Tune In: Theatre CDs & DVDs Round-up – Aug 2009

This month’s Editor’s Pick is the original cast album of that heavenly new show at the London Palladium, Sister Act. August is forecast to be a damp month in these Isles, so to combat those summer washout blues, we recommend the sizzling salsa of New York’s 2008 Tony-winning show, In the Heights, and another Tony-winner, the new Broadway revival of Hair, the original “tribal love-rock musical”, with its anthem “Let the Sun Shine In”. The review of this is combined with the star-studded Actors’ Fund Benefit studio recording of Hair, as extra sunshine insurance.
A hot summer’s day in New York is depicted in a dramatically different way in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, in a newly discovered 1949 live recording. On a different note, for your cabinet of curiosities we have two rare American television musicals from 1958, Hansel and Gretel and Little Women, plus a fifteenth-anniversary reissue of the musical Napoleon. Our personalities in the spotlight this month are Lillian Roth and the incomparable Fred Astaire. DVDs will be back next month. Happy Summer!

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD reviewer

Editor’s Pick

Sister Act – Original London Cast Recording
First Night Records

There were cynical murmurs in some quarters when it was announced that the hit film Sister Act was being transformed into a stage musical. Oh, ye of little faith! Producer Whoopi Goldberg’s miraculous show is now rocking the London Palladium to its foundations. No recycled pop songs as in the film: the story is now set in Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love, 1978, giving composer Alan Menken (best-known for his Disney scores and Little Shop of Horrors) and lyricist Glenn Slater free rein to create a completely brand-new score, ringing with disco beats and happy-clappy gospel fervour.

Each of the characters is given their moment to shine, individually and in ensemble numbers. This London world premiere recording captures the energy and verve of its wonderful original cast: Sheila Hancock as the fretting Mother Superior whose quiet world is shattered by the arrival of the lounge-singer on the lam (“Here Within These Walls”); Claire Greenway as jolly Sister Mary Patrick and Julia Sutton as growling swinging-senior Mary Lazarus (“How I Got the Calling”); Katie Rowley Jones as yearning novice Mary Robert (“The Life I Never Led”); and Ako Mitchell as shy cop Eddie, dreaming of disco-dude confidence (“I Could Be That Guy”).

Topping the cast as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence is Patina Miller, making her London debut: this young American singer-actress deserves S-T-A-R billing in capital letters, with flashing lights. Just listen to her sing “Take Me to Heaven”, and lead the ensemble in “Raise Your Voice”, “Sunday Morning Fever”, and “Spread the Love Around”, and you’ll join the congregation in saying, Amen, “Fabulous Baby”!


Hair – 2009 Broadway Revival Cast
Ghostlight Records
Hair – The Actors’ Fund of America Benefit Recording (2004)
Ghostlight Records

“Every generation needs a new revolution”, said Thomas Jefferson. “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.” The cultural revolution of the 1960s was a long time in the making, and when it came, it rocked society to its foundations. The effects of the decade of Free Speech, Free Love, Free Expression, Flower Power, drugs, rock concerts, the Civil Rights movement, race riots, assassinations, Vietnam anti-war protests, and “Save the Planet” sentiments are still with us.

Hair captured the zeitgeist in its first productions in 1967-68, first at New York’s Public Theater and then on Broadway, and over the years there have been productions all over the world, as well as chart hits by the Fifth Dimension, The Cowsills, and Oliver. But Hair isn’t just a time capsule of long hair, love beads, peace signs, and funky clothes (and that then-notorious, ever-so-brief nude scene), preserved in aspic; forty years later, its powerful score, driving rhythms, and spot-on lyrics continue to resonate. It’s not only music of protest, but of affirmation and celebration, of change and a search for self.

For a time in the late 1970s, the world moved on, and its moment had passed. A Broadway revival in 1977 flopped, and the film version was already dated when it opened in 1979. The hippies and yippies became yuppies; idealism became cynicism with Watergate. But post-9/11, with a new millennium, something began to happen; both baby-boomers and Generation Y were eager for change, and seeking a rebirth of idealism.

