Theater Shelf: CD Reviews of Follies Revival and Knickerbocker Holiday

Follies – New Broadway Cast Recording

Oh, my! What am I to do now? The 2011 Broadway Revival Cast recording of Follies has just come out on PS Classics and now my “desert island” list of recordings I’d want with me if I was shipwrecked has two – count ’em, two – two-disc sets of the same score. Since the entire concept of a “desert island” list is to bring an unmanageable collection down to its essence, I guess I just have to have hope to be shipwrecked on a larger desert island! (Thank goodness for the ever increasing capacity of hard drives for computers!)

Let me make it quite clear: There is no way I’ll dispense with the Follies that has been on the list since it and one other two-disc set re-awakened my passion for musical theatre in the 1980s. That was Thomas Z. Shepard’s live recording of the New York Philharmonic’s concert presentation of the full score using Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations with stars such as Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch and a whole lot more! Shepard put the atmosphere of an electrified concert hall onto those two discs, and I’ll treasure them forever.

Now, however, Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin have put the show – not the concert and not just the score (just?) but the feeling of the show itself – on disc. Through the use of judiciously selected snippets of dialogue, each number becomes part of a whole – part of the story-telling that is so gloriously accomplished in Mr. Sondheim’s twenty-one songs. As successful as Shepard was at capturing the experience of being at the concert in 1985, Krasker and Chaffin are equally proficient at capturing the experience of being in the theater in 2011.

This revival, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, began at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and is currently playing in the Marquis Theatre on Broadway in a limited run which ends January 22. It is limited because the cast is of such stars that one supposes it would be impossible to sign all of them to longer contracts. (The Ahmanson in Los Angeles has just announced that the production will transfer there, but they haven’t announced any casting yet.)

Stars? Bernadette Peters, whose “Losing My Mind” is mesmerizing. Jan Maxwell, whose “Could I Leave You?” burns white hot. Danny Burstein, whose “The ‘God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me?’ Blues” tops a seemingly untoppable “The Right Girl.” Ron Raines, whose rich voice makes “The Road You Didn’t Take” an introspective exploration.

These are just the stars whose names go above the title. Below the title you’ll find Elaine Page who nails “I’m Still Here,” and the likes of Mary Beth Peil (“Ah, Paris”), Jane Houdyshell (“Broadway Baby”) and Terri White (“Who’s That Woman?”) as some of the former Follies girls approaching old age and a passel of younger performers you will probably hear more about in the years to come portraying their younger selves. Appropriately for this show, the label surface of Disc One features the images of Peters, Maxwell, Burstein and Raines while Disc Two displays their young former selves in the persons of Kirsten Scott, Nick Verina, Lora Lee Gayer and Christian Delcroix.

While the discs are programmed with separate tracks for the dialogue snippets between the songs and, therefore, it is possible to program just the song tracks (that is Disc One’s tracks 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14 and 16, plus Disc Two’s 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12,13,14 and 15) there are smaller pieces of dialogue within the song tracks which will draw attention during a purely musical listen. The recording is really meant for a full-attention, serious listen and it rewards such a dedication of two solid hours time and time again.

The beautiful 52-page booklet contains just about everything you expect from a first-class, two-disc set. Sean Patrick Flahaven has written a clear synopsis. Tommy Krasker includes a note explaining his approach using some dialogue. The complete lyrics (including the text of the dialogue snippets) are printed along with twenty color photos that give a very accurate portrayal of the look of the show.

Also included is a five-page essay on the show which can deepen your appreciation for it. Patrick Pacheco, in his effort to find some new things to say about one of the most written-about shows in Broadway’s history, stretches a bit too far from time to time so it might be best to hold off reading it until you are thoroughly familiar with the show through this superb recording.

Pacheco pulls in some terms that may send you to your dictionary of foreign phrases to follow his points. I’ll save you some trouble: I looked up both Walpurgisnacht (it is the night before May day, a witch and goblin semi-holiday similar to Halloween in some central European areas) and cri de coeur (a passionate cry in the night). I didn’t have to look up doppelganger, I already knew that meant an apparition resembling a real person.

I do have two other nits to pick. One involves the photos in the booklet. As good as they are and as good a selection as was made, they are not given captions so it wouldn’t always be clear to someone who hasn’t seen the show just who is who and what song or scene is represented. This problem for those who haven’t seen the show is compounded by the placement of the photos. For example, a photo of Danny Burstein playing Buddy is on the page where the text of Ben’s song “Too Many Mornings” appears. It would be less confusing if they had slipped the photo over one column to the right so it would be on the page where the text of Buddy’s “The Right Girl” is printed.

Also, I do wish they had decided to include the exit music as it is performed in the theater. That would have been an additional delight.

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“Follies – New Broadway Cast Recording”
PS Classics

Two-disc set
Packaged with synopsis, notes and lyrics
20 color photos
Catalogue Number PS 1105
List price $14.95
Available as an MP3 download for $11.99


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Knickerbocker Holliday – Concert Recording

Some musicals become identified with a single hit song from their scores. The downside of that is that such fame or notoriety can keep us from discovering the pleasures of the rest of the score.

Certainly, that is the case with Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1936 Knickerbocker Holiday, a satire that had a beautiful score with sharp lyrics featuring love songs, comic songs and set pieces, but which is remembered almost exclusively for one song – “September Song.” You know “September Song” – “Oh, it’s a long long while from May to December / But the days grow short when you reach September.”

