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 Brain Bits, Observations, Opera

Brain Bits for a Delayed Spring

It’s March 24th and the weatherman is predicting a snow storm starting tomorrow afternoon, just in time for tomorrow evening’s commute. Mother Nature must be fuming.


Rise StevensI never heard Risë Stevens sing at the Met—her operatic career ended in 1962—but her artistic reputation was the gold standard for American singers for years. She was a cross-over artist decades before the term was coined, what with her many appearances on radio and television, not to mention her film career, which included “Going My Way,” in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald.

Her voice was indeed unique. Although she succeeded as a mezzo-soprano, her contralto beginnings were always evident in that dark, rich sound. Not many singers have the distinction of being the go-to artist for two such wildly divergent roles as the 17 year-old Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” and the ultimate seductress, Carmen, but she was, for two decades.

If you’d like to hear her at her best, I’d recommend the live 1952 Metropolitan Opera broadcast of “Carmen.” This was the peak of her career, and while she made two studio recordings of the opera, neither match the intensity of the broadcast. Richard Tucker is incredible as Don José, and when he and Ms. Stevens have their final confrontation, your hair stands on end. I just love what she does with the role—she’s as far removed from cliché as you can possibly get. Unlike other Carmens who tend to snarl the line, her “Non, je ne t’aime plus” is delivered in a dismissive monotone. Her indifference fuels José’s rage, which she knowingly triggers in fulfillment of the fate she had learned during the Card Scene. It’s a wonderfully unified portrayal, something that more than a few Carmens of today could learn from.

Many thanks, Risë Stevens. Rest in peace.


Speaking of live performances, I was recently listening to and bowled over by “Sondheim Evening: A Musical Tribute”, the first in a much too long line of galas, celebrations and performances dedicated to his work (For the record, I like a number of his shows, but his worshippers are in a league of crazy all their own). The recording marks a 1973 benefit, and the talent could not have been better.

The standouts are all “Follies” alumnae who reprise their songs from that show, but with the knowledge and zest that comes when a performer has lived with a role for a while. Once of the downsides of original Broadway cast albums of that era is that they were usually recorded on the Sunday following the show’s opening. Actors like Alexis Smith, for whom singing was a bit of a stretch, were short-changed by the process—comparing her “Could I Leave You?” on the original cast album with her rendition at the Sondheim tribute two years later is an eye-opener. She had had the benefit of months of performances and she nails the song cold, both musically and dramatically. While you would expect Dorothy Collins, a singer by trade, to perform well on the Sondheim album, she exceeds your highest expectations. Though it sounds like she had a slight cold at the time, she delivers a searing “Losing My Mind” in addition to a delightful “Do I Hear a Waltz?” which opens the gala. The lady certainly knew her stuff.

And then there’s Ethel Shutta, singing “Broadway Baby.” Her presence is a reminder that the distance between “Follies,” perhaps Stephen Sondheim’s best achievement, and its genesis will continue to grow, to the detriment of the work. You see, Ethel Shutta had been featured in the Ziegfeld Follies back in the 20’s, and when she, along with a number of other actors, was cast in Sondheim’s “Follies,” she brought a performing style to the show that was genuine and true to the era. These performers are all gone now, of course, and the best we can hope for whenever the show is revived is an educated imitation. Most likely, though, we’ll end up with some “Glee”-like shtick. Yuck.


Variety is not only the spice of life, it saves your sanity. New York’s classical station, WQXR, is in the midst of drowning itself in Bach for ten days. I thought their annual “Beethoven Month” in November was enough, but “Bach 360” is camped on my last nerve. One more cantata, one more passion, and I’ll be losing my mind. Not a good idea, folks.