There’s a special invitation to join the jamboree celebrating the work of one of America’s greatest lyricists, Johnny Mercer, and follow his advice to “Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”. Mercer’s centennial last year brought a wealth of material on DVD and CD, and we focus on several of the highlights.
Also on hand to welcome the spring equinox are recordings of musicals by Cole Porter (Aladdin), John Dankworth and Cleo Laine (Colette), and Meredith Willson (The Music Man), plus a release sure to delight Julie Andrews fans, her 1958 studio recording of Rose Marie.
And just to show the range of musicals out there, you can revisit the venerable Les Misérables via its first-ever highlights recording, or can explore a new work taking the genre into another dimension, Only You Can Save Mankind, based on the sci-fi novel by Terry Pratchett.
CD & DVD reviewer
DVD: Elaine Paige – Celebrating 40 Years on Stage
Where have the decades gone? Incredibly, September 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of Elaine Paige’s West End debut, which she has celebrated with typical flair and energy – there have been an autobiography (Memories), a CD, and a sell-out international concert tour. E.P. fans – and that means anyone interested in musical theatre – will want this, her first-ever “in concert” DVD.
The State Theatre, an elaborate “dream palace” in Sydney, Australia, is a magnificent setting for Elaine’s concert, covering her career from its beginnings (in the London “tribe” of Hair, as a teenager), to her triumphs in Evita, Chess, Cats, Anything Goes, Sunset Boulevard, and The King and I. All the big hits are here: “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”, “I Know Him So Well”, “With One Look”, and, of course, her signature number, the ever-haunting “Memory”.
It’s also marvellous to have a selection of her classic performances preserved on film, especially several done in costume and character: Norma Desmond’s “As If We Said Goodbye from Sunset Boulevard, performed in her original Broadway costume; the Cockney Mrs. Lovett in a checked apron, polishing the piano as she sings “By the Sea”, from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; and three powerhouse numbers from Pam Gems’ Piaf, with Paige in a plain black dress, transformed by dark wig, make-up, and flat shoes into France’s “Little Sparrow”, complete with trademark defiant stance and minimal gestures (“If You Love Me” is particularly shattering in its intensity).
This concert isn’t just about the past; Britain’s “First Lady of Musical Theatre” lives very much in the present, with an eye on the future. Witness the verve and emotion in some of the other songs on the programme: “Life Goes On”, “Tomorrow”, and the disc’s bonus track, Jim Webb’s life-affirming “Grow Young”, with its advice, “Don’t get so old you forget to grow young”. There’s also a fabulous blues rendition of “Cry Me a River”, as well as a surprise, “Shoot the Breeze”, a philosophical song about friendship and the hopes of youth by Dustin Hoffman and Bette Midler, plus a brand-new specialty song for the petite diva by the team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe celebrating the glories of “Small Packages”. (Only one wee quibble about the concert filming: too many cut-aways for wide-angle panning shots of the vast, fantastic theatre.)
The DVD’s bonus features (very well designed, with full access via the “Track Listings” extra to every number in her 104-minute show) include a 34-minute career interview full of insights and reminiscences, illustrated by clips from the concert. Not to be missed. Ever the consummate pro, she’s in fine voice, too. Here’s to your 40 years on stage, Miss Paige – and many more!
CD: John Barrowman
Arista / Sony Music Entertainment
A big round of applause for John Barrowman, who not only got a Whatsonstage.com Award recently for best takeover of a West End role (for La Cage aux Folles), but is now releasing his third solo album. An all-round entertainer – John is an actor, singer, presenter, talent judge, and star of stage, screen, radio, and television on both sides of the Atlantic – he must have show business in his DNA. He raises the roof with this autobiographical album; all the numbers have a personal resonance, and have been chosen to take you on a journey through his life, from Glasgow to London and Broadway, and beyond.
