Theater Shelf: Jews Dominate Broadway! Teens in Appalachia! The French Writing Musicals?

By Brad Hathaway

Theater 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.

DVD: Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy

Michael Kantor’s documentary examines the extent to which the Broadway musical has been essentially a Jewish creation. It is a loving tribute to a heritage for which all the world should be grateful given the dozens of well known and indeed hundreds if not thousands of lesser known Jewish composers and lyricists who made magic in New York theaters throughout the 20th century.

Kantor’s 84-minute film, which was a PBS presentation on the Great Performances series, doesn’t so much strike out new ground as it fondly summarizes and illustrates a story often told. I mean, it’s no secret that Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz and so many others were Jewish. In fact, as the film shows Rodgers’ daughter saying, its hard to think of very many Broadway composers or lyricists who weren’t Jewish. (She was, of course, herself a Broadway musical composer – she composed Once Upon A Mattress.)

The extent to which Jewish creators dominated both the musical theater, and for that matter, the “tin pan alley” age of American pop music, is well surveyed, including the observation that one Russian Jewish immigrant, Israel Isidore Beilin, who changed his name to Irving Berlin, wrote the best selling Easter song in history (“Easter Parade”), the best selling Christmas song ever written (“White Christmas”) and “God Bless America” which almost supersedes “The Star Spangled Banner” as the American anthem. Among the staples of the Broadway musical stage which have words or music by Jewish composers or lyricists (or both) include Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, A Chorus Line, Carousel, My Fair Lady, The Producers, Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, Annie, The King and I, Cabaret, The Sound of Music, Porgy and Bess, Hairspray, Of Thee I Sing, Wicked and Pippin.

The exception that everyone thinks of first is Cole Porter. But the film includes the tale that he once told Richard Rodgers that he’d discovered the secret to writing a Broadway hit: “write Jewish songs.” Maury Yeston illustrates just what that meant on the piano.

When the documentary first appeared on PBS there was some flap over the inclusion of Oscar Hammerstein II in some of the shots and sequences but the documentary does clearly state that he was “raised Episcopalian” but points out that he was the grandson of German-Jewish impresario, the first Oscar Hammerstein, who all but created the theater district we now know that surrounds Times Square.

The film starts with a view of the Jewish theater world of the lower east side of New York at the turn of the 20th century, including an explanation of the impact of the sound of yiddishkite (meaning “everything jewish”) theater by none other than Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He’s the grandson of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky who were the biggest stars of Yiddish theater.

Mini-biographies of Gershwin, Berlin, and others are crafted from interviews with historians and composers and clips from historical films and Hollywood versions of  stage musicals. There are some clips from television coverage of Broadway musicals, probably most from performances on Tony Award shows. However, a number of clips from Hollywood film versions of Broadway musicals give a bit of an inflated view of the production value to be found on live stages. True, Broadway found room for the Phantom’s chandelier, Miss Saigon’s helicopter and Spider-Man’s incredibly cheap-looking monsters, but the helicopter shot of Barbra Streisand belting out Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in the movie version of Funny Girl doesn’t have much of a Broadway feel.

Among the composers who tell stories of Jewish influence on the art form and occasionally illustrate them from the piano are David Shire, Stephen Schwartz, Andrew Lippa, John Kander, Marc Shaiman and Maury Yeston. Theater historians include Stuart J. Hecht, Laurence Maslon and Philip Furia who add some scholarly perspective.

Kantor brings a wealth of background to the process, having won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series for the six-hour exploration of the history of the Broadway musical stage, Broadway: The American Musical which ran on PBS in 2004. He also produced The Thomashefsky’s: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater written by Michael Tilson Thomas.

The DVD comes with a second disc of bonus material, principally extended segments of the interviews used in the documentary. These include interviews the likes of Theodore Bikel, Mel Brooks and Eric Idle, as well as with Irving Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, Yip Harburg’s son Ernest and Dorothy Field’s son David Lahm, who, of course since his mom came from such a theater-involved family, was also the nephew of Joseph and Herbert Fields and the grandson of Lew Fields of Weber and Fields fame.

