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?

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Posted in Broadway Musicals

“Follies”: Too Much of a Good Thing?

I saw the new Broadway production of “Follies” yesterday, and while I think the good outweighed the bad, I find myself scratching my head this morning. Granted the production has some issues, but more than that, the show itself demonstrates yet again that its stupendous score is used to paper over the shortcomings of its book.

Follies @ Marquis Theatre on Broadway

I remember the endless debate in the Sunday “Arts and Leisure” section of the New York Times when the original production opened, and I’ve loved the score ever since I bought the original Broadway cast LP on the day it was released. Dorothy Collins killed me as Sally, and the fact that you could actually hear the smile in Alexis Smith’s voice when she sang the line “That’s the sorrowful precis” knocked me over. In the years since I’ve acquired the same album on CD, along with the 1985 concert album (Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn and Mandy Patinkin) and the two-disc Paper Mill Playhouse revival that tantalizingly includes all the songs that were cut before the show reached Broadway.

What I think is fundamentally wrong with “Follies” is that with the exception of Buddy (currently in a superlative performance by Danny Burstein), we don’t really know the main characters, nor do we learn how they got from Point A to Point B. We do know that Ben is rich and powerful and that he always wanted to be so, but when he has his breakdown at the end of the show, crying “Me…I don’t love me,” I had a hard time believing him. As Young Ben he seduced Sally but married Phyllis, and why does it matter anyway since at this point in their lives they seem interchangeable. And Phyllis is an enigma until rather late in the show when she finally busts loose with “Could I Leave You?” Until then she’s acerbic and rather remote (except, perhaps, with Buddy), and what interest we have in the character is due almost entirely to who’s playing her. What’s odd about the book is that the older version of the characters are required to illuminate their younger selves, all of whom seem to be blank slates. Dramatically speaking, it should be the other way around.

And what of Bernadette Peters as Sally, whose delusions epitomize “Follies”? No one loves BP more than I do, but she’s wrong for the role, and unfortunately this is compounded by a glaringly bad directing choice. Let’s take the former first: she doesn’t have the right vocal goods for Sally. Oddly enough, I don’t think you have to be Dorothy Collins or Barbara Cook to sing the part (though thank God they did). Donna McKechnie does fine on the Paper Mill Playhouse recording, and in my view Judith Ivey did a good job in the 2001 revival while acting the hell out of the role. What all these ladies have in common was some mileage on them and you can hear it. Bernadette Peters in her 60’s looks and sounds better than I did when I was 40. You just don’t believe she’s a depressed housewife who looks to cure her empty life by revisiting a 30-year-old passion. Instead you wonder why in the world she doesn’t dump her philandering husband and have a fling or two of her own. And I don’t know whose idea this was (probably the director’s), but to have her cry and act on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout “Losing My Mind” was overkill. The song is exquisitely written to show all this in musical form, and to have it so graphically acted out is totally contrary to Stephen Sondheim’s style. It detracts from the climax of the song, a true cri du coeur: “I want you so/It’s like I’m losing my mind.”

Whatever problems may exist with the book or in performance, “Follies” does not disappoint. The specialty numbers will always stop the show, and they do in this production. Jayne Houdyshell totally sells “Broadway Baby,” and Terri White is a singing and tap-dancing wonder in “Who’s That Woman.” Elaine Paige’s “I’m Still Here” is spot on, and Rosalind Elias’s operetta-style duet with her younger self, “One More Kiss,” is sweetly touching. The present version of “Buddy’s Blues” is the best and funniest I’ve ever seen, I loved the staging of “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and the showgirls’ costumes in “Loveland” are tremendous.

Is it worth going to see? Definitely yes. There will never be a fault-free production of “Follies,” but it’s a theatrical work–it’s meant to be performed, not stored away in a box until the perfect cast comes along. It has one of the greatest Broadway scores ever written, and it’s always worth hearing people of talent take it on, whether you agree with the end result or not.

Posted in Broadway Musicals

Obsessed with Musicals

I love Broadway musicals. And I love people who love Broadway musicals, which is why I’m sending Seth Rudetsky a valentine.

Seth Rudetsky is, among many other things, a musician, coach, performer and composer with his own cabaret and radio shows. He also has a plethora of videos and podcasts on youtube and Playbill in which he obsesses over and/or deconstructs various performers, songs and scenes from Broadway musicals. These are frequently hilarious, but they’re also incredibly instructive. His musicianship is phenomenal, and his consistent ability to make you go “Wow, I never thought of that before,” even with respect to musicals you’ve listened to hundreds of times, is outstanding. I love that he’s “obsessed,” because God knows I’ve worn out my share of vinyl just to hear those special moments from shows one more time.

I’ve only started delving into this archive, but so far my favorite video is his recent session with Carolee Carmello. I’ve enjoyed her work as far back as AMC’s “Remember WENN,” and her performance as Lucille Frank in “Parade” was one for the ages (I’ll be discussing “Parade,” a show in my Top Five Musicals, very soon). This video is a crack-up: I love her panic and self-deprecating laugh when she can’t pick up the point at which Seth begins “The Winner Takes It All,” even though she sang it literally hundreds of times in “Mamma Mia!” (The “Oh, my uterus!” is a reference to an earlier video he did with Nancy Opel, Patti LuPone’s understudy in “Evita,” who resorted to emergency subtext during a very funny stage mishap.) Can Ms. Carmello nail it or what?

Even though I’ve yet to see her on stage, Lauren Kennedy’s video with Seth is another hoot. Her story about Mike Nichols is an eye opener, but her ability to belt a high note after drinking wine and her subsequent “screw you” look at her co-star had me rolling on the floor.

And don’t miss his take on the “Turkey Lurkey” number from the original production of “Promises, Promises.”

Keep going, Seth–you’re a treasure.