ON THE RECORD: Legrand's Amour, Finn's Elegies and Cook's Sondheim

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Legrand's Amour, Finn's Elegies and Cook's Sondheim
This week's column examines two new cast recordings — Michel Legrand's Amour and William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle — and a recent DVD release featuring Barbara Cook.
Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand

AMOUR [Sh-K-Boom 4003]
Put the original cast album of Michel Legrand's Amour on your CD player and you're bound to be entranced. The music is steeped in Gallic charm, and unless you're allergic to Gallic charm, you're likely to be taken by this whimsical chamber musical. That this very same musical thudded when produced at the Music Box last October — with a decided absence of charm and an overload of whimsy — is one of those absurdities that makes Broadway a boulevard of broken-down dreams.

This existential tale was taken from a celebrated 1943 short story by Marcel Ayme. Celebrated in France, that is; "Le Passe-Muraille" is, not unreasonably, unknown along Times Square. Ayme's story was published during the Nazi occupation of Paris, which only adds to the layers of context. To American audiences, though, there was no context. The title for the American release of the 1951 French film version of "Le Passe Muraille," I hesitate to report, was "Mr. Peek-a-Boo."

Chief among the pleasures is the work of Legrand. The composer is best known, here and everywhere, for the 1964 film "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg." The international success of that venture has brought him no less than four Broadway attempts, although only Amour reached the street. Legrand's first local assignment, in 1974, was one of those exceedingly perplexing psychological musicals that never get off the ground. Brainchild it was called, with lyrics by Hal David (working without Bacharach). Tovah Feldshuh saw her best early shot at Broadway stardom disappear as the show staggered through two weeks in Philadelphia. (Feldshuh played a songwriter, while two other actresses played her "Emotional Self" and "Mental Self" — if that gives you an idea.) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg lasted four weeks in a mounting by Andrei Serban at Joe Papp's Public Theater in 1979, but never made it uptown. Sheldon Harnick, who provided the English lyrics for that venture, also collaborated with Legrand on a 1981 Richard Kiley-as-Scrooge venture for the Weisslers. Penny by Penny or A Christmas Carol it was called, depending upon where you saw it. In either event, it quickly folded without braving Broadway.

For Amour, Legrand avoided his melodic-pop style of Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Summer of '42, turning instead to an Offenbach-like opéra bouffe. And he did his part extremely well; the music moves along effortlessly, with more than several delights along the way.

The same cannot be said for Jeremy Sams, who did the English-language translation (from the original by Didier Van Caulwelaert). The lyrics are very helpful on the CD, where they keep us informed about the complexities of the action. From the stage, though, all those words were as a cudgel. There was no time at the Music Box to sit back and relax, to savor the music, to breathe in what should have been a Parisian atmosphere. Information — in the form of song lyrics — was hurled across the orchestra pit like a relentless cascade of machine-gun fire. Imagine, if you will, W.S. Gilbert in Montmartre. Not a good fit. Gilbert doesn't belong in Paris; it's a question of style, not craft. Gilbert's lyrics call for a tongue-twisting precision, which Sams seemed to aspire to. (In some places, he seemed to perspire to it as well.) "Rhymes, I got rhymes," he seems to be saying, like Alfred Drake in Kismet. Triple rhymes, quadruple rhymes and more. Which worked, I'm afraid, against the material.

Not only were the lyrics English in style, they also fought against time and place. Almost the first thing we heard from the heroine — delectably performed by Melissa Errico, by the way — was that she wonders why David Niven lives with Errol Flynn. Excuse me for living, as some musical comedy mother once said, but does (or, rather, did) David Niven live with Errol Flynn? Were David Niven and Errol Flynn popular in Paris in 1950? Did your typical, cloistered Parisian convent-bred girl know who David Niven and Errol Flynn were? Oh — she's now she's talking about Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais. They were French, certainly. But Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes? And Frank Sinatra in Montmartre in a silver Chevrolet? In what language does "Sinatra" and "Montmartre" rhyme, anyway? Sams, in the same sentence, rhymes "Chevrolet" with "Charles Trenet." Trenet was a songwriter; he wrote that wonderful song "La Mer" (known in English as "The Sea" and "Beyond the Sea"). But when was the last time you heard anyone use Niven and Flynn and Cocteau and Garbo and Sinatra together, along with a silver Chevrolet, in 12 bars?

The result of lyrics like this, at least in the theatre, was that they set your mind trying to keep up with the lyricist instead of the characters. Are we in 1950 Paris? Are we in a fanciful, Briton's-eye view of Paris; or is it Hollywood calling? As it turns out, this was supposed to be the real Paris, and Legrand didn't let us down. But Sams was somewhere on the far side of the Channel. He was also from time to time purposely vulgar, in a British schoolboy sort of way. Yes, one of the characters is a whore, but what we got was rather more juvenile than sophisticated. Another character is a corrupt prosecutor who seeks a "floozy" with "stilettos and a whip" who'll make him "grovel" and "cower like a common reprobate." Not too Gallic, eh what?

In fairness to Sams, I found the following statement in the liner notes: "How to turn a French jeu d'esprit full of Gallic wit, in-jokes and historical references into a show that would mean anything at all to an American audience? I decided to try and write the text that Van Cauwelaert would have come up with had he been writing in English. As rhymed, as self-conscious, as daft as the original."

This sounds uncomfortably like a similar statement from the adapter of the recent Flower Drum Song, but we'll let that pass. Sams, arguably, accomplished his stated aim in the translation. That it was the correct course to take is a different question, and one that we needn't take up here.

If Amour led an extremely problematic existence on the Broadway stage, the CD is quite a delight. I can foresee the recording stimulating regional productions, and that's all to the good. A word of advice to directors and designers: if you choose to dominate your Montmartre set with the Sacre-Coeur, do yourself a favor. Do not envelop the Sacre Couer — that lofty church overlooking Paris, invariably highlighted by the blue sky of the day or the blue-black sky of the night — beneath a brick wall. I'm still trying to puzzle that one out, Magritte or no.

Ms. Errico, as previously indicated, stands out every chance she gets. Errico has been a star waiting to happen since her performance in the 1996 Encores! production of One Touch of Venus. After a skittish several years (including the ill-conceived musical High Society), she returned to the fray in last summer's Sondheim Celebration production of Sunday in the Park with George. She did a lovely job at the Kennedy Center, and a similarly lovely job in Amour. Let us hope that a good role falls into her capable hands soon. Errico is accompanied by an especially accomplished group, led by Lewis Cleale, Christopher Fitzgerald, Norm Lewis, Nora Mae Lyng and the veteran John Cunningham (who goes back to Zorba and Company). All of them handle their material with aplomb.

And then there's the leading performance of Malcolm Gets. Gets is an accomplished performer who has done extremely good work in the past, and he does everything one could possibly ask of him here. But let me sidetrack to a bonus track that has been added to the recording, with composer Legrand demonstrating "An Ordinary Guy." Charming, friendly, unprepossessing, and truly lovely — and I wonder if it doesn't illuminate a big part of the problem. Gets is a leading man, by type. And perhaps that's where Amour went awry.

While I do not advocate corrective casting, I can't help wondering what might have happened with a more craggy fellow in the role. Gets looked like a handsome fellow made up and costumed to appear to be "an ordinary Joe," "a nerd." Suppose you had someone more along the lines of Chip Zien, Lonny Price, Kevin Chamberlin or even Christopher Fitzgerald. (The latter, in his 90-second cameo as a hopelessly hapless advocate, was the only member of the cast who was fully able to break through the restraints of the material on stage.)

I'm not talking about language here, or "French-ness," mind you; and I would guess that Gets can sing rings around the others. I'm talking about physical type; I'm talking about audience sympathy; I'm talking about rooting for the underdog. The character Dusoleil is supposed to be almost invisibly commonplace; not the sort of chap who ever, under any circumstance, gets the girl or recognition or high position. I can't help wondering whether Gets — staring at us from the cover with a Granny Smith covering his mouth, and through no fault of his own — gave us the wrong impression from the outset.