His passion for performing is on parade from the opening track, a blazing “When I Get My Name in Lights” from the Peter Allen musical The Boy from Oz. Musicals are Barrowman’s lingua franca, and his range is as wide as the heart he pours into them – just listen to his interpretations of “I Won’t Send Roses” (Mack and Mabel), “Memory” (Cats), “Unusual Way” (Nine), “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Carousel), and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”.
His favourite numbers from Dream Girls, Mamma Mia, and Jersey Boys also get the Barrowman treatment, and there is a duet with Jodie Prenger to boot (Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s “So Close”, from the Disney movie Enchanted). Those purchasing the album via iTunes get an extra bonus, “The Doctor and I”, a tip of the musical hat to both a number from Wicked and Barrowman’s best-known role of Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood and Doctor Who.
- Special Focus
Johnny Mercer Centennial – 1 DVD and 3 CDs
His hometown of Savannah, Georgia, proudly celebrated Johnny Mercer’s centennial by unveiling a statue of their native son last November, on what would have been his 100th birthday. But his best and most lasting monument will always be his songs, a mind-boggling catalogue of hits which will have you exclaiming in recognition: “Moon River”, “Blues in the Night”, “One for My Baby”, “Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive”, “Too Marvellous for Words”, “Skylark”, “Laura”, “That Old Black Magic”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, “Jeepers Creepers”, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”, “Hooray for Hollywood”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “Dream”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Satin Doll”, “Dearly Beloved”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, “The Days of Wine and Roses”, “P.S. I Love You”, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”, “Travelin’ Light”, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home”, “I Wanna Be Around”…
When his father once asked how he did it, Mercer’s answer was characteristically modest: “I simply get to thinking over the song, pondering it over in my mind, and all of a sudden I get in tune with the infinite.” His inspired wordplay ranged from the most literate, sophisticated triple rhymes – “The Midnight Sun” memorably boasts the exotic concatenation of “alabaster palace/ruby chalice/aurora borealis” – to down-home vernacular in an unmistakably American idiom: a train’s clickety-clack, a whistle blowing a-hoo-ey, a river wider than a mile, my huckleberry friend, “My momma done tol’ me”.
Johnny Mercer was not only one of popular music’s greatest lyricists; he was also a talented composer, performer, and recording artist, a radio and television personality, and, as co-founder and early A&R man of Capitol Records, fostered the careers of artists like Nat King Cole, Margaret Whiting, and Jo Stafford. He also helped to found the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, based in New York City.
Besides the events in Savannah, Mercer’s centenary has been an occasion to celebrate his work in style, with various radio and television programmes in America and abroad (BBC Radio devoted a whole evening to him last November), as well as a number of new recordings and reissues.
Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me
TCM / Warner Bros
In early November 2009 Turner Classic Movies kicked off their Johnny Mercer celebrations by broadcasting an excellent tribute, Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me. Now available on DVD (Region 1), this fascinating new 90-minute documentary is a class act, produced and presented by Mercer admirer and jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood, narrated by Bill Charlap (son of Moose), written by Ken Barnes, and brimming with rare vintage footage galore (Harold Arlen, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael, Rosemary Clooney, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Jack Lemmon, Andy Williams, Dinah Shore, and, best of all, Mercer himself, talking about or performing his work), interspersed with studio performances and new interviews with a host of luminaries (Tony Bennett, Alan Bergman, Michael Feinstein, Miles Kreuger, Ken Barnes, Mercer’s niece Nancy Gerard, Robert Kimball, Gene Lees, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Ginny Mancini, Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards, André Previn, Margaret Whiting, Richard Sherman, and John Williams).
Mercer’s life story and career are so compelling that it’s a pity that the narrative flow sometimes grinds to a halt or goes on a detour to accommodate some of the new studio performances, underlining the impression that they seem wedged in for the sake of Eastwood’s great love of jazz. Which seems doubly true when one realizes that most of them (Tony Bennett and Bono, Jamie Cullum, Dr. John, Michael Feinstein and Bucky Pizzarelli, Maude Maggart, Audra McDonald and John Williams, and Morgan Eastwood), albeit in fuller versions, are also available on the DVD’s bonus disc (the exceptions seem to be Dankworth and Laine’s “Talk to Me Baby” and Alan Bergman performing “Emily”, which are only among the bonuses). Besides the filmed studio performances (which irritatingly can only be accessed as a collection, not individually), the bonus disc contains Clint Eastwood in conversations with John Williams (offering some great memories and insights) and Jamie Cullum; two items with Mercer’s niece Nancy Gerard warmly reminiscing about her “Uncle Bubba” over images of family photos and Mercer’s artwork (he was also a talented watercolourist and caricaturist); and an 18-page biographical essay by Mercer scholar Glenn T. Eskew. Wishing on the Moon Department: Unfortunately there’s no accompanying booklet. And why didn’t they include some of the television items with Mercer in full? They would have made great extras. Still, a wonderful documentary – try to see it if you can. You’ll find yourself saying, “I didn’t know he wrote that, too!”
Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me - A Celebration of His Music
Silva Screen Records / Warner Bros. Entertainment
An album produced to complement the TCM documentary, with matching cover art, mixing some period recordings with new studio tracks, although many of the latter seem to have been recorded earlier than the filmed versions on the DVD set’s bonus disc. There are some historic treasures here, notably Mercer and The Pied Pipers performing “Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive”, Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Midnight Sun”, and one previously unreleased Bing Crosby recording (“Something’s Gotta Give”), but one wonders why some other major performers in the documentary (Judy Garland?) aren’t represented. Of the new recordings, for this listener the real discoveries were Queen Latifah’s lush “Travelin’ Light”, Daryl Sherman’s slow and easy “I Thought About You”, Tony Bennett and Bono’s fun duet on “I Wanna Be Around”, and JaLaLa’s perky “Spring Spring Spring” (see also JaLaLa’s own Mercer tribute album, reviewed below). Michael Feinstein’s “Laura” shimmers, and Audra McDonald’s beautifully sung “I Had Myself a True Love” resonates with heartache and loss.
Now the quibbles. The album’s packaging is stylish, but the recording credits are virtually illegible, and for some mysterious reason no dates or accompanying personnel are listed for most of the older archive recordings. Some additional information wouldn’t be amiss; they seem to assume you’ve seen or have access to the documentary. “Blues in the Night” is one of the most fabulous blues songs ever written, but Ray Charles’ rambling seven-and-a-half-minute version seems interminable, indeed “a wearisome thing” (beware of songs that lose their way and fade out). And in case you’re still wondering, Morgan Eastwood is Clint’s daughter; she appears to have been all of 11 when she recorded the album’s title number, and 12 when she was guided before the cameras in the documentary.
Admittedly Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, and Shirley Temple were all veterans at that age. Eastwood’s breathy, adolescent delivery is charming in its way, but whether she belongs in this line-up, alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Queen Latifah, Audra McDonald, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Mercer himself, seems to be more a matter of a doting father than the life experience and full voice a jazz diva needs to sing such repertoire. She looks like a nice girl. Let’s hear her in a few more years, when she grows up, and into the material.
Moon River - Johnny Mercer Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook
Sanctuary Records / Universal Music Group
There are few great lyricists who are also great singers. Johnny Mercer was that rarity; he could sing and swing with the best of them, and was a popular recording artist as well as a record producer, so he knew his business.
When Mercer was in England working on the stage musical The Good Companions, Ken Barnes, who was also responsible for producing the last commercial recordings of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, approached Mercer and thankfully got him into the recording studio in 1974 for what proved to be his final sessions. (He died two years later of a brain tumour.) Mercer chose the songs himself, and he’s in fine, mellow voice. It’s a pleasure to sit back and enjoy, as well as marvel at, his trademark laid-back, casual delivery, instinctive rhythm, and revealing interpretation of his own wonderful lyrics.