In both the documentary and the bonus materiel, the most interesting and thought-provoking comments on the already much-commented-upon phenomenon come from Josh Kun, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. If you find his comments in the documentary of interest, don’t fail to put disc two into your player and check out his comments “On The Masquerade,” “On Blacks and Jews” and “On Anti-Semitism.”
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Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy
Running time 84 minutes
Bonus disc of 3 hours
14 page booklet
Athena DVD AMP-8984
ASIN: B00BDSRB2S
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The Burnt Part Boys – Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

Few scores establish their “voice” quite as rapidly as does the score for this poorly titled but highly intriguing one-act musical that had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2010.

First, let’s get past the issue of the title. This is not a musical about child abuse by fire, as the title suggests to some. Nor does it tell a story of the victims of war or terrorism as others have expected based on its title. “The Burnt Part” refers to a section of a coal mine somewhere along Appalachia’s Clinch River where twelve miners died in an explosion in 1952. The musical is set a decade later as children of some of the victims react to the news that the mining company plans to re-open the mine where their fathers are entombed.

The score is by composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen, both of whom have been gathering awards and grants for emerging artists in the musical theater from organizations sporting names like Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Larson and Frederick Loewe.

From the music’s first notes on twangy guitar and fiddle you know you are in for a boot-scooting country sound. It isn’t the over-produced sound that emerges from Nashville studios for what passes today as “country music radio.” No, this is a small band, atmospheric blend of bluegrass, country and dramatic underscoring.

From the lyric’s first words you know there will be intelligently utilized imagery. Tysen opens with coal miners singing “God’s eyes shine down on me / In the hole where the black coal lies / God’s eyes shine down on me / Down where you can’t trust your eyes.”

These are the miners who lost their lives in 1952’s explosion. The show then flashes forward to 1962 and focuses on the 18-year old son of one of the dead and his 14-year old brother.

The younger boy is played by Al Calderon, one of the tremendously talented kids who made their Broadway debuts in Jason Robert Brown’s 13. Calderon and Charlie Brady, who plays his older brother, make a strong impression, along with Andrew Durand and Noah Galvin as their best friends. Added to the mix is Molly Ranson with a natural sounding twang as a tom-boy who teams up with Calderon for part of a trek through the woods to the site of his father’s death.

A conceit of the musical is that each time the 14-year old has a seemingly unsolvable problem, he enlists one of the heroes from his favorite movie to help him out. Since that movie happened to be John Wayne’s The Alamo – this was 1962, after all – those heroes are Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie. As the boy is 14-years old, and one who lost his father when he was just four, the figments of his imagination are all endowed with father figure aspects and, thus, are played by the same actor who plays his dead father.

That actor is Michael Park, who made his Broadway debut in Smokey Joe’s Café but who I recall best from his hoofing rendition of “I’ve Got Your Number” in the Faith Prince/Martin Short revival of Little Me in 1998. On this disc it is clear that he has a great time playing each of the heroes in the fantasies.

His Davy Crockett is an impersonation of John Wayne in an impressive musical scene. His lines are all spoken while the rest of the cast provides something of a musical Greek chorus. Park does his own singing as a soused Jim Bowie in “Bowie’s Lament” that introduces one of the important themes of the show — life is worth living if you live it for a cause. It is encapsulated in Tysen’s grammatically awkward but appropriate lines “You stand and fight for right or wrong / Every man has his chance to chose / You live a life deservin’ of song / That’s a life worthy to lose.”

The show had a very brief run at the Playwrights Horizons Theatre in a co-production with the Vineyard Theatre. It was directed by Joe Calarco who also received “musical staging” credit. The book, by Mariana Elder, came in for some harsh words from some critics. Not having seen the show, my comments are limited to what is on the recording and I think I’ll steal Spencer Tracy’s line from “Pat & Mike” – “what there is, is choice.”

That goes for the vocal performances, the strength of imagery within a totally appropriate vocabulary for Appalachian coal miners in the middle of the 20th century and the consistency of the bluegrass country sound of the score.

The instant recognizability of the small country band sound is, of course, to the credit of composer Chris Miller. But some praise should be reserved for orchestrator Bruce Coughlin. He gives the 18 tracks on the recording a commonality of sound without falling into the trap of being repetitious or boring. He does so with just six players on piano, violin, viola, bass, guitar, mandolin and percussion. They provide a full, rich supporting structure for the vocals and there are some notable if subtle pieces of underscoring including Maxim Moston’s mandolin on “The Climbing Song.”

