ON THE RECORD: Legrand's Amour, Finn's Elegies and Cook's Sondheim

By Steven Suskin
27 Jul 2003

ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 189]
William Finn was hailed as the most important new American musical theatre composer of the post-Sondheim generation when he burst on the scene with March of the Falsettos in 1981. This claim has proven to be accurate, arguably, but with a hitch; Finn's output has been severely limited. Falsettos has been followed by only two full-scale New York productions, Falsettoland and A New Brain. Finn's numerous fans have had to content themselves with only four cast albums — these three shows and the 1979 In Trousers. A 2001 cabaret evening brought forth a fifth album, "Infinite Joy." These CDs contain a significant amount of exceptional musical theatre writing, mind you. But the years roll by, and we want our new Finn musicals.

Elegies, which found its way to the Mitzi Newhouse last spring, was not a new musical. It was a song cycle, consisting of songs of mourning. André Bishop first discovered the unpolished jewel called Finn 25 years ago, turning him loose in a Playwrights Horizons rehearsal hall. Bishop brought Finn along when he moved to Lincoln Center Theater, and has been involved one way or another with almost everything Finn has done. Given Billy's limited output, Bishop presumably coaxed Elegies off Finn's piano rack.

Every successful songwriter is frequently asked the same question: What comes first, the music or the lyrics? The traditional answer has always been: The contract. What we see in Elegies, though, is that William Finn writes to communicate. Other composers, traditionally, write for a living; Finn writes not for his living, but for his life.

Most of the elegies appear to have been written as private outpourings of grief. Which is to say, they were not intended for an audience. An audience at a memorial service, perhaps; but the purpose of these songs was not for them to "work" in a theatrical setting, before a paying audience of strangers. They were, and are, Finn expressing his grief at a certain moment in time.

"14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" is incredibly powerful, and fittingly so, as a memorial to the composer's mother. But there are at least four other songs that are every bit as arresting, every bit as heartbreaking and life-affirming. "When the Earth Stopped Turning" is another expression of grief at the death of Barbara Finn; "Monica & Mark" tells of the death of a lawyer friend, who was famous for his all-male Thanksgiving parties (as Finn tells us in another song). "Venice" tells of the death of what seems to be a sparring partner, "the former lover of my lover."

"Anytime (I Am There)" appears to be a song written as a death-bed request of Monica, the mother of Finn's goddaughter. "I am there in music / I am there in sky / I don't know why this thing did happen / But this much is clear / Anytime or anywhere, I am there." (Overpowering. This is my newest favorite song.) These songs are truly elegies — songs of mourning, yes. But they are also remarkable as songs, featuring soaring melodies and inducing heart-swelling emotions.

Elegies in some way might help explain Finn's frustrating lack of productivity. Consider the amount of work and feeling and guts that Finn must have poured into a song like "Venice," a song that he couldn't possibly have intended to be heard after the memorial service for one Bolek Greczynski. Imagine this music sitting unheard on a shelf, ever after. Most theatrical composers write to order, almost exclusively. Richard Rodgers for example; it is unimaginable that he would have expended so much creative energy on something for which he couldn't conceivably expect to be paid. This is not the place to compare "14 Dwight Ave." and "Anytime" to the "Soliloquy" and "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" from Carousel. I will note, however, that the emotional results are similar.

Finn has been aided by his carefully selected performers — although I'm sure these songs would be just as powerful, if not more so, in the composer's own gruff growl. Christian Borle, Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Keith Byron Kirk and Michael Rupert are the cast; Vadim Feichtner, who was also on hand for "Infinite Joys," provides the musical direction and expert accompaniment. Let this stand as a salute to them all, but I can't proceed without a special nod to Carmello for her "Anytime" and Buckley for "14 Dwight Ave." And especially Rupert, who has been on and around Broadway for 35 of his 52 years. In addition to being a fine and reliable performer, he seems to have recently developed an assuredness and authority that accompanies him onstage.

Other selections on the album — while all elegies, in one way or another — are less mournful, with Finn's exuberant good-humor bursting through. There is a song about "Passover," which is a first cousin to "Jason's Bar Mitzvah" from Falsettoland. There are also eulogies for producer Joe Papp, actress Peggy Hewett and songwriter-actor Jack Eric Williams. But the five songs mentioned above are in another class altogether. "My friends, I'm taking you to Venice," goes one of them, and I can't help thinking that some musical theatre-loving benefactor should stake Billy (and Arthur) to a couple of weeks in a small apartment overlooking a quiet canal, where Finn can relax and breathe deep because in Venice "beauty and pleasure is all we can hope to understand."

For her November 2000 cabaret act at Feinstein's, Barbara Cook and her musical director Wally Harper came up with an evening of songs by Sondheim, interspersed with songs from his little list of "songs I wish I'd written (at least in part)." Barbara and Wally took the show to Carnegie Hall in February 2001, at which time it was recorded. Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim [DRG 91464] was favorably reviewed in this column upon its release. The two-CD set also featured Malcolm Gets (on six of twenty-one tracks), who sang mostly Sondheim. Cook gave us most of the others, which is fine by me, especially when there is a fair share of Arlen.

The success of the concert and the CD led to a series of international bookings — Barbara without Gets — culminating in twin engagements (and twin return engagements) at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont and as part of the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Festival. DRG had the good sense to tape the show and has released it on DVD as Barbara Cook in Mostly Sondheim [DRG DV 18001]. Like the CD, the DVD is highly recommended, especially for people who did not get to see the show live. In addition to the 19-track program — with a slightly different song lineup than on the CD — DRG has included a master class Cook taught during her Kennedy Center engagement.

Rather than repeating myself, I borrow the following lines from my discussion in "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002" of the show at the Beaumont, which apply equally to the DVD performance:

Sondheim's list gave Cook the perfect excuse to sing some exceptional songs including two stunners by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, "I Wonder What Became of Me" and "I Had Myself a True Love." (The remnants of Cook's Georgia accent brought added flavor and an unexpected authenticity to Mercer's lyrics.) These were as close to definitive as you need to get, as was Cook's rendition of Arlen and Harburg's "The Eagle and Me" from Bloomer Girl. Cook also sang her signature song, "Ice Cream," from She Loves Me. She introduced this by saying it was "what I think is one of the best musical comedy songs ever written," and I think I agree.

Equally breathtaking, on the Sondheim side, were "In Buddy's Eyes," "Happiness," "Send in the Clowns," "Not a Day Goes By," "Losing My Mind," and "Anyone Can Whistle." Ten or so absolutely amazing renditions, as good as you'd ever hope to hear, in 90 minutes. Pretty good for a 74 year old.

But Cook has a secret, a secret she has apparently always had. She can sing. She sings as naturally as most people talk. (More naturally, actually.) When most singers sing, they are singing. When Cook sings, you feel like the notes themselves are a given; this frees her to concentrate on the words. Cook sings like she breathes, even at an age when such a gift might well be expected to have diminished.

Looking through my notes, I find that I kept writing phrases like "expresses the pain" and "feels the pain" and "the pain comes through" and "true pain." So many of these songs — as sung by Cook — were searingly beautiful, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of hurt and sorrow. While writing this review, I stumbled across Ms. Cook's website, and there it was:

"On stage, safety lies in the very thing that seems most dangerous. And that is: Your vulnerability, your ability to allow people to see the pain and all the life stuff. But very few have been given the gift to communicate. And when somebody can really communicate, boy, it resonates out there to the ends of the earth."

Barbara Cook's voice. It resonates out there to the ends of the earth.

—Steven Suskin, author of the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com