Cue Hair, waiting in the wings. First there was an all-star Actors’ Fund Benefit concert in September 2004, then a concert version in Central Park in September 2007, followed by a full revival as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park summer festival in 2008 (an election year when the slogan “change” struck a chord with voters). March 2009 marked the dawning of a new Age of Aquarius on Broadway. Hair, the prodigal son of musicals, came home at last, and proceeded to win the Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.

And then there’s that score. No, it isn’t Cole Porter; you won’t find the kind of safe lyrics crafted with a rhyming dictionary. Clive Barnes called Hair “the authentic voice of today”. This is urban-guerrilla free verse, with tie-dye floral patterns. Once heard, its stays in your subconscious forever. James Rado, who wrote the songs with Gerome Ragni and composer Galt MacDermot, was asked several years ago: “It seems a new energy and force field was coming into play … those songs seemed to be perfect and beautiful, almost as if they weren’t created, but rather were pulled down or plucked from the sky. Were you working in a supernatural vortex at the time?” Today that seems to be a logical explanation. Plus the fact that they spent several years immersing themselves in the hippie culture of Manhattan’s East Village.

The hits still glow with a feel-good factor, now even tinged with a touch of nostalgia: “Aquarius”; “Good Morning Starshine”; “Let the Sun Shine In”. That bouncy title paean to “the beauty, the splendour, the wonder of my hair” (“like Jesus wore it; hallelujah, I adore it! Mary loved her Son – why don’t my mother love me?”) still makes you want to get up and wave your hair around. And then there’s the urban poetry of “Where Do I Go?”, which still sweeps you along, and the still haunting “Easy to Be Hard”, a standard if ever there was.

The topics remain timely, and they also show how society has indeed changed. What shocked or titillated audiences back in the 1960s, the numbers about tripping on drugs (the pharmaceutical litany “Hashish”; “Walking in Space”), and the frankness about sex (“Sodomy”) and race (“Colored Spade”, “Black Boys”, “White Boys”, “Abie Baby”), wouldn’t cause a blink today. Nor would a question posed in the song “Donna”, about the search for a character’s “San Francisco psychedelic urchin”: “Have you seen my 16-year-old tattooed woman?” “Frank Mills” is straight out of the personal ads, with an innocent-sounding girl wanting to contact a Hell’s Angel she met in front of a theatre.

The rhythms of “Going Down” almost make dropping-out seem like fun. “Manchester, England” reflects the British Invasion of pop culture and music (and throws in some avant-garde cinema references for good measure: Fellini, Antonioni, Roman Polanski).

Most of all, we can still relate to the environmental concerns in the song “Air” (“Welcome, sulphur dioxide! Hello, carbon monoxide!”; “I’m looking rather attractive, since I became radioactive”), and the anti-war sentiments (“Don’t Put It Down”, with its lament “I’m falling through a hole in the flag…”; and the chilling “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”, with statistics ripped out of the headlines, and its cry “It’s a dirty little war.”). For good measure, there’s even a power blackout, when the guitars and speakers blow the electric grid (“Electric Blues”).

It’s definitely time to revisit this score. Pull out your original LP, with that familiar solarised psychedelic green-red-yellow double image of a head with teased Afro hair, to relive the 60s. Then you have two new listening options, and we recommend them both: the 2004 Actors’ Fund Benefit, and the new Broadway recording.

One thing you’ll discover is that this score is organic; it has kept on growing and changing over the years, and Rado and MacDermot (Ragni died in 1991) are still tinkering with it. Both 2-CD recordings offer a bumper-crop of tracks (Actors’ Fund: 31; Broadway revival: 37), and have “new” numbers, or sections of numbers. The Actors’ Fund recording has two débuts, “Dead End” (the best) and “Hippie Life”.

The new Broadway disc has several new to record, including “Ain’t Got No Grass”, “The Stone Age”, and the number about Consolidated Edison, “Oh Great God of Power”. (Thankfully, both wisely seem to have packed away “The Bed”.) Be assured, both albums come with informative illustrated booklets (Actors’ Fund: notes by Harvey Fierstein and James Rado; Broadway revival: notes by Oskar Eustis of the Public Theater, and Diane Paulus, the revival’s director).

The Actors’ Fund Benefit, which took place at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 20 September 2004, gathered an all-star cast, and many of them made it into the recording studio shortly afterwards. Among others, we have Lillias White (“Aquarius”), Lea DeLaria (a very strange version of “Donna”), Ana Gasteyer (“Dead End”), Laura Benanti (“Initials”), Adam Pascal (“I Got Life”), Raúl Esparza (“Hair”), Annie Golden (“Frank Mills”), Julia Murney (“Where Do I Go?”), and Toxic Audio (“Electric Blues”, ingeniously blending New Vaudeville Band retro effects and electronic sampling), and Sherie Rene Scott (“Walking in Space”). Particular highlights: Gavin Creel (“Going Down”), Jennifer Hudson (“Easy to Be Hard”), Liz Callaway (“Good Morning, Starshine”, with its lyric about “our blue planet”), and Harvey Fierstein, gasping for “Air”.

We’ve saved the best for last: the Broadway revival cast album. The sound is amazing, the ensemble cast is terrific, bringing new life to the songs and characters, and the band is hot. The “tribe” features Will Swenson as Berger and Gavin Creel as Claude (both were nominated for Tonys), Sasha Allen as Dionne, Caissie Levy as Sheila, Allison Case as Crissy, Kacie Sheik as Jeanie, Bryce Ryness as Woof, and Darius Nichols as Hud. The album immediately zoomed onto the Billboard 200 chart. Put on your love beads, shake your hair out, and get ready to dance.

In the Heights
Ghostlight Records

Rare is the musical that transports you into a completely different sound world. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights takes us to the barrio of Washington Heights, a melting-pot neighbourhood at the top of Manhattan in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. The action takes place on one block, over two scorching days in early July, culminating in a carnival and Fourth of July fireworks. From the opening title number the vibrant, pulsating score grabs us and sweeps us along and into the lives of this closely-knit immigrant community.

The multi-talented Miranda (concept, music and lyrics, and star) brings a new voice to the musical, weaving his own brand of urban storytelling with sharply observed Latino rap, mixing it with hip-hop, jazz, salsa, and merengue idioms to create a street-smart yet warm photo album of characters which engages us from the get-go.

It’s a street of hopes and dreams, populated by characters you can relate to and care about, and each gets their moment in song: Usnavi (Miranda), the shy bodega owner whose deli is the community’s hub (“In the Heights”: “runnin’ just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop”); Vanessa (Karen Olivo), the object of his affections, who’s eager to move downtown to Greenwich Village (“It Won’t Be Long Now”); Nina (Mandy Gonzalez), the bright student home on holiday with the bombshell that she’s dropped out of university (“Breathe”; “Everything I Know”); her parents Kevin and Camila, whose lives are changed by the news (“Inútil”; “Enough”); Benny (Christopher Jackson), the dispatcher working at her father’s car service (“Benny’s Dispatch”); Daniela (Andréa Burns), the gossiping owner of the beauty salon (“No me diga!”); and Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the matriarch of the neighbourhood, who plays the lottery every week with dreams of going home someday to Cuba (“96,000”; “Pacienca y fe”).

Over the past few years the show has grown and changed; Miranda has reportedly written more than sixty songs. There are “Hundreds of Stories”, one of them tells us, and in this affectionate, beautifully crafted show they are all of a piece, working together. Miranda even gives the Piragua Guy a song, peddling his crushed-ice slushees in the summer heat. The show’s imagery stays with you, from lyrical references to Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and Chita Rivera, to Nina’s wistful “I used to think we lived at the top of the world / when the world was just a subway map” (“When You’re Home”).

In the Heights began as a student show in 2000, won the hearts of audiences off-Broadway several years later, and transferred to Broadway in March 2008. It went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2008, and the original cast album won the Grammy for Best Musical. This handsomely packaged 2-CD set, complete with notes and full lyrics, is a fantastic album. Take the CD train uptown, and visit the Heights.

Hansel and Gretel – Original Soundtrack Recording, 1958 TV & Radio Broadcast
Flare Records (Classic Cast Albums)
Little Women – Original Soundtrack Cast Recording, 1958 TV Broadcast
Flare Records (Classic Cast Albums)

Once upon a time, back in the Golden Age of American television, nostalgia tells us that life was simpler, mothers wore pearls and high heels while they did their housework and baked apple pies, and all sitcom problems were solved by wholesome heart-to-heart talks. Plays were live, but there was no reality TV. But hark! Lend an ear to another, almost-forgotten art form that flourished in those halcyon days: the original television musical.

Thanks to Flare Records, you can now experience two of them yourself (and there are others available!). Hansel and Gretel, broadcast on NBC in April 1958, is a kindlier version of the Brothers Grimm, not with the Humperdinck score, but a television original by the maverick American composer Alec Wilder, written with William Engvick (Wilder, most famous for his popular and jazz songs, wrote various works for children – and the child in adults: witness octets with titles like “Neurotic Goldfish” and “Sea Fugue, Mama”. This wasn’t his only television musical for children; he also wrote a version of Pinocchio starring Mickey Rooney.)

It was also broadcast on radio, and this CD seems to be a transcription of the radio broadcast for children, narrated by star Red Buttons in full juvenile mode as Hansel. Ah, the casts they could assemble back then: he’s joined by Barbara Cook as a lovely Gretel (“I’m Much Too Happy Dancing”, “Evening Song”), Rudy Vallee as Father (inexplicably singing a very sexist ditty, “Men Rule the World”), Paula Laurence as a toned-down Witch (“Eeny Meenie, Mynie, Moe”), and Stubby Kaye as one of the village marketers (“Market Today” – you half expect him to break into “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat!”).

Ten bonus tracks give us early Barbara Cook show recordings, with songs from Plain and Fancy, Flahooley, Candide, and The Music Man. The second of our musical adaptations of children’s classics, Little Women, premiered on CBS in October 1958. This appears to be the first musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel about the March sisters and their mother soldiering along during the American Civil War while Father is away at the front. Unfortunately the score – music and lyrics by Richard Adler, now writing solo after the death of his Pajama Game and Damn Yankees collaborator Jerry Ross – isn’t memorable. Jeanne Carson, then a popular TV star (Hey, Jeannie!) heads the cast as aspiring tomboy writer Jo (“How Do You Write a Book?”; “Man of the Family”), with Florence Henderson as the romantic Meg (“Love, I Mean”; also performed on an encore track by songwriter Adler) and Zina Bethune as Amy (“I Don’t Want to Be a Fly” a very strange number indeed!; “Party Shoes”).

Metropolitan opera star Risë Stevens is wasted vocally as Marmee, whose sole number essentially consists of reading their father’s letter to the girls (“The Letter”). But that is more than made up for by the Bonus Tracks, which feature numbers with Jeanne Carson (a lovely “In the Gloaming”), Florence Henderson (songs from Fanny, Oklahoma!, and Anything Goes), and, best of all, Risë Stevens (numbers by Victor Herbert, Cole Porter, and Sigmund Romberg).

This is the first-ever release of both these recordings on CD. Add them to your curio corner. (It would be interesting to see the actual shows someday, if they exist. Little Women’s Laurie was played by the young Joel Grey, who alas doesn’t have a song on the recording.)

Napoleon – 15th Year Anniversary Edition
Stage Door Records

Napoleon Bonaparte bestrides history like a Colossus. The man and the myth have inspired countless works, but to our knowledge this may have been the first full-blown musical. Taking on Napoleon was a brave effort; Canadians Andrew Sabiston (book and lyrics) and Timothy Williams (book and score) collaborated on the project for a total of twelve years before it finally premiered at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto in March 1994 to much fanfare, hailed as Canada’s most expensive musical. Its co-creators admitted at the time: “This is a big project, not just a love story. Now that we’ve tackled it, we know why others haven’t. There’s so much: comedy, power, politics, war. That’s a tall order.”

