Now Hear Disc

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 www.drapermonologues.com. 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 Urinetowncast 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."

Two less significant resuscitations, You Never Know (Fynsworth Alley) and Billion Dollar Baby (Original Cast), have fewer flaws but also fewer high-water marks. The first is chiefly remembered as the show Cole Porter was writing when he had the horseback-riding accident that lost him the use of his legs. The unhistorical but pleasantly performed disc records Paul Lazarus's recent stage revision, meaning the usual patchwork of snitchings from other Porter scores; I wish, in such cases, they'd at least record omitted songs from the original as an appendix. Still, the show has several great Porter numbers—"At Long Last Love" and "From Alpha to Omega" rank high in the canon—and Steve Orich's arrangements make neat use of a jazz-violin sound all too rare in the genre. Billion Dollar Baby, a '40s show with a '20s setting, was Comden and Green's follow-up to 1944's On the Town. Bernstein being unavailable, they settled for Morton Gould, whose score might be described as always on the verge of a catchy tune. Which ironically suits this tale of a gold digger who always comes in second, marrying a millionaire—final joke—just as the 1929 crash hits. If the material's thin, the recording, based on the York Theatre's concert presentation, gives it as good a shot as it's likely to get, with lively performances by Debbie Gravitte, Marc Kudisch, and the late, endearing Richard B. Shull as the millionaire daddy of every gold digger's dreams.

Both albums also display, in lead roles, the musical's current flavor of the month, Kristen Chenoweth, who now has a disc of her own, Let Yourself Go (Sony Classics). I like Chenoweth's singing better on disc— studio engineers tend to soften the buzz-saw edge she puts on her top notes—and I very much like her choice of material here, mostly classic show and film tunes, well conducted by Rob Fisher, often using the original show orchestrations. My problem is knowing who Chenoweth is: She has so many disjunctive voices that Sony could have marketed the album as The Three Sopranos. After a few hearings, though, you begin to perceive the great talent behind Chenoweth's vagaries. Her vocal styles may be schizophrenically varied; she may yelp her high notes, gabble her lyrics, or lapse into the animated-duck voice she seemingly associates with comedy, but she has within her a strong technical grounding, an innate musical sense, and an ability to let go of all her mannerisms and just open up in a song. I hope her apparent multitude of handlers lets her cultivate that.

My brain-beating over Chenoweth has left me minimal space for two favorite albums by singers with better-integrated vocal personalities. Craig Rubano's Finishing the Act (AF Records), like Chenoweth's disc, is so lavishly produced it's virtually a cast album (six orchestrators! five guest stars!). But Rubano has a witty premise—every number is the first-act finale of a Broadway show—and he has an appealingly shameless aural presence, with a dogged, sweaty flair. You can almost hear him pant as he goes back for the high notes. Add some ingenious surprise selections (the first-act finale of Dance a Little Closer) and inventive arrangements (a chorus of "The Impossible Dream" sung in Spanish), and you have something a good show album has to be: not exactly like anything else.

And then there's Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim (DRG), a live recording of the diva's recent Carnegie Hall concert. Cook, after half a century, needs neither explanations nor encomia: She's the essence of the artist who knows how to do what she does, and what she does happily takes up most of this two-disc set, with periodic assistance from Malcolm Gets. Even tackling the most improbable material ("Hard-Hearted Hannah," "Everybody Says Don't"), Cook's a joy.

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