ON THE RECORD: Finn's Make Me a Song, Plus Studio Discs of South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate

News   ON THE RECORD: Finn's Make Me a Song, Plus Studio Discs of South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate This week's column discusses the original cast album of William Finn's revue, Make Me a Song, and an interesting collection of pop vocal versions of songs from South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate.
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MAKE ME A SONG: The Music of William Finn [Ghostlight 8-4427]
The many fans of William Finn have long realized this distinctive composer — the first of the post-1950 generation to burst prominently onto the scene, in 1981 with March of the Falsettos — is not creatively suited to turn out a new score every year or three. We are lucky to get new Finn shows five or six years apart. In the last decade or so, there have been a couple of not-quite-full-scale alternate evenings — Infinite Joy, at Joe's Pub in 2001, Elegies, a song cycle produced by Lincoln Center Theater in 2003 — that have brought us more or less up to date. Most importantly, they both resulted in satisfyingly good cast albums.

The most recent installment in this Finn parade is Make Me a Song, a revue that began its life in the summer of 2006 at Theaterworks (in Hartford) and opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages in November 2007. The show attracted a fair share of vehement fans along with a few naysayers — a not atypical reaction to Finn — and closed at year's end after a disappointingly short run. Count this viewer in the group who found Make Me a Song a fine evening's entertainment. As with other Finn shows that did not initially find a large audience, it is to be expected that the original cast album, on Ghostlight, will reach people who could not make it to the Off- Broadway run, and new fans for Mr. Finn. (Disclaimer: I wrote liner notes for the CD, and gladly so.)

The revue was conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, the associate artistic director of Theaterworks. The cast — most of whom transferred from Hartford — featured Adam Heller (as the Finn stand-in), Sandy Binion, D.B. Bonds and Sally Wilfert. Each has their solo spots on the album, and each does especially well with same. Darren R. Cohen is the hard-working solo musician, assaulting the keyboard in authentically-Finnian style.

The cast album, which includes the entire revue on two CDs, presents a fairly complete overview of Finn's career. (Missing, only, is any mention of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which at the time was still playing a block away. Material from that show was apparently incorporated into the London production of Make Me a Song, which opened in March 2008.) This means that many of the songs will be familiar to Finn fans, but in most cases they do well with repeated listening. These include selections from A New Brain, which was seriously undervalued when it was presented in New York in 1998. Talk about a show with subject matter that is hard to sell! But the thing is filled with wonderful work, even if it did feature a solo spot for Kristin Chenoweth singing about calamari. (Anyone who likes Finn's work and doesn't know this score, do treat yourself to a copy [RCAVictor 09026-63298.]) Make Me a Song does include some relative rarities. One is the title song, which Finn wrote upon the request of Mandy Patinkin (who never did sing it). "All I'm asking for is perfection," Finn writes; there's an epitaph, all right. (The revue opened with a taped version of Finn singing the song, segueing to a live performance by Heller. The CD begins with Heller performing the song, and ends with a bonus track of Finn singing it.) "I Have Found" comes from The Royal Family of Broadway, which ran into rights problems and was never produced; so does "Stupid Things I Won't Do," which might perhaps be a bit more familiar to the listener. From the twice-produced but never-quite-finished Romance in Hard Times comes "That's Enough for Me" and "All Fall Down," the latter being one of the composer's most powerful pieces. "When the Earth Stopped Turning" and especially "Anytime (I Am There)," both of which were included in Elegies, are what we should consider required listening.

Mr. Ruggiero also gives us a lengthy chunk of March of the Falsettos / Falsettoland. This is inevitable; how to do an evening of Finn without them? But how to take the songs out of context? The solution includes sections of ten songs, most of them understandably fragmented. "Unlikely Lovers," delivered intact, retains its full impact. Those who claim that Finn writes frenetic melodies over-filled with words might want to sit back and listen to this one.

THE BEST OF BROADWAY Vol. 1: SOUTH PACIFIC & KISS ME, KATE [DRG 19113]
You wouldn't think that one of those 1940ish pop-vocalists-sing-the-hits albums would garner much attention in this column. DRG has either had the luck or seized the opportunity to release an old Capitol 10-inch LP of South Pacific, paired with a similar selection of Kiss Me, Kate. (The 10-inch platters were considerably shorter than the 12-inch platters, which proved more popular and soon rendered the 10-inch obsolete.)

Gordon MacRae sings the men's songs on both, and he sounds pretty much like the pop vocalists who would make you not want to bother with this genre of non-cast album. (Rodgers and Hammerstein subsequently chose him for the screen versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel. Go figure.) The chorus on these, too, sounds more corny than Kansas in August. The songs were recorded by studio musicians in Los Angeles; Frank DeVol and Dave Barbour conduct South Pacific, Paul Weston conducts Kate.

But the above doesn't much matter. The leading ladies are more than good enough to make you want to play this CD, and then play it again. Margaret Whiting sings "A Cockeyed Optimist" and "A Wonderful Guy," and you immediately think: maybe she was unlikely to go onstage and act Nellie Forbush for two-and-a-half hours, but listen to her sing. Regardless of the arrangements, she is pretty good. The same can be said for Peggy Lee. This is, of course, a different "Bali Ha'i" than they were singing over at the Majestic then, or the Beaumont now; but Ms. Lee creates her own special island, all right, subsequently washing that man right outta her hair as well. Jo Stafford, who joins Mr. MacRae on Kate, is lesser known than Margaret Whiting or Peggy Lee. But her voice has character to it, and plenty, making you want to hear what she does with each successive song.

Ms. Whiting, Ms. Lee and Ms. Stafford sing selections from South Pacific and Kiss Me, Kate. I dare say you'll find yourself rewarded by listening to the ladies.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Past On the Record columns are archived in the Features section of Playbill.com. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)