LITTLE ME (Varese Sarabande)
Since No, No, Nanette blazed into town in 1971, Broadway has been overrun with revivals of just about every hit musical you can name. And then there's Little Me, which as far as I can tell is the only flop musical to have been revived. (The even less-successful Candide has been revived too, but in substantially rewritten versions.) Little Me has now received two full-scale revivals, like Candide, all of which have failed, like Candide. But enough about Candide.
One can easily explain Little Me's resilience: It features one of the brashest musical comedy scores of its era (by Cy Coleman), exceptionally clever and artful lyrics (by Carolyn Leigh), and an hysterically slap-happy book (by the pre- Barefoot in the Park Neil Simon). One can also explain its repeated failure, but this column is not the place. Suffice it to say, the Roundabout's 1999 revival was misconceived, miscalculated and mistaken.
Which leads to the question: How good can the cast recording of such a production possibly be? Especially when one of the glaring faults of the production was in the music department. Sure, they needed to reduce the instrumentation for economic reasons; but they chose to start from scratch, rather than scaling down Ralph Burns's orchestrations. Big mistake, as the original charts are easily among the best of their kind. ( Bob Fosse worked with Burns on the original Little Me and barely took a step without him for the rest of his life, and for good reason). You listen to the anemic opening bars of this new recording's Overture, and wonder why not just put on the sparkling 1962 recording (on RCA)? Or the 1964 London cast recording (on DRG), which includes eleven extra minutes of the score, including the stupendously zany Burns/Coleman version of Fosse's "Rich Kids Rag." For what it's worth, this seventy-two minute new recording has been padded with roughly twenty minutes worth of Neil Simon's jokes, which are mostly very funny. Although how many will wear thin after four or five or eight listenings?
Actually, this new version does have its attributes, mainly in the performance by Faith Prince. The Roundabout folk (with Coleman and Simon in attendance) decided to combine Little Me's two female leading roles into one. This proved a thankless assignment for Prince, who was simultaneously performing material written for a bubble-headed, 20 year old sexpot and a quick-tongued, seen-it-all sexagenarian. She did everything well, against the odds, battling the obstacles placed in her way. On the CD, though, Prince is able to just stand in front of the microphone and entertain us, and she certainly does! This material has never been performed by a star of Prince's caliber and talent, and she makes the most of it (notably on "Poor Little Hollywood Star" and "The Other Side of the Tracks"). The combined roles make this CD very much a one-woman show; Prince is heard, in song or dialogue, on eighteen of the CD's twenty-two vocal tracks. (Co-star Martin Short sings only six songs, his usual charm somewhat hidden behind the accents and affectations of his seven characters.) Fans of the stars or of this particular production will no doubt rush to get this CD. But why else, I wonder, would anyone choose this musically-diminished disc over the other two?
P.S.: Composer Cy Coleman's liner notes boast that "the score boasts at least five standards," and while I am truly a great fan of the piece I can't for the life of me think of more than one.
YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (RCA)
You certainly don't have to chose among versions of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. The cast recording of the new Broadway version is the only one in print. Charlie Brown was an enormously successful and highly entertaining off-Broadway hit back in the late 1960s, but I must confess I hadn't bothered to listen to it for years and years. The score has always struck me as friendly but brittle; and after seeing the incredibly lifeless version which limped to Broadway in 1972, for four desolate weeks at the Golden, I felt it best to live with my warm memories of what I had first seen in 1967.
Now Charlie Brown is back, transformed into what they call "a bold, contemporary, Broadway style." Which means full sets, new sketches, new songs (2 1/2), new orchestrations (six pieces, from two), and even a new character.
Things are not all new, bold, or contemporary, of course; many of the musical scenes remain more or less intact. Thus, this Charlie Brown is just a wee bit schizophrenic. Some songs retain that friendly-but-thin off-Broadway style of the late 1960s; others try to be more modern and smokin' than even Smokey Joe's Cafe. Just where are we, Charlie Brown? And what are we to make of that new Beethoven number with a Motown beat? Contemporary tempos do not necessarily make material contemporary.
The very best and warmest moment remains "Happiness," which they have been wise not to tamper with. (They do give us a modernized "Happiness" in the "Bow Music," as if to more than prove my point.) This edition's other new number (both tunes are by Andrew Lippa) is Kristen Chenoweth's much-acclaimed rendition of the much-acclaimed "My New Philosophy." Yes, it's a showstopper, and the singer and the song are certainly the liveliest part of the proceedings.
Back in 1967, Charles M. Schulz's unorthodox comic strip had the cultural prominence and market share of Kermit, Garfield, and Dilbert combined. But while the Peanuts characters can still be found in daily newspapers and toy stores across the country, they have pretty much faded out of the picture. (Last week, in fact, the gang lost their decades-long gig as spokespeople for a major national life insurance company. Good grief!) How many little tykes nowadays climb on the backyard roof and pretend they're a World War I flying ace gunning after the Red Baron? How many young audience members are going to have to turn to their escorts for a definition of "wishy-washy?"
