Quiet Please [Bridge 9334]
Pianist Steven Blier — artistic director and cofounder of the New York Festival of Song — and singer Darius de Haas — of Broadway and elsewhere — improvised some jazz standards at a party one night a few years ago. A couple of perceptive bystanders thought: this music is magic. Let's bring 'em into the recording studio.
And so they did, simply for the sake of makin' music. The results were so impressive that the performers and producers decided to supplement what they had and turn it all into a CD. After six sessions, we have "Quiet Please." We could simply say that "Quiet Please" is quite pleasing, but that would be trite and a vast understatement. The combination of Blier and De Haas has resulted in an intriguing and remarkably varied collection of 17 songs.
Blier brought to the table a clutch of so-called Great American Songbook songs: one Arlen, one Porter, one R&H, one from the other R&H, and no less than four from the Bros. Gershwin. De Haas arrived with a handful of jazz favorites, including two Ellington classics. Finally, they threw in three songs that we might call contemporary, one by Stevie Wonder and two — "Hero and Leander" and "Migratory V" — by Adam Guettel. Out of place? Hardly so. If I remember correctly, I first noticed Mr. de Haas in 1998 in the show from whence these last two sprang, Saturn Returns. (That unheralded two-week concert at the Public Theater, along with the following year's one-night "Evening with Adam Guettel" at Town Hall, turned out in retrospect to be two of the music theatre highlights of the 1990s. How glad I am that I found my way to both.)
Oh yes, Bernstein is represented as well, with "Some Other Time." Actually there is more Bernstein here than might be apparent; that partygoer who was so struck by the impromptu meeting of Blier and de Haas was the great Leonard's daughter, Jamie. Ms. Bernstein has served as an impressive representative of and spokesperson for her father's legacy; record producing, as far as I'm aware, is a new occupation. "Quiet Please" is a labor of love all around, and Bernstein and producing partner/recording engineer Harold Chambers deserve a full share of credit with the singer and the pianist. These recordings were casually made, without arrangements and with only a brief preliminary playthrough in lieu of rehearsal. The results are improvisatory, naturally enough, but improvisatory without a roadmap. (Other than the Guettel songs, that is, which need to be played and sung as written.) Mr. de Haas does very well with this, but the prize here is the playing of Mr. Blier. His work is endlessly fascinating, filled with unlikely and arresting choices which always — somehow — correspond to what the composer wrote. The Gershwin songs are especially arresting; I suppose that Blier knows the songs so well that he can play them as if in a dream. The closest I can come to describing the pianistics is to say that they sound like Vernon Duke playing Gershwin, if you know what I mean.
Blier, in his liner notes, describes listening to the playback and finding moments "when I seem to cross four lanes of musical traffic in the space of six seconds." That's what it sounds like, with everything always successfully resolved. Uncanny. A special session, or series of sessions, with de Hass and Blier.
Make Me an Offer [Sepia 1155]
As the Angry Young Man swept across the London stage in the late 1950s, he made a few stops in the world of musical comedy. Among the more successful experiments were Expresso Bongo, a 1958 music industry satire by librettists Wolf Mankowitz and Julian More and songwriters Monty Norman and David Heneker; and Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be, a 1959 slice of the Cockney underworld which originated at director Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop. Littlewood followed the Bart with another Mankowitz-Norman-Heneker offering, Make Me an Offer. Both of the Littlewood musicals transferred to the West End, with Make Me an Offer landing at the New Theatre on Dec. 16, 1959, for a 211-performance run. (It was replaced by that other Bart musical, the one about the orphan boy who falls in with a band of pickpockets.) Make Me an Offer now finds its way to CD, thanks to Sepia. I have never found the abrasive Expresso Bongo to my taste, so I was somewhat surprised to find this second Mankowitz-Norman-Heneker offering to be quite listenable, thank you very much.
