ON THE RECORD: The New White Christmas and Chicago's Tenth Anniversary Box Set

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The New White Christmas and Chicago's Tenth Anniversary Box Set This week's column discusses the cast album of Irving Berlin's White Christmas and the tenth anniversary special edition recording of the long-running revival of Chicago.
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IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS [Ghostlight 7915581225]
Theatrical producers have long glanced sideways at The Nutcracker and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, attractions that draw a built-in audience year-after-year. This sort of thing was attempted in New York with the Alan Menken-Lynn Ahrens A Christmas Carol, which ran seven Thanksgiving-Christmas seasons in the non-Broadway confines of Madison Square Garden. Somewhat successfully, although the attraction was deemed less than top grade and never blossomed into a multi-production annual.

Back in 2000, Paul Blake and his St. Louis Muny mounted a stage adaptation of Irving Berlin's 1954 motion picture "White Christmas." This is the one where a couple of ex-G.I. song-and-dance men find a couple of song-and-dance sisters and join up to do a Christmas show at a holiday inn in (unfortunately) sunny Vermont. Said inn is run by their former general, undergoing hard times. In the end, everybody kisses and sings — well, "White Christmas."

Producer Kevin McCollum (of Rent, Avenue Q, The Drowsy Chaperone and High Fidelity) devised a scheme to develop this stage version of White Christmas into an annual, multi-production, Broadway-caliber holiday attraction. With the addition of director Walter Bobbie, choreographer Randy Skinner and librettist David Ives, the new White Christmas opened at the Curran in San Francisco in November 2004. A successful launch resulted in three seasonal 2005 productions, a San Francisco repeat as well as Los Angeles and Boston companies. Two McCollum-produced productions are opening next month, in Detroit and St. Paul, with others (not produced by McCollum and company) scheduled for the West Coast (Seattle), the East Coast (Florida) and that other coast (Plymouth, England).

The stage White Christmas, which I've not seen, is by all reports a rather grand affair. This is borne out by the new CD, just released by Ghostlight. This is a traditional Broadway musical with the good, old-fashioned Broadway sound; if you enjoy cast albums of the Pajama Game, The Music Man, Mame variety, you are pretty certain to embrace White Christmas.

The songs, of course, are by Mr. All-American-White-Christmas himself, Irving Berlin. The half-dozen used in the film have been supplemented with Berlin tunes from various sources, but unobtrusively so; thankfully, no genius has come along and interpolated "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "God Bless America" or "There's No Business Like Show Business." ("White Christmas" itself was an all-time song hit long before it was chosen to build the motion picture around.) Tuneful song after tuneful song keeps coming along, like a wave on the shore. How deep is the ocean of Berlin melody? The heroes of the stage White Christmas are the fellows in the music department. Berlin was well aware of the need to have his songs adorned by professional music men, and happy to hire the best; but he kept a stern guard against "creative" contributions. Berlin was the name on the staff paper, and Berlin is what he wanted the audience to hear. The White Christmas team has honored that legacy, giving us a Berlin show that sounds like Berlin himself was in the rehearsal hall.

Orchestrator Larry Blank dresses up the songs and makes them sparkle, threading bubbly fills and delicious counter-melodies throughout; but everything serves to support and enhance the melody. We know we're in good hands early in the overture, when Blank's drummer interrupts the holiday strings and virtually hijacks the band. What we get sounds like a combination of Don Walker's Call Me Madam (1950) and Conrad Salinger's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) — which is precisely right for Irving Berlin's White Christmas. (Peter Myers provided additional orchestrations, scoring three of the eighteen tracks.) Bruce Pomahac, the in-house music man for the Rodgers, Hammerstein and Berlin estates, provides an unfailingly bright set of dance and vocal arrangements. This is not a revival with pre-existing arrangements, nor was there a composer in attendance; Pomahac and Blank devised the routines for St. Louis and reconfigured them for San Francisco, and they are pretty nifty. Two production numbers alone — "Blue Skies" and "I Love a Piano," both with fabulous dance arrangements — are enough to make you put White Christmas on repeat play. And "Snow" has an especially nice vocal, in the Hugh Martin vein. Musical director Rob Berman leads an energetic and altogether winning reading of the score.

