AVENUE Q [Victor 82876-55923]
This sweetly rude satire by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx is the clear winner in the Broadway cast album sweepstakes. Not that there was a lot of competition, mind you; even so, Avenue Q is easily the most delightful entry since Hairspray. The songs are wildly funny, hitting us again and again with unexpected jolts of jokes. The words are matched, every step of the way, by the brightly breezy music; Lopez and Marx's sense of humor extends across the score. And Avenue Q wears well, these are not hear-them-once-and-never-laugh-again jokes. Listening to the CD now, after a month or so, makes me want to rush back over to the Golden for another visit. The performances are incredibly enjoyable: John Tartaglia, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Rick Lyon, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Jordan Gelber and Ann Harada, all of them. Yes, this CD might be offensive to some; if you are apprehensive that Avenue Q will offend you, you are probably right. Even so, Avenue Q is the musical comedy treat of the year.
ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 189]
William Finn returned to Lincoln Center Theater in the spring with a song cycle of Elegies. Since 1981, he has been providing us — slowly but steadily — with a string of remarkable songs. Elegies contains some almost unbearably beautiful (and poignant) pieces, my favorites being "Anytime (I Am There)," "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts," "When the Earth Stopped Turning" and "Venice." Michael Rupert, Carolee Carmello, Betty Buckley, Keith Byron Kirk and Christian Borle do the singing, Vadim Feichtner is the impressive and expressive pianist. All combine for a contemplative and rewarding song collection.
FIRST LADY SUITE [ps classics PS-206]
Michael John LaChiusa's chamber musical attracted minimal interest when it was first produced in December 1993, in part because it was overshadowed the following month by LaChiusa's higher-profile Hello Again. A 2002 revival in Los Angeles resulted in a belated cast album, with First Lady Suite revealing itself as an adventurous (and funny!) flight in the uncompromising hands of LaChiusa. The three interrelated one acts focus on three mid-Century first ladies, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy by name. This might sound like unpromising material, which helps explain the obscurity of the piece. But the writing is incredibly rich. LaChiusa is able to pinpoint the weak spots of his characters, expose them like raw wounds, translate them into words and set them to music. This is somewhat difficult listening, at first, but First Lady Suite pays off.
Reissues of Musicals Already on CD
Virtually all of Broadway's most successful original cast albums were transferred to CD long ago, and understandably so; some have been remixed and/or remastered on as many as four occasions. The latest crop of reissues often includes additional material — tracks from the original sessions, songwriter demos and other miscellaneous items. These bonuses are added to enhance our listening experience, and to hopefully convince us to buy yet another copy of a recording that some of us already have in a handful of generations (mono, stereo and two or three CD mixes). Some of these reissues stand out from the crowd.
CANDIDE [Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy SK 86859]
Leonard Bernstein's Candide is not Broadway's most recorded musical ever, by a long shot; but for a show that lasted a mere nine weeks, it has received a remarkable number of "important" recordings (most of them in revised versions). The original 1956 production was unworkable, yes, dragged down to failure by its libretto. (All the major theatrical productions of Candide have failed as well, but we'll let that pass.) At any rate, the original cast album remains the best of all possible Candides; in terms of song selection, singing and instrumental playing. This is a grand and glorious album, highlighted by Barbara Cook's unmatchable Cunegonde and enhanced by the sound engineers. NINE [Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy S2K 86858]
Maury Yeston's Nine is, arguably, among the five best American musicals of the 1980s. Sony's reissue of the original cast album — long a favorite of mine — included an additional 18 minutes from the original sessions (featuring the extended "Grand Canal" section). This additional material, along with the cleaned-up sound and some enlightening demo recordings from the composer, made this reissue the year's Nine of choice. Fans of the show will also want the New Broadway Cast Recording [ps classics PS-312].
