ON THE RECORD: Through the Years with Youmans and Wodehouse

News   ON THE RECORD: Through the Years with Youmans and Wodehouse THROUGH THE YEARS ps classics ps103
Vincent Youmans is one of the most intriguing, forgotten composers of the Broadway musical. Jerome Kern famously brought "American" sounding music to musical theatre during World War One. But Kern, who was born in 1885, was already "old." Two young New Yorkers — born a day apart, in September 1898 — burst onto the scene in the early 1920s with "modern" rhythms and colors that created a new sound on Broadway. George Gershwin appeared first, although Youmans was far more successful as a theatre composer until 1927. The 1923 Youmans-Hammerstein musical Wildflower ran longer than any Gershwin musical, while Youmans's multi-company hits No, No, Nanette (1925) and Hit the Deck (1927) appear to have been bigger moneymakers than any Gershwin shows. (Of course, George wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. . . .)

THROUGH THE YEARS ps classics ps103
Vincent Youmans is one of the most intriguing, forgotten composers of the Broadway musical. Jerome Kern famously brought "American" sounding music to musical theatre during World War One. But Kern, who was born in 1885, was already "old." Two young New Yorkers — born a day apart, in September 1898 — burst onto the scene in the early 1920s with "modern" rhythms and colors that created a new sound on Broadway. George Gershwin appeared first, although Youmans was far more successful as a theatre composer until 1927. The 1923 Youmans-Hammerstein musical Wildflower ran longer than any Gershwin musical, while Youmans's multi-company hits No, No, Nanette (1925) and Hit the Deck (1927) appear to have been bigger moneymakers than any Gershwin shows. (Of course, George wrote Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. . . .)

What made Youmans so successful, initially, was his melodic talent. His early songs were built on incredibly catchy — and remarkably brief — phrases. Like "Tea for Two," in which the same four-note figure is repeated again and again. (Consider the lyric: "Picture you u-/pon my knee just/tea for two and/ two for tea." That's four repetitions, and it goes on like that.) "I Want to Be Happy," also from Nanette, is based on another brief — but tuneful — phrase. Kern and Hammerstein wrote Show Boat in 1927. This had a profound effect on Youmans, both theatrically and musically. He suddenly changed his course from light and breezy musical comedies to serious musical drama. This resulted in three lugubrious failures. Rainbow, in 1928, was a tale of goldminers and fallen women and murder clearly patterned after Show Boat (with book, lyrics, and direction by Hammerstein). Great Day!, in 1929, was "a musical play of the Southland." Like Rainbow, it collapsed after four weeks. Through the Years, in 1932, shuttered after only two-and-a-half weeks. Based on the 1919 melodrama Smiling Through, it was an overproduced affair about a man who keeps the memory of his murdered bride alive in his heart. (World War One audiences were moved by the message that love endures long past death; Depression audiences apparently had bigger things to worry about.) Youmans — who saw fit to produce both Great Day! and Through the Years — was financially wrecked by the experience. His health was shot, too; in 1933 he was forced into retirement by tuberculosis, and spent much of his time in sanitariums until his death in 1946. Youmans' active career lasted only a dozen years; he left about one hundred published songs, twenty of which range from very good to brilliant.

If these three serious musicals destroyed Youmans's career, they also inspired him to significantly alter his musical style — resulting in some of the greatest theatre songs of the era, including "More Than You Know," "Without a Song," "Time on My Hands," and "Through the Years." Songs that — in the long lines and rich harmonies — are the exact opposite of his early two-step hits. Through the Years is remembered only for its title song and a second standard, "Drums in My Heart." ps classics [sic] has seen fit to unearth and reconstruct this long-lost musical, with highly impressive results.

Tommy Krasker has long been one of Broadway's top musicologists, and he has become one of the top record producers in the field. (This is the third consecutive ON THE RECORD column with a Krasker recording.) Conductor Aaron Gandy is our number one Youmans expert; he has mounted concert versions of both Rainbow and Great Day! in the last few years. As a Youmans fan, I was somewhat apprehensive when I heard that they were recording Through the Years — would the unknown material make Youmans sound bad? It turns out that Krasker and Gandy knew what they were doing in selecting this project. The score is somewhat odd, jumping back and forth between Youmans' later style (as in the title song and "You're Everywhere") and earlier, peppier melodies (like "Kinda Like You," one of those catchy syncopated tunes that gets lodged in your memory). This CD of Through the Years is unquestionably an important addition for people interested in the evolution of dramatic musical theatre.

As is typical with the albums Krasker has done for Nonesuch and ps classics, the singing and orchestral playing is top-notch. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy does a wonderful job in the leading role, with an especially moving rendition of that remarkable title song. An habitué of the major opera houses of the world, she is quite a catch for a lowly cast album of a seventy-year-old Broadway flop. (Murphy sang Johanna in the New York Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd. Krasker, who produced that cast album, invited Murphy to this project.) Philip Chaffin plays the romantic lead, and does especially well on "Drums in My Heart." Brent Barrett brings his customarily strong presence to his songs. The juvenile and ingenue songs are charmingly performed by Hunter Foster and Jennifer Cody, the husband-and-wife team that is now among the delights of Urinetown. Gandy has restored the score, reducing the original orchestrations (by Howard Jackson, Domenico Savino, and Deems Taylor) for a twelve-piece chamber orchestra. The music sounds lovely, probably far more so than it did in the cavernous Manhattan Theatre back in 1932. (That was Hammerstein's Theatre after Arthur Hammerstein went bankrupt, now the home of David Letterman.) So it's an unexpected pleasure to finally have Through the Years on the CD shelf.

