ON THE RECORD: Songs from an Unmade Bed and An International Annie Get Your Gun

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Songs from an Unmade Bed and An International Annie Get Your Gun This week’s column discusses Michael Winther’s solo show Songs from an Unmade Bed and a combined, international Annie Get Your Gun.
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SONGS FROM AN UNMADE BED [Ghostlight 7915584409]
There is little question that Michael Winther is a talented and versatile actor. His Broadway roles range from Tom Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase to the revivals of Damn Yankees and 1776. He is a frequent participant in various musical events around town. He also spent a couple of years in Forever Plaid, playing the show in Washington, Miami, San Diego, Tokyo and elsewhere. (Winther/Sparky and Greg Jbara/Smudge made an especially droll pair.)

Songs from an Unmade Bed, which was produced in May 2005 at the New York Theatre Workshop, was a one-man affair. It required an actor who could sing 18 songs that ran the gamut of emotions, and who could hold the stage for an entire evening (of little more than an hour). Winther was not only capable of the singing requirements; his winning sense of humor and friendly, sympathetic manner provided key support to the material, keeping the hero likable and intensely human. There is an Everyman aspect to the material – I suppose you could say the show is about a typical New Yorker trying to cope with contemporary life – and Winther, from the very beginning of the piece, was a friend to the audience. (While this might seem basic, Songs from an Unmade Bed would have a very different effect with a leading man who projected a persona that was conceited, obnoxious or phony.)

The songs come from the pencil of lyricist Mark Campbell, who has done an admirable job of maintaining interest with a variety of variations on the show’s single theme. (Some of the rhymes are a bit questionable, but on reflection they seem to be the lyricist playfully commenting on the specific moment.) Campbell certainly knows what he is doing, and one anticipates that he will reappear on the scene. Director David Schweizer also did a fine job; the show seems almost to be a three-way collaboration between Campbell, Schweizer and Winther.

The musical contributions are somewhat more questionable. The band of three is more than fine; led by Kimberly Grigsby, of The Full Monty and Caroline, or Change, they are a prime asset. (There is a highly humorous cello solo, on the song “He Plays the Cello,” from David Kotay.) But Campbell chose to plant his 18 songs with 18 different composers. This might well be a fine idea; if each composer buys 25 tickets for friends, relatives and the like, you are well on your way. And it provides the show with one of several gimmicks, which presumably helped attract the first-rate production at NYTW. But the music is understandably disjointed. No style is apparent, no song seems to stand out (at least to me). Every once in a while — from several of the composers — you hear a section that seems to want to sound like Adam Guettel, but it never sustains itself to song length. I suppose some listeners will eagerly separate the songs by composer and make comparisons. I enjoy Songs from an Unmade Bed, it makes a pleasing CD and spotlights the ingratiating Winther; but I can’t say that the music is up to the rest of the enterprise.

An International ANNIE GET YOUR GUN [Bayview CS003]
There are any number of recordings of Annie Get Your Gun out there, more – I must admit – than I find the time or desire to listen to. Bayview, the Australian label which has brought us some valuable reissues in the past years (with Maggie May, Lock up Your Daughters and the Broadway Musicals series topping the list), has seen fit to combine the familiar original London cast recording — 13 truncated songs, assembled into four medleys — with selections featuring two foreign, "original” Annies. Lily Fayol gives us four songs from Annie du Far West (Paris, 1950), while Evie Hayes and Webb Tilton chime in from the 1947 Melbourne production.

The five Melbourne tracks might well serve as the Rosetta stone of Annie Get Your Gun. Ethel Merman recorded the songs for Decca, in what many see as the definitive Annie Get Your Gun. But Ethel’s is a studio operation, without a theatrical feel to it. These newly recovered Melbourne tracks come from a live tape (of which only Act II has apparently survived). Here we have Annie Get Your Gun in performance, as written. We get the tempos, the energy, and – not the least of it – the laughs, giving us a truer sense of the Broadway original than we’ve had before. This was apparently a close remounting by the Broadway producers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and reveals a fast, brash 1940's musical.

The British tracks, despite their unfortunate abridgement necessitated by the 78 R.P.M format, give us Dolores Gray (in her star-making role) and Bill Johnson (who returned to Broadway in 1955 in the leading role of a new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Pipe Dream). Presenting them in combination with the Paris and Australian excerpts give the U.K. medleys a fuller feeling. In combination, the three Annie Get Your Guns surprise us by revealing a vibrance in performance that those of us born after the fact might have long suspected, but never experienced.

Steven Suskin, author of the newly released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.