Having run a mere ten, not-so-full weeks at the 1,100-seat Vivian Beaumont Theatre, it is to be suspected that very many people will listen to the original cast album of Jason Robert Brown's Parade without having had the opportunity to see it. And I can just hear them now, angrily crying "wait a minute, this stuff is good, damn those critics," and wondering how the show could possibly have failed so resoundingly.
That's a good question, if you're judging the score by the disc. The short answer, I think, is that from the very beginning of the show -- in the theatre -- you were hit with a feeling the creators were stacking the decks, pulling every possible string to manipulate you into feeling whatever it was they wanted you to feel. It was almost as if the production had a wall of pretentiousness, emblazoned with the slogan "this show is artistic, and if you don't like it that's your problem." At least that's the way I felt; whatever the problem was, Parade sure antagonized its audiences.
And now comes the original cast album, displaying a score far better -- and more beautiful -- than it sounded in the theater. Brown's first Broadway offering is intelligent, moving and highly impressive.
In the theater, the creators seemed to want you to dislike their leading characters; presumably so they could turn it around in the second act, when the pair became unlikely lovers. I disliked them all right, so much so that I had little patience for anything they had to say or sing most of the evening. This was especially the case with Brent Carver, playing the doomed Leo Frank. Carver is an extremely talented actor, and he shines through on the cast album with a warm and sympathetic performance. In the theater, though, director Harold Prince and his collaborators apparently did not want you to feel sympathy for Leo when he was railroaded for a crime he didn't commit, thus presenting the audience with a moral dilemma. I certainly didn't feel sympathy for Leo in the theater, so much so that his songs -- which are attractive and moving on the recording -- fell on singularly unreceptive ears. Multiply that by dozens of reviewers and thousands of viewers, and that might explain why Parade so quickly faltered.
Is there a future life for Parade? maybe as a small-scale chamber piece, without all that production and all that acting and all that pretension? Absent the various distractions, Jason Robert Brown's score is rich and varied, and I imagine it will become even more enjoyable with repeated listening. There is also an especially fine set of orchestrations from Don Sebesky, who manages to keep up with Brown's many changes of pace and uses his orchestra to comment on the action. I also suspect musical director Eric Stern deserves a good deal of credit. Some of the major numbers, like "Real Big News" and the extended trial sequence, are extremely complicated and impeccably handled. Let me also add that while not without flaws, this is easily the finest score of the current, undernourished season. While it is uncommon for a quick failure to take the Tony Award for Best Score over shows that are still running, Parade just might be able to pull it off. A considerable portion of the voters are out-of-towners, who were unable or unwilling to make a special mid-winter trip solely to see this poorly received show. (Theoretically, of course, Tony voters only vote in categories in which they've seen all the nominees.) Listening to this disc -- and comparing it to Footloose and The Civil War, so help us -- many voters might well wonder how a show with such a high quality score could have failed, which I imagine will be the reaction of many listeners.
Addendum: If you're like me, you took little notice of the cast recording of Brown's off off-Broadway revue, Songs for a New World, when it was released in 1997 (also on RCA). Those of you suitably impressed with Parade might want to get a hold of a copy. Three of the songs are especially good, "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," "Stars and the Moon," and "I'd Give It All for You." Some others are on the amateurish side -- especially an endless Dietrich-imitation called "Surabaya-Santa" that might make you want to fling the disc to the North Pole -- but Songs for a New World certainly forecasts the Jason Robert Brown of Parade.
110 IN THE SHADE (Jay)
I have always been especially fond of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's adaptation of Richard Nash's play, The Rainmaker; it is warm, intelligent and wonderfully musical. The show enjoyed a modest success, although the tempo of the times and the Broadway competition of the 1963-64 season (Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl) forced it into an undeserved anonymity. Thirty-five years later comes a full recording of the score, and it is quite a joy.
The London-based Jay Records has been offering complete versions of classic musicals for several years now; of those I've heard, 110 in the Shade is clearly the finest. (I understand that their upcoming three disc set of Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella is also very good.) The new 110 in the Shade includes more extended versions of the material heard on the 1963 original cast album. It also preserves two songs added to the 1992 New York City Opera production, "Shooting Star" and "Why Can't They Leave Me Alone?"
Karen Ziemba is this recording's Lizzie, and she's every bit a match for Inga Swenson, who created the role. She is especially thrilling on "Old Maid," one of the most fiery and dramatic character studies in the Broadway repertoire. Richard Muenz is fine as the sheriff File, while Ron Raines far outpaces the original Starbuck with a thrilling performance. Singing the role originated by Lesley Ann Warren is Kristin Chenoweth, who seems to turn up everywhere nowadays. I should add that I am especially surprised by Ziemba's performance here; she played the same role at the City Opera (along with Muenz), a production which I found flat and underwhelming. She is certainly spellbinding here, though.
