Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Dear Old Syracuse

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Dear Old Syracuse DRG's fourth recording of a City Center "Encores!" production preserves the most recent entry in the series, last May's The Boys From Syracuse. This is the fourth recording of the score, following Columbia's 1953 studio cast and the 1963 cast recordings of the off-Broadway revival and the London premiere (the latter is the only one unavailable on CD).

DRG's fourth recording of a City Center "Encores!" production preserves the most recent entry in the series, last May's The Boys From Syracuse. This is the fourth recording of the score, following Columbia's 1953 studio cast and the 1963 cast recordings of the off-Broadway revival and the London premiere (the latter is the only one unavailable on CD).

All three earlier recordings were pretty wonderful, the two American sets featuring a flock of terrific performances, but the new album has the edge for a couple of reasons. It is by far the most complete, offering the first recording of "Big Brother," the first act finale, and several reprises, and also featuring more dance music and extended versions of several numbers. Its restoration (by Larry Moore) of the original Hans Spialek orchestrations makes it the most authentic (even if the Columbia/Sony Broadway set, which does not identify an orchestrator, would appear to reflect Spialek's charts). Because of the restoration, Syracuse sounds on the new disc much more like a '30s musical than it does on earlier recordings.

You don't need me to tell you that the Rodgers and Hart Syracuse score is completely and unquestionably divine; you have only to listen to it. So let's concentrate on the performances here, and begin with a word about Debbie Gravitte. Because she's not a drama queen like Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, or Elaine Paige (one can't imagine Gravitte performing "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" with a straight face), and has a lower-placed and more jazz-inflected voice than those divas, Gravitte is rarely mentioned on the list of today's top musical theatre voices. But her singing--flawless pitch and technique, creamy tone, abundant musical comedy personality and zest--is a marvel, and she deserves to be ranked with the best. On the Syracuse disc, her Luce is a joy, and it's saying quite a lot that the recorded Luces of Karen Morrow and Bibi Osterwald have met their match.

Davis Gaines is a wonderful singer with few if any peers in his category; he scores heavily in "Dear Old Syracuse," "This Can't Be Love," and "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea." Rebecca Luker is effortlessly lovely, and Malcolm Gets delivers an elegant "The Shortest Day of the Year" (perhaps the score's most ravishing piece). Here and on Broadway in Les Miz, I don't find Sarah Uriarte Berry's voice special, but she's perfectly acceptable and manages to hold her own with Luker and Gravitte in "Sing For Your Supper."

There are good contributions from Michael McGrath and Patrick Quinn, but there really isn't a weak link anywhere. As musical director, Rob Fisher once again demonstrates impeccable command of style and makes everything sparkle. One shouldn't overlook those earlier Syracuse recordings; they may not be as authentic or complete, but they do contain some not-to-be-missed performances (Ellen Hanley's "Falling in Love With Love" remains unequaled). But DRG's Syracuse (set to hit stores on Sept. 16) is 65 minutes of sheer delight, and you'd be foolish not to grab it.


Also from DRG is a live recording of another May, 1997 event, Karen Akers' cabaret performance at Rainbow & Stars. Her program includes such theatre songs as the great "Chanson" from The Baker's Wife, the lovely "It's Time For A Love Song" from Carmelina, and "My Brother Lived in San Francisco" from Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens (lyric by Bill Russell of Side Show). Akers includes all three of the comic torch songs (to Newt, Strom, and Rush) from When Pigs Fly, as well as that show's most serious (and weakest) number, "Laughing Matters." Akers is as always a distinctive, classy stylist.


It was inevitable that Rent would receive the coffee table-style book treatment that has been accorded such other smashes as Phantom, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, and Beauty and the Beast; Tommy and Sunset Boulevard, which never quite made it to that level of hit, nonetheless got books of their own, and even Aspects of Love made the cut. Because Rent remains a sell-out in New York, is doing well around the country, and is about to begin its international life, it was clearly the time for a book celebrating the show's history, offering the complete libretto (abridged in the CD booklet) and lavishly illustrating every aspect of the production.

But of course Rent is a smash with a difference, and that difference gives the book (Rob Weissbach Books/William Morrow and Company) greater depth and interest than is customary with such products. The still amazing story of Jonathan Larson's decade-long struggle to get his voice heard in the theatre, culminating in his death just prior to becoming more than he had even dreamed of being, gives the book an emotional weight beyond that of any other such tribute. Even if you have followed the coverage the Larson saga has received in the last year-and-a-half, you will be moved by the account of it here.

What's nice about the book is that it doesn't wallow in sentiment, nor does it depict Larson as a saint or a fully developed talent. Evelyn McDonnell and Katherine Silberger provide accurate and pertinent filler material to link the quotations from the dozens of people they interviewed who were involved in every step of the show's development. And the quotes are interesting, avoid gushiness, and are rarely self-serving. But what gives the blow-by-blow account of the show's progress from idea to workshop to Broadway its unusual depth is the reader's constant awareness of Larson's fate.

While the text here is mostly quotes and tends to avoid offstage squabbles and other assorted unpleasantness, it manages to be more comprehensive than is usually the case with such books. The photos, both onstage and off, are terrific, and the way the libretto has been laid out and illustrated brings the show back beautifully. The Rent story and phenomenon will remain unique, and this book does justice to them in intelligent fashion. And it's admirable and appropriate that the co-authors of the book give sole front cover-and-spine credit to Larson.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com.

Playbill On-Line Launches it's 1997-98 Celebrities On-Line "Guest Spotlight" series at 9 PM (ET) Sept. 15 with celebrated author and Playbill On-Line columnist Ken Mandelbaum. Playbill On-Line members will get an opportunity to chat live on our web site (www.playbill.com) with Ken as we discuss the upcoming season and whatever else happens to be on our readers' minds.

Click here to see Ken's bio.

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