ON THE RECORD: "Harvey Schmidt Plays Jones & Schmidt" and "The Musicality of [Charles] Strouse"

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: "Harvey Schmidt Plays Jones & Schmidt" and "The Musicality of [Charles] Strouse"
This week's column discusses two composer anthology albums, one featuring the work of Harvey Schmidt and the other Charles Strouse.

HARVEY SCHMIDT plays JONES & SCHMIDT [Kritzerland KR 20010 3]
Some folk, upon the occasion of their seventy-fifth birthdays, are feted by friends and showered with presents. Harvey Schmidt — who burst upon the scene in 1960 with The Fantasticks, and has written about a dozen other musicals — came up with a seventy-fifth birthday present of a different sort. He sat down at the Steinway in his living room, pushed the record button and sent out copies as a presents to his friends. Word of Harvey's CD spread from admiring friends to admiring fans, who naturally clamored for their own copy of "Harvey Schmidt plays Jones and Schmidt." Record producer Bruce Kimmel, who recently started a new label called Kritzerland, has obliged by giving the CD a commercial release.

One of Kimmel's early releases, on his Bay Cities label, was Celebration, the experimental Schmidt and Jones musical that puzzled traditional audiences in 1969. Later, Kimmel produced a full-scale studio cast album of Colette Collage, a revised version of the Broadway-bound Colette, which closed on the road in 1982. Kimmel also included a good number of Schmidt songs on his "Lost in Boston" albums. So it is not surprising that Kimmel has taken "Harvey Schmidt plays Jones and Schmidt" in hand.

Schmidt is best known for The Fantasticks, not unnaturally so as it ran 17,000-odd performances. (More than the Broadway runs of Cats and Les Misérables combined, but who's counting?) This led to two full-scale Broadway musicals under the aegis of David Merrick. The under appreciated 110 in the Shade (1963), a stunning musical drama, was only moderately successful in its day. Over the last 15 years or so, it has begun to receive the respect it deserves. I Do! I Do! was the boys' one attempt at an outright commercial blockbuster. The package — a Gower Champion special, with two superstars in the offing — was something that they couldn't quite refuse; not with Broadway's Texan-darling Mary Martin in the spotlight, joined by that charismatic old music man Bob Preston. I Do! was a hit, all right, and for many years proved a durable road attraction; Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson did especially well back in the 1970's. The show, though, seems to be fading from memory. Later, Jones and Schmidt musicals failed to find an audience, as the saying goes, despite bright spots throughout. Harvey seems to have officially retired in 2001.

"Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," two of Schmidt's earliest songs, remain his most famous. Listeners who are only vaguely familiar with Schmidt's other work might be surprised to discover that he has written many songs of this caliber. Here they are on "Harvey Schmidt plays Jones and Schmidt." Schmidt presents 21 songs (unaccompanied by their lyrics, by Tom Jones); a full third are gossamer-wing beautiful. "The Room Is Filled with You," from Colette, is simply rhapsodic, albeit tinged with melancholy (courtesy of the melodic afterthoughts brought out by Schmidt's thumbs). "Time Goes By," from a 1984 adaptation of Our Town that was aborted due to rights issues, provides the same contemplative lift as "Soon It's Gonna Rain." "Thousands of Flowers," from I Do! I Do!, has been one of my favorites since first I heard it. This song was cut after the Boston opening, apparently because the staging brought an unintended and awkward laugh from the audience. That's what can happen during a tryout; one false step and a most beautiful song can find itself tossed in the alley and all but lost forever.

There are other worthy songs you might never have heard, like the playful "Earthly Paradise" (written for the 1970 non-musical version of Colette, starring Zoe Caldwell). There are some items that sound far more delightful on Schmidt's keyboard than you might expect, such as "The Honeymoon Is Over" and two songs from Celebration, "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want" and "Survive." Harvey even sees fit to pull out something called "Moonlight #2." (In his charming, anecdote-filled liner notes, Schmidt admits that this title "unfortunately sounds like it might be a new shade of Max Factor make-up.") This was used as an incidental under El Gallo's speech leading into "Soon It's Gonna Rain." Just one of the many treats "Harvey Schmidt Plays Jones and Schmidt" offers. Schmidt's playing is a joy in itself, richly expressive and almost therapeutic. Those familiar with the cast albums of these shows will recognize almost every fill and countermelody. Schmidt is not playing reductions of the orchestrations, though; Harvey is one of the few Broadway composers who handed his orchestrators relatively complete arrangements to work from.

"Harvey Schmidt plays Jones and Schmidt" gives the impression that you are sitting in Harvey's living room, with a glass of something cool to drink, as the composer loses himself in the songs he most enjoys playing. I feel it necessary to point out that Harvey's piano bench squeaks, and how; if he had been in a recording studio, someone no doubt would have said hold on and brought in another chair. But "Harvey Schmidt plays Jones and Schmidt" was simply a home recording intended for friends. The squeaking piano bench — and maybe a pet bird squawking?, somewhere in Harvey's Texas home — add to the charm of this extra-special birthday album.

Charles Strouse, like Harvey Schmidt, has been writing musical comedies since 1960; with at least a couple presently in the works, he's approaching the two-dozen mark (by my count). "The Musicality of Strouse" speaks well of — well, the musicality of Strouse.

This is a collection of 12 songs from 12 musicals. Or rather, seven musicals, two unproduced musicals, one oratorio, one revival of a musical and one film version of a musical. The tracks are compiled from a variety of Jay sources; some cast albums, some personality albums and some newly recorded for the occasion.

The selection of 12 out of 400 (?) can be a tricky business, but Jay has come up with a strong lineup. "The Musicality of Strouse" displays an intelligent, creative musical theatre composer at work. The obvious choices are omitted, and wisely so; I don't suppose we need to hear "Tomorrow" again. (My eight-year-old has of late been blasting it, at the top of her lungs, at every opportunity. To quote a Comden and Green lyric: "I don't know where she got it, she sure didn't get it from me.") The only standard included is "Once Upon a Time" from All American, which serves as a good launching pad for a discussion of Strouse's musicality. This is an especially fine recording of the song; the original duet version, expertly orchestrated by Red Ginzler, is used. David Green and Judy Kaye give a highly attractive rendition. Susan Egan's "How Lovely to Be a Woman," from Bye Bye Birdie, is just right (and brings us another modern-day recording of an original Ginzler orchestration).

More to the point, musicality-wise, are some of Strouse's later and more complex theatre songs. "Blame it on the Summer Night" (from Rags, sung by Sally Ann Triplett), "Is There Anything Better than Dancing" (from Nick & Nora, sung by Joanna Gleason and Barry Bostwick) and the title song from Dance a Little Closer all demonstrate an intelligent, creative composer at work. (This last is not from the original cast album, but a new and very nice recording by original-cast star Liz Robertson). Two of the previously unheard songs are especially interesting. "Winners" (sung by Alana Maria) was written for the 2003 London revival of Golden Boy; it features a strong lyric by Lee Adams, well set by Strouse. "Home" (sung by Karen Ziemba, with an assist from Christiane Noll), a paean to burlesque, is one of those delightfully jaunty show tunes that Strouse specializes in.his is from one of Strouse's musicals-in-progress, The Night They Raided Minsky's (with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead).

"The Musicality of Strouse" gives us a mere taste of Strouse, but most of the selections are rich and tasty.

—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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