CY COLEMAN: It Started with a Dream Sony Classical SK 89138
Cy Coleman, at 72, is having a busy year. And why not? So are fellow septuagenarians Kander and Strouse and Cook and Stritch and Sondheim. Pity the poor, underproductive musical theatre people in their 40s and 50s.
Coleman went into the studio last year and recorded an album called It Started with a Dream, and it's quite enjoyable. The songs range from early Coleman - circa 1955 - to today's work. There are eighteen songs across fourteen tracks; half are non-show related, and all but six are new to me. The surprise here, I guess, is the unknown songs. Most interesting, perhaps, are three from an unfinished musical called Atlantic City. Christopher Gore wrote the lyrics; one of the songs, "I Really Love You," stands out. Other obscure songs that prove quite effective include "Some Kind of Music" (lyric by Carolyn Leigh), "September's Coming" (lyric by Coleman), "Bad Is for Other People" (lyric by Robert Wells), "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" (lyric by Joseph A. McCarthy), and "Somebody" (lyric by Coleman).
Coleman does his best, perhaps, with his two finest songs, "The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Witchcraft" (both written before his first musical in 1960). "The Best Is Yet to Come" is an especially wonderful song; rhythmically, it amazes me (to quote the title of a third early Coleman Leigh song). Tony Bennett sits in for "The Colors of My Life" (lyric by Michael Stewart) from Barnum.
The album's title song comes from a work-in-progress, Pamela's First Musical (with lyrics by David Zippel and book by Wendy Wasserstein). "It Started with a Dream" describes the creative process, and it's lovely. Lillias White joins in on this track, making it sound extra-special. (Ms. White is also very much in evidence on the upcoming Dreamgirls in Concert, where she recreates the role she played so memorably in the 1987 revival. I expect to have the finished version in time for my next column; if you happen to see it in the meantime, though, buy it and start listening!)
As for It Started with a Dream, Cy Coleman sounds relaxed and mellow and happy. Very nice.
BEA ARTHUR ON BROADWAY: Just Between Friends DRG 12993
Bea Arthur spent twenty-five years kicking around musical comedy, starting in 1947. Roles were hard to come by, as she was what you might call an abrasive singing character comedienne. Over the years, she made notable contributions to two hit musicals. As Yente the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), she had a small-but-distinctive role with only a fragment of a song. This led to her one moment in the spotlight, as second banana Vera Charles in the musical Mame (1966). With a Tony Award in hand, she finally got a starring role in a big Broadway musical; but A Mother's Kisses (1968) folded during its tryout, and that was the end of Arthur's Broadway career. (Her Broadway debut, for those with long memories, was as a tart-tongued madam in the 1955 musical Seventh Heaven; Chita Rivera was one of her girls.)
Fortunately for Arthur, she did a 1971 guest shot on the TV series "All in the Family" and was quickly spun off into the 1972 sitcom "Maude." Broadway had ignored her talents, but she found a happy home in Hollywood. A second long-running hit series, "Golden Girls," added to her fame. But the lure of the stage, apparently, tugged her back before the footlights. Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends opened February 17, 2002 at the Booth; a cast album was recorded during the tryout, live at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in West Palm Beach.
Arthur is quite good in spots; "Fun to Be Fooled," for example, which opens the program, and "Pirate Jenny." This last, Lenya's song from Threepenny Opera, is close to spellbinding. (Arthur played Lucy Brown in Marc Blitzstein's famous 1954 off-Broadway production of this Weill-Brecht musical; her memorable performance of "Barbara Song" ("Oh, You Can't Just Let a Man Walk Over You") is available on the highly recommended cast album of that production [Decca Broadway 012 159 463].)
But many of the songs on Just Between Friends are unsuited to Arthur, at least at this point in time. She simply can't hit too many of the notes, and those she hits she can't sustain; so she just talks/rushes her way through. (With her gruff, low tones and her enthusiastically rushed delivery, she sounds uncannily like Billy Finn.) Arthur tells us how she would love to do Gypsy; but she sings "Some People," with a heap of acting thrown in, and you think, "my god, this would be difficult to sit through."
The choice of material seems scattershot. (The sixty-seven minute disc contains most, though not all, of the show as performed at the Booth.) She tells us her evening is "a collection of songs and stories that I've saved up over the years that mean a lot to me, that I would like to share with you." One certainly hopes these stories do not represent the highpoints of her life. She begins and ends the disc talking about lamb recipes. Why? It's supposed to be funny, but I don't get it. At one point, she goes after Jerry Robbins and Pia Zadora, nailing them both. I understand the inclusion of the Robbins story, and it's very funny indeed. But why Pia Zadora? Is it in some way important to Arthur, personally, to try to ridicule Pia Zadora? Or is it simply the best she and her writers and several "consultants" can do? Arthur also tells a few extended anecdotes that some might consider off-color. Funny, yes; but what do they have to do with Bea Arthur, just between friends?
Arthur is ably assisted by Billy Goldenberg at the piano. A one-time Broadway dance arranger (with Let it Ride, 110 in the Shade, High Spirits and Henry, Sweet Henry to his credit), Goldenberg moved on to a fairly active composing career in Hollywood. The CD contains two Goldenberg songs, "Fifty Percent" (from his only Broadway musical Ballroom, lyric by Marilyn & Alan Bergman) and "The Chance to Sing" (from an unproduced Harold and Maude, lyric by Tom Jones). Goldenberg is very good for Arthur; he follows her erratic tempos and knows when she needs support with the melody. It is unfair and unfortunate that Ms. Arthur be compared with her contemporaries Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch; but there they are, all on Broadway and on the record rack at the same time. (All three of these recordings, incidentally, are brought to us by Hugh Fordin at DRG.) Cook's Mostly Sondheim [DRG 91464] is not just a souvenir of her stage show, it's a work of art in itself. I imagine that the same can be said for the forthcoming CD of Elaine Stritch at Liberty. The CD of Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Among Friends is, I'm afraid, for fans only. But consider the material itself. Stritch builds to "The Ladies Who Lunch." Cook builds to "Ice Cream." Bea Arthur builds to "The Man in the Moon Is a Lady." And that's the difference between these three one-person shows and these three CDs.
AND OFF THE RECORD:
For those of you who need to know even more about that Bialystock & Bloom musical at the St. James, The Producers: The Book, Lyrics, and Story behind the Biggest Hit in Broadway History! How We Did It [talk miramax books] is irrepressibly delectable. The creation of the show is outlined in ten chapters, written alternately by Mel Brooks and Tom Meehan. The final playing script, complete with lyrics, is reproduced - with amusing "handwritten" annotations scrawled in the margins in red ink. And there are a zillion full-color photos, mostly by Paul Kolnik. The script and production photos are especially helpful for a show that whizzes by at 33 LPM (laughs per minute); this book gives theatregoers the chance to savor gags they missed because they were too busy laughing. Eagle-eyed readers can catch some inside jokes. Like the photo on page 124, of Roger De Bris in his Chrysler Building gown. Sitting upstage right on a ledge with a vase of flowers is a gold-framed photo of what looks to be J. Edgar Hoover, with a big red lipstick kiss on his lapel. You can't see that from the second balcony, or even the $480 seats.
-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.