Hardy old Charlie Brown can survive in the age of Bart Simpson, certainly; but I wouldn't want to see the two of them swapping punches, or one liners. Which leaves this new CD worthy -- it is the only available version of the score, as aforementioned, and contains some valuable performances -- but not exactly indispensable.
MYTHS AND HYMNS (Nonesuch)
Composer/lyricist Adam Guettel burst on the scene, as they say, in 1996 with Floyd Collins, a limited engagement off-Broadway musical which not many people got around to seeing. The 1997 cast album found an appreciative audience, though, so much so that Floyd is currently on a tour of major regional theatres. In 1998 a collection of intensely personal, autobiographical songs was briefly presented in concert form at the Public Theatre under the title Saturn Returns. Despite its simple six actors-sitting-on-barstools presentation and lack of any narrative linking, the strength and beauty of Guettel's music made it something of a must see -- and garnered ecstatic raves from the typically surly Broadway critics. Saturn Returns now appears on disc, under its original title, "Myths and Hymns," and it more than lives up to expectations.
Guettel has a tendency to build his songs to a high emotional level -- and then pitch them higher and higher! I remember midway through the title number at the Public suddenly bolting straight in my seat, and then craning more and more forward as the singer cried "I want, I want, I want/I don't know what I hunger for." There are at least four other songs good enough to leave you shaking your head wondrously.
If you like your musical theatre sweet and simple and funny, "Myths and Hymns" might not be for you. The material is demanding, certainly, and you might have to pay close attention in order to get into it. But this is the most rewarding new theatre music I've heard in an awfully long time.
"Myths and Hymns" is not exactly a cast album of Saturn Returns. The on stage band (nine top Broadway players, led by conductor Ted Sperling (with his habitual violin) was very much a presence in Tina Landau's staging, and they have wisely been retained. The Public Theatre cast, though, has been relegated mostly to backup work; this with the exception of Theresa McCarthy, who played Floyd Collins' sister (and one of the Kates in Titanic) and appears to be a top interpreter of Guettel's work. Three other Saturn cast-members -- Annie Golden, Vivian Cherry, and Lawrence Clayton -- are each given a solo, with notable results. But one needn't be self-conscious about singing backup on an album such as this: Lewis Cleale, Brian d'Arcy James, Jessica Molaskey, and even Kristin Chenoweth unexpectedly turn up on two tracks, presumably just for the sake of working with Guettel. More prominent are several singers who appeared in workshop versions of the piece, namely Mandy Patinkin, Billy Porter and Audra McDonald (who performs some be bop scat on "Pegasus").
McDonald included four Guettel songs on her "Way Back to Paradise" album last year, including the remarkable "Come to Jesus." This song is sung on "Myths and Hymns" by McCarthy, who performed it at the Public; Guettel sings the male part, as he did with McDonald. One well may ask how the performances compare; the answer is, both admirably serve this hauntingly breathtaking song about abortion, set against a 19th century Presbyterian hymn. (As I said above, these autobiographical songs are intensely personal.) The first version is richer musically, perhaps, enhanced by a thirty-five piece orchestra as well as McDonald's glorious voice. The new recording is a more theatrical version, backed by only nine pieces. Thus, you concentrate more on the dramatic situation and the lyric. Both were orchestrated by Don Sebesky, who with Jamie Lawrence did the charts for "Myths and Hymns." Guettel himself is very much present, singing five of the most important songs. This might not have thrilled the actors who sang them in the theatre, but the composer/lyricist turns out to be a wonderful performer; these songs have an even greater impact here than they had at the Public. "Myths and Hymns" is very much about his own personal search for self, so I guess it makes some kind of sense that he performs them so well. I should also report that another two fine songs heard at the Public are for some reason not included on the album. But I'm certainly not complaining.
"Look at me, I'm going to be the stuff that myths are made of," pleads an under-achieving son who resents his famous father in the soaring "Icarus." (What a song!) Guettel may well have reason to feel like he is in the shadow of his illustrious grandfather, the guy who wrote Oklahoma! and Carousel and The King and I and all that; but he has his own distinct talent to offer. He shares Richard Rodgers' high theatricality, humor, and that uncanny ability to move melodies and harmonies in unexpected but inevitable directions. But their styles are quite different, and I don't suspect anyone could mistake one for the other. Based on the evidence of "Myths and Hymns" and Floyd Collins, Guettel already has all the tools to conquer Broadway. He is not some "promising young songwriter" anymore, he has delivered on the promise. And Broadway, I believe, is just about ready for Guettel.
-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com