ON THE RECORD: Two Broadway Songbook CDs

News   ON THE RECORD: Two Broadway Songbook CDs The STEPHEN SCHWARTZ Album (Varèse Sarabande VSD 6045)
Back in the first half of the 1970s, when the Broadway musical seemed to be in its weakest state ever, newcomer Stephen Schwartz found unparalleled success with three simultaneous hit musicals. Not merely three shows running at the same time while racking up multi-million dollar losses, as another composer achieved last season; but hits, each of them real hits. Any one of which would have netted a composer-lyricist enough royalties, properly invested, to last a lifetime.

The STEPHEN SCHWARTZ Album (Varèse Sarabande VSD 6045)
Back in the first half of the 1970s, when the Broadway musical seemed to be in its weakest state ever, newcomer Stephen Schwartz found unparalleled success with three simultaneous hit musicals. Not merely three shows running at the same time while racking up multi-million dollar losses, as another composer achieved last season; but hits, each of them real hits. Any one of which would have netted a composer-lyricist enough royalties, properly invested, to last a lifetime.

Strange to say, traditional Broadway did not take kindly to the pop-influenced Mr. Schwartz. His 1972 musical Pippin, they felt, was successful solely for its magical staging. (It didn't help that the twenty-four year old composer engaged in heated battle with his well-respected director-choreographer, publicly blaming Bob Fosse for more or less ruining his work.) Godspell -- which opened off Broadway in 1971 and eventually transferred to the venerated Broadhurst -- was considered to be a slight kids' show, and unworthy of consideration. And The Magic Show (1974), it was agreed, was a bunch of first-rate magic tricks interrupted by a truly ramshackle score and book.
(Let it be noted that from October 1970 until November 1974, the only artistically and commercially successful musical on Broadway besides Pippin was A Little Night Music; the Sondheim/Prince musical ran 601 performances, compared to the 1,900-plus of both Pippin and The Magic Show. During this period, musicals by Bock & Harnick, Styne, Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, Strouse, Coleman, Lerner & Loewe, and even Jerry Herman all folded -- many ignominiously.)

Schwartz's luck reversed with his other four musicals, produced from 1976 to 1991. While his work displayed increasing skills, the shows were all massive and highly public failures. Only two of them reached Broadway, briefly so; the others made it to the West End, failing there. Schwartz has remained away from Broadway since 1986. He resurfaced in 1995 with lyrics for the Disney film musical “Pocahontas,” and remains active in the world of animated features.

“The Stephen Schwartz Album,” naturally, will most appeal to fans of the composer. It is well produced and filled with prominent "new" musical theatre voices. Susan Egan really takes off with "Meadowlark" (from The Baker's Wife); Michelle Pawk does well with Schwartz and Charles Strouse's stunning "Blame It on the Summer Night" (from Rags); Jennifer Leigh Warren ditto, on "Stranger to the Rain" (from Children of Eden); and Emily Skinner makes The Baker's Wife's "Chanson" sound especially lovely. Also on hand are Laura Benanti, Kristin Chenoweth, Alice Ripley, Marin Mazzie, Brian D'Arcy James and Jason Daniely. Schwartz himself delivers a tender rendition of "Fathers and Sons" (from Working); he also provides some charmingly unpretentious and informative liner notes.

JULIE WILSON Sings the CY COLEMAN Songbook (DRG 5252)
Cy Coleman, on the other hand, is one of those songwriters who have stayed active on Broadway -- through good times and bad -- for forty years and counting. He has never had a blockbuster hit -- none of his thirteen produced musicals ran even half as long as The Magic Show -- but he has turned out some fine work over the years.

Twenty-nine Coleman tunes -- written to lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, Mike Stewart, and others -- turn up on Julie Wilson Sings the Cy Coleman Songbook. Two-thirds of the songs are show tunes, including seven unfamiliar from cast albums (as they were added later or the shows went unproduced). The rest are, mostly, early songs written while Coleman was looking for his first Broadway break.

Julie Wilson is now in the sixth decade of her career. In 1950 she was singing "Always True to You, Darling, in My Fashion" in the London company of Kiss Me, Kate, and in 1955 she took over the lead in the Broadway company of The Pajama Game. There has always been a distinctive timbre to her voice; this has now become extremely pronounced. (Naturally so, as the liner notes tell us that she is presently seventy-five years old.) Uncharacteristically, she doesn't always find the notes she is looking for in this live performance recorded at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel last October; this is especially noticeable in "I've Got Your Number," where she misses numerous low notes. But despite a bit of shakiness here and there, she can express much more, with much less, than many a performer.

Julie Wilson fans will not need me to tell them to get this disc. Cy Coleman fans will be especially interested in several tracks. Two of his early, pre-Broadway songs (with Leigh lyrics) come across very well: "You Fascinate Me So" and "When in Rome." So do the songs added for the ill-fated 1982 revival of Little Me, "I Wanna Be Yours" and "Don't Ask a Lady" (also by Leigh, and pretty good). There are songs from three unproduced musicals: "Who Would Believe" from Encounter (James Lipton), "Do Be a Darling" from Eleanor (Fields) -- neither of which are top rate Coleman -- and "Let Me Down Easy" from Heartbreak Kid (Leigh), which is. The latter, previously unknown to me, is a pretty good song and worth looking up. Wilson also gives an unusual -- and very effective -- rendition of "Hey, Look Me Over!" (from Coleman's first show, Wildcat).

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Stephen Sondheim's rather remarkable list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written (At Least in Part)," which appeared in a recent New York Times interview with Frank Rich, included no less than five Coleman songs -- more than by anyone else except Harold Arlen. Only two of Sondheim's choices are included on this album; among the three omissions, as it happens, is my favorite Coleman tune ("The Best Is Yet to Come"). Sondheim's list also includes two titles by William Roy, Ms. Wilson's arranger, piano accompanist, and vocal partner on this recording. They come from Maggie, the long-forgotten 1953 musicalization of What Every Woman Knows. Long forgotten by everyone except Sondheim, apparently. Interesting songs, though. -- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer).