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A Blizzard of CDs Puts Some New Spins on Show Music Style

For an allegedly dead art form, the musical theater certainly keeps turning out, on compact disc, evidence of life. Anybody can produce a CD inexpensively these days, but the current blizzard of show albums infallibly suggests a market that some producer or conglomerate thinks is worth investing in. Recordings of current shows have souvenir and promotional value, but discs of small-scale, limited-run, or even one-weekend concert stagings are now often recorded long after the fact. Presumably someone buys them, or the practice wouldn't go on. Ascribe it to what cause you will, it's an amazing turnaround from the era when even many Broadway shows went unrecorded.

Last month, I reviewed nine theater-related albums, which only made a small dent in the current stack. Before I pick out the rest of the notables, let me correct two minor misstatements in that article (Voice, July 17). The Ruth Draper CD is available at Footlights and a few similar specialty stores, though online shoppers can get it most easily at And the excellent musical direction of Taking a Chance on Love is by Jeffrey R. Smith; the CD case unhelpfully prints the show's production credits so that they're invisible when the disc is in place.

The Urinetown cast album (RCA Victor) reserves that space for a particularly goofy picture of John Cullum as the show's villain—a puckish stunt that fits the show's amiably spit-in-your-eye spirit. Heard away from the theater, the work's annoyingly monochrome texture is still present, but the wit and skill with which it's written weigh in more strongly, especially in composer Mark Hollmann's sly choral arrangements; for all its limitations, it's a work of substance as well as sauciness. The performances, especially Jennifer Laura Thompson's sweet heroine and Jeff McCarthy's sternly compassionate cop-narrator, come off fresh and vivid on disc, but the tendency to equate shrill with meaningful still hampers the singing, particularly, to my shock, Nancy Opel's. Surely she could get any effect she achieves here without hurting either her cords or my ears.

Golden voices: Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson in Urinetown
photo: Joan Marcus
Golden voices: Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson in Urinetown

Bill Russell and Janet Hood's Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens (Fynsworth Alley), a panoply of queer portraits modeled equally on the AIDS quilt and on Spoon River Anthology, is a large-scale, celebratory piece that's often used as a benefit event. The current recording, its first, is of a live concert performance last April. Suffused with nostalgia and the pain of loss, the work is heavily sentimental, but the sentiment's proffered openly, which gives it a kind of dignity, and is cut by helpfully wry humor. It's performed here by a parade of Broadway names including Alice Ripley, Brian d'Arcy James, Veanne Cox, Christopher Durang, and Mario Cantone—the last three are among the speakers of monologues which the album's producers have wisely put after all the musical numbers. The vocal high point, appropriately in the next-to-closing spot of the musical sector, is Emily Skinner's sweet-toned rendition of "My Brother Lived in San Francisco," the clean simplicity of which blows most other renditions of this much-performed song right out of the water.

The disc that intermittently blows me out of the water is Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon (Nonesuch), which collects Gordon's settings of texts by various poets, chiefly Langston Hughes. (Some of the Hughes settings were heard onstage last year in Only Heaven.) These are really art songs, but they mix their neo-Romantic classical tactics with a colloquial showbiz swing, with results that are at once outré and zesty, like red-bean ice cream on a hot summer day. A lot of the cream comes from the disc's array of class-A vocalists: Judy Blazer, Darius de Haas, composer Adam Guettel, Theresa McCarthy, Audra McDonald, Chris Pedro Trakas, and Dawn Upshaw. The mix gives a hint of Gordon's stylistic parameters, to which his bursts of blues add an unexpected, if mild, layer of funk. My only quibbles are that the music, ably conducted by Eric Stern, sometimes gets too pretty-pretty; and that Gordon's own lyrics don't stand up to the exalted company with which they have to rub shoulders. But then, I used to tell Debussy the same thing about his Proses Lyriques. And the disc's best items—de Haas pouring out "When Sue Wears Red" (Hughes) or Blazer digging the lowdown "I'm Open All Night" (James Agee)—make all complaints seem captious.

The album I most wanted to love this year is the painstaking two-disc reconstruction of Bob Merrill's score for the 1966 insta-flop Breakfast at Tiffany's (Original Cast), famous for having its book writer replaced by Edward Albee, and being closed in previews by its producer, David Merrick, as "an excruciatingly boring evening." What fun it would be to report that Merrick was dead wrong and demand an instant revival! Alas, there's probably a good musical buried in the show's welter of alternative songs (presented on the album in a merger of the two versions' original sequences), but it would require extensive excavation, plus rewrites for which the late lyricist-composer is regrettably unavailable. Still, once you've climbed over Merrill's tiresome attempts at Texas local color for characters from Holly Golightly's past, and his false-rhymed lapses into sub-Harburg wordplay ("quandary" pairs with "laund-a-ry"), there's a good deal of buried treasure here, ranging from lively old-style show tunes to off-the-wall drolleries like the downbeat Act II opening, "Nothing Is New in New York." The classy cast, headed by Faith Prince, includes, for ultimate authenticity, original cast member Sally Kellerman, who re-creates her role as Mag Wildwood and gives a stunning rendition of the show's best song, "Quiet Coffee."

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