ON THE RECORD: Hedwig's Inch & Upshaw's Duke

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Hedwig's Inch & Upshaw's Duke FOOTLOOSE (Q Records)

FOOTLOOSE (Q Records)

The original cast recording of Footloose starts out just like the show, with a blast of energy which, over the course of time, dissipates into something considerably less steamy. Safe to say that if you love the stage version of Footloose, you will adore the album; if not, you know what to expect.

The score combines song hits from the 1984 motion picture, mixing non story-specific rhythm numbers with indifferent new ones (by Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford) intended to drive the plot. The combined results don't add up to much, which is what usually happens to musical comedies with contributions from more than a handful of songwriters. (Anyone remember Got Tu Go Disco?)

There is even, so help us, a Sondheim song thrown in: "Learning to Be Silent," a retread of "Ev'ry Day a Little Death" from A Little Night Music. Well, no, it's not really a Sondheim song; he could never come up with such a sublime rhyme as "I'm/becoming a mime/biding my time." This song is illustrative of what happens in Footloose: it comes out of nowhere, as two subsidiary characters from different worlds turn up at the kitchen table with coffee cups even though they seem to have never met before. It is sung, by the way, by Catherine Cox and Dee Hoty, two highly professional, top-drawer musical theatre performers who are utterly foreign to everything else on the Footloose stage and stick out like unsore thumbs.

The most interesting thing about the Footloose album is that it marks the birth of a new label, Q Records. It doesn't say so anywhere on the album, but between you and me this is actually QVC. Think of what QVC could do to help market a Broadway show -- the possibilities are intriguing! Footloose will no doubt reach a whole lot more potential buyers than the typical cast album, and that probably bodes well for the future. As for the present, well, let's just say that if you love the show you'll want the disc.

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (Atlantic)
Not being a devotee of hard rock or punk rock or any old rock at all, it is hard to know precisely what to make of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The terms musical theatre or musical comedy or musical play do not adequately describe it; it is certainly theatrical, though, and John Cameron Mitchell's performance made it an unforgettable experience. The original cast recording has now appeared, and it is not your typical original cast album. For one thing, it seems aimed for the rock market; for another, the cover carries a stark "Parental Advisory Explicit Content" label.

The show itself, which has just celebrated its first anniversary at the Jane Street Theatre, with Michael Cerveris now essaying the title role, is intentionally loud and noisy and blaring, but at base really a sweetly innocent little thing. The score, as a theatre piece, was pretty much impossible to judge in performance; the sound system was pumped so loud the vibrations literally shook you in your run-down, overstuffed, once- luxurious seat. Which was no doubt the intention.

Stephen Trask's music sounds much better here, simply because you can control the volume; his lyrics, too, artfully reflect author/star Mitchell's remarkable, fascinating, larger-than-life (or is it smaller-than-life?) Hedwig. Some of the solos are sung by Mitchell, usually backed by the on- stage band Cheater (led by Trask.) Others are sung by Trask. The woman heard from time to time is Miriam Shor, playing the male character "Yitzak"; the female voice -- I mean, the female character -- is, of course, Mr. Mitchell's Hedwig. I only mention this because you won't learn much from the enigmatic 16-page booklet. ("There was inspiration as a perfume all aroundS")

And for what it's worth, this seems to be one of the shortest cast albums since the advent of the long-playing record. There are scarcely forty-two minutes of score, plus a three-minute "additional album track" of a song not in the show. But as Hedwig herself might ask, "just how important darling is length, you know?" Anyway, after several listenings I find that "Wig in a Box" is quite catchy, and I am especially fond of a moving ballad called "Wicked Little Town."

DAWN UPSHAW SINGS VERNON DUKE (Nonesuch)
The twenty-odd musicals of Vernon Duke (1903-1969) are all virtually unrevivable, due to subject matter, book trouble, and other problems, which in some part explains his near anonymity as we enter a new century. But the best songs of Duke are in a class with Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, and even George Gershwin. (Gershwin discovered the teenaged Russian immigrant Vladimir Dukelsky, hired him as a ghostwriter, entrusted him to arrange the solo piano version of "Rhapsody in Blue," encouraged him to leave the "serious" music world to concentrate on pop songs, and came up with the Americanized moniker Vernon Duke. When Gershwin died, it was Duke who finished up his final film score.) All of which brings us to the absolutely splendid "Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke." [Disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes for this album.]

Duke specialized in highly dramatic ballads and infectiously catchy rhythm numbers. Upshaw does an especially fine job with these moody and often challenging songs. This is a strongly theatrical sounding album, and no wonder: Upshaw and conductor Eric Stern have assembled orchestrations from folks like of Jonathan Tunick, Danny Troob, Michael Starobin, and Richard Rodney Bennett. Upshaw and Stern have also been adventurous in song selection. While they feature the indispensable "April in Paris" and "Autumn in New York," they eschew standards like "Taking a Chance on Love" and "I Can't Get Started" in favor of no less than four unpublished songs -- including the playful "Swattin' the Fly" (from Dancing in the Streets) and the absolutely remarkable "Water under the Bridge" (from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934). They also rescue a couple of little-known favorites of mine, "Born Too Late" and "Not a Care in the World." And this is an album filled with slyly playful lyrics, from the likes of Yip Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Howard Dietz, Ogden Nash, and Duke himself.

Duke's final musical to reach Broadway was the ill-starred Bette Davis/Jerome Robbins revue Two's Company in 1952, the composer's seventh consecutive failure and one of the most resounding flops of its time. With the release of "Dawn Upshaw Sings Vernon Duke" and next month's concert version of the Duke/Ira Gershwin Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 by City Center's Encores!, 1999 promises to be Duke's biggest and best year since he wrote Cabin in the Sky back in 1940.