ON THE RECORD: Hair, Peter Pan and Forbidden Broadway

News   ON THE RECORD: Hair, Peter Pan and Forbidden Broadway
This week's column discusses the Actors' Fund Benefit recording of Hair; a new and surprising restoration of Leonard Bernstein's Peter Pan; and the latest from Forbidden Broadway.

HAIR [Ghostlight 1968]
You might well express reservations at the prospect of an all-star concert version of Hair, featuring the likes of Lea DeLaria and Harvey Fierstein. Hair seemed like an odd choice for this 2004 benefit for the Actors' Fund of America. However, Seth Rudetsky is a clever and canny musical director. Somewhat surprisingly, given the list of participants and the nature of the show itself, Rudetsky seems to have put his trust in the material and — specifically — Galt MacDermot's original musical choices for the show. MacDermot, an admittedly unusual musical comedy type, made his Broadway debut as Hair's composer, musical director, keyboard player and orchestrator. While the liner notes for the new recording includes small print credits for additional arrangements and orchestrations, these changes appear to be mainly cosmetic. The score sounds pretty much as it was when it was created, with an overlay of accomplished and for the most part exciting singers. The presence of literally dozens of current-day musical comedy names makes this new Hair CD of more than incidental interest. No, it doesn't supplant the original 1968 Broadway cast album, which I suppose was one of the largest-selling cast albums of the century; that would be unrealistic.

But here we have, for example, Lillias White singing "Aquarius"; not an obvious choice, but certainly an interesting and successful one. Raúl Esparza on "Hair" and Adam Pascal on "I Got Life" are obvious, and excellent; Julia Murney is, too, with co-author James Rado's big solo, "Where Do I Go?" Liz Callaway gets "Starshine," Darius de Haas and Paul Castree share "What a Piece of Work Is Man," Laura Benanti has "Initials," Sherie Rene Scott is "Walking in Space," Shoshana Bean does well with "I Believe in Love," Gavin Creel electrifies "Going Down," Norm Lewis let's the sunshine in, and the list goes on. We also have Annie Golden singing "Frank Mills," sounding precisely like she did when she played the role in the 1977 Broadway revival.

There are a few singers who mar the work; one of them, I'm afraid, sounds like she is gargling her way through what should be a highpoint. However, this was a charity benefit, so let's be charitable. One might not unreasonably expect Hair, nearing 40, to sound somewhat dated. Not here, on the Actors' Fund Benefit CD from Ghostlight. (Someone with a wry sense has seen fit to assign this CD the catalogue number 1968.) You don't get a sense of the fabric of the show, as the songs are distributed on an individual basis; but with singing actors like Raúl Esparza, Norm Lewis and the rest, Hair gets full value.

PETER PAN [Koch KIC 7596]
I didn't quite know what to make of a new recording of Leonard Bernstein's Peter Pan. This was the 1950 play-with-songs version that headlined Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff. Bernstein wrote six songs, with a substantial amount of incidental music by Alec Wilder. The whole thing was wiped from memory a few years later, when Mary Martin flew into town (and onto national TV) with Jerome Robbins pulling the strings. Wires, that is.

The liner notes of this new Peter Pan, restored and conducted by Alexander Frey, tell a somewhat different tale. Bernstein, it turns out, wrote a considerably more complete score, with additional songs; incidental music; dances; preludes; and more. Said material was apparently rejected by the director and/or producer; or perhaps Bernstein wrote it after the fact, in hopes of replacing the Wilder contributions. (At least one of the songs, the evocative "Never-Land," is marred because Bernstein appears to have remembered the bridge from Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger's "I Remember You." This theme is repeated prominently in the underscoring, too.) Whatever the case may be, a substantial amount of material was stuffed into wrappers and all but forgotten. Mr. Frey has unearthed it, dusted it off, restructured it, had it orchestrated and arranged for it to be recorded.

What we get, unexpectedly, is "new" and never-before-heard music by Bernstein. For Bernstein fans, this is of more than incidental interest. An underscoring incidental like Peter's "Shadow Dance," as Wendy sews on his shadow, immediately makes you perk up your ears; this is bright, expressive music, and something that might have remained lost forever.

Peter Pan has never been at the top of anyone's Bernstein collection. Three of the six songs, "Who Am I?" "Peter, Peter" and "My House" (also called "Build My House"), have long been minor delights, with the latter the most striking. (The six songs from 1950 were reissued last year on the British collection 100 Years of Peter Pan [Sepia 1037].)