Considering the subsequent history of this production, warning bells should have accompanied the cannons and trumpets. Of which there are many: the 1994 version seems to have dwelled upon Napoleon the historical figure, charting his rise in condensed episodic fashion from idealistic revolutionary dreamer (“The Dream Within”) to ambitious military strategist (“Sweet Victory Divine”) to megalomaniac monster, complete with crazed nightmare soliloquy (“Last Crusade”). Napoleon and Josephine are among the fabled lovers of history, but only one early number is devoted to their romance (“On That First Night”).

One pities poor Josephine, who stays behind bewailing her fate defiantly (“Walls of Stone”) while Napoleon is out conquering Europe with his devoted soldiers, crossing the Alps and invading Russia, and dealing with Talleyrand (“Cut-Throat Game”) and sculptors only too happy to cater to his ego (“Tale of the Sculptors”). Through it all, the soldiers’ women seem to cope (“Waiting and Hoping”). Josephine waits, sings, and finally dies, as Napoleon finally comes to his senses, too late, in an incredible ethereal Finale (“Go now to heaven, and leave me to this hell … I fall like Icarus in failure”). Rhymes like “pain/insane” and “solution/revolution” along the way don’t help.

The original cast album has become a collector’s curio, but now Stage Door has come to our rescue with a special anniversary reissue, digitally remastered from the original master tapes (limited to 500 copies: collectors who don’t already have the original pressing, take note). Recorded just before the musical’s Toronto premiere, it features the entire original cast, headed by Jérôme Pradon (then a veteran of Les Misérables in Paris, and subsequently in Martin Guerre and Lord of the Rings in London) as Napoleon and Aline Mowat (an original London cast member of Les Mis) as Josephine, plus a 35-piece orchestra. One wishes this reissue were accompanied by more background notes, as well as a plot synopsis (basically, all we get are the Toronto credits, a thank-you note from Sabiston and Williams, and new cover artwork).

A much-revised version of the show opened in London in November 2000, but this short run yielded only a CD of highlights of the 1994 recording. Sabiston and Williams admit that this recording represents a work-in-progress, “a snapshot of where that journey stood in 1994”. The journey is still continuing: a brand-new concert version of the show was performed in Barrie, Ontario, in April 2009. One hopes they’ve finally gotten it right this time round.

Street Scene – Concert Performance at the Hollywood Bowl, 1949
Naxos Musicals

German émigré Kurt Weill was constantly pushing the boundaries of musical theatre, and in that quest he worked with some of the best American talent on Broadway. The 1940s produced Lady in the Dark (with Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart), One Touch of Venus (Ogden Nash), Love Life (Alan Jay Lerner), and Lost in the Stars (Maxwell Anderson). One of his dreams was to create an American opera: 1947 brought the musical drama Street Scene, whose libretto was based on Elmer Rice’s 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, with lyrics by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

It’s not just the weather that’s sweltering in this tale of the residents on a block of New York brownstone tenements; passions are high, and tragedy is in the wings. Heralded at the time as a successor to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, this working-man’s opera was certainly the reason for Weill’s special Tony Award that year (there wasn’t yet a category for best score). Since this was before the advent of the LP, only excerpts were recorded by the original Broadway cast, on six 78rpm discs (with notes by Weill himself; later reissued on an early LP); full recordings had to wait until the English National Opera/Scottish Opera 1989-90 revival (one conducted by Carl Davis, the other by John Mauceri).

As a supplement to the original 1947 recordings, it’s well worth seeking out this new CD by Naxos, a recently discovered rare early recording featuring some of the original cast, recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947, for overseas broadcast by Armed Forces Radio. Transferred from 16-inch transcription discs, only 75 minutes of the original two-hour broadcast are included (the main cuts are the announcer’s introductions and descriptions, but we do hear the audience applause at the end of each number).

