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”.

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Carousel

Carousel_web2.ashxI think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” has always required an extra leap of faith on the part of its audience. Half melodrama, half homespun philosophy with more than a dash of fantasy, it’s become somewhat difficult to take given today’s attitudes toward bullies and men who hit their wives. But because of its musical score it has something of a mythical status in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. At its best, during the Bench Scene which includes “If I Loved You,” we’re watching an extraordinary milestone in musical theater.

The New York Philharmonic recently gave “Carousel” the all-star treatment, and the results were aired on PBS this past Friday (the performance will be accessible on the station’s website until May 3). I lasted until Kelli O’Hara, as the luckless Julie Jordan, began “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” at which point I had to bail. My credulity had reached the breaking point, with both the story and the production, and my remote became a lifesaver.

What went wrong?

I’m not sold on staged or semi-staged versions of musicals presented with a full symphony orchestra. I think it’s an awkward format at best; at worst, it can be a bloated mess. Broadway musicals were written with pit bands in mind; given the theaters’ cramped quarters, 24 players, give or take, was a big orchestra back in the day. So I wasn’t surprised that the New York Philharmonic sounded sluggish and ungainly reading the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Matters weren’t helped by the slow tempos of conductor Rob Fisher—I half expected Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn to turn blue during “If I Loved You.”

Casting was also a problem. I love Kelli O’Hara and thought she was a terrific Nellie Forbush, but something was off in her performance as Julie Jordan. At this point in her career, she’s past playing a role like that. I’m not fond of the character (frankly I think she’s a doormat), but in all honesty, it would take a young actress projecting total innocence and naiveté to get me to believe in her. And I don’t think Ms. O’Hara was helped by Nathan Gunn’s Billy Bigelow. Gunn is an operatic baritone, one of the first singers to catch the “barihunk” label. On the opera stage he’s decent, but he’s not capable of delivering “Soliloquy” the way it should be done—in character as Billy Bigelow. What we got instead was Nathan Gunn singing the showstopper.

This raises an issue of constant debate—do you prefer a performer with less voice but better acting chops in a musical? Sometimes I do. Obviously it depends on one’s own taste, but I dare anyone to listen to the “Cabaret” recording featuring Natasha Richardson and tell me that isn’t Sally Bowles to the life (my jaw hit the floor when  I first heard it). Her voice is at best passable—she can carry a tune— but she reads the lyrics in character. Of course Sally isn’t Billy Bigelow (the film version of “Cabaret” always begs the question that if Sally sounds like Liza Minnelli, why is she working in a dive like the Kit Kat Klub?), but try listening to the recording of the 1994 revival of “Carousel.” This featured a young Michael Hayden as Billy (not to mention Audra McDonald as Carrie), and while he was no John Raitt or Nathan Gunn, he brought so much to the table: Billy’s wonderment at being a father, his pride in Bill, his total anguish at not being able to provide for a daughter. He acts the role and the singing follows, rather than the reverse, and the result is an eye opener.

Even with these misgivings, “Carousel” is worth watching. Jessie Mueller is an excellent Carrie Pipperidge, and Jason Danieley (Mr. Snow), Shuler Hensley (Jigger) and Stephanie Blythe (Nettie Fowler) all do a great job. And even if you’re like me, who’d rather spend time with Curley and Laurie in “Oklahoma!” or Emile and Nellie in “South Pacific,” hearing the music of “Carousel” remains something special.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music

Style

In dressing, the blessing is not all the attire
It’s the way that you wear the clothes
And bear the clothes upon you
It’s the way that you air the clothes
It’s all in the poise and pose…

It is never the thing that you wear
It’s the way it is worn.

George M. Cohan, “All in the Wearing”

The Yankee Doodle Dandy may or may not have been an opera fan, but his lyric has time and again proved to be as applicable to musical performance as it is to fashion.

Maria Callas as Norma

Here’s an example: a number of years ago I saw Jane Eaglen sing “Norma” at the Met. You’ll recall that for a while at least the lady was pure “go to” for all the leading Wagner soprano roles. But she had another idea, as many dramatic sopranos often do, and became infatuated with one Vincenzo Bellini. Well, suffice it to say that Norma sure deserved better that night—Ms. Eaglen had absolutely no sense of line, the Number One prerequisite for singing this composer. It sounds odd, but matters were actually made worse by her Adalgisa, Daniela Barcellona, whose tremendous bel canto style blew Eaglen’s Norma right off the stage. The capper came at intermission when I dropped by the Lincoln Center gift shop. There the staff was bitchily lovingly playing Maria Callas, in all her glory, singing “Casta Diva.” Ouch. You’d have to be unconscious not to hear the difference between a mistress of the genre and one who had absolutely no idea how to sing this type of music.

This happens more often in performance than you’d think, though fortunately not as disastrously as the night Vincenzo was done wrong. Baroque opera is of course very popular these days, but while many singers are called, few are chosen. It demands excellent musicianship and a certain style. As an illustration, one of my favorite opera recordings, Handel’s “Ariodante”, conducted by Alan Curtis, features a roster of singers who know precisely how baroque should be performed. They seem to ride the music the same way a surfer rides a wave. It’s exhilarating. Although other singers can sing the notes, they lack the sense of rhythm and phrase that Handel demands.

This was nowhere more evident than yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall when Joyce DiDonato took the stage to present her “Drama Queens” program with Il Complesso Barocco. Notice I said “with” and not “accompanied by” when referring to this wonderful group of musicians. This was a total collaboration between singer and orchestra, led by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. The concert, featuring arias from DiDonato’s new CD, began somewhat slowly—too many lamentations by too many bereaved ladies—but the last selection on the first half, a wickedly a tempo aria by Orlandini, found Joyce in terrific form and busting some moves during the orchestral sections. (Baroque is irresistible for dancing—it swings. My friends and I used to do the Jerk to Handel in junior high music appreciation class when Mr. Asprey wasn’t looking). The second half of the concert was pure magic, featuring back-to-back Cleopatra arias by Hasse and Handel. For those like myself who grew up on Beverly Sills, DiDonato’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” is a revelation. Her singing of the sicilliana, “Madre diletta,” from Giovanni Porta’s “Ifigenia in Aulide,” seemed to suspend time. What a musician. And for the fashionistas who may be reading this, she wore the above red dress, which was accessorized by a matching shawl, a short jacket, a bustle and epaulets (for Cleopatra) at various points during the concert. And speaking of style, the men of the orchestra wore red socks to match—a lovely touch indeed.

It’s not just opera or classical music that requires this type of skill. The other day I listened to the original Broadway cast album of “1776” featuring one of my favorite actors, William Daniels, as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and a very young Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson. Check out Betty’s version of “He Plays the Violin.” No one has ever done it better. Yes, she’s helped by that suggestive violin spiccato, but her phrasing, her sense of going with the music, the way she colors certain words—that’s an artist who can sing not just the notes but who can create the musical experience the way it should be heard. The “way it should be worn.”