Theater Shelf: Gift Guide To CDs & Books For Your Theater Junkie

comtrag2lgTheater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.

By Brad Hathaway

This might well be the year you give musical theater lovers (or likers, for that matter) a nearly inexhaustible collection of show music recordings. Instead of physical objects, try giving a subscription to a streaming library that includes a large collection of “our kind of music.”

Spotify charges $9.99 a month for unlimited access to more music than anyone can ever listen to. It is the library I check when I want to hear the music of a show that I don’t already own. A recent search just on the term “Broadway Cast” brought up over four hundred albums! Not all of them were, in fact, Broadway cast albums but hundreds were. Some items that caught my eye:

Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy in Maggie Flynn
Carol Channing in Show Girl
Shirley Booth in Juno
Phil Silvers in Top Banana
Herschel Bernardi in Zorba
Polly Bergen in First Impressions
Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend
the 1964 World’s Fair show To Broadway With Love.

The Spotify app for your browser brings all these treasures into your computer. It is an app that needs improving (its search function suffers from inflexibility and its listings not as accurate as they should be) but the ability to simply type in a show title and instantly have the score playing is to be treasured.

If you insist on a physical item for a gift, however, the Theater Shelf inbox has a wide variety of new items to consider for this holiday season gifting.

West Side Story

Michael Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony have rectified a disappointing situation that has rankled for nearly 30 years with a glorious complete recording of the Broadway score of West Side Story. The recording on their in-house label, SFS Media, is a live capturing of the concert Tilson Thomas staged in 2013 using the charts that Bernstein had used in his opera-tinged recording of 1985. How excited I had been when that Bernstein recording was announced, but how disappointed I was when I put on the records (remember records?) and found the vocals sounded stilted and formal in an operatic mode. Worse, the role of Tony was sung by Spanish accented José Carreras who sounded more like a Puerto Rican Shark than a Jet.

Bernstein’s orchestra sounded superb, but I could never get over the non-Broadway feel of the vocals. Now, with the Tilson Thomas live recording we get all the glory of the Broadway score with an unsurpassed performance from a first-class orchestra as we had with the earlier recording. But now we get vocals that sound as if they belong on a Broadway stage. That’s not surprising as the role of Tony is sung by Cheyenne Jackson, whose Broadway performance in the 2009 revival of Finian’s Rainbowremains a treasured memory, and Maria is sung by a British stage star with a crystal voice, Alexandra Silber. It was worth the wait.



New World Records has just released the latest in their “The Foundations of the American Musical Theater” project: a modern recording of the full score for Jerome Kern’s 1933 Roberta with enough of the libretto of Otto Harbach to utilize all the underscoring in the reconstruction of the charts by legendary orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. Rob Berman leads the Orchestra of Ireland (recording sessions were in Dublin as well as in New York) with soloists like Annalene Beechey, Patrick Cummings, Kim Criswell, Diana Montague and Jason Graae in the role originated by Bob Hope. (That role was then played by Fred Astaire in the movie version … interesting pedigree.)

The score gave us the standard “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” but there are so many lush and lovely melodies that that classic almost seems just one more magical item. The two-disc set includes a good deal of dialogue, so listening to it is more akin to hearing a two hour and 21 minute radio program than a record. Track-by-track notes help you imagine exactly what was taking place on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1933 and 34.



And The World Goes Round

So you think one of the theater lovers on your holiday gift list already has this score in his or her collection? No, not this way! You see, the original cast recording of this off-Broadway revue of the songs of Kander and Ebb, as wonderful as it was, was nowhere near complete, nor did it preserve the original orchestrations. The 1991 recording that Jay David Saks produced for RCA gave us only 22 songs on one disc.

Now, Bruce Kimmel’s Kritzerland label gives us a new two-disc set to make a completist’s heart flutter. Not only did Kimmel record all 32 songs in the show, he reached back to the original arrangements and orchestrations of David Loud and David Krane. What is more, just to make sure it is as complete a set as possible, he throws in the entr’acte, three short cross-overs that converted individual songs into something akin to a medley, the music to which the cast took their bows and, as bonus tracks, six of the play-offs: those short snippets that cover the exit of a singer vacating the stage to the next number.

It must have been a daunting task to come up with a cast to rival the original, but Kimmel reached in to his rolodex to call on stars he’s recorded frequently in the past (Brent Barrett, Christiane Noll, Jason Graae) and then added two new names for his contact list, Kyra Da Costa and Kristin Towers-Rowles. They perform these theater songs with a thoroughly satisfying theatrical flair.


Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!

There are times when we theater fans come across as a bit too self-important. (I know it is hard to believe, but it is true.) Thank goodness, then, that we undergo Gerard Alessandrini’s periodic pretension puncturing. For the 2014 edition of Forbidden Broadway, the one that surveys the season that briefly had Rocky: The Musical in the Winter Garden at the north end of the Broadway theater district while Billy Porter duked it out with Daniel Stewart Sherman in Kinky Boots to the south in the Al Hirschfeld, Alessandrini’s troupe is in a pugilistic mode. There are plenty of other targets for their jabs, however. The new recording on DRG Records takes on Pippin and Matilda, the live TV Sound of Music and even throws in a juke box medley from juke box musicals.

