ANNIE: 30TH ANNIVERSARY PRODUCTION [Time Life M19538]
Time Life Records has recently entered the cast recording field, first with Ring of Fire (the short-lived Johnny Cash jukebox musical that fizzled in 2006) and now with an ambitious "World Premiere Complete Recording" salute to Annie. This is a combination album, featuring the cast recording of what they call the "30th Anniversary Production," which opened in the summer of 2005 (28th anniversary) and lasted almost three years, with a cumulative gross in excess of $53 million. Grafted onto this, and meriting a second disc, is an abbreviated version of Annie 2, the highly-anticipated sequel that imploded at the Kennedy Center in 1989 (as humorously recounted in the liner notes by director-lyricist Martin Charnin).
An immediate question might well be, why do we need a new original cast album of Annie? The best-selling original perfectly captures the show as presented at the Alvin Theatre in 1977. (Remember the Alvin Theatre, home of Anything Goes, Porgy and Bess, The Boys from Syracuse, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company and more? Now named after some comedy playwright of the latter 20th century?) Annie, the original, had Dorothy Loudon kicking up a comedy storm, the child actor Andrea McArdle, and more. What is there for us to gain from buying a new cast album, with a non-stellar touring cast no less?
Well, I'll tell you. This new Annie is pretty good, and well recorded. What stands out, though, and perhaps unexpectedly, is the Daddy Warbucks of John Conrad Schuck. The stage Warbucks was created by Reid Shelton, who possessed an especially clear tenor voice. (His most prominent cast album role, before stardom was thrust upon him in Annie, was as the sweet-voiced Cockney whose "doctor recommends a quiet summer by the sea" in "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" He also made a fine, high-tenor hero in the unaccountably overlooked Man with a Load of Mischief.) While I have not carefully attended every Annie that has come along in the last 28, or 31, years, I am accustomed to high-voiced Warbuckses.
Mr. Schuck, who recently appeared opposite Victoria Clark in the Encores production of Juno, does not possess a beautifully golden voice. His is a voice with character, as crisp as those "frankfurters answering back" that you find on the streets of N.Y.C. There is certainly no need to compare his performance and his voice to that of Mr. Shelton. Let me say, however, that Schuck has me listening to the Warbucks songs more intently than ever before; his performance on the recording seems to provide a bracing pick-me-up. If "something was missing," maybe it was a Warbucks who had enough flavor to compete with Miss Hannigan. The Miss Hannigan of today is not, naturally, the late Dorothy Loudon. Ms. Loudon was an always cyclonic performer; her Hannigan, lowly orphanage matron that she was, seemed to be operating under the delusion that she was a not-too-distant relation of Queen Marie of Romania. Alene Robertson, who is familiar to some listeners for her delightful Commissioner Doyle in Annie Warbucks, is a very different creature; more of a drudge Hannigan. So along with Mr. Schuck's new-but-equally-valid Warbucks, we have a different, yet highly entertaining, Hannigan: two reasons for a new original cast recording of Annie. The Annie of the occasion, Marissa O'Donnell, makes a good account of herself as well. Let it be added that this is a considerably more complete Annie, with the inclusion of numerous repeats and extended dance music.
What makes this revival cast album different than other revival cast albums is the inclusion of Annie 2. For those innocents in the house, this was the Messrs. Strouse, Charnin and Meehan's sure-fire, can't-miss sequel to the much-loved original, with most of the original production team (and the redoubtable Ms. Loudon) conjuring up a continuation of the story. As is inevitably the case, the enterprise was a sorry affair that — due in great part to the overwhelming success of the first show — was ignominiously raked over the coals, meeting a hateful reception at Kennedy Center and quickly folding despite sellout crowds in Washington.