The new recording of a concert presentation of the full score with an abbreviated summary of the book revives the rest of the piece and is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the score for its own sake.

It is also an excellent example of the unique output of Weill, a man who combined the essence of the avant garde of European concert music of the early twentieth century, the remnants of the rapidly disappearing genre of romantic operetta and the fascination of then-contemporary American musicals with jazz as an element in  pop songs.

Kurt Weill was well known before the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich made it advisable for him and his wife, Lotte Lenya, to leave their native Germany. He’d already composed Die Dreigoschenoper with playwright Bertolt Brecht. It was well regarded in Europe but didn’t become a major hit in American until after his death in 1950. An off-Broadway revival with the translated title of The Threepenny Opera broke through and ran over 2,600 performances.

Weil arrived in New York in 1935 with a reputation for serious works of both concert and theater music. His first American musical was an anti-war piece Johnny Johnson – a title that was chosen because more U.S. soldiers by that name were listed on casualty lists than any other.

Don’t be alarmed if you don’t recognize that show. It only ran for two months in 1936 and a revival in 1971 closed the night it opened.

Weill had more success with a musical spectacle called The Eternal Road in 1937. Then he teamed with Maxwell Anderson, author of What Price Glory, Elizabeth the Queen and Mary Queen of Scots for what was Anderson’s first musical.

This satirical musical finds Washington Irving writing his classic comic look at the history of New Amsterdam (From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty) with Peter Stuyvesant misusing his powers as Governor to force an arranged marriage to a young lady who happens to be in love with her own young man.

The young man has problems with the law, in part because of Stuyvesant’s maneuverings, but also because he simply can’t abide taking orders. That makes him typically American, in the viewpoint of the playwright. Indeed, he has the young man say “Maybe I was the first American. The beginning of a national type. A person with a really fantastic and inexcusable aversion to taking orders coupled with a complete abhorrence for governmental corruption, and an utter incapacity to do anything about it.”

Somehow, the story and the lyrics to such numbers as “How Can You Tell An American” and “Our Ancient Liberties” resound with contemporary themes in the days of The Tea Party and showdowns over debt limits. It is an inconsistent score. The first song mentioned above is kind of a kick. The second is kind of a bore.

When the score is at its best, however, it is great fun. The big numbers, which were obviously hoped-for hits, include the rousing “There’s Nowhere To Go But Up.” It offers a theme in its major section melody that repeats in various modulations so many times in Act I that it drills itself into your consciousness. The reprise in Act II feels like the return of an old friend and must have had audiences after the intermission in 1937 asking themselves “Haven’t I heard this song before?”

The same is true of the love song between the young couple that features the minor key resolution to its main melody that is a great example of Weill’s voice, “It Never Was You.” It is a precursor to later Weill lovelies like “My Ship” from and has some of the haunting features of “Speak Low” that Mary Martin introduced in his One Touch of Venus.

The comedy numbers sparkle with both Anderson’s wit and Weill’s lilt. There’s a bounce in the rhythm as the young lady who has just been ordered to marry an old man with a peg leg sings “Whatever are old people thinking of – when arranging a marriage? / They think about silver, they think about gold / and how much your kisses will bring when sold.” while her true love sings “Whatever are old people thinking of – when arranging a wedding? / They think about where you will sleep, not with whom / and business advantages with the groom.” Through it all, however, the old men are singing “and young people think about love – ha ha.”

There is a pair of comedy numbers that sound as if they could have come from the pens of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart for The Boys from Syracuse which was a season-long hit the next year but with a slightly less inventive use of jazzy tempos.

And, of course, there is “September Song” which was the big hit. It was sung in the original by then-mega-star of stage and screen, Walter Huston, in his first Broadway musical. He’d been in ten plays on Broadway including Dodsworth, and he also starred in the film version, earning an Oscar nomination the same year he was doing this show in New York.

In this recording, the role of Stuyvesant is given to Victor Garber who does a fine job of acting the song as a scene. This is altogether fitting and proper as the song was written, not as a love song but as a seduction scene, one where the seduction is emotional and even plays on the romantic notions of the seductee (the young woman played/sung here by Kelli O’Hara) by the much older (and to her repulsive) governor.

The recording was made in New York in January of 2011 during a concert by the Collegiate Chorale with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Bagwell. The adaptation of the original script for a concert presentation was done by Edward Barnes and Ted Sperling who also directed the concert. The concert featured a sound design by the veteran sound designer who has a reputation for respecting the original sound of a piece, Scott Lehrer. Lehrer also edited and mixed the recording which may explain why the CD sounds like a well amplified live recording in a big hall instead of a close miked studio job. The balance with the orchestra of 26 playing the original orchestrations by Weill, who was one of the few Broadway musical composers who orchestrated his own pieces, the 59-voice chorale and the 13-member cast is superb.

In addition to Garber and O’Hara, the cast included familiar names such as David Garrison, Brad Oscar, Brooks Ashmanskas and Christopher Fitzgerald.

Knickerbocker Holiday
Collegiate Chorale Concert Presentation
Recorded at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center
Ghostlight Records
Packaged with synopsis and notes on the original production
ASIN: B0050546XC
List price $14.99


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