These swinging recordings with the Harry Roche Constellation and the Pete Moore Orchestra, with arrangements by Pete Moore, prompted Mercer to comment that they were the best recordings he’d ever made. And he’d made quite a few over the years. This precious 2-CD set presents all 28 recordings together for the first time. The standards are there, including “Too Marvellous for Words”, “One for My Baby”, “The Days of Wine and Roses”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, a lovely rendition of “The Midnight Sun”, “Summer Wind” (best known as a breezy Sinatra hit), and Mercer’s only commercial recording of his immortal “Moon River” (in a surprisingly hip rendition), as well as a chance to hear lesser-known novelties like “The Whatcha-Ma-Call-It”, “Shooby-Dooin’”, “Little Ol’ Tune”, “The Air-Minded Executive”, and “Pineapple Pete”. It comes with an excellent booklet, containing full recording credits, new notes by Ken Barnes, reprints of the original notes by Benny Green and Alec Wilder that accompanied the LPs in 1974, and even a colour reproduction of one of Mercer’s watercolours. Definitely an album for your must-have list.
JaLaLa - That Old Mercer Magic!
With one of the most listenable easy jazz sounds around, you just know that Johnny Mercer would approve of JaLaLa, a vocal harmony trio with roots in the cult jazz and swing group The Manhattan Transfer. JaLaLa’s Janis Siegel, Laurel Massé, and Lauren Kinihan can easily stand alongside such forerunners as the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters, or any other girl group, and they shine in solos as well. These gals can really swing, and their accompaniments and arrangements rate every superlative in the thesaurus.
This heartfelt tribute is their centenary valentine to Johnny Mercer. Highlights include the bouncy “Spring Spring Spring” from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, “Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive” (a wonderful arrangement mixing klezmer, gospel, and jazz), a haunting “Dream” with solo guitar, “I’m Old Fashioned”, an imaginative pairing of “Moon River” and “Moon Country”, the jivey “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?”, and that paean to a beauty who stumps even the resources of Webster’s Dictionary, “Too Marvellous for Words” (“like glorious, glamorous, and that old standby, amorous”). Don’t miss the album’s closing track, the lilting, wistful waltz “The Dance of Life”, from Mercer’s last stage musical, The Good Companions (music: André Previn) – it’s a stunner, lifting it into the realm of the art song.
- Show Albums
Les Misérables - Original Cast Highlights
First Night Records
Back in 1985, Les Misérables was hailed as “the musical that makes history”. Now it really has. The Boublil-Schönberg juggernaut is still packing them in 25 years later, making it the world’s longest-running musical, and has become a worldwide phenomenon. The original cast album has never gone out of print, but you may be interested to know that a highlights album was released on CD for the first time last year as part of the landmark celebrations. The 19 tracks of course include “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Master of the House”, “Do You Hear the People Sing”, “Bring Him Home”, and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, performed by the likes of Colm Wilkinson, Roger Allam, Michael Ball, Dave Willetts, Peter Polycarpou, Alun Armstrong, Patti LuPone, and Frances Ruffelle. The packaging features the latest Les Miz logo design, full cast and track listing, reprints of some of the first reviews, and photos of the original production. Essential for completists, as well as a great introduction to the show for newcomers.
Only You Can Save Mankind - Studio Recording
The many followers of the quirky science-fiction writings of Sir Terry Pratchett will already know about this project, but here’s your chance to help it reach fruition. Based on the first novel in Pratchett’s Johnny Maxwell trilogy, published in 1992, the sci-fi musical Only You Can Save Mankind was first conceived in 2001, and was a major hit of the 2004 Edinburgh Festival fringe. Hopefully the time has come at last for this “musical with a future”, and its creators, who have never given up the quest. With a dynamic, versatile score by Leighton James House, hailed by Tim Rice as “one of the most promising young composers I’ve heard” (Lifts, A Brief Affair, George’s Miraculous Medicine, and A Little House Music, a 2007 showcase at London’s Arts Theatre), and lyrics by Shaun McKenna (The Lord of the Rings, La Cava, Lautrec), this tale of a computer game that takes on a whole different dimension is full of imagination, wit, and vision. Pratchett has been delighted by the musical all the way: “If I’d known it was going to be so good, I’d have written a better book!”
