Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

Hollywood Sings!

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!

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Posted in Broadway Musicals

Broadway Sings

If you’re like me, a total fan of Broadway and Hollywood musicals, you know that 1982 was the Year of the Miraculous Secaucus Warehouse. It was then that 80 crates of material that had not seen the light of day for years—unpublished songs by Jerome Kern and the Gershwins, cut songs and original orchestrations for shows from the 1920’s and reams of other goodies—were found in storage at a facility maintained by Warner Brothers in New Jersey. The tons of manuscript had accumulated as the studio acquired a number of music publishers over the years, and it was only when a Gershwin scholar was tracking down some arrangements that the location as well as the scope of this incredible trove was realized.

Jerome Kern
Jerome Kern

Because of this discovery, we not only can enjoy historic musicals as their authors intended, we can now hear how they sounded before latter-day orchestrators tried to do us a favor by “updating” them in revivals. The best example of the wonders wrought at the Warner Brothers warehouse is the classic three-CD set of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein landmark Show Boat, conducted by John McGlinn, who had helped to catalog the Secaucus material. Prior to his death in 2009 at the age of 55, McGlinn went on to record a number of classic musicals, including Anything Goes, Brigadoon and Kiss Me, Kate, as well as several compilation CDs featuring a cadre of wonderful singers: Rebecca Luker, Judy Kaye, Brent Barrett, Kim Criswell and George Dvorsky, among others.

One of my favorite McGlinn recordings is Broadway Showstoppers, which contains songs from both wildly successful shows and total flops, such as the legendary (for the wrong reasons) Bernstein–Lerner show, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (fortunately Bernstein later folded its best music into his White House Cantata). I especially like “Who?,” sung by Rebecca Luker and Brent Barrett, with its long string of choruses, each differentiated with changes in interior rhythm and counter-melody; the virtuoso “Duet for One,” performed by Judy Kaye, alternating the personae of Julia Grant and Lucy Hayes; and the lovely “Some Girl is On Your Mind” from the Kern–Hammerstein musical, Sweet Adeline, featuring Messrs. Barrett, Groenendaal, Dvorsky and Gaines, abetted by the men of the Ambrosian Chorus.  But the best track by far is the restored version of “All the Things You Are” from Very Warm for May, in an arrangement that has been known to cause jaws to drop in astonishment. The beauty of the performance lies not just in the music (which is incredible enough) but in the artistry of four soloists and a huge chorus, capped by Rebecca Luker’s voice soaring in what can only be described as the mother of all descants. I first heard this CD during a five-hour drive home from Massachusetts, and I swear I played that cut about 20 times in a row. This 1992 recording goes in and out of print, but is fairly easy to find from various internet sources. Don’t miss it.

The New York City Center “Encores!” series has also produced several great recordings, among which is the dynamite Rodgers and Hart musical, The Boys from Syracuse. This 1997 CD features Malcolm Gets, Rebecca Luker, Davis Gaines and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte doing wonderful things with some of the authors’ best material—“This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love With Love,” and best of all, a bang-up version of “Sing For Your Supper,” which I’m nuts about. Here’s a later performance of the same song by, in descending vocal order, Rebecca Luker, Christine Ebersole and Debbie Shapiro Gravitte:

Coming Attractions: Hollywood Sings!, featuring The Busby Berkeley Album and Jule Styne in Hollywood.