ON THE RECORD: Q, "Boston" and Herman

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Q, "Boston" and Herman This week's column examines the new Avenue Q cast recording, the re-release of "Lost in Boston" as well as two tomes: "Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration" and "Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Miss Turner?"
He's Gonna Find His
He's Gonna Find His "Purpose": John Tartaglia (with Princeton) in Avenue Q Photo by Nick Ruechel

AVENUE Q [Victor 82876-55923]
And then there were three. In some ways, Avenue Q follows The Producers and Hairspray. Here we have another bouncing new musical comedy, brim-filled with joyful comedy songs and a barrage of jokes (including quite a few rude ones). Some long-ago lyricist once wrote that you gotta get a gimmick, a show-biz bromide these three musicals seem to have taken to heart. Avenue Q is too specialized to have a future as rosy as the aforementioned titles, but it’s certainly got an inspired gimmick.

This is not a show for everyone, mind you; I can see how a certain slice of the theatregoing public might flee in horror at some of the goings on at the Golden. But then I remember, back when I was 13, observing three nuns in full habit fleeing up the steps of the ANTA Washington Square during Dick Kiley Quixote’s scene with the belly dancer. The Avenue Q CD comes with one of those parental advisory explicit strong language sexual content labels. This warning is warranted; if you are apprehensive that this album might offend you, you are probably right. There’s an anti-George Bush joke, too, although John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston go unscathed.

Be that as it may, I readily admit that I find Avenue Q inventive and uproarious, ribald and endearing. I am highly pleased to discover that it holds up so well on disc. I was a little apprehensive that the show might lose some of its luster without the puppets in view, and concerned that the lyrics might suffer from repetition. But no; the wild surprise of discovery the first time through, be it on stage or CD, is replaced by recurring admiration of the off-the-wall humor. As with Hairspray, the jokes remain fresh and delightful on repeated hearings. Yes, you might want to see the show first, if practical; but out-of-towners should most certainly listen (and enjoy) now, see later.

The opening sequence is especially well crafted. Lyricists Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx are slyly clever, with a wicked sense of humor; but composers Lopez and Marx are also sneaky. They start off with a bouncy, PBS kids show-type theme. (The word "Sesame" is never uttered.) As the opening number progresses, their happy tune is jolted — again and again — by unexpectedly rowdy lyrics. Each refrain, and each character that joins in, brings another refreshing blast, culminating in the entrance of — get this — Gary Coleman. But it works, and how!

Lopez and Marx do precisely the same thing with a "People Will Say We’re in Love"-type duet (more or less), for Bert and Ernie. Oops, that is Nicky and Rod. There’s also another rambunctiously ribald ensemble number about brotherhood (more or less). Comedy song follows comedy song, with a nice ballad ("There’s a Fine, Fine Line") along the way. This is the section of the review that I would typically lace with deft and/or sidesplitting samples from the lyrics. The humor of Avenue Q is so wildly funny, though, that I’d rather let you discover it on your own. Take it from me, though; wildly funny. Avenue Q is, in some ways, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown for adults. (Not the unwisely enhanced 1999 revival, but Joe Hardy and Pat Birch’s sparkling original 1967 version.) The score is also somewhat similar to Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying; the music seems to serve the song slots, rather than the traditional Broadway method in which the composer sets the tone. I suppose we should just say that Avenue Q is new and unique and successful in itself, and leave it at that.

But let us not forget that those marvelous puppets are not doing the singing. John Tartaglia (as Princeton and Rod) and Stephanie D’Abruzzo (as Kate Monster and Lucy) are quite remarkable as actors, to say nothing of their abilities as puppeteers. Inevitably they will be replaced at the Golden one of these days, but they are extra special and worth a quick trip to Forty-fifth Street. Rick Lyon, too, does a wonderful job as Nicky. He also conceived and designed the puppets, which entitles him to share honors with Lopez and Marx. The other three principals (Natalie Venetia Belcon, Jordan Gelber and Ann Harada) share in the fun. They work at a disadvantage, though, being mere Muppetless mortals; but they are in on, and part of, the joke.