I have grown over the years to appreciate Heneker more and more. While I had been familiar with his biggest hits — Irma La Douce (for which he collaborated on the English-language lyrics, to music by Marguerite Monnot), Half a Sixpence, and Charlie Girl — I only began to get a sense of his work when I wrote the liner notes for the CD release of the original Broadway cast album of Sixpence. I discuss his career on those pages; turns out he was a cavalry officer in India until he was 42, after which he turned to music. He made his theatrical debut with Expresso Bongo in 1958, when he was 52.
Heneker wrote a dozen or so musicals, providing likable scores with — usually — a handful of irresistibly tuneful songs. Literate, charming, on the old-fashioned side and not especially challenging; this during the years when Slade and Wilson were superseded by Bart and Newley, and finally overtaken by Lloyd Webber. Let it be noted that while Heneker wrote musicals until 1984, he was of the same vintage as Rodgers, Arlen, Loewe and Styne; a full 12 years senior to Bernstein, and almost 25 years older than the group of theatre composers who started to come along in 1958: Bock, Sondheim, Kander, Strouse, Herman, Coleman. Heneker died in 2001 at the age of 94.
While his name is virtually unknown stateside, he was the first British songwriter to have two Broadway runs of over 500 performances. In fact, it seems like he was the first non-American to do this, and there are not many who have since joined the club. (500 performances sounds quaint, of course, compared to the marks of Lloyd Webber, Schonberg and Elton John.) Sixpence, Jorrocks, Phil the Fluter, Peg; I don't know how I'd feel about them as shows in the theatre, but Heneker again and again demonstrated the ability to write songs that just spill over with charm. A partial list: "If the Rain's Got to Fall," "Money to Burn," "Belinda," "You Can Depend on Me," "How Would You Like Me?" "And You Like It," "Three of a Kind," "Peg and Jerry." Investigate at will.
At any rate, Make Me an Offer is a strange combination of non-traditional material mixed with what would become Heneker's trademark tunefulness. (The songs are credited, music and lyrics, to both Norman and Heneker.) This is a tale of antique dealers, of the seamy variety; "there's something that I've never understood," the honest hero sings: "why do the dealers in good goods do bad, while the dealers in bad goods do good?" Said hero, by the way, is Daniel Massey, three years before he crossed the sea to star in She Loves Me. Best of the songs is "I Want a Lock-Up," which against all odds — and despite the fact that the lyric includes a toilet — turns out to be immensely likable. ("I want a lock-up in the Portobello Road," he sings, "two rooms, kitch/bath and W.C.") "Portobello Road" is a rambunctious street song for dealers, like something out of Bart's Blitz (which came later). "Business Is Business" is likewise enjoyable, sung by co-star Dilys Laye as a competitive upper class dealer with sex appeal aplenty. And yes, she sounds quite different than she did as the screechy boop-a-doop girl of "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love" in the 1954 Broadway production of The Boy Friend. (Both "Lock-Up" and "Business" have highly amusing vocal arrangements for a bunch of charactery-sounding males.) Massey and Laye join together for "Whatever You Believe"; again, an unusual song that pleases. And there's a nice ballad, "Love Him," for the young dealer's wife — which was played by Diana Coupland, Norman's wife. Parts of the score don't work for me; there are numbers for the crusty old dealers, which seem be from another century. (These are led by a fellow called Meier Tzelniker, who seems to be a British Menasha Skulnik.) The same can be said for the musicalized "Auction," which was apparently quite successful in the theatre. The 17 tracks from the original His Master's Voice LP are supplemented by an orchestral musical selection — with Heneker at the piano — serving as overture, plus excerpts from a live TV broadcast featuring members of the original cast.
Let us add that Make Me an Offer won the 1959 Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. Mr. Norman, in his engaging, newly-written liner notes, points out that the esteemed critic Harold Hobson, of the Sunday Times, compared Make Me an Offer to My Fair Lady and West Side Story. "Modesty forbids me to even get into comparisons with those two time-honoured classics, but Harold Hobson said what he said, and I'm glad he said it."
(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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