ON THE RECORD: John Bucchino's It's Only Life and Noel Coward's Sail Away

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: John Bucchino's It's Only Life and Noel Coward's Sail Away This week's column discusses the John Bucchino compilation revue It's Only Life and a reissue (with bonus disc) of the 1961 Noel Coward musical Sail Away.
John Bucchino
John Bucchino Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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It's Only Life [PS Classics PS-639]
The songs of John Bucchino have been turning up, in cabarets and on recordings, for almost 20 years now. The songwriter and his friend Daisy Prince (director of Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, among other things), decided to fit two dozen Bucchino songs into a compilation revue. It's Only Life was initially produced at the 2004 Summer Play Festival. Earlier this year, it was performed in concert as part of the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center. That version has been recorded by PS Classics, and the resulting CD tells us — yes, Bucchino really is that good.

The songs are varied in topic and tone, naturally enough. Many center on love or loss, or a combination of the two; Bucchino's lyrics make them especially contemporary to listeners living in big city jungles, circa 2000. The strength of the songwriter stems from his ability, again and again, to enchant and surprise us. He seems to have studied at the feet of Sondheim (who actually figures in the lyrics of two songs), but it is not a slavish homage. Bucchino is an original, as a composer; as a lyricist, he seems to talk like us and think like us. The words and images are rich and wonderfully human, speaking from the heart to the heart.

The songbook is filled with treasures. "Sweet Dreams," about a pair of mismatched runaways searching for gold in the Golden State; "Playbill," about a fellow at a bar flashing his Playbill from Sondheim's Passion; "On My Bedside Table," about a fellow suffering through a breakup; the uplifting "Grateful"; and "It's Only Life," in which Bucchino helpfully points out that "rhyme is what it doesn't have to do." These are joined by an assortment of always interesting and often beautiful songs: "Unexpressed," "That Smile," "This Moment," "If I Ever Say I'm Over You," and the bluesy "What You Need." "It Feels Like Home" is simply stunning, and perhaps my favorite at the moment.

Bucchino and Prince have been especially fortunate in their cast, drafting some of the finest dramatic singers working in the theatre today: Jessica Molaskey, Gavin Creel, Billy Porter, Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Burns. I needn't bother identifying the songs the individual singers sing; each of the singers has at least two wonderful solos. This revue was devised in hopes of life on the stock and amateur circuit, and it is indeed available for licensing. While the Bucchino name is relatively unknown, It's Only Life is full of honest and rewarding material.

Sail Away [DRG 19083]
Noel Coward came to the forefront of the West End/Broadway world in 1924, after which he delivered a string of popular plays and musicals. Coward met continued success into the years of World War II, with Blithe Spirit (1942) and the film "Brief Encounter" (1945). After which either his talent, or the times, started to change. While he attained great celebrity in the late '50s, due in part to his nightclub appearances in Las Vegas and a resulting demand as a film actor, the reception of his later plays and musicals was often disheartening.

Coward's 1961 musical Sail Away did not seem to be an old-fashioned musical; it seemed to be an old-fashioned old musical. Coward was past his prime, and the score was unquestionably tired. Sail Away has two things going for it, and of not inestimable value: the performance of Elaine Stritch and the orchestrations by Irwin Kostal. Readers of this column need no introduction to Ms. Stritch. This was her second, and final, chance as a musical comedy leading lady; when Goldilocks (1958) and Sail Away folded in succession, Stritch lost any chance of ticket-selling bankability, at least until the 21st century. Even so, Stritch is extremely good here, in total control of the material.

Sail Away was a show so troubled that not only was the top-billed leading lady (Jean Fenn) fired in Philadelphia; her character was fired, too, subtracted from the plot. This elevated Stritch from comedy lead to sole star, allowing her to pick up some romantic ballads in the process. She does just fine, but Sail Away was too subpar to make it, even in a relatively tame season. The company is adequate but little more, except in the case of Grover Dale (who plays the juvenile and has the two liveliest numbers). James Hurst is Elaine's love interest, but he is understandably mismatched. Who wouldn't be? Marlon Brando??

The musical department, though, puts Sail Away on the cast albums-we-listen-to-frequently list. Irv Kostal does a wonderful job, with inventive and bright touches throughout. The songs simply bubble along. (After the orchestra rehearsal, Coward stood on a chair and announced, "The orchestrations make me feel like a real composer!") Best of the lot, perhaps, are Dale's two duets (with Patricia Harty). "Beatnik Love Affair" is a marvel of orchestration, with eccentric percussive effects providing propulsion, while "When You Want Me" is a delight. Musical director/dance arranger Peter Matz no doubt deserves a share of the credit for these numbers, in particular, and the rest of the score as well. Kostal and Matz give Coward's songs a contemporary '60s sound, with Stritch acting the perfect midwife. (This album, incidentally, is far superior to the 1962 British cast album, which does not use the Broadway orchestrations.)

Sail Away was only the fourth Broadway musical to carry the Kostal name, but the other three — West Side Story, Fiorello! and Tenderloin, all for producers Bobby Griffith and Hal Prince — more than established his credentials. (Kostal also ghosted on the first two Griffith-Prince hits, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. "Hernando's Hideaway," with its eccentrically wild tango, is his; so is the artful "Hey There." After a fourth consecutive Prince musical, A Funny Thing Happened. . . ., Kostal went to Hollywood for "Mary Poppins" (although he had to walk away from his signed Fiddler contract to do it). This was followed by another Julie Andrews vehicle, "The Sound of Music." Kostal's film success kept him mostly away from Broadway, although he made occasional visits in later years.

The CD includes two bonus tracks, cut songs performed by Coward and director-choreographer Joe Layton. These were presumably recorded as a gag, perhaps as an opening night present for the cast; they include catty comments and inside jokes about the company. (Coward blames Joe for ordering "several miles of expensive rope for a dance for Grover that was doomed from the outset, and cut immediately." Joe and Grover and rope? I suppose you had to be there, and I'm glad I wasn't.) The new Sail Away CD is packaged with a second reissue, "Noel Coward sings Sail Away." This consists of 12 songs recorded by the master — apparently just before or after the Broadway opening — with arrangements by Matz (who conducts his own orchestra). As might be expected, Coward's tracks aren't quite as effective as those of Ms. Stritch and company. Even so, DRG generously gives us the two Sail Away LPs for the price of one CD, so no complaints here.

Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section archive on the front page of Playbill.com. Suskin can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.