The score is bolstered by the six-piece band led by Gary Adler. The orchestrations and arrangements by Stephen Oremus perfectly capture (and enhance) the humor and exuberance of the proceedings. Avenue Q also gets a boost from the fabled record producing team at the label that was once BMG, Jay David Saks and Bill Rosenfield. Rowdy fun.

LOST IN BOSTON [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 191]
A&R people have been dipping into Broadway’s lost song files since the early days of the long-playing record. Ed Jablonski started it, as far as I can tell, in 1953 with his series of valuable recordings from Walden Records (now available from Harbinger Records). These albums benefitted from the input of some of the songwriters themselves, including Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen. A few years later, Ben Bagley started delving into the archives with his Revisited series (now on Painted Smiles). Bagley kept it up for a quarter century, although his sometimes outlandish arrangements and unacknowledged lyric changes didn’t necessarily preserve the intentions of the songwriters.

The CD age has brought new life to many undiscovered songs, most notably with Bruce Kimmel’s two Lost in Boston albums in 1994. (There were two more discs in the series, but the first pair were the best — in part because they split the best material.) Lost in Boston I has now been reissued by Fynsworth Alley, under the title Lost in Boston, and it is highly recommended. (Disclaimer: I wrote the liner notes for this album, which are reprinted on the new release, but I have no vested interest. In fact, I never got paid for them in the first place.)

The songs include some stunning items. My favorites include Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s moody "Sweetriver" from 110 in the Shade, poignantly sung by Sally Mayes; "Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine," an endearing lullaby waltz for Tzeitel and Motel in the second act of Fiddler on the Roof, charmingly sung by Emily Loesser; "Like Everybody Else," a boppy fugue for delinquents — A-Rab, Baby John and Anybodys — from West Side Story, sung by Judy Malloy, Richard Roland, and Sal Viviano; "Ten Percent," the agent’s song from Chicago that was cut in Philly along with David Rounds’s role, snarled by Harry Groener; and "Come Down from the Tree," a Once on this Island cut delectably sung by Lillias White (with composer Stephen Flaherty at the piano).

What makes this album so good? Start with the sixteen songs, which were for the most part wisely selected (in some cases at the suggestion of the songwriters). The performers were carefully, and suitably, chosen; most of them are singers who know how to act, the above-mentioned along with folks like Liz Callaway, Judy Kaye, Carolee Carmello, Liz Larsen, Michael Rupert, Gregg Edelman and Ron Raines. Orchestrator Larry Moore did an uncanny job of matching the original sound of the shows from which the songs were cut; thus, the songs and characters remain in the context of what the songwriters wrote. James Stenborg, too, did a strong job as musical director and conductor. (His name is misspelled on this new release, along with other typos in the booklet.)

Lost in Boston was, and remains, a treat. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, and enjoy the aforementioned scores, might do well to pick up a copy.

ON THE SHELF
Jerry joins Cole, Ira, Larry, Oscar and Irving on the coffee table with "Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration" [Routledge]. As I’m sure Herman would be the first to admit, his output differs from that of the aforementioned gentlemen. Herman and co-author Ken Bloom have given us a book of collected lyrics very different from Robert Kimball’s series (which continues, in November, with a much-awaited volume on Frank Loesser). This is a wise and canny choice; Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration is breezy to read and overloaded with eye-catching illustrations.

This is not a so-called "complete lyrics" book. Herman gives us many, but by no means all, of his songs. He gives us the "official" lyrics, ignoring all those alternate lyrics and working versions and additional verses that we are accustomed to from the Kimball collections. The songs are arranged by show, preceded by an early off-Broadway section. Each chapter starts with a brief, informative essay by theatre historian Bloom (whose work includes the invaluable, four-volume American Song). Many of the songs are accompanied by a relevant sentence or two from Herman, which in some way illuminate the specific song or the songwriter himself.

