ON THE RECORD: Into the Woods with Miss Spectacular

News   ON THE RECORD: Into the Woods with Miss Spectacular INTO THE WOODS Nonesuch 79686
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is back on Broadway, complete with a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The same director, Lapine, is present; the material is pretty much the same, with some minor (but helpful) alterations.

INTO THE WOODS Nonesuch 79686
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is back on Broadway, complete with a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The same director, Lapine, is present; the material is pretty much the same, with some minor (but helpful) alterations.

The tone of the show is considerably altered, though; the revival is friendly, if you will, in a way that the original was not. The 1987 show seemed to be a case of "wouldn't it be intriguing to take all those characters from children's storybooks and weave them into a musical." In 2002, this became more like "wouldn't it be lovely to take all those characters. . ."

And it is lovely. This has elicited grumbling in some quarters, from people who appreciated the darker original tone. For me, the original Into the Woods was problematic, despite the score and some fine performances. With the revival, I care about the characters in a way that I didn't before. This makes the second act involving, whereas I formerly found it off-putting. An admirable show is now enjoyable as well.

The original cast album of the revival pretty much measures up to the 1987 album [RCAVictor 6796]. With musical director Paul Gemignani and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick on hand, the musical values are properly seen to. (No bright producer insisted on replacing the orchestrations, fortunately, as is so often the case nowadays.) The performances on the two cast albums are roughly equal; some slightly weaker, others stronger.

The new material is an asset. This includes "Our Little World," a duet for the Witch and Rapunzel that was added to the 1990 London production; a revision to "Hello, Little Girl," in which a second wolf (played by Rapunzel's Prince) now cavorts with Three Little Pigs; and a brief but important addition to the end of Cinderella's "On the Steps of the Palace," which intertwines the lessons that Red Ridinghood and Jack learned on their journeys into the woods. The friendliness of the revival stems, in large part, from two performances. John McMartin's Narrator is less of a curmudgeon than his predecessor, more of an overgrown teddy bear. Greg Edelman also brings warmth and humor to his roles. Yes, Edelman's wolf does swallow Red and Granny; but he's a very nice wolf, and a very goofy Prince Charming. Both McMartin and Edelman seem to have stepped out of the Fractured Fairy Tales segment of the "Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," which adds welcome charm to the show.

Vanessa Williams, I'm afraid, is not an asset. When she's good, she's very very good; but the role of the Witch seems to call for an actor with a sense of the ridiculous, and Ms. Williams isn't it. Her solos are letdowns; she's very much lost in these woods. Conversely, the revival has a perfect Cinderella in Laura Benanti, who should be a major Broadway star as soon as someone writes her a part. Hearing Ms. Benanti sing "No One Is Alone" is a special treat, as is this revival.

MISS SPECTACULAR DRG 12995
Jerry Herman was one of Broadway's most active composers of the 1960's, with four musical comedies over the decade. He was Broadway's most successful songwriter of the decade, by far. Hello, Dolly! (1964) was Broadway's longest-running musical ever, for a while, and Mame (1966) hit the number seven mark before being bypassed. Herman's other early Broadway efforts, Milk and Honey (1961) and Dear World (1969), were unsuccessful.

With such a fast and successful start, it seems odd that Herman wrote only three additional musicals. Mack and Mabel (1974) was a major disappointment; The Grand Tour (1979) was a somewhat more understandable failure; and La Cage aux Folles (1983) was Herman's third major hit, the fourth-longest running musical of the eighties.

But musical tastes had been changing since the days ofDolly! Herman was always a songwriter in the Irving Berlin tradition, and proudly so. He seems to have been glad to quit while he was ahead — withLa Cage — and content to spend his time on other endeavors. He picked up his composing pencil again for "Mrs. Santa Claus," a 1996 television musical, which demonstrated that he could still write cheerfully bouncy show tunes.

