ON THE RECORD: Raúl Esparza in Company, Plus a Showcase for Nancy Walker

News   ON THE RECORD: Raúl Esparza in Company, Plus a Showcase for Nancy Walker This week's column discusses the new cast recording of the John Doyle production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Company and Nancy Walker's My Square Laddie, a long-forgotten parody album of My Fair Lady.
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COMPANY [Nonesuch/PS Classics 106876]
One is likely to react to the original cast recording of John Doyle's 2006 revival of Stephen Sondheim's Company in the same manner as the recording of Doyle's 2005 revival of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. In the earlier instance, you had a CD souvenir of a fascinating and remarkable stage production, one that was worlds away from the original but in some ways (arguably) more effective. Doyle, of necessity, made use of a drastically reduced orchestration that couldn't begin to compare with the original charts by Jonathan Tunick. The 2005 CD, similarly, couldn't compare to the 1979 original; too many favorite moments simply weren't possible under the circumstances. Still, the CD captured the performances – and the energy – of the revival, along with the enhanced features (such as the more effective characterization of Johanna).

Now we have Company, which more or less ushered in a new era of the Broadway musical when it opened in the spring of 1970. The musicals of Stephen Sondheim are not dependent upon the efforts of his orchestrators, certainly; the songs of Sondheim, be they performed with a sole piano or with a dozen or so actors playing whatever instruments they can handle, are still the songs of Sondheim. That said, the composer handed his freshly-written, and fully-realized, arrangements of these shows to Tunick to translate them for orchestra. It is safe to say that the way Company and Sweeney sounded in 1970 and 1979, respectively, is as close as possible to the way the composer intended them to sound.

In discussing the cast album of the new Company, one must therefore partially divorce it from the stage production. (Let me say that every production of Company I've seen since the original – and I've seen quite a few – has seemed a case of an enduringly fascinating score tied to a sadly dated libretto. Not so Doyle's production, currently at the Ethel Barrymore; for the first time, I haven't found myself apologetically accepting what always seemed to be creaks and cracks.) I expect that those who did not grow up on the original cast album will be more than thrilled with this new CD. Listeners who know every beat of the 1970 album without pressing the play button, though, might well miss what the Messrs. Sondheim and Tunick originally wrought.

The new CD does, however, have a major asset missing from the fabled original: A central performance that far surpasses any of the others I have seen. Here, Bobby – aka Bobby baby, Bobby bubi, Robbie, Robert darling – is played by Raúl Esparza. Esparza is a singer who acts, or an actor who sings, or perhaps is best described as an actor who acts and a singer who sings. Whatever the case, he is leagues ahead of Dean Jones, Larry Kert and others who have attempted to get inside Bobby baby's skin. For the first time in my experience, there is a character – a complex and believable character – at the center of Company, and it makes a world of difference. You can see it when Bobby gets away, if even momentarily, from "those good and crazy people" his married friends. In Esparza's hands, there is another Bobby – a mischievous and playful one – hidden inside good, old, "available Bob." At Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival in 2002, Esparza played Georges Seurat and Charley Kringas (of Franklin Shepard, Inc.) back-to-back. I wonder if Esparza's Bobby is informed by those opposing, Sondheim peaks? Be that as it may, this Bobby is well rounded, likable and believable. And when Esparza sings Bobby's main songs – "Someone Is Waiting," "Marry Me a Little," and "Being Alive" – on the new CD, we get a strength and conviction that is missing from prior cast albums of Company, including the original.

Barbara Walsh leads the supporting friends as Joanne (also known as "the Stritch role"), and acquits herself well. (Walsh's Joanne, I wager, is aware that Mahler is not a pastry.) Most of the 12 other featured players are equally admirable; space constraints prevent us from listing each and every name. Let it be added, lest you haven't heard, that they not only sing but provide the music. Lynne Shankel conducts Mary-Mitchell Campbell's orchestrations.

Yes, I miss the doors ringing and the bells chiming on this new CD. (And I confess to finding the amplified string sound more than a little jarring; this is Company, not Promises, Promises!) But after a few repeat listenings, I find myself very happy with this new cast recording.

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MY SQUARE LADDIE/I CAN COOK TOO [SEPIA 1090]
Two Brooklyn cabbies find a silly stuck-up Limey. "What Makes a Limey Talk so Square," one asks the other, wagering that she can turn him into a good-time Charley. Yer on, sez the other. She teaches him to talk like a real Canarsie-ite. "Kill de umpire," she yells. "Kill the empire?" he repeats. This leads into the grand "It's De Oily Boid Dat Always Gets De Woim," they sing. (And by George, he's got it). They also veer into the contemporary vernacular ("The Block Where You Rock"). She dresses him up (or, rather, down), and takes him to the races. Not Ascot, Jamaica. Where he wows 'em all by picking long-shot winners. When the cabby celebrates her achievement, the unappreciated fellow storms out, leaving the gal to realize that "I'm Kinda Partial to His Puss."

There was a time when the recording industry turned out what they used to call party albums. You'd invite a group of friends over to your split-level, mix them a cocktail, and put on a record album. Vaughan Meader's "The First Family" and Alan Sherman's "My Son, The Folk Singer" were perhaps the most popular of the species. An earlier and rather obscure example was "My Square Laddie," a 1956 parody of the Broadway's newest hit musical.

This was released by an obscure label called Foremost; copies used to turn up from time to time – I've got one buried in storage somewhere — but I certainly never bothered to listen to it. Max Showalter and William Howe, a pair who wrote special material for nightclub acts, were the authors.

(Showalter came to Broadway in 1939 in Kern and Hammerstein's Very Warm for May. He played Horace Vandergelder for years opposite an assortment of Dollys; appeared in the musical The Grass Harp; and composed the score for Harrigan 'n Hart.) The impetus behind "My Square Laddie" appears to have been the presence of comedienne Nancy Walker. She is joined in the three-person cast by Reginald Gardner, well-known as a foil for Beatrice Lillie, and Zasu Pitts. Pitts had a rather remarkable career, going from silents to talkies to summer stock to sitcoms; her fluttery persona seems to have served as inspiration for Popeye's Olive Oyl. Really.

The whole thing is funnier than you might suspect. The secret weapon is in the hands of arrangers Billy May and Eddie Dunstedter. While they are firmly in the big band vein, they have clearly listened to My Fair Lady. "I Could Have Boozed All Night" does not copy the melody of you-know-what – but it does purloin the orchestration, with all those fluttery flutes and clarinets piping away. And "Oh, To Be Bohemian!" features a little soft shoe interlude that sounds precisely like the one done by those buskers with the flower girl. Shakespeare it ain't; Shaw it ain't; even Lerner it ain't. But parts are mighty amusing.

The 27-minute "My Square Laddie" is paired with sixteen additional Nancy Walker tracks, which make this CD a must for Walker fans. These include the four Best Foot Forward songs she recorded a month after that show – her first – opened; that wonderful version of "Long Ago and Far Away" from Walker's 1952 Ira Gershwin album; and eleven selections she recorded in 1955 with David Baker at the piano. These include two songs from On the Town; one from Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'; and some highly obscure numbers from Walker revues Along Fifth Avenue and Phoenix '55. (Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)