I managed to see Annie 2 at both performances on the final Saturday. (Loudon, after the lousy reviews and closing notice had been pitching a public battle with the powers that be, was out sick at the matinee. At dinner I learned that she would come back that evening, so I figured that I should, too.) The show was, indeed, hopelessly flawed. The gist of the thing was along the following lines: Hannigan escapes from jail. Marian Seldes, of all people, comes sweeping along from the Mother's League or some such organization to demand that single-parent Warbucks either marry or give up the kid. A contest is arranged to find a suitable mother, which Loudon naturally decides to enter and win (after which she will bump off Warbucks and Annie, both, and collect all that beautiful green moolah). Loudon and her buddy Lionel — Ronny Graham, who received equal star billing above the title with Harve "Warbucks" Presnell — transform Hannigan into a Southern belle, who naturally enough rises to the top of the list of the candidates. Needless to say, Warbucks passes over his faithful secretary Grace, admitting he likes her but she would undoubtedly be more interested in the arms of "A Younger Man." When it is determined that Annie herself will make the final selection, Hannigan and Lionel decide to kidnap the girl (who is sure to recognize Hannigan) and replace her with a duplicate in the familiar red wig. Hence, a big song that went "you, you, you — could be Annie 2," to a tune recycled into Annie Warbucks as "well, sir, you're not above the law."
The selection-of-the-wife ceremony takes place at Coney Island, simply because Annie 1 had an equivalent song about N.Y.C. Annie, the real one, is indeed kidnapped and thrown into a trunk, which really went over well with the little girls in the audience at the Kennedy Center. At the fateful moment, the day was saved by Sandy, the canine, who rejected the ersatz Annie and sniffed out Hannigan's true identity.
Well. Here, along with the new Annie recording comes a second disc containing Annie 2. Or rather, highlights from Annie 2. Or, actually, selected songs from Annie 2 without the highlights. That's right. The notes describe what we get as "never-before-recorded Strouse-Charnin songs" from Annie 2, and there's what might be considered the rub. First, let me say that we should all be glad to get what we get, which seems to be slightly more than half of the score for Annie 2 using the original orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Larry Wilcox. These are, obviously, quite instructive, and something that musical comedy fans will be glad to get their hands (or rather their earphones) on. The songs are sung by an assortment of Annie-alumni of note, with Presnell recreating his role and a trio of one-time Hannigans — Sally Struthers, Kathie Lee Gifford and Ms. Robertson (but not Nell Carter!) — handing off the role like runners in a relay race. Carol Burnett, who played the role in the film version, provides narration and a bit of singing as well. Gary Beach, a one-time Broadway Rooster, sings the only vestiges of Ronny Graham's role. Martin Charnin (an original West Side Story Jet, who now sounds husky-voiced and — well — like a septuagenarian) and Shelly Burch (a former Lily St. Regis well-remembered for her Claudia in the original cast of Nine, and the current Mrs. Charnin) sing Drake and Grace, and do so with great style.
So all's to the good with this Annie 2, except that for reasons unknown, they have decided to cut out all of the more successful songs, which — as hinted to by that disclaimer — have indeed been previously recorded. But why shouldn't previously recorded Annie 2 songs be included? The missing titles were used, or used in altered form, in Annie Warbucks — which is, after all, long out-of-print. If they can see their way to give us an entire new recording of the much-recorded and still available Annie, why not use the full score of Annie 2?
What this means, in effect, is that listeners to this new recording might well scratch their heads and think, something must be missing here; they had to have had some big songs. The best two numbers, the strongly-melodic Strouse ballad "A Younger Man" and "When You Smile," one of those rambunctiously cheerful songs that the composer does so well, were transplanted intact and can be heard on the cast album of Annie Warbucks (if you happen to have the cast album of Annie Warbucks).
The Hannigan transformation scene, "Beautiful," was one of the major numbers of the first act and really ought to be on this CD; it was used in Annie Warbucks, yes, but with a totally different lyric and arrangement as "That's the Kind of Woman." (Tom Meehan seems to have more or less recycled the "Beautiful" scene, though not the song, into Hairspray. And why not?) The same can be said for the missing-in-action "You, You, You," referred to above. There are, indeed, vestiges of Annie 2's "How Could I Ever Say No?" in Annie Warbucks's "I Got Me," but that doesn't prevent inclusion of the original version on the Annie 2 disc. Hannigan's "Tenement Lullaby" was reused in Annie Warbucks, although it is not included on that show's cast recording nor this one neither.
If these important slices of Annie 2 are unfortunately omitted, this new two-disc set does present us with three first recordings of Annie-related songs. "Why Should I Change a Thing?" was added for Warbucks in the 2004 Australian production of Annie; "Don't Mess with Mother" was written for the 20th Anniversary Broadway production (with Nell Carter), which fizzled almost as quickly as Annie 2. Finally, they give us "It's Christmas," which was written not for the show but for a 1977 television special presented back when Annie was the newest monumental hit on Broadway. Even if this rendition of Annie 2 has some unfortunate holes, it is nevertheless the only Annie 2 we've got or are likely to get. Wedded to a listenable new recording of Annie, this CD package has much to offer.
The 2008 Tony Awards have come and gone, with a telecast that featured musical moments from each of the season's new musicals. Almost all of them have released CDs, so let's offer a recap.
In the Heights [Ghostlight 8-4428] features songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda starring in his own, first-time musical. This is not the traditional Broadway sound, as has been noted; Miranda brought something altogether different to Times Square, garnering a considerable amount of acclaim while more-or-less charming the customers. Passing Strange [Ghostlight] features songwriter Stew starring in his own, first-time musical. This is not the traditional Broadway sound, as has been noted; Stew brought something altogether different to Times Square, too, garnering a considerable amount of acclaim while he more-or-less charmed the customers.
Songwriter Miranda spreads the wealth around, offering solo spots to Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Carlos Gomez, Olga Merediz, Eliseo Román, Karen Olivo, Priscilla Lopez and Andréa Burns. Stew, similarly, offers spots to many of his supporting players (including Daniel Breaker, De'adre Aziza and Eisa Davis) as well as his merry band, headed by co-composer Heidi Rodewald; still, he dominates the proceedings. The many fans of these two, new-styled musicals will no doubt be entranced by the opportunity to hear these scores repeatedly. (In a sign of the passing times, Passing Strange has been issued as a "Digital Exclusive Release," which is to say it can only be gotten at present on iTunes; the CD version will be available in July.) These scores are not a new direction for Broadway, exactly, following closely upon Spring Awakening; but they are a different direction, and both shows — with their charismatic songwriter-stars — are expanding the definition of the Broadway musical and widening the traditional audience, two very welcome developments.
The Broadway season began with Xanadu [PS Classics PS-858], based on the cult movie musical of the same title. Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson head the cast of this spoof on wheels, with Tony Roberts — who first starred in a Broadway musical a full forty years ago — joining in for the fun. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman contribute their own eccentric styles, and then some, to the mix. Cry Baby, the fourth nominated musical, has not yet issued a cast album and at this juncture appears unlikely to do so.
And that's not all; there are no less than three additional new Broadway musicals on CD.
John Bucchino's A Catered Affair [PS Classics PS-864] received something of a checkered reception, but it seems to be attracting some vehement supporters. Bucchino — like Miranda and Stew, making his Broadway debut — has built a significant fan base over the years with his intelligent and entertaining cabaret songs. The CD, with Faith Prince, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer and Matt Cavenaugh, is bound to gain friends for this unconventional chamber musical and for Mr. Bucchino. Also on the record stack are Disney's The Little Mermaid [Disney D000103302] and Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein [Decca Broadway B0010374], two big-budget musical adaptations of popular movies from a generation back. Mermaid supplements the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman score from the 1989 film with ten new songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Sierra Boggess heads the cast as the title character, with Sherie Rene Scott, Sean Palmer and Norm Lewis sharing the honors. Composer-lyricist Brooks' second Broadway musical features a host of respected theatre performers, namely Roger Bart, Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin, Shuler Hensley, Megan Mullally and Christopher Fitzgerald. If it's a roll in the hay you want, Mr. Brooks boisterously beckons.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)