HAL CAZALET & SYLVIA McNAIR: THE LAND WHERE THE GOOD SONGS GO Harbinger HCD 1901
What this album title does not say is that this is a collection of songs with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse helped revolutionize the American musical theatre during his brief collaboration with composer Jerome Kern. Working mostly with Guy Bolton, who wrote the librettos with Wodehouse, the trio turned out a series of influential musicals that are collectively known as the Princess Theatre shows (although only a handful played at the 299-seat Princess). Coincidentally, these were the same scores that so inspired George Gershwin and Vincent Youmans (as mentioned above).

The shows — including Leave It to Jane and Oh, Boy! — may be forgotten, but the songs are delicious. At this time, music was prominent in the American musical. Composers like Victor Herbert or Rudolf Friml got the fame and money, while the lyrics and lyricists were of relatively little importance. Wodehouse's work was clever enough that you wanted to hear the words, and Kern was keen enough to adapt his style to allow the words to be heard. Wodehouse soon stopped writing lyrics, content to concentrate on fiction (with occasional co-librettist chores). This has resulted in By Jeeves, without — alas — lyrics by Wodehouse.

The Kern-Wodehouse-Bolton team lasted less than a year-and-a-half; broken up, in part, because Wodehouse wanted equal treatment with Kern in terms of billing and money, which at the time was unheard of. But the work the trio did helped formulate what would become American musical comedy. If Kern inspired a whole generation of future composers, Wodehouse's work paved the way — almost directly — for two fellows who idolized him, Ira Gershwin and Larry Hart.

(For those who care about such things: Wodehouse's penultimate lyric writing job was a collaboration with Ira Gershwin, to music by George Gershwin — who as a teenager had been rehearsal pianist for Wodehouse's penultimate Kern collaboration. Ira Gershwin's first Broadway show — and first Broadway hit — meanwhile, was composed not by George but by Vincent Youmans.)

The Land Where the Good Songs Go — which, incidentally, is the title of an especially lovely song from Miss 1917 — contains sixteen Wodehouse songs. Fourteen, really, as far as I'm concerned; two of them feature "additional lyrics" Wodehouse contributed to the 1935 London production of Anything Goes. While they cleverly Anglicize the songs, "You're the Top" and "Anything Goes" remain Cole Porter songs in my book.

These are the only two standards on the disc. George Gershwin and Ivor Novello are each represented by one song; the other twelve are by Kern, and they are the reason to get this charming album. Frankly, I was won over the moment the singers launched into a spirited rendition of "Sir Galahad," one of my favorite early Kern songs. (This is the one in which the rambunctious Wodehouse rhymes "platinum" with "flatten 'em.") The songs are mostly duets, sung by the accomplished Sylvia McNair — with 70 classical and popular albums to her credit, plus two Grammy Awards — and the relatively unknown Hal Cazalet. Cazalet does a fine job with the nimble lyrics, bringing full value to Wodehouse's work. Reading the liner notes one discovers that this Cazalet fellow is actually Wodehouse's great grandson. (The handsome booklet includes complete lyrics and interesting essays by Tim Rice, Cazalet, and Tony Ring.) Cazalet also produced the album and plays half of the two-piano arrangement on a rousing rendition of "The Enchanted Train." His sister, Lara Cazalet, sings one track, the original version of "Bill." This was cut from a show on the road in 1918 and revised nine years later by Kern and Hammerstein for use in Show Boat.

The music is in the expert hands of Steven Blier, of the New York Festival of Song, who has a perfect feel for the material. He even alters his keyboard style, ever so slightly, from Kern to Porter to Gershwin! Assorted tracks are accompanied by banjo or uke, adding delectable touches.

Overall, this disc is a family rescue mission, trying to retrieve great grandpa's songs from "The Land Where Good Songs Go." And that's precisely what Cazalet, McNair, and Blier do. The music is inevitably old fashioned and maybe even quaint; highly pleasant, though. The lyrics are top-notch; clever, funny, intelligent, and impeccably wedded to the notes.

DRG 25TH ANNIVERSARY SHOW STOPPING PERFORMANCES DRG 12628
DRG has celebrated its 25th Anniversary by releasing a 2-CD compilation of forty tracks from their various cast albums. These range from major Broadway hits to forgotten off-Broadway flops, with numerous revivals (including six from Encores!) and some older albums licensed from other labels. While many of us have many of these CDs, I think it's safe to say that you'll hear things you've never heard before.

Performers include Patti LuPone, Debra Monk, Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus, Tyne Daly, Margaret Whiting, Comden and Green, Phyllis Newman, Anthony Perkins, Lynne Thigpen, James Naughton, Heather Headley, Melissa Errico, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Linda Hopkins, Marin Mazzie, Michele Lee, Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli and Barbara Cook — Which is quite an assortment.

DRG has also released Great Cabaret Performances [DRG 91477], a 1-CD compilation of tracks from personality albums. This also has an impressive lineup, featuring Ann Hampton Callaway, Billy Stritch, Amanda McBroom, Margaret Whiting, Eartha Kitt, Faith Prince, Liz Callaway, Elaine Stritch, Julie Wilson, Karen Akers, and — again — Barbara Cook. These two new anthologies provide listeners with three hours of interesting songs and performances.

— by Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen.