ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish and Rare Recordings of Rodgers

News   ON THE RECORD: Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish and Rare Recordings of Rodgers Giving a listen to the premiere cast album of Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish plus "Richard Rodgers: Command Performance," featuring the composer at the keyboard.
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LITTLE FISH [Ghostlight 8-4430]
Michael John LaChiusa might not be the most prolific current-day theatre composer, but he is certainly the most produced. Since 1994, I count eight-or-so major New York productions. Plus regional shows that have not made it to town, operas, and more.

Musically, LaChiusa is something of a chameleon; the styles change from show to show. One has only to listen to his two Broadway musicals, Marie Christine and The Wild Party — which opened in a four-month stretch of the 1999-2000 season, earning him Tony nominations against himself — to see how he can write in different modes and different moods, more or less at the same time. Those two full-scale, top-of-the-line productions also illustrate LaChiusa's major problem thus far, commercially speaking; as impressive as his scores generally are, the shows don't draw people in.

I'm not talking about drawing in crowds, mind you, although LaChiusa's choice of subject matter tends towards the specialized and quirky. I refer to drawing in the audience, the people already sitting in the theatre watching the shows. Old-timers used to talk about the necessity of grabbing people by the seat of their pants, in the first 15 minutes, and keeping them rooted with you for two-and-a-half hours. LaChiusa's work, by and large, grabs you in spots, then loses you, then grabs you again and on.

The talented composer-lyricist-librettist was indeed able to reach his audience in his early musical, Hello Again. (If you are not familiar with this one, you should immediately get a copy of the cast recording [BMG 62680] and listen to it twice through before doing anything else.) He did it again this past May, with his one-act musical Tres Niñas, which if there is any justice will be remounted someplace soon (with Victoria Clark recreating her role). I have always been impressed with LaChiusa's work, but I have had a difficult time enjoying most of his shows. Intriguing music, intricate ideas, and all sorts of enchantments spring from his keyboard. He has an ability, shared with the keenest composer-lyricists, to go off on what you might call musical tangents; you never know where these will end up, and you get the impression that LaChiusa doesn't either. But as a lyricist, he can go wherever the music takes him, and as a composer he can find a way to set whatever the lyricist comes up with. Thus, his scores are usually adventurous, which earns extra points from me. But something, thus far, has prevented his musicals (with the above-noted exceptions plus First Lady Suite) from drawing me in. And I expect that I am not alone. This discourse is brought to you courtesy of Little Fish. This was LaChiusa's 2003 musical, with which he resurfaced three years after that exhilarating and disappointing season when he soared and burned like Icarus with Marie Christine and The Wild Party. Little Fish was produced at Second Stage in a respectful and respectable production featuring a handful of interesting "new" musical theatre performers (namely Jennifer Laura Thompson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Hugh Panaro, and Lea DeLaria). Failing to generate enough excitement for transfer, the show closed after 29 performances and went on the shelf. Last year, Alice Ripley determined to do a production of Little Fish and instigated one at the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood. Kirsten Sanderson, who goes back with LaChiusa to First Lady Suite, directed, with the cast including Dina Morishita, Samantha Shelton, Greg Jbara, and Chad Kimball among others. It is this production that has brought forth the premiere Little Fish cast album, from Ghostlight.

Listening to the CD replicates my experience at Second Stage. The show starts out on a promising and intriguing note, with Charlotte, a short story writer giving up smoking with a song called "Days" (or "Puff"). It gets the show off to a good start, which only becomes more interesting as the heroine describes her failed affair in Buffalo ("Robert"). At that point, in come other friends, roommates and assorted characters. This is where, when I saw Little Fish back in 2003, the show began to move away from me. I would perk up, periodically, as Mr. LaChiusa presented us with an eclectic, entertaining, or arresting number; but otherwise, I was at a loss to feel anything much for Charlotte or the show as a whole. I've listened to the CD six times now, and Little Fish continues to stubbornly elude me despite some wildly inventive work. This is my problem, I suppose, and not Mr. LaChiusa's; a talented and original artist must continue to create what he hears, not what the audience wants.

But I would guess that my reaction to Little Fish (and Marie Christine, See What I Want to See, Bernarda Alba and others) is not uncommon. Maybe it's the source material he chooses; maybe it's the lack of collaborators. William Finn is a very different writer, and I have no desire to compare the two. But even when Finn writes all the sung and spoken words, he has usually has James Lapine — not only an effective director but a strong playwright — helping shape the material. Perhaps this type of partnership would be beneficial for LaChiusa. Not to help him write, or to restrain his creativity, but to focus and shape the container for the marvelous music he hears. As it is, I can recommend the CD of Little Fish as intriguing and fascinating. At the same time, I regret to admit that I still don't quite get it.

Richard Rodgers: Command Performance [Harbinger HCD2501]
Even the most ardent fans of Richard Rodgers can be excused for being unaware of the eight piano rolls he made in the late 1920s, when that form of media was just about to become outmoded. Harbinger Records has found them, dusted them off, and made copies on state of the art equipment. Rodgers is no Gershwin, as a piano player at least, and these songs don't leap out at you the way that George's piano rolls do. But they are certainly interesting for us to hear.

Piano rolls had been a big thing through the decade. Gershwin started recording them when he was still an unknown, looking to supplement his income (and working under multiple pseudonyms). When he began to write hit songs, he understandably took them over to the factory. Piano rolls were just another way of earning dollars; a fee for playing them, plus royalties on sales. (I recently examined Gershwin's royalty statements from the period. He could earn up to $1,000 from a piano roll that sold fairly well; his most popular items — "Swanee," "Somebody Loves Me," "Someone to Watch Over Me" — earned considerably more than that.) Rodgers made his first roll in 1926, when he moved to the Harms publishing house (already the home of Kern, Gershwin, and Youmans). One supposes that the song pluggers decided that if George could do well with piano rolls, Dick might as well give it a shot. I don't imagine any of the Rodgers rolls sold especially well; if they had, more of them would remain in circulation. And with the increasing popularity of the victrola, piano rolls were soon a thing of the past.

One might well listen to these rolls with a bit of surprise. Rodgers was far from an exceptional piano player; I suppose we can rate him as merely better-than-proficient. There are lots of notes here, and some nice countermelodies as well; but the only piano rolls I am familiar with are Gershwin's, which are so dynamic that they reach out at you. These are — well, merely better-than-proficient. Some passages do leap out at you, especially on the two longer rolls (multi-song medleys from Peggy-Ann [1926] and Spring Is Here [1929]). "Where's That Rainbow," for example, sounds like you've got three hands playing. William Bolcom, one of several people who provide knowledgeable liner notes, sheds some light on the mystery. Apparently, the piano roll companies had staff editors who regularly went in and embellished the rolls after the fact. (Because these were recorded by making perforations on paper, you could go back to a section of the paper and add fills and flourishes — which was impossible to do on recordings at the time.) So it could well be that some of the surprisingly lively passages aren't Rodgers at all. But most of the playing is his. If it isn't brilliant, it is certainly authentic Rodgers-playing-his-songs and something that few of us have heard before. (A 1958 LP of Rodgers playing and Mary Martin singing was reissued on CD some years back, but it is rather tame.) Along with the two medleys, Rodgers gives us items like "The Blue Room," "The Girl Friend," "Mountain Greenery," and "My Heart Stood Still."

The piano rolls make up about a third of the CD. Next up is a demo of Rodgers playing and singing seven songs from the 1935 motion picture "Mississippi." This one is especially interesting in that we get Rodgers' singing voice, which I don't think was recorded elsewhere. A thin but not unpleasant voice, with a certain amount of charm. Only one of the songs is especially good, "Soon." Also of interest is "Pablo, You Are My Heart"; the way Rodgers plays it here, it sounds like the clear progenitor of "Johnny One Note" (which came along two years later). The best song from "Mississippi," "It's Easy to Remember," was not included on the demo; it is present, however, with Rodgers playing and a singer named Jerry Cooper on the vocal.

The balance of the recording consists of radio air-checks and test recordings. There is a recording of two waltzes which is not very interesting until Rodgers starts playing "Lover." He includes a hesitation in his bass accompaniment, slightly distorting the waltz and giving it a wonderful lift which people who play the song today might want to incorporate. These air-checks, which come from the invaluable collection of Michael Feinstein, include one undiscovered gem, "A Little of You on Toast" (more formally known as "I'll Take a Little of You on Toast"). This was apparently written for a radio show called "Let's Have Fun" in 1935. The air check was taken from Edgar Bergen's "Chase & Sanborn Hour" in 1937. There is a spoken introduction in which Rodgers spars with Charlie McCarthy (Bergen's wooden friend), followed by Don Ameche, McCarthy/Bergen, Dorothy Lamour, and chorus singing the song. This includes new lyrics written by Hart for the occasion; the dummy even gets to joke lyrics about "Bill Fields' nose." (Bill Fields — W.C., to you — was a regular on the program.)

For those of us who are interested in all things Rodgers, "Richard Rodgers: Command Performance" gives us a fascinating and for the most part "new" hour with the songwriter at the piano (and even singing). And for more songs from Rodgers' piano, let me recommend "On Richard Rodgers' Piano," which is a few years old but just came into my hands. This is not Rodgers himself playing, mind you, which is why the playing is so much more expert. John Bucchino (of "Grateful" and A Catered Affair) camped out in his friend Adam Guettel's loft for a few weeks, playing and improvising on the latter's grandfather's somewhat neglected Steinway. Thirteen songs, more or less evenly split between the Harts and Hammersteins. Bucchino does especially well with "My Favorite Things," "Isn't It Romantic," Where or When" and "You Took Advantage of Me." My favorite on the CD (apparently available only from www.johnbucchino.com) is the unjustly overlooked "My Romance" from Jumbo. As performed by Mr. Bucchino, it might become one of your favorites as well. But that's the magic of Rodgers (and Rodgers and Hart); every once in a while, you stumble on yet another great song that you might not ever have heard. (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)