Legrand, meanwhile, has some very nice melodies threaded through his score. (The CD presents about 70 minutes-worth of the show, which ran 90 minutes in the theatre.) The orchestrations, credited to the composer, are clever and enjoyable as well. The five-piece orchestra sounds wonderful, with especially lovely playing by pianist/music director Todd Ellison and the sole wind player Benjamin Kono, who sometimes sounded like he was playing four wind instruments at once. The choral work, too, is crisp and admirably precise.

So we are in the curious position of happily recommending the CD of a show that was a trying experience in the theatre. Hopefully, some industrious regional company will give the show another chance, with a less problematic production. (I am told that director James Lapine undertook the project despite great misgivings, and that he turned to the cast late in the preview period and told them the whole thing was misconceived.)

As it is, Amour goes down in the books as the shortest running Broadway musical since the twin fiascos of 1993-1994, The Red Shoes and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. But you wouldn't know it from listening to this CD.

ELEGIES: A SONG CYCLE [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 189]
William Finn was hailed as the most important new American musical theatre composer of the post-Sondheim generation when he burst on the scene with March of the Falsettos in 1981. This claim has proven to be accurate, arguably, but with a hitch; Finn's output has been severely limited. Falsettos has been followed by only two full-scale New York productions, Falsettoland and A New Brain. Finn's numerous fans have had to content themselves with only four cast albums — these three shows and the 1979 In Trousers. A 2001 cabaret evening brought forth a fifth album, "Infinite Joy." These CDs contain a significant amount of exceptional musical theatre writing, mind you. But the years roll by, and we want our new Finn musicals.

Elegies, which found its way to the Mitzi Newhouse last spring, was not a new musical. It was a song cycle, consisting of songs of mourning. André Bishop first discovered the unpolished jewel called Finn 25 years ago, turning him loose in a Playwrights Horizons rehearsal hall. Bishop brought Finn along when he moved to Lincoln Center Theater, and has been involved one way or another with almost everything Finn has done. Given Billy's limited output, Bishop presumably coaxed Elegies off Finn's piano rack.

Every successful songwriter is frequently asked the same question: What comes first, the music or the lyrics? The traditional answer has always been: The contract. What we see in Elegies, though, is that William Finn writes to communicate. Other composers, traditionally, write for a living; Finn writes not for his living, but for his life.

Most of the elegies appear to have been written as private outpourings of grief. Which is to say, they were not intended for an audience. An audience at a memorial service, perhaps; but the purpose of these songs was not for them to "work" in a theatrical setting, before a paying audience of strangers. They were, and are, Finn expressing his grief at a certain moment in time.

"14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" is incredibly powerful, and fittingly so, as a memorial to the composer's mother. But there are at least four other songs that are every bit as arresting, every bit as heartbreaking and life-affirming. "When the Earth Stopped Turning" is another expression of grief at the death of Barbara Finn; "Monica & Mark" tells of the death of a lawyer friend, who was famous for his all-male Thanksgiving parties (as Finn tells us in another song). "Venice" tells of the death of what seems to be a sparring partner, "the former lover of my lover."

"Anytime (I Am There)" appears to be a song written as a death-bed request of Monica, the mother of Finn's goddaughter. "I am there in music / I am there in sky / I don't know why this thing did happen / But this much is clear / Anytime or anywhere, I am there." (Overpowering. This is my newest favorite song.) These songs are truly elegies — songs of mourning, yes. But they are also remarkable as songs, featuring soaring melodies and inducing heart-swelling emotions. Elegies in some way might help explain Finn's frustrating lack of productivity. Consider the amount of work and feeling and guts that Finn must have poured into a song like "Venice," a song that he couldn't possibly have intended to be heard after the memorial service for one Bolek Greczynski. Imagine this music sitting unheard on a shelf, ever after. Most theatrical composers write to order, almost exclusively. Richard Rodgers for example; it is unimaginable that he would have expended so much creative energy on something for which he couldn't conceivably expect to be paid. This is not the place to compare "14 Dwight Ave." and "Anytime" to the "Soliloquy" and "What's the Use of Wond'rin'" from Carousel. I will note, however, that the emotional results are similar.

