Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Fix, Shelter and TV Musicals

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Fix, Shelter and TV Musicals PRIME TIME MUSICALS (Varese Sarabande)
Varese Sarabande has devoted compilation discs to songs from flop musicals, songs cut from successful shows, songs from Shakespearean musicals, Christmas songs from Broadway, and songs from various versions of Peter Pan. Its latest collection has the happy notion of paying tribute to a genre that thrived in the '50s and '60s, the musical written for television. Perhaps the most celebrated entry in this genre, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, is not represented because, as the notes inform us, Varese is recording a compilation of songs from various Cinderella musicals. But Rodgers is represented here nonetheless, and he is in the company of many other top-level Broadway artisans (Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Burton Lane) who were attracted to the form.
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PRIME TIME MUSICALS (Varese Sarabande)
Varese Sarabande has devoted compilation discs to songs from flop musicals, songs cut from successful shows, songs from Shakespearean musicals, Christmas songs from Broadway, and songs from various versions of Peter Pan. Its latest collection has the happy notion of paying tribute to a genre that thrived in the '50s and '60s, the musical written for television. Perhaps the most celebrated entry in this genre, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, is not represented because, as the notes inform us, Varese is recording a compilation of songs from various Cinderella musicals. But Rodgers is represented here nonetheless, and he is in the company of many other top-level Broadway artisans (Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Burton Lane) who were attracted to the form.

A couple of numbers here ("Love and Marriage" from Our Town, "Come To The Supermarket" from Aladdin) are fairly well-known. But while almost all of them have appeared on disc at one time or another, most of those discs are not around anymore, so most of this material will be unfamiliar ("You're So Right For Me" from the Betty Hutton TV disaster Satins and Spurs will be recognized by those who know the score of Broadway's Oh Captain!, for which it was recycled).

There is much enjoyable material here, especially the lovely "Strangers" (Rodgers' Androcles and the Lion), "Too Happy Dancing" (introduced by Barbara Cook in Hansel and Gretel), and "One Day At A Time" (Arthur Schwartz and Maxwell Anderson, introduced by Bing Crosby in High Tor and beautifully performed here by Jason Graae). Perhaps the best song and rendition of the set is Sally Mayes' dreamy "Ride on a Rainbow," written by Styne and Leo Robin for Ruggles of Red Gap. But there are almost no duds here, and this is a very enjoyable disc, one of the best of recent Varese releases.


THE FIX (First Night)
One always wants to welcome new musical theatre talent, and the team of John Dempsey (book and lyrics) and Dana P. Rowe (music) have already had two shows produced, the camp spoof Zombie Prom, which had a brief off-Broadway run in 1996, and The Fix, an audacious political satire that was seen at London's Donmar Warehouse this spring. Co-produced by Cameron Mackintosh, The Fix had the benefit of a classy production, staged by Sam Mendes and featuring top-level talents like John Barrowman, Philip Quast, and Kathryn Evans. The result had its admirers but pleased few critics, so a hoped-for transfer following the limited Donmar run failed to materialize. But The Fix will get another chance this spring at the Signature Theatre, whose Arlington, Virginia proximity to Washington, D.C., will give the piece particular resonance. A cast recording of Zombie Prom was made but remains unreleased; First Night Records has given the London production of The Fix a fine (if incomplete) recording, but even after three playings, I can't say I enjoyed very much of the score. The Fix deals in broad caricature; its young hero is surrounded by a demonic, drink-besotted mother who will resort to anything to get her son elected to high office, a crippled uncle who is sexually attracted to his nephew, a father who died in the arms of a mistress on the eve of his election to the Presidency but who returns (shades of Hamlet) as a ghost, and the white-trash man who actually sired the hero. There's a sophomoric feel about the show's attempt to be daring and slashing, but the chief problem is Rowe's music, rock mixed with gospel, country, and other styles, and lacking a voice of its own.

