ON THE RECORD: "Autumn in New York" and Time After Time/Dodsworth

News   ON THE RECORD: "Autumn in New York" and Time After Time/Dodsworth
This week's column discusses Klea Blackhurst's "Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway" and a sampler of songs from two new musicals, Time after Time and Dodsworth.

We are always more than happy to welcome a celebration of Vernon Duke, who would have turned 101 last October. Autumn in New York: Vernon Duke's Broadway, from Klea Blackhurst, naturally enough brings us the familiar hits, along with some of Duke's little-known gems. What's more, she has unearthed some rarities that I have never heard publicly performed.

I, for one, am cheered for another chance to hear little-known songs like the playful "I Like the Likes of You" and the jaunty "Not a Care in the World." This last is from an ill-fated show that limped into town one stormy day in the winter of 1942, and expired the next. The show disappeared without a trace, but just listen to this song! Among the other surprises are four efforts from the brief-lived team of Duke & Dietz. (Duke had a tendency to wear out his lyricists, a chain that started with Harburg.) "Sailing at Midnight" is especially lovely. Two columns back, I welcomed Philip Chaffin's "A Warm Spring Night" for his inclusion of lost songs like "Sailing at Midnight" and the Schwartz Dietz "Haunted Heart" (which reappeared in my last column, on the studio cast album of Inside U.S.A.). Now, we have a second good rendition of "Sailing at Midnight"! "Poor As a Churchmouse," "Indefinable Charm" and "Dancing in the Streets" all sound far more interesting than you might imagine from looking at the sheet music.

This CD is good news for Duke fans, and show-tune fans as well, and I suppose I could leave it at that. However, and I hate to start this sentence with however, there are some quibbles. Ms. Blackhurst's voice is distinctive, I suppose you could say. Blackhurst is known for her renditions of Merman songs; this style works well for some numbers, but for other songs borders on being too much. This is a matter of taste, yes, and let us give the singer the benefit of the doubt in this area.

This disc also has a few damaging lapses, starting with start — "start" being the word accompanying the key musical note in "I Can't Get Started." It is hard to believe that any singer, making a CD-length study of Vernon Duke, could manage to sing the phrase "I can't get started" wrong every time; or maybe she has purposely chosen to sing it this way? While I generally avoid musicology in this column, the only way to describe what I'm talking about is to say that — in the key of G — she sings "can't get start-ed" as D D E G, instead of the D D E-flat G that Duke wrote. This E-flat, I'm afraid, is one of the major distinctions of the song! Ms. Blackhurst sings it wrong, four times no less. (The fourth time she gives us D E-flat E-flat G.) She gets the title phrase at the end of the song wrong, too, on both refrains, giving us a lazy B B B D instead of Duke's B C A E. If we're here to celebrate the composer, is it too much to ask that we sing his notes? On his most famous song, no less.

I also wonder about the advisability of starting "April in Paris" with a large dose of "An American in Paris." Does the song need it? Does it help? Does it in any way make the performance better? No, no and no. They add a second dollop of Gershwin as an interlude, and finish the song with yet more. "April in Paris" and "An American in Paris" stand very well on their own; GG and VD were great pals, but I can only imagine that both would wince at this interwoven arrangement. Arranger Michael Rice has otherwise done a good job, preserving the harmonies and countermelodies Duke wrote into his songs. (The accomplished Russell Bennett admitted that Duke was the hardest of the Broadway composers to orchestrate, due to the rich complexities of his harmonies.) But why let your singer get away with demonstrably wrong notes in the most noticeable places?

Even so, fans of good musical theatre writing of the second quarter of the twentieth century can't help but be pleased with "Autumn in New York." And let it be added that Blackhurst has provided a thoughtful and well-written liner note.

A veteran Broadway composer sent me a copy of Time after Time/Dodsworth. The accompanying note — a post-it, actually — said not that it was the greatest thing he'd heard in years, but simply that he thought I might find it interesting. Interesting it is indeed, and thanks for the recommendation.

This CD is more or less a backer's audition of two musicals. Not so new, apparently; Dodsworth was first produced in 1995, at Casa Manana in Fort Worth, with Hal Linden and Dee Hoty in the leads. Time after Time is newer, dating back to 2002 or so. On the occasion of a 2004 benefit concert in Marion, MA, composer Jeffrey Saver and lyricist Steven Cole assembled a quartet of top-flight musical comedy types and presented abridged versions of both musicals. Said concert was duly recorded and has now been released on Original Cast Records.

Both scores are promising, in different ways. One might raise some questions as to the strengths and weaknesses of these musicals-in progress, but the CD demonstrates that both are viable This is nothing to be taken for granted; too many scores for proposed musicals today leave you wondering "why would anybody want to see this?" The bottom line in the case of Dodsworth and Time after Time is: Saver can write music that is melodic, thoughtful and intriguing, and Cole writes with wit and feeling. Along with generally upbeat and clever comedy numbers, the boys — most importantly — come through with several arresting songs that soar.

Dodsworth has an old-fashioned air about it, and one that might ultimately cause problems. I remember pondering the prospects of Sidney Howard's 1934 play (from Sinclair Lewis' 1929 novel), and thinking it might well make an interesting musical. But this was back in the olden days of B.C. (That is, before Chorus Line and Chicago). Good old Sam Dodsworth had a wife and couldn't keep her. He takes up with a sympathetic and decent divorcee, at which point his straying wife decides to come back. Should he return to the woman who doesn't deserve him (to whom he is married)? Or should he stay with the good woman (who loves him)? This was at a time when American society looked at divorce as a terrible, scandalous thing. (Yes, there was such a time, and not so long ago.) The strength of "Dodsworth," on page and stage and screen, was that they had audiences pulling for Sam to stay with the good woman he was not married to. For today's audience, this is not such a shattering issue. One has to wonder if Sam Dodsworth's dilemma is strong enough to support a modern, dramatic musical, even one with a worthy score.

Time after Time is something else again. Based on the novel by Karl Alexander, it places H. G. Wells in modern-day New York, chasing Jack the Ripper. The idea is attractive and, from the tab version presented on the CD, seems workable. The score, as with the other Saver-Cole musical, has impressive peaks. This sampler CD, which features eight of the songs, leaves us wanting more.

The performers Saver and Cole lined up for their concert include Judy Blazer and Liz Callaway, and of course everything they sing (alone and together) sounds wonderful. How could it not They are joined by Christian Borle and Walter Charles. Charles is a bit hamstrung by his roles; given the four-person cast, someone has to sing both the middle-aged Sam Dodsworth and the considerably younger Jack the Ripper. Charles is not particularly right for either role, but he nevertheless acquits himself well. Borle is the surprise here. We know from Elegies and Spamalot that he is a versatile singing actor with a fine comic streak. Here he portrays a young and very British H. G. Wells, transported by time machine to 2006 Manhattan, and Borle does impressively well; he is not, it turns out, simply a (very funny) character comedian. And so we have "new songs from new musicals" by Jeffrey Saver and Stephen Cole. It is encouraging to find "new" writers like this working in the contemporary musical theatre. It is at the same time discouraging to realize that they have been doing so for at least a decade, with no Broadway activity to their credit. (Saver is a musical director, presently at Chicago; Cole has written at least nine musicals that have been produced here and there, though not on Broadway.) This do-it-yourself backer's audition-of-a-CD breezily accomplishes its mission, which is to say it serves as an overdue introduction to a team we want to hear more from.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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