BROADWAY UNPLUGGED 2 [Bayview RNBW037]
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1963 [Bayview RNBW036]
THE BROADWAY MUSICALS OF 1929 [Bayview RNBW038]
Scott Siegel's Town Hall "Broadway by the Year" series, now entering its seventh season, has resulted in a clutch of 16 CDs from Bayview. The most recent are "Broadway Unplugged 2" and "The Broadway Musicals of" both 1963 and 1929. The formula remains the same: A bunch of stage and cabaret talents, mostly of the younger variety, standing on the stage of Town Hall before a small combo and what seems to be a perennially overenthusiastic crowd of fans. Siegel, an unassuming and enthusiastic critic and chronicler, assembles, scripts and narrates the concerts like a latter-day Leonard Sillman. The New Faces format is long retired, and with good reason, but Siegel's recurring series puts a spotlight on Broadway talent.
"Broadway Unplugged 2," recorded live on Sept. 19, 2005, consists of singers-without-mics, attempting to give us songs the way they used to be heard in the so-called good-old-days. This is not quite authentic; the aural magic of the Broadway musical had to do with unamplified singers backed by an orchestra of 20 or more, with the strings sawing away; budgetary constraints being what they are, Mr. Siegel has to make do with a mere handful of musicians. And of course, a recording of unamplified sound is necessarily amplified by the time it comes out of the speakers of your CD player.
Mr. Siegel informs us in his narration that body mics were first used on Broadway in 1964 in Hello, Dolly!, or possibly in 1961 in Carnival. Actually, it goes back further, to the 1957 musical, Jamaica. Lena Horne wasn't quite soaring during the tryout in Philadelphia, so they fired the conductor, brought in a new orchestrator for all of the star's numbers, and added a body mic so she could be heard over all those saxophones. (It worked, and how; Horne's performance turned into a cyclonic triumph, and body mics were here to stay.) Was this the first body mic on Broadway? Maybe, although I wouldn't be shocked if there was an earlier one from some forgotten musical. At any rate, "Broadway Unplugged 2" offers a tasty assortment of performances from a wide array of performers. It is no surprise, I suppose, that Marc Kudisch and Sutton Foster are among the standouts. They each do fine with their solos — Kudisch with a deliciously toothsome "Fate," from Kismet, while Foster gives us a lovely "Where or When." The pair join for "Anything You Can Do," which is not exactly in the mode of Annie Get Your Gun but demonstrates that this comedic duo belong in one of those Merman-Durante or Merman-Lahr style musicals.
Norm Lewis reprises his "I'd Rather Be Sailing" from A New Brain; Liz Callaway gives us "Be a Lion" from The Wiz; Emily Skinner bats out "Raunchy" from 110 in the Shade. All first rate, as are Ron Bohmer's "Lonely House," Eddie Korbich's "There But for You Go I," Christiane Noll's "Back to Before," and Barbara Walsh's "Losing My Mind." The Ross Patterson Little Big Band ably accompanies the singers, including some who seem to wander from their pitch (one of the hazards of live recordings of live concerts).
"The Broadway Musicals of 1963" compiles 21 songs from – well, Broadway musicals of 1963. One of the weaker years on the Rialto, this is remembered (if at all) as the year before Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl and Fiddler on the Roof. However, any year that includes She Loves Me and 110 in the Shade is — quite obviously — musically strong. Give us four tracks from the first and five from the second, most of them especially well performed, and you've got the basis for a strong CD. The rest of the Broadway year was, indeed, pretty weak, with the likes of Tovarich, Here's Love, Hot Spot and The Girl Who Came to Supper (with three songs, no less). There are also four songs from Oliver!, which don't exactly fit in stylistically with the rest; yes, it did indeed open locally in 1963, but this was more properly a West End Musical of 1960.
Nancy Anderson, Stephen Bogardus, Liz Callaway, George Dvorsky, Euan Morton and Julia Murney comprise the cast; all but one of them has chances to show just how good they are on a musical comedy stage. Scott Siegel, as always, serves as writer and narrator, with music from Ross Patterson and his troupe.
The most recently released is "The Broadway Musicals of 1929," from the year that began a-roaring and ended with the onset of the Depression. The year of Cole Porter's first hit musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen; the emergence of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, with the first of their hit intimate revues The Little Show; and two failures by Rodgers and Hart (although a year with songs like "With a Song in My Heart," "A Ship without a Sail" and "Why Can't I?" sounds pretty good to me).
Emily Skinner sings the last, as a duet with Nancy Anderson, as well as Porter's "Find Me a Primitive Man" and Vincent Youmans' "More Than You Know"; Ron Bohmer has Youmans' "Without a Song" and Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"; Noah Racey does Schwartz & Dietz's "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"; Leslie Anderson sings Kay Swift and Paul James' "Can't We Be Friends?"
Siegel and his players give us song after song after song, with plenty of wonderful 1929 show tunes that didn't make the cut. The cast also includes Christine Andreas, Bryan Batt, Mary Bond Davis and Jeffrey Denman. They all wind things up with "Button Up Your Overcoat," from the all-but-forgotten DeSylva, Brown & Henderson hit Follow Thru. Obscure, perhaps, but pretty nifty.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)