ON THE RECORD: Oklahoma!, Alger's Shine! and Irving Berlin!

OKLAHOMA! First Night/Loud 1790=2
The very first recording I reviewed when I began this column three years ago was the 1998 Royal National Theatre version of Oklahoma!. Trevor Nunn's production, at long last, has finally reached our shore; it begins previewing Feb. 23 at the Gershwin, in preparation for a March 21 opening. With no new American cast album presently announced, First Night Records has domestically released their 1998 CD. That is to say, the same disc is now available stateside at non-import prices. It's a fine serving of the score, which indicates that this production is not just another revival of just another classic. (The recording features Hugh Jackman, Josefina Gabrielle, and Shuler Hensley, the latter two of whom are scheduled to open in the Broadway production.)

OKLAHOMA! First Night/Loud 1790=2
The very first recording I reviewed when I began this column three years ago was the 1998 Royal National Theatre version of Oklahoma!. Trevor Nunn's production, at long last, has finally reached our shore; it begins previewing Feb. 23 at the Gershwin, in preparation for a March 21 opening. With no new American cast album presently announced, First Night Records has domestically released their 1998 CD. That is to say, the same disc is now available stateside at non-import prices. It's a fine serving of the score, which indicates that this production is not just another revival of just another classic. (The recording features Hugh Jackman, Josefina Gabrielle, and Shuler Hensley, the latter two of whom are scheduled to open in the Broadway production.)

This new Oklahoma! seems little different than any other for about thirteen minutes of disc time. Then, midway through the "Kansas City" dance, the arrangements veer away from the originals and we find ourselves caught up in what must be the most show-stoppingest version of "Kansas City" ever. (Credit choreographer Susan Stroman, who knows how to build a number; her dance arranger, David Krane; and director Nunn, who wisely imported them from New York for his production.) This gives the album a fresh-and unexpected-shot of adrenaline, which it pretty much maintains thereafter.

Yes, I'm a traditionalist, and I generally prefer to hear things the way they sounded when the composer was standing in the back of the theatre taking notes. But why should a choreographer like Susan Stroman be restricted by the tempos and counts that Agnes de Mille and her dance arranger came up with in some dusty rehearsal hall sixty years ago? Oklahoma! is a big dance show, the show that truly interpolated dance into musical comedy. Yes, you can reproduce de Mille's work altogether, as in the previous Broadway revivals of Oklahoma!. But if you choose to go ahead with a new and accomplished choreographer, then it makes little sense to restrain her or him. (That is, unless you're dealing with shows like On the Town and West Side Story, where the composer carefully wrote his own ballet music.)

The CD's high spots, for me, are the aforementioned "Kansas City"; "All Er Nuthin'", which is a delightfully perfect example of musical comedy writing (and also includes a "new" dance section); the equally expert "Pore Jud Is Daid"; and the rousing title number, featuring Jay Blackton and Robert Russell Bennett's knockout vocal arrangement with which they were wise enough not to tamper. Nunn has wisely chosen to retain far more of the original orchestrations than is typically the case nowadays. William David Brohn's additional orchestrations fit in nicely with Russell Bennett's. I wonder how Rodgers would react to some new, distinctly Coplandish passages, though; Rodgers's 1939 cowboy ballet Ghost Town was knocked out of the Ballets Russe repertory and into oblivion by Copland's admittedly superior 1942 Rodeo. At any rate, I look forward to seeing this Oklahoma! at the Gershwin.

SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical Original Cast Records OC 6015
Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical was presented as a reading last April under the auspices of the National Music Theater Network; the show won the National Music Theater Network Award, whatever that is. Original Cast Records has now brought us a cast album of the reading. The cast of eighteen includes such familiar names as Harvey Evans, Andrea Burns, Brooks Ashmanskas, and Carole Shelley. The show has music by Roger Anderson, lyrics by Lee Goldsmith, and book by Richard Seff.

This is clearly a work in progress, and one hesitates to be too harsh at this point in the show's development. ( Shine! is a long-time coming; it was originally announced for a late 1982 Broadway opening.) The liner notes claim that " Shine! has a touch of Tintypes, a glimmer of Annie, a smidgeon [sic] of Oliver!, bits and pieces of a dozen other musicals that have delighted Americans, and a lot of its own." This tells us, presumably, what the authors are driving at. (It doesn't tell us who provided the quote, mind you; it could be the composer's mother.)

Shine! is highly tuneful, and appears to be a basically friendly show with considerable good humor. Unfortunately, the songs seem rather simplistic, along the lines of children's theatre; once a song begins, you can pretty much tell where it will end. It seems as if the songwriters picked their slots, wrote a slogan on an index card for each one of them, and took it from there.

This is not to say that Shine! might not go on to a happy life. It is melodic and bouncy, traits that are in short supply nowadays and might well attract fans. I'd have been a lot happier, myself, without the synthesizer assaulting my ears throughout the recording. Some composers, faced with severe budget restrictions, think that a synthesizer will make their music sound better. Me, I'll gladly take Billy Finn's Infinite Joy (piano) or Barbara Cook's Mostly Sondheim (piano and bass) or even Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks (piano and harp). No fake trumpets, no fake clarinets, no fake violins, no headache.

AND OFF THE RECORD. . .
Irving Berlin has at long last joined Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Ira Gershwin in being memorialized in print, in The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin (Knopf). Readers of the earlier volumes know just what to expect from series editor Robert Kimball, who edited this book with Berlin's daughter Linda Emmet, and they will not be disappointed.

Berlin — in his work and career — differed from the other lyricists in question. Porter, Hart and Gershwin were men of the theatre, almost exclusively. While they each spent time working for hire in Hollywood, their work was firmly grounded on the stage. And they each, clearly, aspired to and loved the theatre. Berlin — whose "Alexander's Ragtime Band" launched him to fame while the others were still in their teens — was first and foremost a pop songwriter; he undertook the challenge of the theatre simply because it was, in those days, a prime venue for popularizing songs and selling copies. He proved adept at writing show tunes (as well as other types of tunes), but expressed little interest in the so-called "well-made musical." This volume, similarly, is somewhat different than the others. Understandably so, as Berlin wrote on a much broader scale than the others. (This book includes more than 1,200 songs, while the other three volumes range from 600-800.) The other volumes are arranged chronologically by shows; this one is arranged in year clusters, as much of Berlin's work was non-show related.

If Porter, Hart and Gershwin were more interesting "theatre writers" than Berlin, this volume has something the others don't: relevance, or what Harold Rome would term social significance. Kimball calls Berlin "a musical bard whose work expressed his times as eloquently and unerringly as the poetry of Walt Whitman and the songs of Stephen Foster gave voice to the aspirations of nineteenth-century America." And Kimball is right on target. Berlin's work is indeed "an extraordinarily rich account of our customs and values. These songs offer us a treasure trove of insights into the ways America has lived and changed in times of war and peace, in times of tumult and euphoria, and in prosperity and depression."

This brings an added element of interest to these lyrics. What's more, Kimball and Emmet have annotated the songs with whatever comments they can find about them; if Berlin mentioned a long-forgotten song to some smalltown paper in 1915, the editors have found the quote and included it. So going through this book offers more than just a bunch of rhymes and memories.

It is lavishly illustrated, in glorious black and white. The cover shows a beaming fellow, apparently in his early forties, suntanned and stylishly dressed in a white short sleeve shirt, white trousers, and a thin black belt. He looks like he hasn't a care in the world, as if he's just about the happiest man alive. A posed studio shot from Hollywood days, no doubt (and one that vaguely recalls a similar photograph of Fred Astaire). From all we've learned about Berlin, we know that he was never so carefree and happy-go-lucky in life. A deceptive portrait of the man, perhaps, but one that oddly enough captures the essence of his songs.

Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com