The illustrations and design help make this book more than a simple collection of song words. The photos are especially remarkable. (Frank Vlastnik, better known in my house as "The Snail with the Mail" in Frog and Toad, did the photo research.) Mixed in with familiar shots are things that I don’t expect anyone has ever seen before. Carol Channing doing "So Long, Dearie" with top hat, cane and a delicious yellow dress from Freddy Wittop, for example; no time for a costume change, so out it went in Detroit. There are a couple of shots of Angela Lansbury in her Mame wigs, which were similarly cut before the show reached the stage. Herman also gives us photos of many of his Dollys and Mames.

Most special, perhaps, are the color shots of Lansbury in Dear World. These are amazing costumes, also by Wittop. There are 16 shots of Angela doing the Madwoman; one of the shots gives an explicitly close view of her remarkable makeup for the show.

"Jerry Herman: The Lyrics, A Celebration" is accompanied by a half-hour CD, offering 11 songs (on eight tracks). Michael Feinstein sings, Jerry Herman plays. Feinstein gives a customarily delightful performance, making some of the songs sound better than we’ve ever heard them. Jerry, meanwhile, provides an accomplished and energetic accompaniment; I may be wrong, but he seems to be playing with more outright enjoyment here than he has in years.

Some readers are bound to ask how Jerry handles the question of unattributed lyrics, by himself or by others. With class, is how; he even includes a generous acknowledgment to the late Bob Merrill. I’ll also note that Jerry humbly addresses one of his songs, which has been frequently chastised for over-the-top rhyming, with the following: "This is one of the only songs I’ve ever written that I wish I hadn’t – J.H." A handsome and classy volume. AND ALSO ON THE SHELF
One of the benefits of the Internet is that it allows us to access theatre critics across the land with a mere double-click. Among the out-of-town theatre writers I frequently read in this manner is Richard Ouzounian of the Toronto Star, who usually has something pertinent to say and an entertaining way of saying it. Ouzounian has compiled a collection of 50 odd celebrity profiles from the Star into a highly entertaining book called "Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Miss Turner?" [McArthur].

The interviews are by no means all theatre-related; a few of the subjects are far enough afield that I’ve never even heard of them. But Ouzounian’s heart is clearly in the Broadway theatre. He begins his book by confessing that he marched off to the St. James when he was 12 and talked himself into Nanette Fabray’s dressing room; in his intro, he reprints the interview with the star of Mr. President that ran in his school paper. Ouzounian experienced a eureka moment 30 years later, when the Star gave him carte-blanche to interview whomever he wanted. Suddenly, an excuse to sit down with Gwen Verdon, Stephen Sondheim, Maggie Smith, Julie Andrews, Uta Hagen, Edward Albee, Twyla Tharp, Susan Stroman, Cameron Mackintosh and more.

On a personal note, I was especially interested in Ouzounian’s discussion with Mandy Patinkin about his September 10, 2001, concert at the Neil Simon. Patinkin’s finale that evening was one of the most chilling things I have ever seen in the theatre. While singing "Hatikvah," Patinkin erected twin pedestals on a music stand, using child-sized Israeli and Palestinian flags. In a sudden fit of fury, he exploded the towers, moving into a nightmarish "Children Will Listen." This haunted me half the night, and 11 hours later the World Trade Center was no more. It turns out that Mandy, too, was spooked by what happened. I discussed this sequence in detail in "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002," but I’ve never read or heard any reference to it. The only other critic I saw in the theatre that night, from one of the major New York dailies, never ran a review. He seemed to be dozing off by then, anyway, as is his habit.

The interviews are friendly but knowledgeable, a nice combination. Ouzounian typically throws in relevant-but-unexpected questions that jolt the subjects into talking personally; too many interviewers ask the same old question, resulting in the same old answers. The result is that these interviews — many of which have been expanded from their newspaper length — sound less like publicity releases and more like real-life conversations. Which makes "Are You Trying to Seduce Me, Miss Turner?" — from an interview with Kathleen Turner, during the tryout of The Graduate — enjoyable and enlightening.

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

But He's Not Gay: Rick Lyon and Jennifer Barnhart with Nicky in <i>Avenue Q</i>
But He's Not Gay: Rick Lyon and Jennifer Barnhart with Nicky in Avenue Q Photo by Nick Ruechel
Today’s Most Popular News: