ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List
Holiday time is here once more. Here is this year's list of recommended Broadway-related CDs that have arrived since last Thanksgiving.

New Musicals
The fact that CAROLINE, OR CHANGE [Hollywood Records 2061 62436] is the only entry on our list of 2004 CDs of new Broadway musicals is not to say that it rules the category by default. Yes, it is a musical unlike any other, and the show's production history has demonstrated that it is not to everybody's taste. Even so, it is a wonderful, and important, score; it fully deserves pride of place, even among — well, one CD. (Taboo — as far as I can determine, the year's only other new Broadway musical that was recorded — need not apply.)

Caroline, or Change tells of a small boy who leaves nickels and quarters in his pockets. Change, in the form of nickels and quarters, is no big deal. But when you're working 14-hour days for $30 per six-day week, as the title character is, and when you're a single parent with four kids who need clothes and shoes and trips to the dentist — a couple of handfuls of change can, indeed, upset the world. The times are changing, too, with Confederate hero Johnny Reb statues decapitated and thrown into the swamp, and about time, too; meanwhile, the President — one state over — is shot dead in the street.

The key to the Caroline score is change. There are full-scale songs that come along here and there, yes; but the musical structure is built on hands-ful of change, musical pocket-change. It adds up, I suppose you can say, and pays off grandly. Tesori and Kushner build their score out of small change in a manner that is new to Broadway, with any number of beauties and delights along the way. The strength of the writing is combined with a group of remarkable performances, led by Tonya Pinkins and abetted by Harrison Chad, Anika Noni Rose, Veanne Cox and the others. Any show that can leave you singing "Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw" is all right by me, and then some.

Heading the list of new musicals that didn't make it to Broadway but nevertheless received a full-scale, first-rate, pull-out-the-stops cast recording is BOUNCE [Nonesuch 79830]. This is Stephen Sondheim's first new musical since Passion in 1994. If the show underwent a series of missteps along the road to town, so be it. Any number of the master's musicals have had problematic birthings; but in the case of Sondheim, what matters — and what remains with us — is the score. Consider all those unfortunate souls who didn't bother to pick up the original cast album of Anyone Can Whistle when it was issued in 1964; they had to wait a decade or so, until the LP was reissued, to hear Angela Lansbury sing about her Cookies. Bounce will presumably remain in print indefinitely, but let Anyone Can Whistle be a lesson to you.

To those who might say, "Well, you seem to automatically recommend everything by Sondheim," my answer is a simple and resounding "of course." Other songwriters are content with songs that work, or that are the best they can do. Sondheim is virtually alone among his peers; I don't think he ever released a piece of music from his piano rack until he was convinced that it was what it should be. That's one of the reasons that Sondheim has written but four musicals in the last 20 years; others I can name have written twice as many, although they sit mostly unproduced, unlistened to and perhaps unlistenable. There have been divergent opinions of Sondheim's last four, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion and Bounce; but none of them, by any stretch of the imagination, can be considered unlistenable. So I say, add Bounce to your repertoire. New Recordings of Old Musicals
And while we're at it, let's not overlook the Tony Award-winning Roundabout revival of Sondheim's ASSASSINS [ps Classics ps-421]. I faced this production with indelible memories of the original cast; the new group, happily, was able to measure up.

The piece has seemingly improved over the years. What was today engrossing was, back in 1990, somewhat scattershot (if you'll pardon the expression). Through circumstance, Assassins has greater relevance today. This tale of awkward loners setting their sights on Presidents was, in 1990, historical fantasy. Today, there are warning signs on the streets and in the subways.

The addition of the song "Something Just Broke" is a major plus, tying the olden times and the disparate characters to here and now. Sondheim's "The Gun Song" and "Another National Anthem," as performed on the new cast album, are absolutely searing. Always were, I suppose. We just didn't sense what Sondheim sensed.

The City Center Encores! production of THE NEW MOON [Ghostlight 4403] makes old-fashioned Broadway operetta sound good. The Encores folks dug up the 1928 Sigmund Romberg-Oscar Hammerstein piece about pirates in Louisiana, and Rob Fisher and Co. made the case that there is life, musically, in this much-maligned genre. "Lover, Come Back to Me," "Stouthearted Men," "One Kiss," "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise" — they waft across at you, wave after wave. Rodney Gilfry sings the lead with aplomb, joined by Christiane Noll as his damsel. The entire ensemble sparkles, the band is radiant, and everything sounds like Goddard Leiberson was sitting at the controls. The New Moon is vibrant, full-bodied and — yes — stouthearted.

FINE AND DANDY [ps classics ps-9419] is perhaps the least likely cast album of the year, or the decade, or maybe even the century. This 1930 star-comic musical disappeared early in the Depression, leaving nothing behind other than a nifty title tune and one of the more stunning ballads of the era, "Can This Be Love?" Composer Kay Swift is better known, if at all, as the woman-George-should-have-married. She subsumed her career (and her marriage) to that of Gershwin, and was of great help to him in his work of the early 1930s. But Kay Swift could write a jazz-age tune on her own, as Fine and Dandy attests. The folks at ps classics went to enormous efforts to reassemble the score, and reorchestrate it, and trap it out with a top-notch cast (including Carolee Carmello, Gavin Creel, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Andrea Burns and even Mario Cantone). This new CD of Fine and Dandy is, indeed, fine and dandy.

The severely under-exposed 1988 musical LUCKY STIFF [Jay CDJAY 1379], which first introduced (off) Broadway audiences to the talents of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, was given its second cast recording in 2004. Not bad for a show that had an all-too-brief run and never had the chance to catch on. Whether you prefer this new CD, which was instigated by the York Theatre's 2003 Musicals in Mufti version, or the 1994 studio cast album on Varese Sarabande, is of no matter; Lucky Stiff is a surprising and rambunctious charmer.

Reissues of Musicals Already on CD
It seems unnecessary to re-review NO STRINGS [DRG 19065], which has never been too far out of reach since it appeared in 1962. Richard Rodgers was trying something new, yes, and I don't mean in his guise as lyricist. Rodgers consciously rejected the Rodgers and Hammerstein sound for something more contemporary, going so far as to replace his longtime orchestrator Russell Bennett with the up-to-the-minute Ralph Burns. No Strings was, perhaps, the jazziest mainstream musical yet heard on Broadway. The songs are good enough, if not brilliant; but between Burns and the performances of Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley, this is an album you can listen to again and again.

LPs New to CD
It is telling to report that the most fun of the year, cast album-wise, probably came from three long-gone flops from the 1950s. But what can I tell you? These shows were not especially good, in truth; and I suppose we could survive very nicely without the chance to listen to them. (Many musical comedy fans have indeed survived without them, although well-worn copies of the old LPs survive.) That said, the trio makes for mighty cheerful listening in an old-fashioned musical comedy manner.

MAKE A WISH [Sepia 1036] has the best score of the three, with music and lyrics coming from Hugh Martin. (Broadway's oldest living composer is, as we speak, alive and well and sitting in the California sun, no doubt enjoying another season's-worth of performances of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.")

Make a Wish features only one of those stunning songs that sets composer Martin apart, the ballad "When Does This Feeling Go Away?" What makes the Make a Wish cast album so entrancing is the way songwriter Martin is supported by vocal arranger Martin. There are no less than five perfectly satisfactory songs that are pushed way over the top by the arrangements and the performances. They don't write them like this anymore, not only because it is a lost art but because the modern Broadway musical is nowadays restricted to 20-or-so dancer/singers (instead of 16 singers and a separate dance corps).

Heading the cast are Nanette Fabray, Stephen Douglass, Helen Gallagher and Harold Lang, each of whom adds to the fun. Martin's prior musical, Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!, would easily share a place on this year-end list; a rush of releases has pushed it into my next column.

HAZEL FLAGG [Sepia 1035] is kind of a stepsister to Make a Wish. Both were produced by Jule Styne, who composed Hazel as well; both had vocals from Hugh Martin; and Helen Gallagher, featured soubrette of one, was the singing-and-dancing leading lady of the other. Gallagher's good-natured performance can't hide the show's flaws, which were many; most of the time, it just seemed to sit there. The billed-above the-title comedian, movie star Thomas Mitchell, took a Best Actor in a Musical Tony despite the fact that he didn't have a note to sing. The nominal leading man, John Howard — whose character should spark the plot — appears to have had nothing to do besides singing the almost-hit ballad, "How Do You Speak to an Angel." This is not the mark of a well-made musical. There are, however, a number of snappy Jule Styne show tunes that keep things bright and lively; and Gallagher is abetted by a brassy Benay Venuta offering comedic support. Which leaves Hazel Flagg 45 minutes of fun.

And then, for our sins, comes ANKLES AWEIGH [Decca Broadway B0002673]. This was a ragtag affair, which aspired to being a top quality burlesque show, but failed. Clumsy, klutzy and trashy, I suppose you could say. But it makes fun listening. Some of the songs are amusing, in their own way; how can you hate a boy-girl duet that goes "you slay me!" — the official title is "Kiss Me and Kill Me with Love" — and uses a machine gun-like countermelody that quotes "That Old Black Magic"? Ankles also includes a couple of the lousiest show tunes you're likely to find, including something called "The Headin' for the Bottom Blues." Artful, no; but I'll take this over some of our more recent Broadway entries.

Our last item in this category comes from London. Sandy Wilson followed up his 1954 international hit The Boy Friend with a 1964 sequel, called — naturally enough — DIVORCE ME, DARLING! [Must Close Saturday MCSR 3013]. Wilson traded in his mock 20ish operetta for a snappier, deco model. If you liked The Boy Friend's "Won't You Charleston with Me?" and "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love," you'll no doubt be delighted with six or seven of the Divorce Me tunes. "Someone to Dance With," "On the Loose," "Out of Step," "Maisie," "No Harm Done," "Together Again" and the Porter-Merman pastiche "You're Absolutely Me" — all are charmers.

And Let's Not Forget
Back in her heyday, Barbara Cook recorded an album of Rodgers and Hart songs. (This was 45 years ago, and Ms. Cook appears still to be in her heyday, but we'll just have to let that pass.) BARBARA COOK sings FROM THE HEART [DRG 91485] is simply delectable. Ms. Cook makes every R & H song she sings sound like your favorite. The songs are superb, yes; but Cook brings full value, and then some. For fans of Ms. Cook, or fans of Rodgers and Hart, or just fans of perfect songs — this is a winner.

—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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