ON THE RECORD: Cook's Sondheim, Decca's Reissues and Rose Raisin' Raisin

News   ON THE RECORD: Cook's Sondheim, Decca's Reissues and Rose Raisin' Raisin Barbara Cook sings Mostly Sondheim DRG 91464
Upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Stephen Sondheim compiled a list of "songs I wish I'd written (at least in part)." Barbara Cook combined selections from this list with songs by Sondheim himself, for her February 2001 concert at Carnegie Hall. This concert has now been released as a two-CD set by DRG, and it's highly recommended to fans of Sondheim and fans of Cook.

Barbara Cook sings Mostly Sondheim DRG 91464
Upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Stephen Sondheim compiled a list of "songs I wish I'd written (at least in part)." Barbara Cook combined selections from this list with songs by Sondheim himself, for her February 2001 concert at Carnegie Hall. This concert has now been released as a two-CD set by DRG, and it's highly recommended to fans of Sondheim and fans of Cook. Cook is not, perhaps, the first singer one would associate with Sondheim's music; the results, though, are lovely. Cook and her long-time musical director Wally Harper have chosen well from among the master's work. "Not a Day Goes By" and "Losing My Mind," for example; what a medley, combining songs and singer! "Send in the Clowns," too, is just right. I was especially pleased to hear Cook's renditions of "Happiness" and "Loving You," from the underappreciated Passion.

The idea of using Sondheim's little list is a bit of a conceit, as Cook terms it, but it allows her to sing some exceptional songs. Of the twenty-seven on the CD, Cook sings ten by Sondheim, twelve by other composers. (Malcolm Gets adds another five by Sondheim.) Cook's non-Sondheim selections include four by Arlen, with the singer explaining that she thinks Sondheim's "works have been informed by the work of Harold Arlen." I don't quite see the connection, other than the fact that both men have written incomparable songs that no one else could have written. But no matter; this gives Cook an excuse to sing "I Wonder What Became of Me?" and "I Had Myself a True Love," and what wonderful performances! Cook and Gets combine for an effective "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (by Berlin); they then rescue Kern and Hammerstein's stunning "The Song Is You," an old-time songhit from Music in the Air that hasn't been heard much lately. Cook also sings "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," a 1912 rouser that Sondheim had the good sense to select for his list; "The Trolley Song," which Cook chose never to sing before because "I feel that it is the particular property of a particular singer"; and Cook's own particular property, "Ice Cream."

So what you get is ninety minutes of Mostly Sondheim, mostly wonderful; good songs and the exceptional Ms. Cook. (And let's not overlook the invaluable Wally Harper, whose arrangements — for himself at the piano and John Beal on bass — perfectly support the material.) I understand that this concert will be remounted as part of the Sondheim Celebration at Kennedy Center in June 2002. Let's hope it stops on Broadway en route.

DECCA BROADWAY Reissues
A reader recently e-mailed me with the following request: "I hope that when you review Decca/Broadway's latest batch, you'll give the reader an indication as to how these stack up sonically or otherwise to the previous CD incarnations. . . . I'm very happy with my CDs of [these shows] and I'm wondering why Decca/Broadway thinks I should invest twice." I responded that I try to address three questions with these reissues, within the brief space available: is the CD worth getting if you don't have the album at all? Is it worth getting if you have it on LP but rarely bother to listen to it? And finally, is it worth getting if you've already bought the album on CD once or twice before?

In the first place, let me say that Decca Broadway has done a good job with their reissues. Technological advances have resulted in significantly better sound, specifically with some of the older cast albums (like Guys and Dolls, Carousel, and Annie Get Your Gun). While most of the titles are reissues of albums already on CD, Decca does have firm plans to bring us some important first-time items. Applause is already out, and apparently a big seller; Two on the Aisle — the first Comden-Green-Styne collaboration, with some fascinating stuff plus Bert Lahr — is scheduled for the fall; and I understand that I Had a Ball, Baker Street, and the much-anticipated Fade Out — Fade In will appear next year.

The current releases, as it happens, are not especially indispensable. Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Lost in the Stars [Decca Broadway 0881 10302-2] is the best of the bunch. This show - Weill's final work before he died in 1950 - is somewhat heavy going, and understandably so; the source material is Alan Paton's powerful novel Cry, The Beloved Country, a tale of racial hatred and murder in South Africa. The show failed, but Weill's work is moving, intelligent, and well worth listening to; he seems to have been investigating a new area of musical theatre storytelling. The CD also gives us a chance to hear Todd Duncan, star of the original Porgy and Bess. Duncan was a strong singer and an intelligent actor, and I imagine he could have rivaled Alfred Drake as Broadway's top leading man were it not for his skin color. Max O. Preeo's liner notes from the 1991 release are reproduced, as has been the case with most of the Decca Broadway reissues from the MCA Classics Catalogue; this is fine, as the notes are informative and well written. The sound is noticeably crisper on the new release, so replacement of your old CD is justifiable for fans of the show.

Harold Rome's musical Destry Rides Again [Decca Broadway 0881 11573-2] has always left me disappointed. I'm a Rome fan, and I regret to say that this 1959 score seems his least adventurous work. As far as I'm concerned there's only one standout song, a nifty concerted number called "Are You Ready, Gyp Watson"; the rest of it is workmanlike and professional, but slightly synthetic. It is, nevertheless, a good-old-fashioned Fifties musical, and should please fans of that genre who have never heard it. It is also recommended to Andy Griffith fans and/or Dolores Gray fans. Preeo's old liner notes are reused, but the reissue adds a color photo of the stars in which the corseted Dolores seems ready to kick poor Andy, who is shielding himself with his cowboy hat.