At last a full recording seems within reach, thanks to an innovative campaign harking back to the concept albums of the 1970s and 80s. Last year 6 songs were recorded, and it’s a class act, produced by Neil Brock, with full orchestrations by Brock, Tom Deering, and composer House, and performed by some top West End vocal talent – Ricardo Afonso (We Will Rock You), Daniel Boys (Avenue Q), Sharon D. Clarke (We Will Rock You), Oliver Tompsett (Wicked), and Zubin Varla (Jesus Christ Superstar), plus cellist Zoë Martlew (BBC TV’s “Maestro” competition).
The 6-track studio recording is currently available as an EP, or downloadable online individually or as an entire album via iTunes. (For more info, check out the website www.ifnotyouthenwho.com) By buying this studio recording, not only will you be helping to realise this project (the intention is to record more of the songs before a national tour, an eventual West End production, and a full cast album), you’ll be helping a worthy cause: the producers are donating 10% of the profits to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust.
Aladdin / Les Girls / Anything Goes
The prime attraction of this Cole Porter triple bill is Aladdin, the Broadway master’s first musical for television, broadcast on CBS in February 1958. Heralded with much fanfare, this expensive production turned out to be his musical swansong, but it’s well worth exploring, not only for Porter completists. Today the concept seems more than a little derivative of two popular Alfred Drake vehicles, Broadway’s Kismet and the television musical The Adventures of Marco Polo, while some have carped that it’s second-rate Porter and Sal Mineo’s Aladdin has a troubled street-kid quality, but in its favour, Anna Maria Alberghetti makes a lovely Princess, we get to hear Dennis King late in his career (singing the Astrologer’s waltz, “Trust Your Destiny to Your Star”), and best of all, there’s Cyril Ritchard as the wily Magician, who has the score’s best number, the fruity “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking”. It also contains the last song Porter ever wrote, the bittersweet “Wouldn’t It Be Fun (Not to Be Famous, Not to Be Rich)”, recorded for the album but evidently not in the 90-minute live television broadcast. An added attraction is a first-rate privately recorded 1957 preview of four of the songs, performed by unidentified vocalists, with a short introduction by Porter himself.
Filling out the CD are five numbers from the soundtrack of Porter’s last film musical, Les Girls (1957), featuring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, and Kay Kendall and Taina Elg (luscious ladies both, but dubbed). Not prime Porter, alas: “Ça, c’est l’amour” sounds like a hold-over from Can-Can, while “You’re Just Too, Too” and “Ladies in Waiting” hark back to shows like DuBarry Was a Lady. Rounding out this album of late Porter rarities is the Dream Ballet (incorporating “Let’s Do It” and “All Through the Night”) from the soundtrack of the 1956 film version of Anything Goes.
Aladdin hasn’t been available on CD for quite some time, so get thee online or to a record shop!
Colette - Original 1980 London Cast Recording
Stage Door Records
The release of this recording of Colette, written by John Dankworth for his wife Cleo Laine, comes at a poignant time. The late giant of British jazz always pointedly referred to it as an entertainment, not a full-blown musical. Originating as a soirée at the couple’s renowned Stables theatre at Wavendon, and based on the life of the great French author of Claudine and Gigi, it’s a celebration of the remarkable life of a fascinating woman. At the time of its West End transfer in 1980 critics laid into ambitious, facile rhymes like “You can see Puccini and Zola, and Toulouse-Lautrec and his bowler”. Granted that Dankworth may not be Porter or Sondheim – his strengths lay elsewhere, which he would be the first to acknowledge – but there are numbers to savour, such as the bittersweet “You Can Be Sure of Spring”; the probing writer’s ballad “Alone with Myself”; and the wistful, valedictory “Little Red Room”, with its intimations of mortality.