Family-oriented stage shows started to invade the Las Vegas scene at this time, and casino mogul Steve Wynn commissioned Herman in 1999 to write a musical for a proposed new theatre in the Mirage Hotel. Miss Spectacular it was to be called, less a musical comedy than an extended commercial for Las Vegas. Frank Galati was mentioned as director, and then Tommy Tune took over. But Wynn sold the Mirage, and that was the end of Miss Spectacular.

Herman was left with a star-packed demo of nine songs from the score, plus reprises and instrumentals. Why not release it commercially? Just for the fun of it? Herman decided to do just that, with the CD coming out to coincide with his 69th birthday (on July 10).

Miss Spectacular sounds like — well, it sounds like a Jerry Herman musical. Toe-tapping rhythms and vibrant melodies, suitable for a musical world where sophistication is something to be avoided wherever possible. Herman once wrote a lyric that went "There is no tune as exciting as a show tune in two-four" — you can sing that sentence to the opening phrase of "It's Today," fromMame — and that is, in a nutshell, Jerry's credo. While some listeners want more from their musical theatre, there's something to be said for songs you can enjoy. Some ofMiss Spectacular might seem a bit old-fashioned and vaguely reminiscent. This is, in some ways, related to the nature of the project, which was — again — aimed at the family market in Las Vegas. The synopsis tells us that the show is more or less a succession of production numbers — cued, it seems, by the clanging bells of slot machine jackpots. This doesn't allow Herman the type of musical variety he would display in a theatre score; it is, by design, a succession of stand-alone solos and choral numbers. Miss Spectacular is not a musical comedy score, nor was it intended to be. Taken as a sampler of show tunes in the Jerry Herman style, it is quite pleasing.

The score is enhanced by Herman's music men. Musical director Don Pippin has worked on all of Herman's musicals since Ben Franklin in Paris in Philadelphia in 1964, when Jerry ghosted "To Be Alone with You" and musical director/vocal arranger Don worked it into a fine introductory number called "A Balloon in Ascending." He knows the way Jerry's shows sound, and sees to it that Miss Spectacular sounds — well, spectacular. Pippin also provides a couple of full-voiced vocal arrangements, as he has in the past for Jerry. Orchestrator Larry Blank — a protege of Irv Kostal — is one of the few people in the field who understand that an orchestration can dress a song, in the same way that a costume dresses the singer. (For illustration, listen to "When You Got It, Flaunt It," one of the songs Blank orchestrated for The Producers.) TheMiss Spectacular Overture sounds wildly alive and fresh with excitement, like anotherMame.

The up-tempo songs, generally, share this excitement. "Miss What's Her Name," "Miss Spectacular" and "Las Vegas" fit right in with Herman's earlier showstoppers. The latter, though, has a lyric that sounds like a TV commercial — and Steve Lawrence himself, tongue-in-cheek, singing about "Steve and Eydie." I especially like the score's two gentle ballads, "My Great Dream" and "No Other Music." Feelingly sung by Karen Morrow, the latter is more musically sophisticated than one would expect from Herman, with a highly adventurous B section. Christine Baranski, who made such a phenomenal Mrs. Lovett in the Kennedy Center's Sweeney Todd, provides a rousing "I Wanna Live Each Night." (This sounds like it was written for La Cage, but it was actually cut from The Grand Tour.) Also on hand are a silky smooth Michael Feinstein; Faith Prince in a comic novelty not unlike "Gooch's Song"; Davis Gaines, doing a tender job on his ballad; and Debbie Gravitte raising the roof.

The liner notes feature an absolutely beaming photograph of the composer, seated before an enormous hot fudge sundae and a tureen of chocolate soda topped with whipped cream and two straws. This accompanied by the following statement: "Jerry Herman has received every imaginable accolade that his industry can bestow and yet he is most proud of having written melodic songs that can have lives of their own outside of their shows."

Who can argue with that?

Is there a place for Jerry Herman songs on today's Broadway? Miss Spectacular brings to mind Broadway's most recent musical comedy. If only Thoroughly Modern Millie had tunes like this!

—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.