Coughlin would seem to have been a natural choice for the assignment given his striking success at orchestrating Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, another musical that seeks out a distinctly Appalachian sound. This isn’t the only sound Coughlin can create. His credits include the lush The Light in the Piazza, the jazzy 9 to 5, the quirky Urinetown and the show music-y revival of Once Upon A Mattress. But if there is one original cast album that this one brings to mind, it is Floyd Collins.

The packaging of The Burnt Part Boys recording has a quality appearance with a booklet using photos of the production behind the text. It includes a welcome full synopsis that explains the role of each song in the telling of the story. This is an album that is much more enjoyable when you read along as you listen than if you stare off into space. Some of the subtle games of word play, especially the inventive use of words with multiple meanings and verbal reverses, are easier to catch with the text before you.

For example, Tysen has Sam Houston giving the young 14-year old brother this assignment in one fantasy from “The Alamo” – “Take down Santa Ana / A battle I need you to battle / You’ll be there at the line /  May your mission at that mission / Be to keep it a shrine.”

Unfortunately, the printed lyrics are hard to follow because the notation of which character is singing the lines is in the same type face as the words he or she is singing.

This release is on the Yellow Sound Label, a relatively new but very welcome addition to the few labels still producing quality cast recordings. May they do many more!

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The Burnt Part Boys
Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Yellow Sound Lebel catalogue YSL 566793
List price $13.98
Running time: 50 minutes over 18 tracks
Packaged with synopsis, lyrics and 18 production photos
ASIN: B005ZHB8CC
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Musicals in French

Maybe some kind soul gave you every item that you didn’t already have from our Holiday Gift Guide last December – and somehow you still have a leftover gift certificate or cash. What to do?

You might devote some attention to the world of musical theater beyond Broadway and its national touring spawn. There are thriving (or at least surviving) pockets of musical theater across Europe and in some of the areas along the Pacific Rim that have drawn from the legacy of Broadway and its British counterpart, the West End in London.

Periodically over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some areas of exploration separated by language. These will be samplings rather than a comprehensive catalogue because my own theater shelf (shelves?) only has a smattering of what is out there. But perhaps it will whet an appetite here and there. First up? Musicals in French.

Many Americans may think that Claude-Michel Schönberg is the only modern composer of musicals from France. Surely, he’s the only one with a body of work well known by Americans from his success on Broadway. You can probably pull English-language recordings of his “Les Misèrables” and “Miss Saigon” from your shelf. If it is a well-stocked shelf you might also pull one of the recordings of his “Martin Guerre” which didn’t quite make it to Broadway, or even “The Pirate Queen” that did very briefly. Some of these are also available in their earlier French incarnations, so you can hear them with their original lyrics by Alain Boublil.

You might even find their first collaboration, the rock opera La Rèvolution Française. It was their 1973 attempt to do in France what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had done in England with Jesus Christ Superstar which was a hit as a concept album long before it actually made it onto a stage. La Rèvolution Française is still available on First Night Records. (Its catalogue number is OCRCD6006.) Listening to it some 40 years after its initial release, it is clear just why Schönberg has become the best known of the French composers of musicals: his melodies are superior to most of the work of others.

One exception to that observation might be another French composer who has made it to Broadway, although only once and then only briefly. Michel Legrand had Amour on Broadway for less than 50 performances in 2002.

There are French composers working at various types of musical theatre both in France and in French-speaking Quebec north of our own border. Simon Leclerc is one of them. His career has veered from classics – he studied at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal – to pop – he was a backup singer for Céline Dion. He has performed in musicals and composed an extremely atmospheric score for one of the innumerable stage musicals based on the Dracula legend. In this case it was Dracula: Entre L’amour et La Mort with lyrics by Richard Ouzounian who straddles the line between creator of musicals and writer about them as the theater critic for the Toronto Star. Their Dracula  was issued by Les Disques Artiste Records. (Catalogue AR-CD124)

Much more expansive is a live recording of a concert presentation by the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal of the musical by composer André Gagnon and lyricist Michel Tremblay titled for its subject Nelligan. Èmile Nelligan was a 19th century symbolist poet from Montreal who suffered a nervous breakdown at age 19 and was institutionalized for the rest of his life, never writing any more poetry. What he had written in his teens, however, was published a few years after his collapse, and the drama of his fate combined with the romanticism of his poetry to capture the popular imagination.

