ON THE RECORD: The New Chorus Line and Peggy Lee Sings Arlen

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The New Chorus Line and Peggy Lee Sings Arlen This week's column discusses the revival cast albums of the new production of A Chorus Line and Peggy Lee's collection of Arlen rarities, "Love Held Lightly."
Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie.
Charlotte d'Amboise as Cassie. Photo by Paul Kolnik

A Chorus Line [Masterworks Broadway 82876-89785]
Discussion of the new cast album of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line need be separated from discussion of the 2006 revival of A Chorus Line itself. The production has elicited a wide range of reactions and reviews. Some folk seem to think we want to hear about what happened when they were teenagers. (When I was a teenager, I sold orange drink in the balcony of the Shubert Theatre during Promises! Promises! This afforded me the opportunity to watch "Turkey Lurkey Time" – one of Michael Bennett's most remarkable pieces of choreography – hundreds of times, which was an education in itself.)

But let's get back to the 2006 revival, which offers arguably the finest score, the finest staging and the finest choreography to be found on Broadway today. (Go down the list, why don't you? Phantom, Wicked, Beauty and the Beast. . . . ) A Chorus Line today might not have the impact that it had in 1975, when audiences literally burst out of the theatre urging everyone they met to see it; but it is still a damned fine show. True, you don't have Kelly Bishop, Pam Blair, Priscilla Lopez, Donna McKechnie and the rest up there. But let me tell you a secret: The original cast of A Chorus Line remained intact less than one year, of fifteen, which means that relatively few theatregoers actually saw the fabled sixteen on the line. Add in all the touring companies, and the percentage of people who saw the original production of A Chorus Line with the original cast is infinitesimal.

Casting A Chorus Line today, they of course cannot get the originals; few of those that are still around, in their fifties and sixties, could be expected to dance the dance. A Chorus Line on disc, though, is something else again. We can listen to the new 2006 CD, yes; but we can just as easily go to the store and buy Bishop, Blair, Lopez and McKechnie singing the show in 1975 prime. (Or, in most cases, simply pull it down from the shelf.) As has been noted repeatedly, the original bunch created the show, performing parts based on their own true life experiences (or the experiences of people whom they presumably knew and worked with). This, along with the fact that they walked into the recording studio knowing that they were in the biggest Broadway hit since Fiddler on the Roof, resulted in the crackling excitement that characterizes the 1975 album. While one or two members of the revival cast might equal or better their predecessors, the 2006 cast album cannot be expected to compare with what is, after all, one of the most fabled discs on the Broadway cast album shelf.

Thus, the new CD makes a respectable souvenir of the current production; and in a few places – notably "At the Ballet" and the multi-part "Montage" ("Hello, Twelve," "Nothing," "Mother," "Gimme the Ball") – you lose sight of the need for comparison. "The Montage" is in several ways the heart of A Chorus Line, with Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban artfully interweaving a dozen stories or so. Happily, it is recorded here at greater length than previously, and "Nothing" has been presented in its correct place as the centerpiece of the piece. Even so, the 1975 cast album remains as fresh and alive as the day it was recorded. The recording techniques of 2006 are understandably an improvement, but I don't expect repeated plays for the revival.

It should also be mentioned that somebody involved in the process has decided to withhold one track from the album. "And" – which went unrecorded in 1975 — is the song. (This is the scene wherein we get snippets of the audition interviews, while five or six singers in the background wonder what they should say.) As I understand it, you can purchase "And" — which would easily fit on the CD — only via download. What's more, this track is apparently incompatible with the popular iPod format. I suppose that there are at least some potential purchasers who will use this as an excuse to bypass the revival cast album altogether. Musically speaking, the show has undergone slight but consistent changes, with the harp removed in favor of a third keyboard part. The guitar, which drives the rhythms of the score, has been removed from the theatre band, although it is present on the recording. (This album was recorded during the pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, and thus does not use the orchestra heard nightly at the Schoenfeld.) Jonathan Tunick, one of the show's original orchestrators, has made the necessary changes. He has also done some noticeable sprucing and enhancing, notably on "Nothing" and "What I Did for Love."

Due to a combination of circumstance, the original Chorus Line includes the work of no less than seven orchestrators. The most unlikely, perhaps, was the veteran Phil Lang, who scored "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three." Even more unlikely was the octogenarian assistant copyist, bemused (though not shocked) that professional actors were on the legitimate stage singing about tits, ass and gonorrhea. (After all, this fellow had started his career as a boy singer at the Vienna Imperial Opera in 1906, under the baton of Gustav Mahler.) Little did anyone know that the little old man sitting in the corner turning out page after page was Hans Spialek, orchestrator of Pal Joey and other classic musicals.

Peggy Lee: Love Held Lightly [Harbinger HCD-2401]
Rummaging through the lost song folders of the great composers can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Any composer, naturally, will write some songs that are not as strong as others; ideally, these are the songs that go unsung. Quite often, of course, the song that is cut from one show is reused — usually with a new lyric or revised musical material — in another. There are any number of songs that went on to fame and fortune though born in ignominy, like "Bill," "The Man I Love," "Suddenly Lucky" (aka "Getting to Know You") and "Smile and Show Your Dimple" (recycled into "Easter Parade"). Which is to say, some composers let worthy tunes languish while others keep plugging said tunes until they find the right setting.

This discourse is brought upon us by the new release of "Love Held Lightly," Peggy Lee's 1993 Harold Arlen survey. For this occasion, 14 songs – most, though not all, unknown — were pulled from the archives of Arlen, who died in 1986. (The familiar songs are two with Johnny Mercer, "Love Held Lightly" — from Arlen's final produced musical Saratoga — and the 1943 anthem-like "My Shining Hour"; and "Buds Won't Bud," that swinging 1937 ditty with a fine Yip Harburg lyric.)

Most of the others are later songs, including two unused titles written with Truman Capote for House of Flowers, and two others written with Martin Charnin in the mid-sixties for the unproduced musical Softly. Also represented are lyricists Dorothy Fields, Ted Koehler, Carolyn Leigh and Peggy Lee herself. (This last, "Happy with the Blues," is pretty interesting.)

There is only one great song in the lot, "I Had a Love Once," written following the death of Arlen's wife Anya and included in the score of an unproduced TV musical (circa 1973). This song was never before heard, or almost; back in 1991 I compiled an album of lost songs, with Ted Sperling as music director. We recorded a demo for RCA (with Jay David Saks as producer, no less), but the project never came to fruition. It did leave us, however, with a track of Victoria Clark singing "I Had a Love Once." Superior to the version on "Love Held Lightly," in which Lee for reasons unknown sees fit to whisper the title phrase during instrumental fills.

This, though, is the only miscue. Lee (1920-2002) was ailing at the time she recorded "Love Held Lightly" in 1988. (Notoriously difficult, she held up release of this album — her last — for five years.) Lee's voice here is weary and frayed, which in a rather eerie way actually suits the material. What we get, again and again, is an unpolished, naked emotion that perfectly suits late-period Arlen. She is backed by Keith Ingham and His Octet, who do a fine job.

"Love Held Lightly" offers no miraculous song pulled from oblivion (other than "I Had a Love Once," which doesn't have full impact). Even so, the songs — compiled with the participation of the late Ed Jablonski, Arlen's trusted friend and advisor — are just about all interesting. The Arlen-Lee combination is arresting, that's for sure, and warrants a high recommendation to fans of the great Harold. — Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble," "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

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