Colette is definitely a subject to reckon with – three husbands (led by a complex relationship with the overbearing, egotistical Willy, who took credit for her early work, and ending with happiness the third time around, via “Love with Someone Younger”), life in Belle Epoque Paris, an interlude of stage acting, an illustrious career as an author, and even running a cosmetics company (the tango “A Little Touch of Powder”). It’s a tour de force for Cleo Laine, who’s accompanied by Kenneth Nelson (one of the original leads of the off-Broadway phenomenon The Fantasticks) as all the men in her life. (Note: John Moffatt, who’s credited as the Narrator, does not appear on the recording.)
Digitally remastered from the original master tapes, this is the first release for the Dankworths’ Colette on CD. The album includes a note written by John Dankworth for the 1980 stage production. Next question: are there master tapes for the Dankworths’ 1968 musical Boots with Strawberry Jam, about George Bernard Shaw?
The Music Man - Original Broadway Cast 1957
Meredith Willson’s musical masterpiece The Music Man has been charming audiences since its Broadway premiere in 1957. Although it has been available on CD before, grab the chance to get this latest CD reissue of this wonderful slice of Americana on the Naxos Musicals budget label. Besides the original Broadway cast album (in digitally restored stereo), headed by the inimitable Robert Preston as Harold Hill, the fast-talking musical conman who sweeps a small Iowa town off its feet and wins the heart of the at-first-sceptical librarian (the marvellous Barbara Cook, in her early ingénue phase), the CD also features mono bonus tracks of instrumental selections conducted by Meredith Willson himself in early 1958, including the “Marian the Librarian” ballet music, a lovely arrangement of “Goodnight, My Someone”, and a rousing “Seventy-Six Trombones” guaranteed to have you marching around the room. Willson, who wrote the music, lyrics, and libretto, worked on the musical for years before his labour of love finally made it to Broadway; it’s fascinating to hear a 1950 recording of Eileen Wilson singing “Till I Met You”, an early version of the show’s standard “Till There Was You”.
Rose Marie brings to mind red-coated Mounties out to get their man, the magnificent scenery of the Canadian Rockies, and the soaring strains of the show’s romantic duet, the “Indian Love Call”, hauntingly warbled by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in the 1936 MGM film. Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart’s operetta (lyricist-librettists Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach preferred the label “musical play”) was one of the hits of the 1920s in New York, London, and Paris, and a revival stalwart for decades afterwards.
All Julie Andrews fans will welcome this 1958 RCA Victor “Live Stereo” studio recording, made in London while she was starring in My Fair Lady, and now available on CD for the first time. Surprisingly, this was Julie’s first foray into operetta territory, although her voice and enunciation were naturals for the genre (she credits Broadway conductor Lehman Engel with helping her “rise to the challenge of pure operetta”); she shines not only in “Indian Love Call” with co-star Giorgio Tozzi, but in the lilting “Pretty Things” and “Minuet of the Moment”. Operetta aficionados, take note: the Engel-RCA album’s 14 tracks include the finales to Acts I and II, as well as the Finale Ultimo, lovingly recorded with a real sense of authentic operetta style.
In typical fashion, this Sepia compilation admirably also offers ample opportunity to delve into the history of this key operetta (ahem, musical play), with seven recordings of the original 1925 London cast featuring Edith Day, Derek Oldham, and comic legend Billy Merson as Hard-Boiled Herman; MacDonald and Eddy’s 1936 “Indian Love Call”; and studio recordings from 1948 and 1952 with Marion Bell and Elizabeth Larner. The album comes with detailed notes about the history of the show and the recordings, with vintage photos and track credits.