ON THE RECORD: Elf, Songs From a Stage Door Canteen Concert, Linda Lavin's "Possibilities"

By Steven Suskin
01 Jan 2012

Cover art for Stage Door Canteen: Broadway Responds to World War II

Stage Door Canteen [DRG 94799]
When Stage Door Canteen: Broadway Responds to World War II crossed my desk, I imagined it was going to be just another one of those WWII USO recreations with bright voices singing "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" and the like. I don't have anything against "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," mind you; it's a durable song from 1941 which enhanced the growing reputations of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Frank Loesser, who were to storm Broadway (separately) later in the decade.

But recreations of USO shows tend to sound more nostalgic than interesting to me. Which is why I was surprised and heartened when I put on Stage Door Canteen. This collection is bright and tuneful, with songs from the era — mostly culled from Broadway shows — that are refreshing. Performed by an adept cast, namely Debra Monk, Jeffry Denman, Brandon Victor Dixon, Betsy Wolfe and Anderson Davis. With friendly and snazzy arrangements for six pieces by music director Andy Einhorn. I was anticipating just another patriotic anthology, and I found something like a WWII Ain't Misbehavin'.

There is not a show in Stage Door Canteen, at least not yet. It was devised by Ted Chapin for the Lyrics and Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y, where it was performed last March. In the concert hall, the songs were accompanied by a lecture by Chapin about the Stage Door Canteen and the legit theatre's contributions to same. An interesting narration, I've no doubt; but Chapin and the people at DRG saw fit to excise the talking and record just the songs. The results really do sound like the cast album for some show that doesn't yet exist. But maybe it should.

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Linda Lavin: Possibilities [Ghostlight]
Who's that sweet-voiced girl singing songs from 1960s Broadway, a time and place when she was indeed a sweet-voiced musical comedy girl with comic flair? Low and behold, it's Linda Lavin — yes — Linda Lavin. And not in some remastered reissue, but the seventy-four-year-old Linda Lavin of today. The Tony Award winning star has had a busy year, shuttling from Other Desert Cities at Lincoln Center to Follies at Kennedy Center to The Lyons at the Vineyard. (The first two rank high among the finest attractions on Broadway just now, but Lavin chose to skip their transfers in order to appear in Nicky Silver's Off-Broadway comedy. In a role that made you understand why she made the choice.)

Lavin is no stranger to musical theatre. She made her Broadway debut in 1962 in the John Kander-James Goldman-William Goldman A Family Affair. Hal Prince, in his liner note for the CD at hand, explains that when he took over as director after the Philadelphia opening, Lavin was in the chorus with a few showy bits; she was good enough "to persuade me to enlarge her role almost every rehearsal day as the show was rewritten." She returned to the musical world in January 1966, giving a deliciously perfect performance of the Mary Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim "The Boy From. . ." in the Off-Broadway revue The Mad Show. (If you've never heard it, download the track right now.)

Lavin remained but a month, wafted off by Prince for his musical It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman. This time, the authors — Charles Strouse and Lee Adams — provided Lavin with "You've Got Possibilities." Superman opened and quickly fizzled, leaving the featured actress available to graduate to stardom in the role of Daisy Gamble in the first national company of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. I suppose we should say the dual role of Daisy Gamble and Melinda Wells, which is just about double in size to what the corresponding actors are doing in the version of the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical now playing at the St. James. Lavin starred opposite Van Johnson, no less. The tour was a disaster, disbanding after a mere nine weeks. After which Lavin went Hollywood, turning herself into a full-fledged TV star. She tuned up her pipes to replace Tyne Daly in the 1989 revival of Gypsy, and she sang "Broadway Baby" in the Kennedy Center engagement of the current Follies. But Lavin's musical days, one imagined, were long past.

But here comes "Possibilities." Lavin is, true, somewhat older than when she sang "You've Got Possibilities" back in 1966; but if you didn't know this was Lavin, I don't imagine you'd think the singer was over 60, or over 70. There is still that sweet, friendly sound of long ago (and "sweet" and "friendly" are not words you'd use to describe Lavin-the-actress). Aided, abetted and augmented by Billy Stritch plus four sidemen. Songs include "Hey Look Me Over" and a fine "It Amazes Me," from Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman; a bright rendition of "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" by Schwartz and Dietz; and the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse "Two for the Road."

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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