The San Francisco leads — Brian d'Arcy James and Anastasia Barzee as one couple, Jeffrey Denman and Meredith Patterson as the other — recreate their performances. Mr. James, in the Bing Crosby role, does the lion's share of the singing and is thus the standout on the album. The other three do fine as well. Also on hand is the always-welcome Karen Morrow, showing everybody how to sell a song. ("Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" they give her, and Morrow spreads the happiness around.) Morrow, who is all-too-infrequently on stage nowadays, played the St. Louis and Boston engagements. She provides a lift to the CD, naturally, but no lift is necessary.

Everything sounds warm, friendly and wonderful in an all-American, Irving Berlin-kind of way. What we get is a tuneful, Broadway cast album. In an old-fashioned vein, yes; but with arrangements and orchestrations that bring them right into your living room. The cast album of White Christmas gives you songs you can hum, all right, and numbers you'll want to hear repeatedly.

CHICAGO THE MUSICAL: Tenth Anniversary Edition [Masterworks Broadway 82876-89784]
Chicago, the record-breaking 1996 revival of the musical vaudeville formulated by the Messrs. Fosse, Kander and Ebb back in 1975, has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. The longevity of this production — it recently pushed into the number eight spot on the longest-running musical list — can be attributed to several factors. Number one, it is a smashing show. Number two, it is a perfect show — stylistically and thematically —or the times (which was not the case, exactly, in 1975). Number three, the success of the revival managed to parlay into the making of a phenomenally successful motion picture version, and the phenomenally successful motion picture version served to propel new and fresh audiences to the stage revival. Number four, the producers have supported the show, both initially and continually, with a striking advertising campaign; by now we have been accustomed to those stark black and white portraits, but back in 1996 these shots — in the newspapers and on billboards — were provocative and positively edgy.

The fifth factor in the success of Chicago has been the casting policy. There was a time when the original stars would stay in a hit musical for the run of the play, but that time is long gone; as the length of run of hit shows has increased, a non-ending stream of cast replacements has become inevitable. (This trend goes back all the way to 1943 with Oklahoma!, which went through at least eight Curlys and nine Laureys — none of them stars, at least when they entered the cast — in a run half as long as that of Chicago. So far.)

There have been numerous cast changes in the major roles of Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Beauty and the Beast and Mamma Mia!. But how much do we hear about them? Some of these shows have even brought in celebrity names along the way, running a few splashy ads and getting a line or two of print in the dailies.

Chicago, though, has turned the necessity of star replacements into a prime asset. The stars of Chicago, and the promotional activities surrounding their arrival, has served to fuel audience interest in the show. Fans of said stars arrive at the box office, understandably enough; but more importantly, the parade gives the show constant jolts of publicity. Chicago the revival is in front of our eyes far more than any other long-running Broadway musical, most recently with the arrival, land-office business, illness and withdrawal of the recording artist known as Usher.

Search your databases of newspapers and national magazines and I expect you'll find that Chicago received more press in the last three months than the Broadway productions of Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Beauty and the Beast and Mamma Mia! — combined — have in the last five years.

The catalogue of Chicago stars seems to have been the impetus behind the new "10th Anniversary Edition" box set from Masterworks Broadway. Included are the original cast recording of the revival, starring Ann Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton and Joel Grey; a second CD, including alternate tracks by related performers (including a half-dozen who have played the roles since Reinking and Neuwirth); and a DVD featuring interviews with the creative staff of the revival and international performance footage. Most interesting, I suppose, is the second CD; the first is already owned, presumably, by fans of the show, while the third — while informative — doesn't give us what we would probably most want (which is to say, performance footage from the Broadway production). Half of the second CD is archival, featuring performances from the original 1975 cast album by Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach; a studio performance by Liza Minnelli; and Kander & Ebb performing two cut songs — "Loopin' the Loop" and "Ten Percent" — which I never tire of hearing. The rest is newly recorded for this box set; one week this past July, music director Rob Fisher went into the studio (or, rather, different studios) with the likes of Melanie Griffith, John Hurley, Lynda Carter and Brooke Shields. After all this, I must say, it felt warm and comforting to hear Gwen — who conceived the production and spent almost 20 years trying to get the rights — purring away on the final track.

This second CD is interesting, all right, for fans of the show and fans of the performers in question; the amount of interest will, I suppose, vary. High among the attractions of this "10th Anniversary Edition" box set, for me anyway, is the 68-page booklet. Handsome doesn't begin to describe it. All those strikingly original photos — or at least, many of them — are present, making the package altogether eye-popping. Perfectly representing factor four above, the stark advertising campaign which cemented the revival in the public eye — back before the show even opened — and has helped keep Chicago on the cutting edge for 10 years.

(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. Reach Suskin by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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