MARGUERITE [First Night CAST CD102]
So much has been said about Marguerite — the new Legrand-Boublil-Schönberg-Kent-Kretzmer musical that opened in London in May to considerable fanfare, but has nevertheless already been forced to wave the white flag of surrender — that I thought I really ought to give it a listen. Most of what I've heard about the cast album has been highly positive, while what I've heard of the show itself is very much the opposite. So which is it?
That Legrand-Boublil-Schönberg-Kent-Kretzmer label bears some explanation. A Boublil-Schönberg musical is something to take note of, in that their Les Misérables has had an outsized effect on the Broadway musical, both artistically and financially. Their Miss Saigon was also a significant hit, albeit to a lesser extent. As for their Martin Guerre and Pirate Queen — well, let's forget about them. A Boublil-Schönberg musical, yes, except composer Schönberg didn't compose the music. No, it came from Michel Legrand, that French wizard whose motion picture work includes "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "The Thomas Crown Affair" with those "Windmills of Your Mind," and the theme from "Summer of '42." (On this side of the pond, he wrote Amour and Brainchild. Oh, well.)
Marguerite started as a Legrand-Boublil adaptation of "La Dame aux Camélias" — "Camille," to us — with Schönberg himself suggesting the collaboration. That was back in 2002 or so; along the way, it was determined that Marguerite et Armand be transported to the dark days of the Nazi occupation of Paris; that the courtesan Marguerite become the lover of a powerful general (Otto, natch), who plies her with silk stockings and such; and that the whole thing take on a Mata Harian air. It was also determined that this very French musical, written in French, be produced on the British side of the Chunnel. (The authors have some things to say about the opportunistic behavior of the good people of Paris which might not go over well on the boulevards, even today.)
This leap of venue necessitated the presence of the Kretzmer of the equation. Herbert Kretzmer was for many years a theatre and television critic, who simultaneously dabbled in lyrics. His main claim to fame is the English translation of Boublil's work on Les Misérables, which is a pretty significant claim to fame indeed. Me, I confess to a distinct partiality for his long-neglected Our Man Crichton (1964) and The Four Musketeers (1967), both of which have some pretty nifty comedy lyrics. Jonathan Kent is the celebrated director who made his name at the Almeida Theatre, and this past year undertook a three-show season at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket (with Marguerite as the last of the trio). Kent has visited Broadway with notable productions of Medea, Hamlet (with Ralph Fiennes), and The Faith Healer. His one local musical effort, the Brian Stokes Mitchell Man of La Mancha, was not quite so invigorating. From what I gather, the Haymarket production was absolutely phenomenal in staging and design elements. I gather too, and this is without having had the opportunity to see the show, that the whole enterprise — despite the drama of the plot and the high emotion of the score — was highly uninvolving. They sing, they sing some more, and you eventually start looking at your watch to see how late it is, and the song list to see just how many more they are going to sing. There is also apparently a problem of motivation. Marguerite (of "Camille") leaves Armand as a noble act, at great sacrifice; Marguerite (of Marguerite) leaves Armand and happily goes back to the arms of her German lover, the general. Further, this musical adaptation, unlike Mr. Verdi's opera version, does away with the lady's death to tuberculosis; instead, once the Nazis leave town she is branded a collaborator and viciously attacked by the chorus people. They even tear out poor Ruthie Henshall's hair, clump by clump. (Calling Paul Huntley!, or the West End equivalent of Paul Huntley.) And then she dies, in the street, in a slip, but not until singing some more.
The music, as heard on the cast album, sounds wonderful. Legrand is known for his rich and lushly emotional style, which is apparent on the cast album from First Night Records. Time and again, the music soars; in Broadway terms, we're somewhere in between Fanny and The Most Happy Fella, which is a pretty classy neighborhood. Many of Legrand's themes are repeated again and again, which is the way you do things in soundtrack land. (This works well on the cast recording, but might have bogged things down at the Haymarket.) Mr. Legrand has also orchestrated his work, together with the music supervisor of the occasion, Seann Alderking. They have done a wonderful job, making the whole thing sound lusciously French; this with, according to the liner notes, only 12 pieces (under the musical direction of John Rigby). The CD seems to have already found numerous fans, and I expect that these orchestrations have played a big part. Mr. Legrand does, though, demonstrate a love for cymbal rolls at every climax that comes along — I suppose because his budget didn't allow a timpani — but these quickly wear out their welcome, becoming a recurrent form of obvious, manufactured excitement.
Where Marguerite falls off, on the CD anyway, is in the lyrics: bald and artless, with quite a few clichés and clinkers. The problem, it seems, is one of translation from the never-performed French lyrics by Boublil. We don't get much poetry here, and little imagination; too much sounds derived from the French-English dictionary. (The big ballad, "Intoxication," is centered around "this agitation fevering the day." What is it to fever the day, might I ask, and how does agitation do it?) Boublil's lyrics, set to Legrand's often glorious music, cry out for adaptation, not translation. I suppose Marguerite's transoceanic transfer potential has been wiped out with its early demise. Should there be any expectation of regrouping for another try, they really need someone like Maury Yeston to make these songs sing in English, or Maury Yeston himself.
Standing valiantly above the malaise at the Haymarket, apparently, was Ruthie Henshall; this despite a role that appears to have come across as highly unsympathetic. She is extremely strong on the CD, certainly; this is a performance I would have liked to have seen. Julian Ovenden plays Armand, and sings up a storm of his own. This Armand is a jazz pianist; according to the CD Ovenden plays his own, and quite spectacularly. They are supported by Alexander Hanson as the general, who manages to make the fellow more human than he might otherwise have been; and Annalene Beechey and Simon Thomas, who join Henshall and Ovenden in a pretty grand first act finale ("Take Good Care of Yourself"). With Mr. Rigby and his band and those fine orchestrations, it all sounds pretty good. On the CD, at least; I can easily understand how problematic Marguerite must have been in the theatre.
Klea Blackhurst/Billy Stritch: Dreaming of a Song [Ghostlight 8-3311]
Just recently I was sitting at the keyboard — no, not the computer, the old fashioned keyboard made of artificial ivory — playing through my favorite 15-or-so Hoagy Carmichael songs. Along comes "Dreaming of a Song," Klea Blackhurst and Billy Stritch's collection of the music of Hoagy Carmichael. I never tire of playing through those pure and inevitable-sounding melodies with their sometimes deceptively tricky harmonies. Let me say, however, that the talented Mr. Stritch plays them ever so much better than I could hope to. Which makes this album very much welcome.
"Georgia on My Mind," "Lazy River," "Star Dust," "How Little We Know," "Skylark." Carmichael was not the finest songwriter in the history of the world, no, but his best songs are as good as just about anything. Klea Blackhurst brings some complications to the proceedings. She is one of those singers who see fit to pack a little Merman into her act. She does extremely well on many of the tracks, but here and there she turns bright, brassy and blaring. Those who love this sort of thing are likely to love this sort of thing; I, alas, have an adverse reaction. This happens on only a few tracks, fortunately; but it does put a damper on, tempering my enthusiasm accordingly.
For Stritch, who provides vocals, piano accompaniment and arrangements, nothing but kudos down the line. The booklet includes an informative and pert liner note by Barry Day, the Noël Coward expert who instigated this project. And there are two especially flavorful photos of the singers, on the front and back covers. But it's Hoagy's party, with assists from the Messrs. Mercer, Loesser, and assorted others.
(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.)