Leslie Uggams: Uptown Downtown
One of the advantages of being selected to participate in Lincoln Center's annual American Songbook series — four weeks of concerts beginning in mid-January, the acts chosen from a range of musical fields — is the audience itself. Broadway singers can be sure of a smart and canny crowd, a mix of fans and mere admirers who are interested in what they are up to. An experienced performer with stage sense can use the opportunity to give us something a little different than what they usually do; not just their greatest hits, but a sense of where they are hoping to go next. The Songbook audience turns thumbs up or slightly down, but respectfully and encouragingly so.
Such was the case with Leslie Uggams' Uptown Downtown in February 2010. Uptown was the Apollo, where nine-year-old Uggams made her debut in 1950 as one of those uncanny child performers with an oversized voice. (Appearing on amateur night, she kept winning week after week until they finally signed her up and put her on the bill.) Downtown was Broadway, where she arrived in 1968 at the age of 24 to take a Tony in Hallelujah, Baby! If Uptown Downtown might have sounded like it was going to be one of those nostalgic, self-congratulatory wallows, Uggams made it clear off the bat — with her opening rendition of "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York" — that the only middle-aged performer she emulated was the dynamic Lena Horne of The Lady and Her Music.
The act went off like a firecracker, with unlimited powder available. I remember turning to my companion and saying that I had always liked and respected Uggams — I toured with her for a couple of months, once — and I knew she was good. But I didn't know she was this good. Her two-performance gig was immediately and understandably slotted into an April opening at the Cafe Carlyle, with Uptown Downtown — devised and directed by Michael Bush — further refined. By Thanksgiving, the act was converted into a full-stage musical at the Pasadena Playhouse.
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Listening to the Uptown Downtown CD, I find Uggams' act just as dazzling as it was at Lincoln Center on that snowy February night. Twenty-one tracks there are, many of which are so good that it is foolhardy to pick out a few. But let me mention that opening, which combines Sportin' Life's "Boat to New York" with Lenny & Betty & Adolph's "New York, New York"; "Them There Eyes," an old standard that sounds better than I ever heard it; "My Own Morning," with which Leslie opened Hallelujah, Baby! 44 years ago, and in which the undiminished optimism of 1968 has been burnished into a weathered perseverance; "Sunny Side of the Street," which the child singer used to feature in her act and still sounds pretty good; a wonderful set of impressionistic homages to her mentors on the bill at the Apollo, Louis Armstrong ("Up a Lazy River"), Ella Fitzgerald ("A Tisket, A Tasket") and Dinah Washington "(I Wanna Be Around"); a lovely "Up on the Roof" to solo guitar (Steve Bargonetti); a dashing "Hello, Young Lovers" accompanied by solely by drummer Buddy Williams, which I don't expect is something that Mr. Rodgers ever anticipated but comes off swell. And that only takes us through the first 10 tracks. Uggams is terrific, and her band swings. Recording values on what seems to be a make-it-yourself recording — produced by Grahame Pratt, husband to the star — are fine. (The album is widely available online.) The insert, alas, has three great photos but little information. One assumes that this studio recording reflects the Pasadena engagement and includes the Pasadena musicians, although that's just a guess. Don Rebic, who served as musical director in New York and Pasadena, is presumably doing the same here. He is credited as orchestrator of 10 of the tracks, in each case with his name misspelled. (Sometimes it seems like nobody cares about the poor orchestrator.) Rebic's work is very good, as are Luther Henderson's charts for the Apollo Theatre segment. Luther died in 2003, suggesting that Uggams first performed this 12-minute routine — including the Armstrong-Fitzgerald songs — back in the '80s or '90s.
Uggams appeared hereabouts in March in the City Center Encores! presentation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Pipe Dream. The show very much benefited from her infusion of musicality and energy, in a role which has heretofore seemed problematic. But Leslie's Pipe Dream only hinted at the talent displayed in her one-woman show. I would certainly recommend this CD to anyone who likes this sort of thing. And should Leslie Uggams and Uptown Downtown turn up in your town, don't hesitate.
Nick Jonas: Songs from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying [Broadway Records]
As you might have heard, Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was revived on Broadway last spring starring Daniel Radcliffe. What do you do when Harry Potter jumps on his broomstick, or whatever, and flies back across the sea? The producers brought in Darren Criss (of "Glee") for three weeks, followed by teen heart-throb Nick Jonas (of The Jonas Brothers). With Jonas onstage every night at the Al Hirschfeld and all those Jonas fans on hand, how many folks are likely to go to the lobby concessionaire and ask for a copy of Radcliffe singing the songs?
The enterprising folks at Broadway Records — the new label which just entered the fray with Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde — put two and two together (or rather put Jonas together with tracks from Decca Broadway's Radcliffe album) to bring us "Nick Jonas: Songs from How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying." Five songs, that is: "How to Succeed," "Company Way," "Rosemary," "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man."
(Not included are Finch's other songs, the duet "Grand Old Ivy" and the trio "Been a Long Day.")
Of course, things don't always work out according to plan. It was not anticipated that How to Succeed, starring Nick Jonas, would close (May 20) less than two weeks after this mini-CD hit the market (May 8). But that's Broadway.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
The orchestra tracks come from the original 2011 sessions, albeit in re-edited, remixed and remastered form. (In the interest of accuracy, I have gotten this information directly from the record producers.) Jonas recorded his vocals this past February; Rose Hemingway (Rosemary) and Rob Bartlett (Twimble) — who are on the first album — rerecorded their duets, live with Jonas. Additionally, several ensemble members came in for the new recording of the title song. The big group numbers — "I Believe in You" and "Brotherhood of Man" — use material from the 2011 sessions, joined with new vocals by Jonas.
It is impossible to judge Jonas' performance on the basis of five tracks. Let us say that he sounds pretty good here, especially on "Rosemary" and "I Believe in You." If memory serves, he seems closer in style to Darryl Hickman (who replaced Bobby Morse in 1963) than to Broadway Finches Morse, Matthew Broderick or Radcliffe. But that's merely by way of observation. Nick Jonas fans — especially those who buy a theatre ticket to see their man in How to Succeed" — are reasonably likely to want to pick up this mini-CD of five songs.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)