Finn has been aided by his carefully selected performers — although I'm sure these songs would be just as powerful, if not more so, in the composer's own gruff growl. Christian Borle, Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Keith Byron Kirk and Michael Rupert are the cast; Vadim Feichtner, who was also on hand for "Infinite Joys," provides the musical direction and expert accompaniment. Let this stand as a salute to them all, but I can't proceed without a special nod to Carmello for her "Anytime" and Buckley for "14 Dwight Ave." And especially Rupert, who has been on and around Broadway for 35 of his 52 years. In addition to being a fine and reliable performer, he seems to have recently developed an assuredness and authority that accompanies him onstage.

Other selections on the album — while all elegies, in one way or another — are less mournful, with Finn's exuberant good-humor bursting through. There is a song about "Passover," which is a first cousin to "Jason's Bar Mitzvah" from Falsettoland. There are also eulogies for producer Joe Papp, actress Peggy Hewett and songwriter-actor Jack Eric Williams. But the five songs mentioned above are in another class altogether. "My friends, I'm taking you to Venice," goes one of them, and I can't help thinking that some musical theatre-loving benefactor should stake Billy (and Arthur) to a couple of weeks in a small apartment overlooking a quiet canal, where Finn can relax and breathe deep because in Venice "beauty and pleasure is all we can hope to understand."

For her November 2000 cabaret act at Feinstein's, Barbara Cook and her musical director Wally Harper came up with an evening of songs by Sondheim, interspersed with songs from his little list of "songs I wish I'd written (at least in part)." Barbara and Wally took the show to Carnegie Hall in February 2001, at which time it was recorded. Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim [DRG 91464] was favorably reviewed in this column upon its release. The two-CD set also featured Malcolm Gets (on six of twenty-one tracks), who sang mostly Sondheim. Cook gave us most of the others, which is fine by me, especially when there is a fair share of Arlen.

The success of the concert and the CD led to a series of international bookings — Barbara without Gets — culminating in twin engagements (and twin return engagements) at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont and as part of the Kennedy Center's 2002 Sondheim Festival. DRG had the good sense to tape the show and has released it on DVD as Barbara Cook in Mostly Sondheim [DRG DV 18001]. Like the CD, the DVD is highly recommended, especially for people who did not get to see the show live. In addition to the 19-track program — with a slightly different song lineup than on the CD — DRG has included a master class Cook taught during her Kennedy Center engagement.

Rather than repeating myself, I borrow the following lines from my discussion in "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002" of the show at the Beaumont, which apply equally to the DVD performance:

Sondheim's list gave Cook the perfect excuse to sing some exceptional songs including two stunners by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, "I Wonder What Became of Me" and "I Had Myself a True Love." (The remnants of Cook's Georgia accent brought added flavor and an unexpected authenticity to Mercer's lyrics.) These were as close to definitive as you need to get, as was Cook's rendition of Arlen and Harburg's "The Eagle and Me" from Bloomer Girl. Cook also sang her signature song, "Ice Cream," from She Loves Me. She introduced this by saying it was "what I think is one of the best musical comedy songs ever written," and I think I agree.

Equally breathtaking, on the Sondheim side, were "In Buddy's Eyes," "Happiness," "Send in the Clowns," "Not a Day Goes By," "Losing My Mind," and "Anyone Can Whistle." Ten or so absolutely amazing renditions, as good as you'd ever hope to hear, in 90 minutes. Pretty good for a 74 year old.

But Cook has a secret, a secret she has apparently always had. She can sing. She sings as naturally as most people talk. (More naturally, actually.) When most singers sing, they are singing. When Cook sings, you feel like the notes themselves are a given; this frees her to concentrate on the words. Cook sings like she breathes, even at an age when such a gift might well be expected to have diminished.

Looking through my notes, I find that I kept writing phrases like "expresses the pain" and "feels the pain" and "the pain comes through" and "true pain." So many of these songs — as sung by Cook — were searingly beautiful, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of hurt and sorrow. While writing this review, I stumbled across Ms. Cook's website, and there it was:

"On stage, safety lies in the very thing that seems most dangerous. And that is: Your vulnerability, your ability to allow people to see the pain and all the life stuff. But very few have been given the gift to communicate. And when somebody can really communicate, boy, it resonates out there to the ends of the earth."

Barbara Cook's voice. It resonates out there to the ends of the earth.

—Steven Suskin, author of 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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