Irving Berlin's 1950 Call Me Madam [Decca Broadway 0881 10521-2] is more problematic. RCA, which financed the lucrative Ethel Merman vehicle, owned the cast album rights; Merman was under exclusive contract to Decca, which refused to release her. Thus, two competing albums were made. Merman sang seven songs on the 'non-cast' album, with five additional selections performed by studio singers. Merman's presence has always been counteracted for me by the bland, non-theatrical arrangements. This score is lower-caliber Berlin and could use the punch provided by the original orchestrations and vocal arrangements. I always found RCA's cast album — with Dinah Shore subbing for Merman — far more enjoyable. (RCA included their original track of "You're Just in Love," featuring Shore and Tony-winner Russell Nype, on their anthology disc The Only Other Broadway CD You'll Ever Need [09026-63573-2]. I find this infinitely more fun — and theatrical — than Merman's duet with Dick Haymes.) Fortunately, Call Me Madam was reconstructed for an 1995 Encores! production [DRG 94761], which under the baton of Rob Fisher serves as the recording of record.

However - and it's a big however - this is Merman at the top of her game. If I was listening to this album for the first time, and I didn't already know the songs by heart, I might well be carried away with it. So guide yourself accordingly. It is also interesting to note that Irving Berlin's billing on this album is in miniscule type, half the size of studio singer Eileen Wilson (who sings one song). This CD also includes four Merman songs from the 1940 Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie. The songs, again, are far from classic; but the recordings have plenty of punch. (Are these the original arrangements? Nobody seems to know, but I'd guess that they are. "Let's Be Buddies" includes its extended patter, which I can't imagine they'd have used if they weren't reproducing the stage performance.) Merman's two comedy numbers, "I've Still Got My Health" and "Make it Another Old-Fashioned, Please" are well-worth tracking down. The final entry in the series is the 1962 Broadway importation of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's Stop the World — I Want to Get Off [Decca Broadway 422 820 261-2]. This so-called "New-Style Musical," about an allegorical Everyman named Littlechap, was overly pretentious. The combination of three songhits, Newley's charismatic performance, and low running costs, though, turned it into a substantial hit. Forty years later it is pretty dated, and the satire falls flat. Still, it's hard to overlook a musical with songs like "Once in a Lifetime," "Gonna Build a Mountain," and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Anna Quayle won a featured actress playing the various women in Newley's life. Let it be noted that one of her characters, Ilse — a "Typische Deutsche" fraulein from Germany — skewered the Third Reich years before Mel Brooks got around to it. ("I vas never a member of zee Nazi party, and my father vas completely cleared — at Nuremberg.")

AND OFF THE RECORD:

Back in the summer of 1949, Phil Rose was employed as a singer at one of those summer camps for adults in the Catskills. Also working there was a nineteen-year-old black waitress — a "not very good waitress," actually — whom Rose recognized as being strikingly brilliant. They became close friends. When Rose produced a record album called "Poetry of the Negro" in 1955 — performed by his friend Sidney Poitier and Doris Belack (Rose's wife) — Rose asked the ex-waitress to help by writing the liner notes. Lorraine Hansberry, it turned out, had a lot to say. She decided to write a play, which Rose immediately decided to produce. Now, women playwrights were virtually unheard of in the late 1950s, other than Lillian Hellman; Broadway plays by black playwrights were unproduceable; and as for a young, gifted and black woman — well, "You can't do that on Broadway" is what Rose heard time and time again.

"You Can't Do That on Broadway!" [Limelight Editions] is the title of Philip Rose's memoir. More than half of the book chronicles Raisin in the Sun, which faced obstacle after obstacle along its way to Broadway. The play nevertheless triumphed, and it makes a wonderful and heartwarming backstage saga. Rose also produced such musicals as Purlie and Shenandoah, so there's stuff to interest musical theatre fans as well. Like the story about another teenager "dressed in what looked like secondhand clothes even if they never previously had been worn," who said she was an actress who could sing and talked her way into an audition for the romantic lead in the 1962 musical comedy Bravo, Giovanni. Rose couldn't get her past his authors — she was supposed to be a beautiful young Italian lass — but he at least got to hear Barbra Streisand sing "Steady, Steady" at an audition onstage at the Broadway. (Rose had an impressive eye for talent: Diana Sands, Alan Alda, Michele Lee, Godfrey Cambridge, Al Pacino, Cleavon Little, Melba Moore, and Sherman Helmsley all came out of his shows.)

Rose also takes us to a Shenandoah work session with Zero Mostel, at which the Fiddler star sings "The Pickers Are Comin.'" (Rose includes photos of this, as proof.)

I worked for Rose for a few years in the seventies, and I always found him to be honorable, dedicated, and just about the unluckiest man I ever met. We used to joke that whenever Phil bought an expensive display ad in the Friday Times, they would forecast a blizzard on Thursday night. ("Don't leave your home this weekend!") This book tells of a time long-gone when you could still produce shows on Broadway with $1,000 investors. It also displays the politics of Broadway. Poor Phil had no clout within the business, and theatre owners regularly put him through the wringer. (At least three of his shows were arbitrarily kicked from theatre to theatre to theatre, at enormous expense to Phil and his investors.) All in all, "You Can't Do That on Broadway!" is fascinating reading for people interested in this side of the Broadway business. And the triumph of Raisin in the Sun — and Phil's dedication to the memory of Lorraine Hansberry — will make you cheer.

-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.