Stage Presents

It's a Good Time To Stay Off-Broadway— Even on CD

Yeah, I know, I should have filed this column before Christmas. Tell it to the producers who spent November and December opening plays I could mostly have lived without. Still, if you found some cash in your stocking last week you may want a list of recent show CDs to blow it on.

I don't mean CDs of current Broadway shows, of course: The ones I mean live beyond that Boulevard of Disneyfied Dreams, in that vast area where people sing, feel, think, and try things in order to convey some meaning to other people, instead of just spewing out platitudes.

The Broadway of the past is our best starting point, on Sony Classical's extensive new digital remastering of Columbia's huge library of cast albums from the great days. Most of the items in the series, called "Columbia Broadway Masterworks," have been available on disc before, but the new versions come with dollops of dessert in the form of bonus tracks— alternate takes, cut numbers, performances by the show's creators. For instance, the South Pacific original cast CD now comes with Mary Martin singing two songs cut in tryout and Ezio Pinza's cover of "Bali Ha'i." (There's also a "Symphonic Scenario" of the score, which you'll probably want to skip.) For unheard material, the most important of these after-show treats is on Cabaret: four cut numbers in a demo performance by the songwriters, Kander and Ebb. And people with memories like mine will find satisfaction at being able to hear Larry Kert, on the cast album of Company, sing the climactic "Being Alive."

Michael McElroy and Lauren Ward in Violet: a musical bus tour of a region and its people
Joan Marcus
Michael McElroy and Lauren Ward in Violet: a musical bus tour of a region and its people

The one new disc of a recent Broadway musical is enough to make you bury your head in the Columbia archive forever. Triumph of Love (Jay) commemorates one of the most quixotic notions in history: the attempt to turn a rather convoluted 18th- century comedy by the philosopher-playwright Marivaux into a commercial property. You can virtually hear the nervous confusion this notion aroused. While Jeffrey Stock's music wants to understudy G&S, the earsplitting orchestration and vocal performance seem to be dragging him toward heavy metal, with Susan Birkenhead's lyrics dashing frantically in between, trying to bridge the gap. Without the cast's visible charms, the one likable performance improbably belongs to the nonsinger in the lot, F. Murray Abraham, who must have been out the day everyone was told to screech.

Not that a contemporary performance automatically means torture for the musically sensitive. Take two classic unworkables: The Arlen-Mercer St. Louis Woman (last year's Encores! concert, caught on Mercury) and Stephen Sondheim's Follies (last winter's Paper Mill Playhouse revival, plus addenda, merits two discs on TVT). Both scripts are hopelessly unwieldy; both scores are imperishable. St. Louis Woman, newly orchestrated by Ralph Burns and Luther Henderson, sounds fresher because so much of it has been unheard for five decades. The Encores! cast may not exactly replace Pearl Bailey and the Nicholas Brothers in your hearts, but they recorded more of the music, much of it powerfully, especially Vanessa Williams, Chuck Cooper, and Stanley Wayne Mathis. There are weak spots, but this is a score you're gonna love come rain or come shine.

As we love the score of Follies— though I confess Sally and Ben's lugubrious non­love affair bores me in song and out. Laurence Guittard's Ben, always sliding off key and having to be hauled back on by Donna McKechnie's Sally, doesn't help. It's some kind of comment on this recording that the two best vocal performances are by dancers: Besides McKechnie, the applause goes to Ann Miller, whose "I'm Still Here" is the only one, other than Nancy Walker's, I ever plan to listen to again. The eight numbers discarded during Follies's various outings contain some of Sondheim's best work, but skip "Bring on the Girls"; its two singers sound like dogs yowling. The album's conductor, longtime Sondheim orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, handles the score's complex twists with unmagical but thorough exactitude. This is the only recorded Follies I know in which the three counterpointed numbers in the "Broadway Baby" sequence actually finish together.

But the archival prize goes to RCA Victor, where, in the mid '70s, they were wacky enough to record Promenade, the cheerful dadaist musical by Al Carmines and Maria Irene Fornes that leapt over Midtown, from Judson Church to West 76th Street, where they named a theater for it. The lush, bubbly score offers treasures in plenty— most memorably Alice Playten's rendition of a torch song with the refrain "You heel, you cad, you treated me the way I treated others." The LP was a mess, with tracks speeded up to make room for an instrumental cut the company hoped would get airplay; the CD puts everything at the right speed. Buy it— after two hearings, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

Similarly, I wonder how I found hope Off-Broadway before Jeanine Tesori. Violet (Resmiranda) is a flawed show; the CD shakes the score free of the somewhat contorted story, but points up some of its musical shallows. Yet the beauty and the breezy assurance of Tesori's work, conveying both the characters and their region as she travels from genre to genre— a musical equivalent of the heroine's bus trip from Carolina to Oklahoma— fly past all the flaws to stick with you. The whole cast, under Michael Rafter's musical direction, sounds terrific, as do the orchestrations by Joseph Joubert and Buryl Red. The show's slipups, like its heroine's, only seem to increase its attractiveness.

A more shinily perfect piece, but slightly less lovable, is William Finn's A New Brain (RCA Victor), seen last summer at Lincoln Center. Finn's strategy is to apply song-and-dance modes to unexpected topics— in this case an autobiographical recounting of his bout with brain surgery. The material inevitably grabs you, and the score, Finn's most fulfilled work to date, has real power; you just can't help feeling a little bit hemmed in by all the cleverness. Oh, for a little imperfect spontaneity. Still, the musical side's handled immaculately under Ted Sperling's direction, and the gemlike cast— Malcolm Gets, Liz Larsen, Penny Fuller, Michael Mandell, Mary Testa— is hard to top.

For something equally medical but aesthetically opposite, check out Dan Moses Schreier's score for Dan Hurlin's strange, static piece, The Shoulder (Mower Records). Here an almost-blind farmer's 40-day trip via power mower to see his ailing brother is the topic, and Schreier's rippling lakes of arpeggio and what might be called pomo doo-wop make a serene, unmodulated musical equivalent of sightlessness. The disc, which also contains much of the spoken text, gives the full quality of the quirky work, and music director Alan Johnson's keyboarding is pure heroism.

There's more traditional work worth sam- pling— with some skipping— on The Show Goes On (DRG), the revue of Tom Jones­Harvey Schmidt songs staged last year at the York Theater. Jones, an affable narrator, should stay off the vocal lines, and the two female cast members aren't all that much better. Fortunately, Mark McVey's sturdy baritone handles the heavier tasks with ease, and Schmidt's classy pianism carries the day. Also, pleasantly, the roster includes a lot of nonstandard material— alternative title songs for I Do! I Do!, items from the team's early Julius Monk revues— and the lack of slickness keeps the whole thing appealingly low-pressure.

Proof that the unslick tradition goes on can be heard in A Special Place (Original Cast Records), a collection of songs by Bob Ost that aren't really the original cast of anything— they're from cabaret revues, unproduced shows, this occasion and that. The roster of known quantities, ranging from Lillias White and KT Sullivan to Heather MacRae and the soap star Brian Lane Green, is as miscellaneous as Ost's songs, which jump from country rock to old-style show tunes to cabaret-style comic patter numbers. He holds his own pretty well in all these and other genres; someone should probably hire him to write a musical.

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