ON THE RECORD: David Yazbek's "Evil Monkey Man," and "Judy Garland at the Grove"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: David Yazbek's "Evil Monkey Man," and "Judy Garland at the Grove"
This week's column discusses the new album from songwriter David Yazbek (of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and a live recording of Judy Garland's 1958 nightclub act at the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles.


EVIL MONKEY MAN [Ghostlight 8-3308]
Broadway knows David Yazbek as composer-lyricist of two comedic musicals adapted from motion picture hits. The Full Monty was an inviting if somewhat uneven musical that came along in 2000, only to be overshadowed by the Mel Brooks juggernaut The Producers. Yazbek's sophomore effort, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, was fully-realized and musically delightful; it, too, was overwhelmed by a more popular if less musically accomplished effort, Spamalot. If the first of the pair indicated that Yazbek was a promising practitioner in the Frank Loesser vein, the second showed that he now fully understood the vernacular.

Yazbek's heart, though, seems not to be in musical theatre. He came from the world of indie pop, whatever that may be. While Broadway has been good to him (and he has been good to Broadway), he is less interested in writing for a clutch of fictional characters than he is in writing for himself. That is to say, rather than writing songs for Jerry Lukowski of Buffalo or the wily Lawrence and Freddy on the Riviera, he prefers writing in the voice of David Yazbek. "Evil Monkey Man," his new CD, gives us a sample of that voice. Not a happy fellow, I must say; the songs circle around death, destruction and other somber activities. The composer is tormented; he apparently has gone through some harrowing times since those Scoundrels went Rotten, and it is all laid out on a plate. Or a platter, rather.

What makes this collection worthy of attention is that Yazbek seems to have an ingrown comic sense; no matter how weird and far-out he may feel, the music with which he expresses himself — in at least half of the tracks — is bright, bubbly and inventive. His fine comic sense is also apparent in most of the lyrics, no matter how depressing (or rather depressed) he gets. Mr. Yazbek gives us songs like "Monkey Baby Hanging on Chicken Wire," which is not perhaps what you'd expect from the composer of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; others seem to be about death, homelessness, and just plain despair. (It is not always possible to tell precisely what he is singing about.) Even so, the music is often tunesome and the words are filled with remarkably well-crafted images that startle but please.

"Evil Monkey Man" is not a collection of show tunes, no, and is not precisely what fans of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels might want to listen to. But Yazbek is such an interesting songwriter that his new album — recorded with his backup trio (His Warmest Regards, they are called) — is certainly worth noting. He is apparently working on a third musical, about Bruce Lee. The arresting "Evil Monkey Man" leaves me even more eager to hear another set of theatre songs from Mr. Yazbek, although I might not revisit these dirty rotten monkeys so soon.

Capitol Records hit it big with "Judy at Carnegie Hall," a two-LP set recorded live in April 1961 that captured Garland at the peak of her career — or, at least, one of the peaks of her career. Capitol had first carted recording equipment to a Judy performance three years earlier, at the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. "Garland at the Grove" was released the following year, slightly trimmed so that it could fit on a single LP. It has more or less faded from memory, especially in the wake of the best-selling Carnegie recording. DRG, which continues to mine the archives of the Capitol and Columbia catalogues, has now brought the Aug. 5, 1958 nightclub act to CD.

This is not Garland at her best; the fire and excitement of the Carnegie album is pretty much absent. Even the crowd of Garland fans, at the closing performance of her two-week stint, is relatively sedate. But a live recording of Judy is a live recording of Judy, which should be enough for her current generations of fans. And I mean, after all, you get not only the Rainbow and Trolley songs but the contemporary treat (?) "Purple People Eater." (I especially like Ms. Garland's rendition of Arlen & Koehler's "When the Sun Comes Out.") The three songs that were cut from the LP due to length — "Day In – Day Out," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" and "Do It Again" — have been restored for the CD. True, these tracks have been heard elsewhere over the years; but now "Garland at the Grove" gives us the full 50-minute set as heard on that August night long ago. Here she is, boys — here she is, world: Somewhere between her triumphant comeback of 1951 at the Palace, and her triumphant comeback of 1961, ten blocks uptown, at Carnegie Hall.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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