ON THE RECORD: Forbidden Broadway's Rude Awakening and Loads of Lena

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Forbidden Broadway's Rude Awakening and Loads of Lena This week's column discusses the cast album of the 25th Anniversary Edition of Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway plus four Lena Horne LPs reissued on three new CDs.
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FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: RUDE AWAKENING [DRG 12632]
Gerard Alessandrini has been drinking that funny water again, or should we say still? Here comes Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening, the 25th Anniversary Edition of that four-singers-one-piano-and-a-trunkful-of-costumes escapade that has been trodding the boards even longer than Lloyd Webber has been collecting royalties on Phantom of the Opera.

The new CD is the ninth that has sprung forth from the quarter century's worth of laughter. It starts off very nicely indeed, with typically uproarious darts tossed at the current crop of targets (although it is hard to stay both current and fresh, given that some of Broadway's hit musicals have been around for — well, almost as long as Forbidden Broadway). Somewhere along the way, though, the humor becomes intermittent; it might be that Mr. Alessandrini and his co-director, Philip George, have taken that adage about putting the good stuff up front a bit too seriously. Even so, there are plenty of laughs on this new CD, with quite a few inspired jests thrown our way.

Like "Slow People," which praises the shall we say unsophisticated? patrons who don't want shows with subtext; and for whom, in Alessandrini's view, Curtains is perfect. Jared Bradshaw gives us a syllable-perfect David Hyde Pierce, and it's all very funny. ("I'm a special kind of Broadway star for slow people. . . I step on the stage, they stand up and clap.") Like the song that goes "no strings, no drums — unaccompanied," with a little help from "those poor exploited actors my friends." ("I'll be paying Patti's old tuba, sweetie. . .") Like “Stupidcarelessfictionalnonsensicalverboseness,” Gerard's selection from — well, you guess.

"The Evolution of the Musical Today" is just as funny as the Grey Gardens original — now there was a phenomenal number that we'd like to see again — and Janet Dickinson gives an uncanny recreation of "Broadway Belter Ebersole" (that's her sobriquet). This Ms. Ebersole even reads us from her clippings, which state that "Grey Gardens is a musical that is half great — you choose which half." The Spring Awakening segment is introduced by Donna Murphy ("Look, there goes LoveMusik. . . oh, you blinked").

Two character comedians trying to get a laugh playing to "Half an Empty House" also amuse, although with spoofs of Les Misérables and A Chorus Line you might forgive us wondering just which of Forbidden Broadway's two-and-a-half decades we are in. The other half of the Les Mis section illustrates the pitfalls, though; Eponine's "On My Phone" attempts to mine humor from the fact that the actress spends so much time in the wings that she can pull out her iPhone. The Chorus Line gypsies chant "God what de-cade is this," with the awkward pronunciation of decade calling attention to the fact that it is — well, awkward. Examinations of pop musicals (like Hairspray and Legally Blonde) and juke musicals are generic, although I give Mr. A. points for instructing his Jersey Boys to "walk like a man, sing like a girl." Fifteen tracks of Rude Awakening leave extra space on the CD for a handful of songs added to prior editions after their respective recordings were released. (These sound jarringly out of date as you listen to the CD; it is only when you read the liner notes that you realize that they are not part of the current edition.) The Sweet Charity number is pretty wicked, all told, and more than fills its allotted space; so does Light in the Piazza. The Lennon number, though, is pretty wormy; for reasons unknown, it incorporates "Oklahoma!" ("Yooooooooooooooooo-ko Ono has gone loco, you know," they sing). They give us "To Sing the Impossible Song," with an over-the-hill actor bearing the unbearable warble. What's the joke? Is this supposed to be Stokes Mitchell? Does it go back to Raul Julia? Or maybe José Ferrer?

Finally, there is an oddity which presents Cherry Jones (of Doubt) meeting Kathleen Turner (of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). This one must lose something in the translation, because it ain't workin' here. This last dialogue-heavy number was conceived by Ms. Jones herself, who sent the idea over to Mr. A. We love ya, Cherry, but maybe you should stay away from sketch comedy?

Mr. Bradshaw and Ms. Dickinson are joined by James Donegan and Valerie Fagan — as usual, Forbidden Broadway succeeds on the talents of its performers — with the hardworking David Caldwell at the keys. (Mr. Caldwell delights with his pianistic exaggerations, such as his handling of Kander's "Show People" vamp.) Various alumni are featured on the bonus selections. Alessandrini himself appears on one of those so-called hidden tracks. I won't give it away, but one of the lines goes "curtain down, dim the lights, Arthur Laurents and I had big fights." This CD might have some lapses, yes; but when Mr. A. is inspired, he more than makes up for them.

LENA SOUL [DRG 91504]
MERRY FROM LENA [DRG 77503]
LENA HORNE: FEELIN' GOOD & LENA IN HOLLYWOOD [DRG 91503]
Also from DRG, which has continued to bring us valuable reissues in various fields, come three slices of Lena. Lena Horne, that is. These fall under what they call their "living legends series," and Ms. Horne certainly qualifies. The items at hand are four LPs released by United Artists Records in 1965-1966. "Soul" is — well, not what we might think of as soul; more like pop. (Think "What the World Needs Now.") The 12 songs on the LP are supplemented by six previously unreleased tracks from the UA archives which are, perhaps, more interesting than the contents of "Soul" itself. "Merry from Lena" is, needless to say, a Christmas album, featuring the usual suspects: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "White Christmas," "The Little Drummer Boy" and — for a change — Mr. Loesser's early (1947) pop hit, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

"Feelin' Good" and "Lena in Hollywood" are presented back-to-back on a single CD. "Feelin' Good" takes its title from the song in the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Lena sings two other songs from Greasepaint, which at the time was expected to be a big hit. Other entries from upcoming musicals include "Take the Moment" from Do I Hear a Waltz?, in an arrangement that well nigh makes the song unrecognizable; and "Pleasures and Palaces," the title song from the Frank Loesser-Bob Fosse musical which shuttered in Detroit. Lena sings "Pleasures and Palaces"? That should raise some eyebrows!

(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)