ROAD SHOW [Nonesuch/PS Classics 518940]
Here we have the original cast album of the New York production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Road Show, and I almost feel like this is a revival. We've been listening to this score for a decade, beginning with the Nathan Lane-Victor Garber Wise Guys workshop back in 1999. There was the Goodman Theatre version of Bounce (starring Howard McGillin, Richard Kind and Michele Pawk), as it was then called, and then the Kennedy Center version (which was recorded in 2003 and released the following year [Nonesuch 79830]). The long and adventurous journey of Wise Guys (Sam Mendes, director)-Gold/Bounce (Hal Prince, director)-Road Show (John Doyle, director) is no doubt familiar to many readers of this column; some, I suppose, have seen the venture at all four stops along the way. We have discussed the history of this piece elsewhere, including in our 2004 review of Bounce, so we needn't go over all that again. At any rate, here is Road Show.
What I find most curious, though, is my immediate reaction to this new — and presumably final — recording of Sondheim's score. (Final, that is, until we get the inevitable London cast album; and, things being how they are, maybe a CD from a highly acclaimed regional theatre production or too in the not-so-distant future. Road Show seems a natural for the Alaska Rep, don't you think?) With all these past lives behind it, I'm somewhat surprised to find this recording sounds new, vibrant and refreshing. The songs, most of them, are familiar by now. So why do I enjoy this version more than the original Bounce (which is the only other authorized recording of the score)?
Alexander Gemignani and Michael Cerveris, the Fabulous Mizners of the present occasion, are not as high powered as some of the prior inhabitants of the roles. Cerveris has a strong reputation, both on Broadway and within the Sondheim file, but he doesn't carry his personality into every role like some other musical comedy leading men do. Maybe that's why I get more of a sense of character from the present Mizners than I did from the others? Or perhaps it's because the songs fit the characters better than before (which might be because the characters finally seem to be finished)? The addition of a Dorothy Lamour character to the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope of the Bounce version made a certain amount of sense, in terms of the type of show the authors were attempting to create; but little of what Nellie sang ever sounded true to me. What was this girl doing in the story, glomming onto Wilson and not-so-gently nudging Addison out of the spotlight? "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" is one of the late-period Sondheim songs that I like best. I don't remember if I first heard it sung by Addison and Hollis (or Paris Singer, as he was originally named), in Wise Guys, or if it first appeared with Willie and Nellie. Whichever might be the case, it sure sounds to me like it was meant to be sung by the two men, the misfit architect and his misfit benefactor.
Sondheim's score — which by my count is his 15th, or 18th, complete musical — is built in what you might call musical blocks, and excitingly so. In a certain sense, only two of the items on the 17-track disc fall into what might be described as the traditional song category, the aforementioned duet and "Isn't He Something?" Just about everything else is constructed more like a musical scene, usually with a main theme which the composer continually returns to and expounds upon. Rather than attempting to describe the process, let me reference you back to "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music. (Those who are not familiar with "A Weekend in the Country" need be.) At any rate, Sondheim has built most of his Road Show with these so-called blocks, the recurring themes growing stronger and stronger as they are repeated in ever-changing context. We could talk about Road Show or Sondheim all day, of course, and perhaps we should sometime or other; but that's enough for this column. Let us note that "You (Where Have You Been All My Life)," "The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened" and "Talent" remain my favorite songs of the piece; the song formerly known as "Bounce" has been recast as "Waste," a new opening number which works better; and "Addison's Trip" and "That Was a Year," two items which personify the block/song-scene idea, also come across on the new album very well indeed. Mr. Cerveris and Mr. Gemignani are joined in this one-act, ensemble musical by Claybourne Elder (as Hollis), Alma Cuervo (as Mama, with some nice touches) and a dozen others (including William Parry, who recreates the role of Papa that he played in Wise Guys). As on Bounce and almost every Sondheim musical since 1970, Jonathan Tunick provides orchestrations that perfectly translate the composer's music for orchestra. This is what an orchestrator is supposed to do, of course, but few do it so well. Tommy Krasker, one of the most expert producers of theatre-related recordings today (including many recent Sondheim titles), has brought us this Road Show, and he has made a fine job of it.
Malcolm Gets has made a name for himself in contemporary musical theatre, specializing in the category of likable-but-slightly-neurotic leading men. Most notable of these efforts were starring roles in two intimate Broadway musicals, the ill-fated Amour and the what? iller-fated? Story of My Life. On a more satisfying note were appearances in Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again, as The Writer; the 1997 Encores production of The Boys from Syracuse, as Antipholus of Syracuse (the one who sings all those great songs); and as the Billy Finn-like songwriter at the heart of A New Brain. (He also spent four seasons as a regular in the sitcom "Caroline in the City," one episode of which needless to say brought him a larger audience than Amour, The Story of My Life, Hello Again and A New Brain combined.) PS Classics, which recently released the cast album of Story of My Life, now brings us a solo album from Mr. Gets, "The Journey Home." Mr. Gets does a fine job here, presenting us with thirteen tracks which are sure to thrill his fans. He is ably abetted by John McDaniel, who serves as conductor, pianist, arranger and orchestrator (and I suppose helped in the song selection as well). I especially like what they do in their livelier numbers: "Everything I've Got," from Rodgers & Hart's By Jupiter; a joint chart of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" and "It's a Lovely Day Today," with Melissa Errico stepping in for a delightful duet; and an especially enjoyable jaunt through Lionel Bart's "It's a Fine Life" from Oliver! (with Mark Hummel joining Mr. McDaniel on the arrangement). The highlight for me, though, is Mr. Finn's "Anytime" from Elegies. (According to the track listing, this exceptionally touching song was cut from A New Brain — in which it must have been introduced by Mr. Gets. And which, if so, increases my already vast appreciation of the score of A New Brain.)
The title track, "The Journey Home," is a show tune as well — from Bombay Dreams, of all things. A new addition to the repertoire, I suppose you could call it. They wrap in music from Burton Lane's "Look to the Rainbow," by the by; I don't suppose many have mixed Bombay Dreams with Finian's Rainbow, but here it is. (Gets opens the CD with the Finian song, which I suppose justifies it.) Further in the category of rarely heard show tunes is "Long Before I Knew You," a Jule Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green ballad which was intended to be the big song hit from Bells Are Ringing until overshadowed by "The Party's Over." Mr. Gets rescues the song for his closing number, and does very nicely by it.
The back of the liner notes, by the way, has a photo of Gets dreaming on the floor, his head resting on some black, 12-inch platters. These, youngsters, are what used to be called long-playing records. LPs, for short. You put them on a turntable and dropped a needle — well, if you really want to know, you can look it up on the web.
CDs assembled by non-profit organizations as fund raisers are generally outside the purview of this column. When people like Ann Hampton Callaway, Michael Cerveris, Norm Lewis, Kelli O'Hara, Adam Pascal, Mandy Patinkin, Anthony Rapp, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sherie Rene Scott, Duncan Sheik, and Carly Simon see fit to contribute their time and talents, though, we take notice. The album is called Listen [Sh-k-boom 8-3320]; the 15 songs are written by children who stutter; the organization is a group called Our Time, which calls itself "an artistic home for people who stutter." Everett Bradley, who theatregoers might remember as one of the major components of Swing (which played the St. James just before The Producers), is the musical director and appears to have guided the project to fruition. All proceeds from the album go to Our Time; more information about the group can be found at www.ourtimetheatre.org. (Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at [email protected])