DRG – CD – 12635

Fred Astaire: The Early Years At Rko

You might pardon the inclusion of recordings from Hollywood movie musicals in this theater-related list if you reflect that before he became a great movie star, Fred Astaire was a great stage musical star both on Broadway and on London’s West End. Add in the fact that the songs for his movies at RKO were written by the likes of Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter and Vincent Youmans and Gus Kahn. Turner Classic Movies joined with Sony Masterworks to release a two-disc set that includes the studio recordings of songs introduced by Astaire in RKO films like Porter’s The Gay Divorcee, Gershwin’s Shall We Dance, and A Damsel in Distress, Berlin’s Top Hat and Follow the Fleet, Kern’s Swing Time and Youmans’ Flying Down to Rio.


Two Books On Bernstein:

The title of Carol J. Oja’s book Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of Warpromises a bit more than the book actually delivers, but it is a valuable addition to the literature about Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Comden and Green, and the show that is just now receiving a revival on Broadway, On The Town. Oja actually devotes only about 25 pages to the collaborative creation of the Broadway show but delves at greater depth into the background of the collaborators and then takes up fascinating aspects of the show’s place in the racial history of Broadway and of greater American culture. When the show opened, the United States had been at war with Japan for three years and our government had excluded people of Japanese ancestry from much of the western part of the country and locked them up in internment camps, and yet one of the stars of this show, playing a role that was only “exotic” and not specifically Japanese or Asian, was Sono Osato. Indeed, Oja reports that Osato’s father couldn’t attend her Broadway performances because he was interred! The show also featured black dancers, singers and even the conductor of the orchestra was black. Oja include biographies of some of these African-Americans and also reports that the integration extended backstage as well, where dressing rooms were assigned without regard to race.

Bernstein Meets Broadway: Collaborative Art in a Time of War
ISBN 978-0-19-986209-2

A broader view of Bernstein’s life is presented in Allen Shawn’s new biography Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician. Shawn doesn’t concentrate on his subject’s Broadway career but surveys his activities as a composer, conductor and educator. Being a professor of music history and composition, it isn’t surprising that Shawn is a little heavy on technical descriptions of “classical” pieces for those not either schooled in the form or used to reading liner notes of albums of classical music. But he rarely goes on too long and often seasons the discourse with interesting connections to Bernstein’s life story. But through its 280 well written pages a picture emerges of Bernstein the man that makes Bernstein the Broadway composer a bit more understandable and always fascinating.

Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician

ISBN 978-0-300-14428-4

American Musicals – 1927 – 1969

Penguin Random House’s The Library of America has finally recognized that great American musicals belong on shelves in private homes and public school and university libraries just like other examples of the great literature of our culture. Laurence Maslon of the Tisch School of the Arts has edited a two-volume boxed set of the complete books and lyrics of sixteen classics. Volume one presents Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, On the Town, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me, Kateand South Pacific. Volume two moves forward to Guys & Dolls, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret and 1776. Complain if you want to about the missing classics, that’s not a bad list to start out with. Maslon provides a very brief introduction, production history and original cast and creative team credits along with notes on the more obscure references in the texts and a description sources used to create these versions of the scripts which, to the extent Maslon could do it, represent the show as it premiered on Broadway. There are also some 48 color plates to help give a feeling for the look of the shows. Each volume even has a bookmark sewn into the binding so you can keep your place as you work through this treasure trove of American culture.

ISBN 978-1-59853-257-9

Coming Home – Kristen Chenoweth – Concord Records CRE-36267-02

An admission: I very much liked Kristen Chenoweth in her first Tony Award-winning performance in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, but I fell totally under her spell when she appeared before a roomful of middle school students for Mark Shugoll’s ArtSpeak program in Annandale, Virginia. I have made it a point to see every show she’s done on Broadway since (Epic Proportions, Wicked, The Apple Tree, Promises, Promises) but it is in concert where she is most impressive as she unleashes her astonishing vocal powers and also connects on a personal level with her audience. Concord Records has just released a CD taken from her PBS concert in which she performed for the home-town crowd in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma where she was born and raised. It captures some of the magic that captured me back at ArtSpeak.

Have Faith – Ghostlight Records 8-3342

Mary Testa, who can light up a stage in a comedic role, and Michael Starobin who can make an orchestra soar with his charts, combine in a “concept album” that could benefit from some liner notes that explain what they are doing and why.  Apparently they set out to explore the way the issues of faith have been treated in theater and popular music. There are songs from standards like Carousel, less familiar shows like A New Brain, non-theatrical sources such as Prince’s album Parade and Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. The songs are all fascinating in the versions they have crafted, but since most of them are fairly obscure, you may want to know more than you can learn from this package. It gets a bit preachy at times (as it does in the song “Sister Clarissa”) but for 50 minutes it is musically and dramatically solid.

Who Should Sing Ol’ Man River?: The Lives of an American Song
by Todd Decker – Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-938918-6

What a great idea for a book! And it comes from just the right author. Todd Decker, who gave us the well written, thoroughly researched and cogently presented study Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical, follows it up with a single volume concentrating on one of its great songs, the one which combines the emotional depth of a Negro spiritual with the popular appeal of a Broadway anthem. He deals with the origin and history of “Ol’ Man River” as it became a standard in the great American songbook with renditions of very different types from pop, jazz, theatrical, rock, rap and even comedy artists. (There is even a cogent analysis of Stan Freberg’s “Elderly Man River”!) He devotes full chapters to Paul Robeson’s role in the creation of the song as an iconic aspect of American culture, Frank Sinatra’s use of the song over nearly a half century, the use of the song for parodies, its featured use on television and in the age of easy listening before turning to the most modern uses in the post-pop period.

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