Technically it has its faults: some of the microphones failed during the opening number, “Ain’t It Awful, the Heat”, and the next ensemble number, the Gossip Trio, also has some muffled lyrics. But listen to Ferdinand Hilt’s “I Got a Marble and a Star”; the wistful “Lonely House”; the colourful “Ice Cream Sextet”; “Interlude: Lullaby”, in which nursemaids quote lurid headlines; and “The Woman Who Lived Up There”, about a murder scene.

This is opera with a kick to it. The leads include Dorothy Sarnoff as Rose Maurrant, Norman Atkins as Frank Maurrant, and, from the original Broadway cast, Brian Sullivan as Sam Kaplan and Polyna Stoska (of New York City Opera) as the doomed unhappy housewife Anna Maurrant. The orchestra was conducted by Izler Solomon.

Fred Astaire: The Essential Collection
Avid Entertainment

Fred Astaire is of course without peer as a dancer – even in the eyes of such classical legends as Balanchine, Margot Fonteyn, and Baryshnikov. You may not think of him as a singer, but he was also the interpreter of choice of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Dietz and Schwartz, and Johnny Mercer, who always jumped at the chance to work with him. Astaire introduced many standards of the Great American Songbook, onscreen and onstage, and his interpretations are definitive, and delightful. There are many albums to choose from, but this recent 2-CD compilation came through my mailbox recently, and it’s just the thing to lift your spirits and put wings on your shoes for the summer.

Covering a 27-year period from 1927-1953, this instalment in Avid’s “Essential Collection” series includes many familiar hits from his classic movies at RKO, MGM, Columbia, and Paramount, spanning Flying Down to Rio to The Band Wagon, as well as early stage numbers from Lady Be Good! and Funny Face with his sister Adele. There are also two songs written by Astaire (yes, he was a songwriter, too!), and even a radio rarity even I hadn’t heard before (a 1951 parody of “The Thing”, with pal Bing Crosby). With a total of 55 tracks, there’s plenty to sing (and dance) about.

Lillian Roth: I’ll Cry Tomorrow
Stage Door Records

Lillian Roth is best remembered today for her courageous best-selling 1954 memoir, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the no-holds-barred story of her descent from the show-business heights to the depths of alcoholism and the mental ward, and her inspirational resurrection, which was made into a searing 1955 biopic starring Susan Hayward (“filmed on location inside a woman’s soul”). Lillian Roth, tragic “Comeback Kid”: she deserves much more.

A star of vaudeville, Broadway revues, and early talking films, she was pert and sassy and cute as a button, with real comic flair. A natural knockabout comedienne, she more than held her own onscreen with Lupino Lane and the Marx Brothers. And she could belt a song. But her time in the spotlight was all too short, before screen fashions, drink, several disastrous marriages, and her personal demons sidelined her career. Thankfully, that soul-baring catharsis saved her, not only bringing her a new career in cabaret (and later, Broadway shows), but also her first forays into commercial recording studios.

This CD by Stage Door Records presents her recordings from the 1950s, primarily from the two albums “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” and “Lillian Roth Sings”. If you haven’t heard Lillian Roth, be prepared for a revelation. She’s a mellow Merman. Despite the hell she’d been through, in the 1950s she was still only in her 40s, and she’s in fine voice. The first set of 12 tracks includes spoken introductions to her songs, swinging old hits like “Ain’t She Sweet”, “When the Red Red Robin (Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along)”, and “Honey”, and lovely renditions of “As Time Goes By” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”.

Among the Bonus Tracks highlights are “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (her own personal version, not the film title song), “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” (in bouncing-ball singalong style), and “Eadie Was a Lady” (introduced by Merman onstage, but Roth sang it in the movie the following year – listen, and compare: they could be soul sisters). She can sing torch ballads with the best – “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” and “That Old Feeling” – and she gets down with “It Takes a Woman to Know a Man”. Her “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” comes from the heart. In one of her intros she refers to “the shaky hill of success”, and “rough courage”. This talented lady had it, in spades.