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?

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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.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Observations

Parade

leo-frank-portrait-clear222If you view the images that result from an internet search of the name “Leo Frank,” the majority of hits will fall into two categories. One group will consist of various old photographs, seemingly from the turn of the last century, of a sad-faced, bespectacled young man wearing a high celluloid collar and in some pictures, an ornate stick-pin. The other group of photos, similarly dated, will show the aftermath of a lynching, the blindfolded victim hanging from a tree, his neck unnaturally elongated. Various country folk pose with and/or point at the body in triumph. The date is August 17, 1915; the victim is Leo Frank, 31 years of age at the time of his murder.

The bare facts are these: Leo Frank, a product of Brooklyn and Cornell University, was the superintendent of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia. The body of Mary Phagan, a 13 year-old factory worker, was found in the basement of the premises on April 27, 1913, a day after she came to collect her pay. Her head had been battered, she had been strangled and possibly raped. Her purse and wages were missing. Frank was indicted and stood trial for first degree murder. His conviction on the testimony of Jim Conley, a factory janitor who had changed his story to the police on at least three separate occasions, was deemed unusual for that time and place given that Conley was African-American and Frank was white, albeit a Jew. Appeals ensued and were denied, but ironically it was Governor John Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, while well-intentioned, that became a death warrant. The Knights of Mary Phagan, comprised of various judges, a former governor, at least one minister, and other pillars of the community, took the law into their own hands, broke into the jail, kidnapped Frank, drove him to Marietta, Mary’s home town, and lynched him.

In later years both Conley’s own attorney and a former office boy at the National Pencil Company revealed that Jim Conley’s trial testimony was shot through with outright lies; the attorney maintained on his deathbed that Frank was innocent and his former client the real murderer of Mary Phagan. Ultimately the State of Georgia issued a posthumous pardon to Leo Frank, but refused to exonerate him.

Given the grim subject matter, it may come as a surprise that Leo Frank’s story is the basis of a musical. The result, “Parade,” which premiered in 1998 with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry and direction by Hal Prince, has one of the finest Broadway scores ever written. The material is rich indeed: Northern exploitation of Southerners via the pittance paid to child labor, virulent anti-Semitism and resentment of “outside influence,” the occurrence of Mary Phagan’s murder on Confederate Memorial Day, the indefatigable efforts of Lucille Frank to free her husband. While “Parade” ran only two months on Broadway, it’s had quite an afterlife as presented by colleges and amateur groups, with recent professional revivals in Los Angeles and London in a revised version prepared by the show’s creators.

paradeFortunately “Parade” also survives because of its original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed. Jason Robert Brown’s score is a marvelous work, rife with dance rhythms of the era, but laced with two devices that serve to emphasize the dramatic conflicts in the story: the threatening ostinato that accompanies the anthem “The Old Red Hills of Home,” and the Charles Ives-like cacophony of colliding musical styles, most prominently in the aftermath of Leo Frank’s conviction when a tolling bell, “The Old Red Hills of Home” and a sarcastic cakewalk bring the curtain down on Act One. Brown also uses leitmotifs: Mary’s “oh, yeah”-like “Go on, go on” to Frankie Epps, becomes the mob’s “tell me more” cue to spread more scurrilous rumors about Frank. And chillingly, the melody of “The Old Red Hills of Home” becomes the setting of Leo’s final prayer before the chair is kicked out from under his feet and the rope goes taut.

The characterizations of Leo and Lucille Frank are unforgettable. We come to know Leo so well as the somewhat persnickety head of the pencil factory that when several of Mary’s young co-workers testify against him in “Come Up to My Office,” their depiction of the man as a malevolent lecher strikes us as cruel caricature (And Brown does a wonderful job here, dropping Leo’s lewd insinuations down into the bass clef, in contrast to the tenor range he maintains throughout the rest of the show). When Brent Carver as Leo finally sings his response during the trial (“It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”), he utterly breaks ours at the line “I stand before you now/incredibly afraid…”.

And Carolee Carmello. As Lucille she’s introduced in a lovely waltz in one in “What Am I Waiting For?,” a quintessential Broadway heroine’s “wanting song.” In an unusual move, Jason Robert Brown scored the accompaniment himself, giving her a string quartet and piano setting. It’s an arresting moment, given the brass bands of Confederate Memorial Day that precede the number. But it’s Ms. Carmello’s searing performance of “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille’s rebuke to the press and its sensationalism, that will stay in your memory. Composer and performer seemingly outdo each other to produce an incredible result.

As a theatrical work, “Parade” in its original form is overwhelming. It’s a BIG show—it requires a large cast and chorus, all of whom have to be able to really sing. No fakery will do. I took a pass on “Parade” during its Broadway run for the simple reason that I just didn’t believe a musical could be fashioned out of Leo Frank’s story. But when I finally saw the production four years ago, courtesy of the Theater on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, it was an incredible experience. I can’t recommend the original cast album more highly.

Note: A number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, not to mention movies, documentaries and TV mini-series, have examined the Leo Frank story. The most comprehensive account by far and the most recent is Steve Oney’s “And the Dead Shall Rise”; I’d also recommend Leonard Dinnerstein’s classic “The Leo Frank Case”.