Fortunately for us, the Miracle of the Secaucus Warehouse was just the beginning. So many studio recordings featuring original orchestrations of American Songbook material followed that it’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But here are two that are certainly worth more than the price of the disk or download, and then some.
Perhaps the liveliest CD in the John McGlinn canon is 1994’s The Busby Berkeley Album, a tremendous set of the Al Dubin–Harry Warren tunes that graced the Warner Brothers extravaganzas of the early 1930’s—42nd Street and the Gold Diggers films (1933, 1935 and 1937). Brent Barrett of the gleaming tenor does the songs that made Dick Powell famous, and a savvy trio of ladies—Judy Blazer, Ann Morrison and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte—do the honors on the distaff side. Best of all, McGlinn uses Ray Heindorf’s original orchestrations, and it’s lovely to hear these songs in contemporary sound, but with ’30’s style intact.
Since you wouldn’t be reading this blog unless you already know every song and line from the Busby Berkeley movies, as well as his fondness for blondes by the score, endless choruses and dance permutations and little Billy Barty leering at chorines, I can gratefully skip the background material (whew!). Let’s start where the CD does, with Judy Blazer zinging her way through “We’re in the Money,” pig Latin and all. I really love how “Forty-Second Street” is done, with the emphasized beats illustrating each ascending step of the chorus before they turn around to reveal their placards forming the Manhattan skyline. Details like this make the recording, like the softly harmonized “ha ha’s” by the female chorus in “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the bouncy vocal rhythms of the police officers in “Pettin’ in the Park.” Kudos to the London Sinfonietta Chorus and Orchestra for a wonderfully stylish and energetic job.
However, top vocal honors must go to Debbie Shapiro Gravitte for a searing “Remember My Forgotten Man” and to Brent Barrett for a wickedly good “Young and Healthy” and an amusing “Dames” in which he plays a beleaguered theatrical producer. My only disappointment with this album is the inclusion of “I’m Going Shopping With You” instead of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” which I would have loved to have heard him sing. But the rendition of my favorite Busby Berkeley song is more than satisfying—that cautionary tale of party girls who party too long and too well, “The Lullaby of Broadway.” McGlinn & Co. give the emotional range of this number its full due, from the opening chorus to the delicately lilting variation that accompanies the white-clad dance team to the relentless insistence of the tap-dancing chorus. I don’t think a darker musical number ever served as the backdrop for an Oscar-winning song. Just to remind you:
A decade away from Busby Berkeley but just as satisfying, the 2006 CD, Jule Styne in Hollywood, pays tribute to the composer’s knack for writing some really wonderful songs for some really forgettable movies (The one possible exception? It Happened in Brooklyn, with Frank Sinatra). There’s a geniality and openness to Styne’s music that’s totally disarming, and he’s matched in tone by the lyricists he worked with during his Hollywood years, most prominently Sammy Cahn and Frank Loesser.
Kelli O’Hara, who can probably sing anything composed by man or woman, puts on her best girl singer’s hat in the opening cut of the CD, “Blame My Absent-Minded Heart.” She’s followed by Audra McDonald’s sharply funny “10,432 Sheep,” the saga of a young lady whose beau’s kiss packs enough wallop to give her insomnia. This is a classic 1940’s arrangement, with the boys in the band singing to Audra in response, topped off by her giggled line about a lost sheep: “He took it on the lam” (groan). Other surprises are Sara Zahn’s lovely “You Make Me Dream Too Much,” Johnny Rodgers’ lilting “The Brooklyn Bridge” and Victoria Clark’s gentle “Winter Was Warm,” a song Styne wrote for, of all things, the 1962 Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. There’s a lengthy medley of Styne’s Academy Award-nominated songs by Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley which I have some reservations about: while she has a phenomenally warm voice, I don’t particularly care for his over-bright tenor. Plus, she and not he should have soloed on “I’ll Walk Alone,” which is the classic World War II girl-left-behind song (Believe me, my mother cried over this one well into the 1970’s). The CD ends with two of Styne’s most famous songs: “Time After Time,” in a beautiful performance by Brent Barrett, and the wistful “The Things We Did Last Summer” sung by Rebecca Luker. I couldn’t recommend this one more highly.
While the Jule Styne album is still in print, The Busby Berkeley Album is not, though it’s available for download. But try to get the CD if for no other reason than to have the program notes which, among other things, solve the mystery of Ruby Keeler’s heavy feet. Enjoy!