SIDE MAN (BMG)
Over the years, there have been any number of Broadway cast albums of non-musicals, featuring entire plays, stretches of dialogue, specially composed incidental music, or comedy sketches. Now we have what appears to be the first album consisting solely of pre-existing recordings used as background music in a play. This has become common practice in Hollywood, and an increasingly profitable one; but the market for Broadway drama is somewhat smaller than that for something like "Sleepless in Seattle." You almost wonder who they think would buy such an album. Listening to "Side Man,: Jazz Classics from the Broadway Play," though, you think maybe this is not such a bad idea.
Side Man, of course, is Warren Leight's play at the Golden, which is still perhaps the best of the season (although stiff competition is coming between now and the Tonys). Leight and director Michael Mayer carefully assembled off-stage music to accompany their play, and it turns out these cuts hold up very well as a trumpet solo-filled jazz album.
Leight based the play on his own childhood, and we quickly learn that the "Clifford Brown" who is so central to the plot was, in fact, quite a horn player. He is represented on five of the album's ten tracks, including a live 1956 performance of "A Night in Tunisia," which provides Side Man's most memorable scene. Also included are performances by Miles Davis, Gene Krupa, and Duke Ellington (with Ella Fitzgerald on the vocal). The album has been produced by Jay Harris, the lead producer of the play, and the vintage tracks sound wonderful.
I've seen Side Man three times now, and there's one thing I don't quite understand: Early on someone asks for the stunning Kern Hammerstein song "Why Was I Born?", which could indeed be the theme of the whole play. This comes in the context of a joke confusing Kern with Cahn. (Sammy? Or is it Gus Kahn?) We hear the joke twice, but we never do get to the song. At any rate, I wholeheartedly recommend Side Man as theatre and this disc as jazz-around-the-house.
THE ROBBER BRIDEGROOM (OC Records)
Back in the days before he was writing Georgian-Jewish plays and librettos like Driving Miss Daisy and Parade, Alfred Uhry was a respectable but unsuccessful lyricist. He and composer Robert Waldman were a pair of Frank Loesser proteges whose work was perhaps too complex for popular consumption. They saw only three of their musicals achieve full productions: One closed on opening night, one folded on the road, and the other, The Robber Bridegroom (1976), from the novella by Eudora Welty, was a hard sell, stumbling through a four month run despite mostly favorable reviews. Favorable from all the important critics, yes, but not an enthusiastic rave, not a "money review" among the lot.
The score was unlike anything you might hear along Broadway, strongly folk-likeÐfilled with fiddles and fancy banjo pickin', but theatrically intelligent; the staging (by Gerald Freedman and Donald Saddler) was wildly inventive, using improvisatory story theatre techniques; and the whole affair was carried by the Tony Award-winning Barry Bostwick, giving an energetically charismatic performance (his best ever?) in the athletic leading role with his arm in a sling. (He broke it at a dress rehearsal, swinging across the stage on a vine-like rope.)
The supporting cast was led by Rhonda Coullet as the country darlin' and Barbara Lang as the prickly step-mother. Hidden amongst the rest was Ernie Sabella, as a disembodied head in a trunk. (Don't ask.)
A cast album -- produced and funded by Bostwick himself -- was belatedly and briefly issued in 1978 on the Columbia Special Products label, but that was pretty much the end of The Robber Bridegroom. Until now, when the album -- expanded with six (poorly-preserved) additional tracks from the original sessions -- has unexpectedly and happily been transferred to CD. This is not high-powered musical comedy, but the score is extremely friendly, with memorable songs like "Nothin' Up," sung by Ms. Coullet wearing -- if I remember correctly -- not a stitch; the atmospheric "Deeper in the Woods"; and the especially lovely lullaby "Sleepy Man."
Who knows? This disc might even result in a flurry of stock & amateur performances of The Robber Bridegroom, and that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
GERSHWIN RARITIES and THE MUSIC OF HAROLD ARLEN (Harbinger)
Back in the early 1950s a fellow named Ed Jablonski formed a small independent record label called Walden Records. Walden struggled along for several years (and several LPs) before disappearing, but along the way they made some wonderful songwriter anthology albums featuring obscure show tunes.
This is the same sort of thing Ben Bagley did in his revisited series, which began after Walden's demise. Bagley had an occasional tendency to mess with the music and modernize the lyrics, though, which left some songwriters grateful for the attention but furious at the treatment. Walden gave us the songs the way they writ them; in the case of these specific albums, Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen were personally involved in the song selection and recording sessions. (Jablonski, one of the most knowledgeable men in the show tune business -- and a gentleman to boot - became close friend, confidant, and biographer to Gershwin, Arlen, and even the reclusive Irving Berlin.)
Thus, "Gershwin Rarities" is a treat for people who want to hear the brothers' less familiar work (including fine tracks of "Where's the Boy? Here's the Girl!," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "Sweet and Low Down.") Performers are for the most part pleasantly proficient, the exception being young Kaye Ballard (who had still not given her breakthrough performance in The Golden Apple). Ballard stands out with a breezy "They All Laughed" and a heartfelt rendition of the exquisite "Isn't It a Pity?" Also featured are Louise Carlyle, Warren Galjour, David Craig (husband of comedienne Nancy Walker), and Betty Gillett (then-wife of producer Leonard Soloway).
The musical work is first rate, with arrangements by John Morris and David Baker. Half the tracks use Gershwinesque two-piano arrangements; George regularly featured twin pianos in the pit orchestras of his Twenties musicals.
"The Music of Harold Arlen" is especially well scored by Peter Matz, who had just made his Broadway debut with Arlen's House of Flowers. The singers -- Carlyle, Galjour, Bob Shaver and June Ericson -- are not especially exciting, except for Miriam Burton (the "Mardi Gras" singer from House of Flowers) on the discarded St. Louis Woman gem, "I Wonder What Became of Me?" But the treasure here is Arlen himself, singing 13 of the 24 tracks. (He also plays piano on half of them.) Arlen was a band singer before he turned composer, and his singing is as distinctive as his songwriting. Thus we have definitive performances of "Hit the Road to Dreamland," "Buds Won't Bud," "I Never Has Seen Snow," "Last Night When We Were Young" and others. Which makes this disc indispensable for Arlen fans.
-- Steven Suskin is the author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com