly she and her two brothers hilariously stay within their own frame of reference when they belt out their commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”), Jackson 5-style. Both songs bring the house down in performance.

All five principals of “Fun Home” were nominated for Tony Awards, and rightly so (Michael Cerveris won for Best Actor in a Musical). Emily Skeggs gives a lovely performance as Middle Alison; she’s adorable singing “Changing My Major” in her tighty-whities and soccer socks after that first night with Joan (Speaking of whom, Roberta Colindrez lends a welcome tang to her portrayal of Alison’s first). And the audience is brought to its virtual knees by Judy Kuhn’s rendition of “Days and Days,” as Alison’s mother Helen describes what it’s cost her to be married to the closeted Bruce. “Heart-wrenching” doesn’t begin to do actor or song justice. When Ms. Kuhn ended by singing to Middle Alison, “Don’t come back here\I didn’t raise you\To give away your days\Like me” at the performance I saw, I could feel the audience collectively draw a startled breath at the rawness of that emotion.

“I Wanna Play Airplane”

Michael Cerveris as Bruce and Beth Malone as Alison give stellar performances in the two most complex roles in “Fun Home.” By turns avuncular, rigid, gentle and angry, Mr. Cerveris shows us a man incapable of listening to others because of the noise in his own head. One moment he can sing a gentle lullaby to his daughter; the next he can leave his kids asleep in a borrowed apartment in New York to go out cruising. Yet the torment of living a double life is never gone for him. There are few scenes in musicals that show a character’s desperation as plainly as the conclusion of “Raincoat of Love,” a Partridge Family-like number, in which Bruce stands alone, singing the refrain “Everything’s all right,” over and over, a capella. The man is just falling apart.

Beth Malone may have the smallest role of the three Alisons, but it’s the most crucial. As the narrator of “Fun Home,” she’s the prism through which we see the story (Her embarrassment at Middle Alison’s gaucherie is predictable but hilarious). At first she’s ambivalent about her father (“My dad and I were exactly alike. My dad and I were nothing alike”). But as memories return and are reexamined from her now-adult viewpoint, her sympathies begin to shift. Perhaps for the first time she appreciates how closed his life was; as she sings in “Maps,” “I can draw a circle—you live your life inside.” Longing to understand him, she recreates their final conversation (“Telephone Wire”), in which she promises herself over and over that she’ll broach the subject of their gayness at the next traffic light as they go for a drive. But the adolescent Alison can’t make contact, to the adult’s frustration (“I had no way of knowing my beginning would be your end”). Like Jay Gatsby, she wants to change the past to ensure a different present. However, there is reconciliation. As the adult Alison, looking back at how she and her father played “airplane,” concludes: “Every so often there was a moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”

If you can’t make it to the Public Theater to see “Fun Home,” by all means buy the original cast recording. It has a great deal of the dialogue along with the music, and the performances are full tilt—the four ladies and Michael Cerveris have some serious chops. Skip the MP3 version and spring for the CD—it’s accompanied by a terrific booklet with all the lyrics and an insightful essay by Jesse Green, theater critic of “New York” magazine.

Savor it.

FunHome3
Beth Malone, Judy Kuhn, Sydney Lucas, Michael Cerveris and Emily Skeggs

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Movie Reviews

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Have I mentioned I grew up at a time when the Broadway musical was still in its prime (not to mention affordable)? Because I was lucky to live in the New York metropolitan area, I was able to see the original productions of so many shows now considered to be classics. One of the best–and loveliest–was Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “A Little Night Music” stands apart from other Sondheim shows. Its music doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, and the wry romance of the story resulted in his wittiest lyrics. There’s no doubt the excellence of the work rests a great deal on what Bergman already created. In style his film is reminiscent of the Mozart/DaPonte operas–it almost begs to be sung. Despite the satisfactory rearrangement of the lovers, you’re left with the impression that all happy endings are evanescent (It’s a safe bet that Charlotte and Carl-Magnus Malcolm will probably grind each other down into dust). But the reward is a visually beautiful film directed by a master, with Gunnar Bjornstrom and Eva Dahlbeck as Frederick Egermann and Desiree Armfelt so ridiculously good together they outdo even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The original production of “A Little Night Music” was a bit sweeter than the Bergman film. Charlotte Malcolm was sharply comic, rather than tending toward tragedy, Carl-Magnus was a barihunk without quite the wit of his film counterpart, Frederick was somewhat less dry, and it was obvious that his relationship with Desiree had ended many years earlier than in the Bergman version (Desiree’s child is a girl who’s about ten years older than the film character’s son). On stage, William Daniels, who had replaced Len Cariou as Frederick Egermann, was wonderful in the role. The sheer theatricality of the show was such fun: “The Glamorous Life” (“Bring up the curtain, la la la”) accented by a harp glissando and Desiree’s sweeping gesture to cue the scenery of the play within the play; the clever design of Charlotte’s hobble skirt, which turned out to be culottes; that breath-taking moment when the curtain rose on the second act, with the cast lounging on the lawn of Desiree’s estate, all dressed in their beautiful summer whites. Not to mention how wonderfully Glynis Johns sang “Send in the Clowns” so late in the show’s run, yet making it sound like fresh thought. It’s hard to think of another show that could match that production in elegance.

Glynis Johns as Desiree
Glynis Johns as Desiree

“Night Music,” musically speaking, is all of one piece. Every song in the score, waltz or not, is in three or its multiple; the unstoppable “A Weekend in the Country” is in 12/8. But your ear is never bored since Sondheim plays with tempo throughout the show and tricks you into thinking he’s doing alternate meter as in “The Glamorous Life.” However, I think the most crucial musical ingredient is the contribution of Jonathan Tunick, perhaps the most gifted orchestrator Broadway has ever seen. He adds warmth to the score with some lovely woodwind writing, especially for alto flute and English horn, and he softens the odd tonality of “Night Waltz I” (“The sun won’t set..”) with those lush strings.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment in “A Little Night Music.” “A Weekend in the Country,” with its busy choruses and Charlotte’s sage advice to Anne about how to outshine Desiree (“Wear your hair down with a flower/Don’t use makeup/Dress in white/She’ll grow older by the hour/And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night”)? And the unique juxtaposition of “Now” “Soon” and “Later,” only to hear them come together in a trio? Which reminds me: there’s an unusual bonus on the original cast album at the point when Anne (Victoria Mallory) and Henrik (Mark Lambert) sing the line “I don’t mind it too much.” Their voices so perfectly mesh that her soprano sounds like an overtone of his tenor (In fact the actors married during the run of the show and their daughter played Anne in the recent revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway cast album still makes the best case for the show. The recording of the revival has its merits—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and the lieder singers are excellent–but the orchestrations, therefore the sound, is leaner, making it “less than” from a musical standpoint And by all means avoid the movie version, which changed the locale from Sweden to turn of the century Vienna and ends up laying the proverbial egg (Diana Rigg is a great Charlotte, but it’s just not worth the agony).

So while Hans Christian Anderson may never be risqué, “A Little Night Music” will always delight.