ON THE RECORD: Two Unlikely but Interesting Musicals

News   ON THE RECORD: Two Unlikely but Interesting Musicals Broadway musical fans have something to look forward to this winter, with cast albums of Swing!, Kiss Me, Kate, Minnelli on Minnelli, and Marie Christine promised over the next few months. Clearing the decks in the meantime, I find two small label releases which may well be of interest to listeners.

Broadway musical fans have something to look forward to this winter, with cast albums of Swing!, Kiss Me, Kate, Minnelli on Minnelli, and Marie Christine promised over the next few months. Clearing the decks in the meantime, I find two small label releases which may well be of interest to listeners.

LOLA (Harbinger 1704)
Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's Lola attracted little attention when it was produced by the York Theatre Company for twenty performances in March 1982, with Jane White and Leigh Beery in the cast. A studio cast album was recorded in 1985 by Painted Smiles Records. It has now been remastered and rereleased on CD by Harbinger Records, and the score has much to recommend it. Richardson and Elmslie are best known for their ill-fated The Grass Harp, which lasted seven performances in 1971. The Grass Harp was flawed, certainly, and adversely affected during development by severe underfinancing; but much of the score is highly melodic and extremely ingratiating. Fans of The Grass Harp will not be surprised to find that Lola has similar attributes.

Lola is Lola Montez, the scandalous Spanish dancer (born Eliza Gilbert, 1818-1861) who took Europe by storm, consorted with the likes of Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria, and ended up penniless in a Gold Rush dance hall in California (or Californi-ay, as they call it). The show moves back and forth across time, and is rather difficult to follow on this disc because two actresses sing Lola Montez -- young and old -- while two actors double up for the other principal roles. This turns out not to be a negative, as it showcases the singers: Judy Kaye, Christine Andreas, Jack Dabdoub (of the York Theatre cast), and David Carroll. There is also a five-man chorus. Ms. Kaye, who does most of the singing, is very impressive here. This role is more straightforward than the comedy parts she typically sings on cast albums, and she gives a fine dramatic performance. The late David Carroll is also quite engaging; I don't suppose he ever sounded better than he did when Lola was recorded, and it's a pleasant surprise to hear that voice again.

Richardson's music ranges from pleasant to soaring. Best of the lot are two beauties, "Mirrors and Shadows of Your Domain" and "Beauty Secrets." This last song is performed a second time, as a coda, by Barbara Cook (whose last Broadway musical to date, unhappily, was The Grass Harp). This is a typical Barbara Cook dramatic performance, which is to say quite amazing as these things go. The score is richly orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin (except for Cook's track, which is lushly handled by Bruce Pomahac).

Lola does have problems, especially the lyrics which are jarring in places. In Mr. Elmslie's ear, "wits" fits with "Biarritz"; "harlot in" with "charlatan"; and "merde" that overused French exclamation, rhymes with "scared" and "Laird" (as in Baron or Earl). It is also unwise for someone who has trouble with simple rhymes to go after complex ones: "Will somebody steal my thunder?/Will this be our biggest blunder?/Will it all really happen I wonder?/Down under" or, on a more continental note, "Not there/Never there/Danke schon, Mein Herr/Mon cher, mon cher." These lyrical lapses would probably be antagonistic in the theatre, where one tends to be more critical. Never mind; little matters when you have music as rapturous as "Mirrors and Shadows of Your Domain" and "Beauty Secrets." Lola -- with its lovely melodies, fine actors, and surprisingly accomplished orchestrations -- makes an enjoyable cast album.

HEADING EAST (Dink 1999)
An unproduced musical about Chinese American assimilation spanning one hundred fifty years, from unknown creators and a label you've never heard of, with a cast of fifteen -- well, Heading East sounds slightly dubious. But this "premiere cast recording" of the musical by Leon Ko (music) and Robert Lee (book and lyrics) is worth tracking down.

While the subject is Chinese American, and at least one of the authors is presumably Chinese American as well, there is nothing especially "Asian" about this score. This is modern musical theatre writing, and it is interesting, intelligent, and inventive. Ko and Lee apparently worked together at NYU's Musical Theatre Writing Program; the information packed liner notes don't tell us much about the production history of Heading East or its authors (who both appear in small roles on the disc). There is a thoughtful and appreciative appreciation by David Henry Hwang, which seems to assume that these writers speak mainly to a Chinese American audience. Again, nothing in the work labels Ko and Lee's ethnicity anymore than Floyd Collins indicates that Adam Guettel is a Kentucky hillbilly.

The plot tells of a young Chinese man who emigrates to California for the 1848 Gold Rush, and follows his family over several generations. Kind of a reverse Pacific Overtures, with a bit of Flower Drum Song thrown in. But the Heading East score stands on its own. Standout songs include the lovely "This Is How He Says 'I Love You'," the driving, torch-like "All We Can Do Is Remember," and the tender "Only Home." There are also some intelligently-conceived musical scenes, like "A Long, Long Way Back Home." Paolo Montalban, who sang Lun Tha in the recent King and I revival, gives an attractive performance in the leading role.

I don't suppose the prospects are bright for a musical about Chinese American assimilation spanning one hundred fifty years, at least in the commercial theatre. The authors, though, have demonstrated that they pretty much know what they are doing. If they can write like this -- and if they are still active -- one hopes that they will turn up in the future with something less specialized. And while I don't suppose the cast album of Heading East will be a big seller, I suspect that musical theatre enthusiasts will enjoy it if they can find it. If your local record store doesn't have it, it is available from the major Internet CD sources.

-- 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). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com