Also on hand is a trio of debut solo albums by some artists guaranteed to let the sunshine in – Stephanie J. Block, Alan Cumming, and Caroline Sheen. Leave those winter blues behind, at least for a few hours!
CD & DVD Reviewer
- Editor’s Pick
Nine - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Geffen Records/UMG (UK distributor: Polydor)
It’s been a cold winter, but one of the holiday season’s most anticipated releases is guaranteed to set temperatures soaring: the hot soundtrack for Nine, Rob Marshall’s lavish, star-studded cinema extravaganza fashioned from Maury Yeston’s 1982 Broadway musical based on Fellini’s 1963 film classic 8½.
Daniel Day-Lewis assumes the mantle of 60s icon Marcello Mastroianni as Guido Contini, an uber-cool Italian filmmaker suffering from writer’s block and a mid-life crisis, expressed via a parade of stylish musical numbers involving the constellation of women in his life: wife Marion Cotillard (“My Husband Makes Movies”, “Take It All”), mistress Penélope Cruz (the racy “A Call from the Vatican”), wardrobe designer and confidante Judi Dench (“Folies Bergères”), mamma Sophia Loren (“Guarda la luna”), muse Nicole Kidman (“Unusual Way”), lusty seaside prostitute Fergie Stacey Ferguson (the rollicking waltz “Be Italian”), and a new character for a new Yeston song, fashion reporter Kate Hudson (“Cinema Italiano”, loaded with film references and catwalk swagger, tailor-made for pop video hitdom).
The original stage version’s Grand Canal sequence and several other numbers are gone (one might say for the best). Like Marshall’s smash Chicago the film’s succession of blockbuster soundstage stand-alone numbers will sweep you away on disc in terms of performance (yes, everyone can sing!) and the lush orchestrations by Doug Besterman, conducted by Paul Bogaev. Four bonus tracks include pop star-maker Ron Fair’s rocking Kate Hudson remix of “Cinema Italiano” and numbers by Fergie, Noisettes, and Griffith Frank.
Carmen Jones - Original Broadway Cast 1943
After a decade of commercial flops, in the winter of 1942 Oscar Hammerstein II sat down to indulge his lifelong love of opera. The result was Carmen Jones, his masterful recrafting of Bizet’s Carmen, arguably one of the best modern adaptations of a classical opera, with its setting transposed from 19th-century Spain to South Carolina during World War II, fashioned for an all-black cast. Hammerstein’s theatrical fortunes would change with Oklahoma! the following year, and in late 1943 Carmen Jones opened on Broadway to critical raves.
First released on CD by Decca Broadway in 2003, the original cast recording is now available on the excellent Naxos Musicals budget label, and if you don’t have it, it’s time to indulge. Don’t be put off by the cover photo, or the adaptation’s “dis and dat” dialect; the performances are gripping. Mezzo-soprano Muriel Smith sizzles as Carmen, the doomed parachute-factory seductress (“Dat’s Love” / Habanera), tenor Luther Saxon as Don José/Joe is sublime singing “Dis Flower” (Flower Song), Glenn Bryant, as prizefighter Husky Miller/bullfighter Escamillo, makes “Stan’ Up and Fight” (Toreador Song) a macho call to arms, while Carlotta Franzell is a touching Micaela/Cindy Lou.
The CD is rounded out by five numbers from the 1954 film soundtrack, with the voices of a young Marilyn Horne dubbing for Dorothy Dandridge’s Carmen and Le Vern Hutcherson for Harry Belafonte as Joe, but the inimitable Pearl Bailey lustily belts out “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” (Gypsy Song) herself, with Max Roach on drums.
The Far Pavilions - Journey to the Stage 1997-2005
Stage Door Records
This fascinating album presents the saga of a dream, the making (and eventual unravelling) of the ill-starred musical version of The Far Pavilions, based on M.M. (Mollie) Kaye’s best-selling 1978 epic novel of the Raj, which finally reached the West End stage in 2005 after an 8-year struggle, to mixed reviews, only to see its bookings nosedive due to the July 7th terrorist bombings, forcing the show to close early.
The extensive liner notes by lyricist Michael Ward frankly relates the trials and tribulations in realising the project with composer Philip Henderson, detailing its genesis, winning the approval of Kaye herself, workshops, demo recordings, changes in cast and creative crew, and the endless quest for backers, to its final, fateful transformation from their original conception.
This ambitious “fantasy cast album” collects all the existing recordings from the show (total: 25 tracks), providing not only a “virtual but faithful production”, but the opportunity to study the workings of a show. The album’s backbone is the original set of 17 studio recordings from April 1998, which was attended by novelist Kaye, who reportedly was delighted with the songs and performers (Jesper Lundgaard, Ria Jones, Helen Hobson, Paul Baker, and Ian Bartholomew, with masterful piano by musical director Matthew Freeman).
Like the novel’s protagonist, Ash, British but brought up in India and caught between two worlds, the score is a diverse blend of styles and rhythms, with several standout numbers (“Don’t Forget Me”, “Britain Rules the Waverers”, “Once in a Life”, “Nomad of My Heart”, Brighter by Far”).
By April 2001, the time of the next 5 studio tracks, recorded with another cast (Matt Cammelle, Najma Akhtar, Fred Johanson) and a 26-piece orchestra, arranged and conducted by composer Henderson, and music supervision by Matthew Freeman, change is in the air, with four new songs, plus the chance to hear “Once in a Life” in full bloom, with atmospheric sitar, tabla, and cistrum.
Three 2004 recordings represent the revamped West End version, starring Hadley Fraser and Gayatri Iyer; there is a new lyricist, Stephen Clark (Ward having become the show’s producer), a new music director, John Cameron, and the style is radically different (virtually sung-through, in the style of Les Misérables). Kaye never saw it (she died before the show reached the West End).
Ward is now living in Bombay, with hopes of a Hindi film version. It may bear fruit. The novel is set in the 19th century, but its story is perhaps even more resonant today, when troops are still caught up in the clash of cultures and the military and political morass in Afghanistan.
It’s always a treat to uncover a hidden gem. Kitty’s Kisses, with a score by composer Con Conrad and lyricist Gus Kahn, and a book co-written by Otto Harbach, was one of Broadway’s hit shows of the summer of 1926, but in true Sleeping Beauty fashion lay dormant for decades, virtually forgotten.
Happily it was found among the now-legendary Warners warehouse musical treasure-trove in the mid-1980s, and has at last been lovingly reconstructed and restored, thanks to Tommy Krasker and the team at PS Classics, who brought us the marvellous Kay Swift show Fine and Dandy several years ago.
This “World Premiere Recording” is a tale of faith, love, and enthusiasm by all involved, and it shows. The period arrangements by conductor Sam Davis waft us back to the 1920s, and the show (complete with bits of dialogue) is brought to life by a top-notch cast featuring Rebecca Luker, Philip Chaffin, Kate Baldwin, Sally Wilfert, Malcolm Gets, Danny Burstein, Victoria Clark, and Andréa Burns (as a wise – and wise-cracking – telephone operator).
Sit back and enjoy 18 tracks of bliss, with songs like “Choo Choo Love”, “Walkin’ the Track”, and the charming title number, which was requested at a society ball by no less than Queen Marie of Romania when she visited New York that year. The show’s incomplete Finale Ultimo has been filled out by a surprise 1920s arrangement of Conrad’s immortal Astaire-Rogers number “The Continental”, a nice touch. The liner notes include the fascinating saga of the show’s rediscovery.
White Horse Inn
Before The Sound of Music broke box-office records, audiences fell in love with the Austrian Tyrol in Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph and Erik Charell’s musical extravaganza White Horse Inn (Im weissen Rössl).
Showman Charell pulled out all the stops, producing a wildly opulent stage spectacular that wowed even jaded 1930 Berlin theatregoers, who packed the vast Grosses Schauspielhaus. By all accounts the show was a crazy, escapist concoction, combining the visual attractions of Alpine scenery and crowds of chorus boys and girls in lederhosen and dirndls with a book blending pre-war romance, comedy, yodelling, Tyrolean slap-dancing, and even a swimming-pool scene.
The rollicking score added to the fun, loaded with hit songs in a variety of musical styles – Austrian songs, marches, operetta, modern fox-trots, shimmies, and rhumbas – by a team of top composers, Ralph Bentazky, Robert Stolz, and Robert Gilbert. The show swept Europe in the early 1930s, and after conquering London, Vienna, Paris, and all points of the compass, finally premiered in 1936 in New York at the 3500-seat Center Theatre at Rockefeller Center, where it starred Kitty Carlisle, William Gaxton, Robert Halliday, and William House.
Now is your chance to see what the hoopla was all about. Sepia’s new album is a luscious candy-box, overflowing with excellent documentation (a lavish, full-colour booklet with detailed historical notes and recording credits, reproductions of costume designs by Ernst Stern, programme covers, and production photos), and assembling 23 rare recordings, with a 1936 radio broadcast featuring the original New York cast as its centrepiece, plus an excerpt from a 1959 BBC radio broadcast with Alfred Drake (Gaxton’s 1936 understudy), 1931 medleys and vocal gems by the Jack Hylton and Ray Noble orchestras, and, most enjoyably, 1930 recordings with original Berlin cast members Max Hansen and Siegfried Arno, and several German dance orchestras (one even features “animal imitations”).