Gagnon might object to my characterization of Nelligan as a “musical.” He called it a romantic opera and, indeed, it was performed and recorded by Opéra de Montréal. Its melodies are so mellifluous and the connecting recitative so unstudied that it sounds in the concert presentation very much like a more traditional stage musical than an opera. At least one reference to the concert termed it “le drame musical.” You can judge for yourself from the lovely two disc package on the Espace Musique label. (Catalogue SMCD 5237-2)

The range of classifications from “opera” to “musical” extends to “spectacle.” Quite a few contemporary recordings of stage musicals in French are of those that were created for massive presentations in venues like the Palais des Sports in Paris. Among those whose scores have been released on disc are these:

Gladiateur: Musique du Spectacle

A “Musical Spectacle” based on the Spartacus myth which opened in the Palais des Sports de Paris in 2004. EC7/AZ, a label of Universal Music, released a recording of the score which features mod-ish new-wave rock music by Maxime Le Forestier in a full-sounding stereo. (Catalogue 981-629-8) It must have reverberated around the 4,500-seat hall, providing more atmosphere than melody. Those who saw – and enjoyed – the spectacle might find the recording a reminder of some thrilling moments. As a stand-alone listen, however, it gets to sounding all the same about half way through.

Les Dix Commandements: L’intégralité des Chansons du Spectacle

Somewhat less boring after multiple listens is Pascal Obispo’s music for another spectacle musical, this one following something of the same dramatic arc as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments, but without the services of either Charlton Heston or Yul Brynner. The score may be less boring in part because Obispo’s songs are of a wider variety and evidence a greater melodic range, but the contributions of lyricists Lionel Florence and Patrice Guirao may be important as well. Without a fluency in French it isn’t clear just what is going on in the story. The finale, titled “L’envie D’aimer,” (“The Desire to Love”) was a hit as a single in Europe and can be sampled online. It is YouTube’s video R59Msiz8yAc. The two disc set is on the Atletico label. (Catalogue 5488142)

Cléopâtre La Dernière Reine D’Egypte

With a slightly lusher string orchestra sound occasionally mixed with new-wave rock rhythm section (think slightly slowed down disco) Kamel Ouali’s spectacle musical of the legendary queen of Egypt features a score by over half a dozen composers working on lyrics by the same team that did Les Dix Commandements, Lionel Florence and Patrice Guiaro. Ouali, a French choreographer, staged the production in 2009, again at the Palais des Sports in Paris. There are touches of semi-exotic sounds especially in the rhythms of the bazaar which probably serve the choreographer in Ouali as much as the director. A highlights disc was issued by Mercury (catalogue # 531 122 0) and there is a sample video on Vimeo.com as #19547168.

A more traditional (i.e. – not “spectacle”) musical drama is the one Gérard Presgurvic wrote using Shakespeare’s story of star crossed lovers. Presgurvic took some liberties with the Bard, but that is nothing new for modern stagings of his plays whether they are set to music or not. Presgurvic’s Rómeó És Júlia\ has a distinctly rock-musical sound. Since its debut in 2001 it has been produced all around Europe, in Canada and on the west of the Pacific in South Korea, The Republic of China and Japan. Its London production had a translation by Don Black. The disc I have is on the old Polygram label. (Catalogue 542 495-2)

Another French musical that has been produced around the globe is Riccardo (or Richard) Cocciante’s sung-through version of Notre-Dame de Paris based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the legendary hunchback. Luc Plamondon’s lyrics have been translated into nearly a dozen languages including Belarusian and Lithuanian and there are recordings of the productions of England, Spain, Italy, Russia, Korea and, of course, France. In fact, there are at least five recordings from France. Whichever language you listen to, the soaring melodic lines of many of the numbers are likely to stick in your brain. From the stirring opening “Le Temps Des Cathédrales” to the gentle Schubertian but not Schubert “Ave Maria Paīen,” the work is a treat. The original is now available on Sony. (Catalog on Sonny Pomme/France 952342)

Cocciante’s Notre-Dame de Paris is not to be confused with the stage version for Disney which Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and James Lapine created in 1999 in Berlin which might still have a Broadway incarnation some day. That was not in French. It was in German, so we’ll discuss it when we get back to the matter of foreign language recordings for your theater shelf.

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