ON THE RECORD: The 2013 Revival Cast Album of Closer Than Ever
By Steven Suskin
This week's column examines the new cast recording of Richard Maltby & David Shire's Closer Than Ever.
Closer Than Ever [Jay]
Many readers, I suppose, have favored CDs that they play repeatedly when the mood fits. These are not necessarily their favorite shows, or the finest scores in their collection. They are the cast albums you find comforting, the ones you go back to when you don't want to concentrate on something new and are happy to just listen to something you know you enjoy. There are times when you feel like Sweeney Todd, and other times you feel like The Most Happy Fella.
One of the albums on my repeat list is Richard Maltby and David Shire's 1983 musical Baby. This was not, mind you, the finest musical I've ever seen. I liked the show very much, went back to see it three or four times, and always found it enormously engaging. But I never thought for a moment that it was a great musical. Baby had its inherent flaws, which rolled around at each performance and I always noted with a sense of sorrow. But even now, thirty years later, I can't watch Catharine Cox or Liz Callaway in anything without momentarily thinking — ah! So I listen to Baby, I suppose, ten or twelve times a year, when nothing else will quite do.
I mention this after spending several sessions with the revival cast album of Maltby and Shire's Closer Than Ever, which Jay has just brought us in a 2-disc set. There is something so comfortable about this score. The songs are mostly upbeat, and perhaps reminiscent of their time. But they draw you in; Shire's music is bright, lively and catchy — some delicious vamps, here — and Maltby's song lyrics often provide flavorful, miniature character studies.
Closer Than Ever, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, was a 1989 revue of songs by the team — their second such Off-Broadway offering. They joined together as students at Yale, where they wrote several musicals. They made their off Broadway debut in 1961 with The Sap of Life, a young-man-in-the-big-city musical which ran for eight weeks. Shire was a protégé of Sondheim, serving as assistant and rehearsal pianist for the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle and the 1966 TV musical Evening Primrose. He also wrote the dance arrangement for the Michael Bennett/Donna McKechnie specialty "Tick-Tock," in Company.
The team's intended big break came in 1967 with How Do You Do, I Love You, a musical about computer dating with book by Michael Stewart and starring Phyllis Newman. This one died after a stock tryout, despite what seem to have been possibilities; there are eight delightful songs, by my count. (I can find only a poor audience recording of the score, but it sits on my 'favored mood' list along with Baby. And Company, for that matter.) Shortly after the abandonment of How Do You Do came a second and even bigger disappointment. Love Match, a 1968 musical about Queen Victoria (played by Patricia Routledge) and Prince Albert, closed during its pre-Broadway tryout.
And that seemed to be the end of the road to Broadway. Some nine years later, Starting Here, Starting Now — a three-character, 1977 revue including songs from a half-dozen of Maltby and Shire's produced and unproduced musicals — started out at the Manhattan Theatre Club and transferred to a full Off-Broadway run. The team didn't actually reach Broadway until 1983, with Baby. They were not unoccupied, though. Shire began a distinguished career in 1974 composing for films and television. Maltby, meanwhile, directed and conceived a second little revue for Manhattan Theatre Club called Ain't Misbehavin', which stormed Broadway in 1978. Following this, he linked up with Cameron Mackintosh for Song and Dance and Miss Saigon.
The four-character revue Closer Than Ever, another Off-Broadway anthology of the team's work, came along in 1989 and enjoyed a run of 288 performances. Given Maltby's Broadway prominence, the team finally got a shot at another full-scale musical: Big. This turned out to be a major disappointment of the 1995-96 season, though decidedly not due to the score. Their most recent musical, Take Flight, premiered at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2007 and was seen at the McCarter in Princeton in 2010. (We were impressed with this score, our review of which can be found here.
The twentieth anniversary of Closer Than Ever was celebrated with a 2010 revival at the Queens Theater in the Park, featuring the two ladies of the original cast, Sally Mayes and Lynne Wintersteller. This led to an Off-Broadway revival in June 2012 by the York Theatre Company, with Christiane Noll and Jenn Colella joining George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano (who had played the male roles in Queens). The production proved to be an audience-pleaser, with the initially-limited engagement extended to five months. This resulted in a new cast album, thanks in part to Jay Record's continued dedication to the York, which takes us back where we started.
Just listen to "Miss Byrd" (Colella). This has, to begin with, an up-tempo beat so pleasing as to be irresistible. Add to that a lyric filled with surprises; this Byrd seems to be a relative of Miss Abigail Brown, bachelor stenographer, of Sheldon Harnick's "Boston Beguine." So far, so good. What takes "Miss Byrd" out of the ordinary, though, is that we end up with not a bunch of laughs set to a nifty tune but a touching character study. "Lots of girls who first seem shy have secrets, I have found," suggests the drab Byrd, so "if you think I'm special — I suggest you look around."
"Life Story" (Noll) is not a comedy song, but in the same way it reveals its character, a hard-working and intelligent middle-aged woman with no regrets who keeps telling us "I'm not complaining." We listen, though, as she realizes that her long-ago decision to divorce has sabotaged her entire adult life. A lovely song, and only one of the treasures in Closer Than Ever. There's another song of regrets for a man, "One of the Good Guys" (Viviano), which is not quite as exceptional but similarly revealing.
"Patterns" is a song which has become relatively well known, thanks to its inclusion on the Baby cast album (despite the fact that it was cut from that show before opening). Always effective, it is even stronger here and stands out thanks to the delivery by Noll. Also of note is "Back on Base," a deliciously sly novelty number for sexy singer (Colella) and bass soloist (Danny Weller). The fathers of both Shire and Maltby were bandleaders, and this one feels like it would fit right in with a '50s band. Let us add, by the way, that musical director/pianist Andrew Gerle is himself an up-and-coming theatre composer.
Best of all is "If I Sing" (Dvorsky), a beautiful and searing song about a musician who visits his musician-father, ill and no longer able to play. This one is clearly personal; it goes, "If I sing, you are the music." Shire, the composer, collaborated with Maltby on the lyric. It is astoundingly good, and I cannot listen to it without being deeply moved.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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