Don’t miss the chance to hear “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” in German. Get those lederhosen out and whoop it up!
- Performers / Cabaret
Stephanie J Block - This Place I Know
If you haven’t heard the news, Broadway’s Stephanie J Block (Wicked, The Boy from Oz, The Pirate Queen, and 9 to 5: The Musical) is appearing in London in late February to celebrate the release of her first solo album, This Place I Know. And it’s a wow. Her rich, warm voice, passion for the material, gift for characterization, and interpretive magic make every song a narrative experience, from art song to patter song to power ballad. She can play on your heartstrings, make your spirits soar, or tickle your funnybone with wit and intelligence.
This terrific album is a celebration of the composers currently shaping the American musical, and the love affair is clearly mutual. How many singers can attract a roster of talent like this? On every single track she’s joined by at least one of the song’s creators: Stephen Flaherty, Andrew Lippa, Dolly Parton (a duet!), Marvin Hamlisch, Stephen Schwartz, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Scott Alan, Steve Marzullo, Paul Loesel, Deborah Abramson, and Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. If some of these names are unfamiliar to you, here’s the chance to set sail on a voyage of discovery. Riches await.
Alan Cumming - I Bought a Blue Car Today
Yellow Sound Label (UK distributor: Speckulation Entertainment)
The freewheeling, multi-talented Alan Cumming is a law unto himself, and he proves it in this debut solo album, based on his one-man show, which played London’s Vaudeville Theatre last September. He’s a great raconteur, but the songs provide the stories on I Bought a Blue Car Today (the odd title is actually the sentence he was asked to write out as part of his American citizenship exam).
The 14 selections range from the audacious and hip to the unexpectedly touching, veering from dynamic, pulsing rock (the opening number, Cindy Lauper’s “Shine”, will have you dancing around the room), to boozy Rat-Pack Sinatra (“That’s Life”), a clever Victoria Wood party song (“Thinking of You”, rhyming “David Hockney” with “Cockney”), and heart-on-sleeve tenderness (John Bucchino’s lovely, rhapsodic “Unexpressed”, and a real surprise, Jimmy Webb’s touching “All I Know”, from Chicken Little).
Cumming’s eclectic journey also takes in Dolly Parton, Mika, William Finn, Dory Previn (the marvellous “I Dance and Dance and Smile and Smile”), two songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the power ballad “Where I Want to Be” from Chess. The odyssey wouldn’t be complete without a number from Cumming’s breakthrough Cabaret, and he boldly chooses “Mein Herr”, making it his own with a sinister, earthy take that will blow you out of the water. Listener, beware the postscript: true to form, the album ends with a totally in-your-face number. “Beautiful” turns Tin Pan Alley on its head, in an outrageous Ziegfeldian paean revelling in the F-word, which simply must be heard to be believed. Booklet with liner notes by Cumming and lots of colour photos for his fans. The ace orchestrations are by Lance Horne (also on piano).
Caroline Sheen - Raise the Curtain
The title of Caroline Sheen’s debut album comes from the lyrics of “Anything Can Happen”, one of Stiles and Drewe’s new songs for Mary Poppins. She may come from a family steeped in amateur theatricals and musical history, but this West End leading lady – already a veteran of The Witches of Eastwick, Mamma Mia!, Les Misérables, Grease, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the European premiere of The Light in the Piazza, and the UK/international tour of Mary Poppins – has her eye firmly on the present, as well as the future.
This ambitious and enterprising selection showcases not only Sheen, but the new talents in the world of musical theatre songwriting today: Grant Olding (Three Sides), Maltby and Shire (Take Flight), Dempsey and Rowe (a cut song from The Witches of Eastwick), Frankel and Korie (Grey Gardens), Stiles and Drewe (Mary Poppins; Just So), Jason Robert Brown (Urban Cowboy), Goodall and Hart (The Kissing-Dance), Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), and David Yazbek (the album’s bonus track, a song from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, with husband Michael Jibson). Stand-alone songs by the new generation include Richard Taylor’s “Higher”, Georgia Stitt’s “I Lay My Armor Down”, and Conor Mitchell’s “What Do You Want from Love?”
She opted for piano/vocal presentation “so the songs can be heard in their most honest form”. If you want to listen outside the box, and discover songs and singer, here’s the album. You won’t be sorry. (Note: We’re told that the main place to purchase the CD, until it’s available via shops and online outlets, is www.CarolineSheen.com).