The leads are excellent. John Barrowman, whose lot it has been to take over roles in hits like Sunset Boulevard, The Phantom of the Opera, Anything Goes, and Miss Saigon, but create parts in Matador and The Fix, is more than ready for leading roles, and has the best number, "One, Two, Three," which opens the show and is later a recurring theme. Philip Quast, a top Australian musical theatre performer who preserved his Javert on the televised Les Miz anniversary gala and had the lead in the Royal National Theatre's Sunday in the Park With George (he sounds something like Mandy Patinkin), lends dignity to the uncle. Kathryn Evans, the final London Eva in Evita and more recently in Anything Goes and Mack and Mabel, makes the mother's material more interesting than it is. And Krysten Cummings, soon to be seen as Mimi in the Toronto and London productions of Rent, is impressive as the hero's club-singer girlfriend (both are gunned down by the final blackout).

A number of prominent critics have declared the team of Dempsey and Rowe to be a major find; for me, the jury is still out, but it will be interesting to see how The Fix fares in its upcoming American premiere.


SHELTER (Original Cast Records)
The team of Gretchen Cryer (words) and Nancy Ford (music) are principally remembered for four small-scale musicals seen in New York between 1967 and 1978. First came Now Is The Time For All Good Men at the Theatre de Lys in 1967, very much a product of its unsettled time, and featuring in the leading roles Cryer herself (under the name Sally Niven) opposite then-husband David Cryer (they are the parents of Jon Cryer). Their next piece, two one-acts under the title The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, got much better reviews and a longer off-Broadway run beginning in 1970. Cryer and Ford became the first women in post-war history to be the sole authors of a Broadway musical when Shelter, out of place at the Golden Theatre, flopped in 1973. They were back off-Broadway five years later with their biggest hit, the long-running New York Shakespeare Festival musical I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road, in which Cryer created the leading role and was succeeded by Virginia Vestoff, Betty Buckley, Carol Hall, Phyllis Newman, and Ford.

In terms of cast albums, Now Is The Time was recorded by Columbia, and Isaac by RCA, but neither has made it to CD. Columbia Special Products preserved the New York Getting My Act Together (not yet on CD), and TER/JAY has a London cast recording starring Diane Langton (and available on CD). But Shelter has the oddest recording history of all: Columbia recorded the Broadway production, with Marcia Rodd, Terry Kiser, and Susan Browning in the leads, but while a 45-single of a couple of songs sneaked out, the full recording was never released, although a tape of it has been in circulation for years. In March of this year, Manhattan's York Theatre offered a revised version of Shelter that integrated material from the first (and superior) act of Isaac as a prologue; the York production was entitled The Last Sweet Days, but Original Cast Records' recording of it reverts quite sensibly to the name Shelter, as there's always a chance RCA will get around to reissuing the 1979 Isaac recording.

Cryer and Ford's gift was not an earth-shaking one, but their work was appealing, if distinctly '70s Off-Broadway in feel; they veered from the realistic Now Is The Time to the neurotic whimsy of Isaac and Shelter and the more conceptual, free-form Act, but their scores always offered a nice mixture of soft-pop, folk, and theatre music, intimate and sweet. Their wittiest show is the first act of Isaac, while Act is probably the most accessible and useful for future production. Shelter was overloaded and pretentious, but on its new disc the songs are attractive (strengthened by the inclusion of four from Isaac), and they're well-performed, mostly by Ellen Foley and Willy Falk. Foley, who has mixed a career in rock music with TV and appearances on Broadway in Me and My Girl and Into The Woods (she was the original Witch at the Old Globe and the last one in the Broadway production), has one of those interesting, sometimes erratic, but appealingly gritty voices. Falk, Miss Saigon's first Broadway Chris, is an even better singer. Together, they're more effective vocalists than Rodd and Kiser, and they're joined in the York production by Romain Fruge as the singing computer (it's that kind of show) and Ellen Sowney as the other woman. If Shelter is a journey back to a kind of musical that probably died with the '70s, we can at least be glad that the show's second cast recording got released.

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