Not unexpectedly, the knowledgeable Bernstein fan will hear familiar strains throughout. Several themes found their way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976). And why not? (That "Shadow Dance," for example, serves as the distinctive figure of "Ten Square Miles on the Potomac River.") The "Lagoon Fight" looks forward to On the Waterfront (1954). Conversely, "Tinkerbell Lives!" works in the opposite direction; it's lifted from the xylophone scherzo in On the Town's "Times Square Ballet." I suppose that Bernstein, in 1950, had no notion that the ballet music from his first musical would ever be played again.

How does this restored Peter Pan work as a theatrical score? Not very well, I'm afraid. The music has little of the vibrancy of On the Town, but that is, I suppose, a given; there is more life, and more color, to be found in Coney Island than in Victorian London. (Bernstein also had, in Hollywood's Jean Arthur, a non-singer — and thus a Peter without songs.) But the lyrics are simplistic, especially for some of these newly discovered songs. Some are lifted, word-for-word, from J.M. Barrie's play; "Captain Hook's Soliloquy," which is taken from the "fame, thou glittering bauble" monologue, is mighty pedantic. Listening to this material, one can only be amazed by Bernstein's quick development, both as composer and lyricist; Trouble in Tahiti arrived in 1952, and it seems to be the work of an altogether different talent. Even so, the material on this new CD is of inordinate interest to Bernstein fans, and exceedingly well presented. Linda Eder heads the cast, singing the big songs (and quite nicely). Daniel Narducci is on hand to sing Hook, and this is perhaps a miscalculation. Mr. Narducci is an accomplished baritone, yes; but for Captain Hook, you want a comedian, not a singer. Hook's songs sound like they were written for a voice like that of Bernstein's long-time pal, Adolph Green. Beautiful tones are not the point. Conductor Frey knows what he is about. This restoration is obviously a long-time quest of his, and the results turn out to justify the project.

The original orchestrations are herein credited to Trude Rittman and Hershy Kay, although I contend that this is an error; Rittman arranged Wilder's incidental music, but I can find no evidence of her ever orchestrating any music whatsoever for Broadway. (Trude, coincidentally enough, provided incidental music and some of the dance arrangements for the Mary Martin version.) In any event, most of the material on this new recording was not used in 1950 and is thus newly orchestrated. Garth Edwin Sunderland and conductor Frey did the new orchestrations, which sound pretty much like I suspect Bernstein intended. Sid Ramin, the grade-school friend of Bernstein who went on to orchestrate West Side Story and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, contributed the chart for "Dream with Me." As a bonus track, Frey found and added "Spring Will Come Again," from the aborted musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. (Although not specified on the recording, this lyric is presumably not by Lenny but by Betty & Adolph.)

Speaking of Green, one cannot help but compare the 1950 Peter Pan to the 1954 version The Mary Martin-Jerome Robbins production was something of a ragtag affair. This was due, in great part, to the presence of two sets of songwriters. Green, with partner Betty Comden and composer Jule Styne, rushed in to help supplant much of the score by the new-to Broadway team Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh (who did — for their part — provide such winners as "Tender Shepherd," "I've Gotta Crow," "I Won't Grow Up," and "I'm Flying"). But the doctoring was successful; the Mary Martin Peter Pan has so many exuberant highspots that audiences happily make it through the lulls.

This Bernstein Peter Pan score has some lovely music, and plenty of interest to the discerning listener. But musical comedy it isn't, and was never intended to be. And there, as old man Hook might say, is where the canker gnaws. Even so, Alexander Frey's recording of Peter Pan fills in a blank for Bernstein fans, and does so in exceedingly fine fashion.

FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: Special Victims Unit [DRG 12629]
I, for one, readily admit that I have not been keeping up with Forbidden Broadway, now in its twenty-third year and eighth CD. Topical revues, by definition, can be hit or miss; what is topical to you and the people at the next table might not be topical to me. I have long admired what Gerard Alessandrini has been doing, and I suppose I chose not to have to go, year after year, and face possible disappointment.

Which leads me to the CD of Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit. Many of the same old faces are there, inevitably; where would Alessandrini be without Ethel and Carol and Liza and Patti? But once again, Alessandrini has a keen sense of target. This Forbidden Broadway starts out with that forlorn orphan Annie ("I'm thirty years old, tomorrow," she sings — after which she is mowed down by a machine gun.) There is a fitting celebration of what is labeled "the worst best musical ever!"; you know, the one in which everything is "thoroughly perky" and "cheerfully insidious." Gerard's Avenue Q features that show's complaint song, but here the complainers include Brooke Shields ("being stellar isn't easy when your vehicles are cheesy") and that writer-of-great hits who never gets no respect, Stephen Schwartz. Pretty sharp, Gerard, and I'm happy to see this is the case after 23 years.

Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], 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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