Most welcome is the chance to hear Hershy Kay's vibrant orchestrations, which were pretty much shrouded on the original cast album due to poor sound quality. Kay was lesser known than most of his contemporaries; he is best known for his work on the original Candide, which is quite a recommendation. Kay's work here capably reflects Harvey Schmidt's musical palette, which ranges from dust bowl to cowboy to honky-tonk to revival meeting. The two-disc set is accompanied, by the way, by a booklet with thoughtful and interesting essays by both Jones and Schmidt. Those of you who know and admire 110 in the Shade are going to want to have this new recording. Those of you who don't know the score but appreciate literate, dramatic musical theatre are in for quite a treat.
MAME (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
Mame is another of the six new Broadway Masterworks reissues. I have always found this the most enjoyable and listenable of Jerry Herman's scores, perfect for times when you want some upbeat show tunes playing somewhere in the background. So if you like old-fashioned, non-progressive musical comedies and you don't own a copy, you might well want to get this reissue of Mame. If you're an Angela Lansbury fan, you will have to get it. The core of the score is the same as before, except for a one-measure trumpet blast -- which initially marked Ms. Lansbury's entranceÐspliced into "It's Today." Five demo tracks have been added, featuring composer/lyricist Jerry Herman supported by Alice Borden. Fans of Mr. Herman's are sure to want these, I guess. Only one song is of what they call historical significance, a duet called "Camouflage" in which Auntie Mame -- who fears loosing custody of her nephew Patrick -- is given mothering lessons by her actress friend Vera, who "played Mother Cabrini during Lenten/ once in Pittsburgh in a tent." This song -- which has curious parallels to La Cage Aux Folles -- was ultimately cut. Just as well, as it is not up to the rest of Herman's charmingly bouncy score.
SWEET CHARITY (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy)
Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity was something of a stepsister to Mame. Mounted back-to-back by the same producers (headed by Robert Fryer), the two cross-promoted leading lady vehicles found themselves in something of a race, with the "safe" Mame beating out the risqué Charity in awards, length of run, and profitability. Mame, in my thirteen-year old opinion, was wonderful fun; Charity (and especially Gwen Verdon), though, was simply astounding.
I have listened to Mame far more over the years than Charity; the latter has its highlights, sure, but there is a certain sameness to much of the score. Charity hasn't held up to well in revival, either. Verdon was the heart of the show, and I don't suppose we'll ever find anyone else combining her especial mix of sophisticated naiveté, comic pathos, and sexually-provocative innocence. Who can dance and sing and act, too.
The Broadway Masterworks reissue includes two items from the original sessions heretofore excised from the album: the second section of the three part "Rich Man's Frug" (which is excluded from the original, revival, and Fosse cast albums); and an alternate, extended version of "I Love to Cry at Weddings." (Maybe they should have added a shortened version, or just cut this pedestrian song altogether?) Bonus material includes three "pop" tracks so enjoyable that I stopped what I was doing to dig out the notes and discovered that the vocalist was none other than Cy Coleman himself. "You Wanna Bet" -- an early version of what became the title song -- is of special interest. The disc concludes with promotional interviews from the opening night party, with the likes of Ethel Merman ("Oh, boy!," she enthuses), Helen Gallagher, and Neil Simon. These remarks are not scripted, certainly:
Interviewer: "Gwen, this must be your most triumphant show, I would say, huh?" (Pause) Int: "Best thing you've ever done." (Pause) Gwen: "Oh, well, I like it, yesS" Int: "You're never offstage." (Pause) Gwen: "No, I know." Fascinating.
Noted in passing: The first line of Cy Coleman and Mike Berniker's liner notes reads: "For over 25 years, Cy Coleman and Mike Berniker have co-produced some of the most memorable original cast albums of all time including Barnum, City of Angels, The Will Rogers Follies and The Life." Which led me to ponder my list of the most memorable cast albums of all time, which curiously enough did not include any of the above...
THE SONDHEIM COLLECTION (Varèse Sarabande)
You never know what you're likely to find in an album with a title like "The Sondheim Collection." In this case, it's a sampler of nineteen tracks from thirteen Varèse discs. The contents range from intriguing rarities (mostly from "Unsung Sondheim" and "Sondheim at the Movies," which the true fan is already likely to own), to singer-styled renditions of songs you've heard on cast albums and revival albums and elsewhere, sung by the likes of Judy Kuhn, Laurie Beechman, Petula Clark, Michelle Nicastro and Christiane Noll. If this sounds good to you, you'll probably enjoy this album. For me, I prefer to hear the songs in the versions supervised and authorized by Mr. Sondheim himself.
-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com