HOUSE OF FLOWERS [Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy SK 86857]
This 1954 Harold Arlen-Truman Capote musical was as troubled as Candide. Unlike Candide, though, attempts at resuscitating House of Flowers have failed to rescue it from obscurity. The songs, however, are remarkable; "A Sleepin' Bee," "I Never Has Seen Snow," "Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree" and more. This album was briefly issued on CD in 1990, in a limited edition with haphazard sound reproduction. Now, finally, we have a House of Flowers CD worthy of the show.
HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING [Victor 82876-56051]
I just finished writing about Frank Loesser's Pulitzer-winning romp in our last column, so I needn't repeat myself — except to say, if you don't know this 1961 album, get it now.
Reissues of Musicals New to CD
These are, in most cases, titles that have been out-of-print for 40 years or more, and thus are relatively unknown to musical theatre fans. It goes without saying that these shows are obscure; most were unsuccessful, artistically and commercially, and quickly deleted from catalogues (and memory). Some of them, happily, offer surprisingly entertaining listening.
THE CROOKED MILE [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3002]
Peter Greenwell and Peter Wildeblood's 1959 musical The Crooked Mile was not unsuccessful, artistically at least. It seems to have been ahead of its time, as far as British audiences were concerned, and its time never did arrive. Greenwell tells of standing in the lobby at the Manchester opening, overhearing the complaint that it "sounds like that West Side Story rubbish to me." Which in retrospect was quite a compliment. Without star names like Bernstein or Robbins, The Crooked Mile quickly disappeared without ever making the jump across the Atlantic. Even so, it belongs on the list of the most adventurous musical theatre of the second half of the twentieth century. Enough said, except to plug one of my "new" favorite songs, "If I Ever Fall in Love Again."
FADE OUT—FADE IN [Decca Broadway B0000215-02]
Composer Jule Styne and lyricist-librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green hit it big with their second collaboration, the 1956 Bells Are Ringing. Their five subsequent musicals all offered a fair quotient of entertainment value, but failed nonetheless. Fade Out, a star-driven 1964 satire of 1930s Hollywood, seemed like a wonderful idea, especially given the presence of freshly minted star Carol Burnett and the old pro himself, George Abbott. The show underwent a raft of tribulations (as discussed in my review of this CD reissue), collapsing in a very unfunny thud. If the score is up-and-down, the highpoints make for a bright and irrepressibly funny CD.
I HAD A BALL [Decca Broadway B0000204-02]
Another 1964 star-comic vehicle, I Had a Ball, offers none of the art (?) of Fade Out. The score, by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman, is ragtag, even by Fade Out's standards. But the tunes are catchy and the arrangements bright. More importantly, the comic-romantic couple — Dick Kiley and Karen Morrow — make you want to listen to every word they sing, even if they were forced to play second fiddle to Buddy Hackett and his crystal ball. (Buddy played an ex-con Coney Island fortune teller, who sings in praise of Drs. Sigmund Freud and Joyce Brothers, if that gives you an idea.) I Had a Ball wasn't much of a musical, but it makes for fun listening.
And Let's Not Forget
THE MAURY YESTON SONGBOOK [ps classics PS-310]
Composer/lyricist Maury Yeston had a busy year, with three CD releases (not to mention the Broadway revival of Nine). Yeston's songs, typically, work extremely well within the context of the scores from which they are intended. The surprise, here, is how well they work out of context. Without a stageful of stylish women in black, or a massive ocean liner going down for the last count, the songs have renewed life. The ones we all know from Nine, yes; but also some that are relatively unknown (like "Home" from Phantom, the exquisite "New Words" from In the Beginning and several selections from December Songs). The CD is well played and recorded, with accompaniments ranging from full orchestra (playing Jonathan Tunick's original Broadway orchestrations) to conductor John McDaniel at a lone piano. A carefully selected group of 16 accomplished theatre singers are featured, including Brent Barrett, Alice Ripley, Liz Callaway, Brian d'Arcy James, Howard McGillin, Sutton Foster, Laura Benanti, Christine Andreas, Christine Ebersole and Betty Buckley. Yeston and his singers make for a bounteous Songbook.
—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.