Theater Shelf: New CDs Of Pippin, Annie, Hands On A Hardbody & Mordden’s Latest

61nCsmhi1FLaBy 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.

Hands on a Hardbody
Original Broadway Cast Recording

When you say “the recording is better than the show was” sometimes it is a positive comment on the recording and sometimes it is a negative comment on the show. In this case, it is both.

The recording captures fine performances by the likes of Keith Carradine, Hunter Foster, Keala Settle, Jim Newman and the rest of the solid ensemble of this 15-character musical. Hands on a Hardbody, which ran just two months on Broadway earlier this year, tells the story of a contest at a Nissan dealership which will award a brand new pickup truck to the last contestant to still have his or her hands on its hardbody.

What is more, the recording preserves the melodically pleasing (if not particularly challenging) music of Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green as well as the intriguingly interesting lyrics of Ms. Green.

Those lyrics use the blue collar argot of the down-on-their-luck Texans who sing them, but manage to work in the kind of references to the world in which they live and amusing rhymes and alliterations that are the mark of good musical theater lyrics. She cleverly rhymes “This truck is bona fide” with “Ev’ry Texan needs a ride,” and rarely indulges in even slightly sophisticated vocabularies. Oh, she does succumb a bit so she can rhyme Maserati with “hot rod hottie” but even that fits with the vehicular fascination motivating the ten contestants. (She slips up very briefly with a too-classical reference in “You even got to bribe the boatman at the River Styx” to rhyme with “It’s a fix.”)

Most importantly, none of her lyrics put the characters down in any way. Instead, she manages to capture not only the strengths of the characters but their weaknesses as well without demeaning them.

Green is showing impressive growth in her skill with words. Her first Broadway outing, High Fidelity, was tantalizing in the quality of her wordsmithing but showed too many lapses. Fewer lapses marred the less challenging but still enjoyable lyrics for Bring It On. With Hardbody she has continued to improve and it has been noticed. This score earned her her first Tony Award nomination.

Her partner for this score (and fellow Tony nominee) Anastasio made his Broadway debut with this one. He’s best known in the pop music world as a founding member of the group Phish. Here he crafts catchy tunes in a country/pop style that slips over into gospel when needed. He is co-credited for the nicely supportive orchestrations along with Nashville’s Don Hart who combines work in that city’s country music industry (The Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, etc/) with composing symphonic works. The vocal arrangements are by the show’s music director, Carmel Dean.

The book for the musical is by Doug Wright, based on a 1997 documentary film about the actual contestants of a real “keep your hands on the hardbody” contest. Wright, the author of the non-musical I Am My Own Wife and the book for the musical Grey Gardens, brought the number of contestants down from the twenty-four in the documentary to a much more manageable dozen. Then he endeavored to imbue each with a distinct personality and an understandable back-story.

Attempting to make an audience care about even a dozen different people in the space of two acts is a task few, if any, book writers can pull off. In this case, that goal eluded Mr. Wright. What also became problematic for Hardbody as a stage show was the necessity for the cast to keep their hands on the on-stage truck so much of the time.

While those problems may have weakened the show, however, they don’t impact the recording at all. There is spirit, variety and genuine emotion in the recording that makes listening to the album more fun than watching the show was. The only real misstep involving the album was the decision to include track number 8, Keala Settle’s attack of “Uncontrollable Laughter” which is just that: one minute and 24 seconds of laughter which sets up track 9, “Joy Of The Lord.” It wasn’t needed and it is a distraction from actual songs and music.  You might want to program your CD player to skip over it.

The original Broadway pit band of eight musicians is augmented for the recording by one additional violinist and the composer takes a few licks in the guitar part as well. Both the composer and the lyricist get credited for producing the album but the Executive Producer credit is given to the inestimable Kurt Deutsch, who founded Ghostlight’s parent company, Sh-K-Boom Records, with his wife Sherie Rene Scott back in 2000.

The album includes informative notes from the ever-enthusiastic Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal critic and About Last Night blogger who puts the best possible spin on the show’s strengths, a very helpful song-by-song synopsis and full lyrics. Most (but not all) of the 22 color photographs have captions telling the reader just who is who while presenting an accurate impression of the look of the show.

It also includes a bonus track of a song that didn’t make it to the opening night version. “The Tryers” sets out the theme of the show in Green’s simple, honest text “Here’s to the tryers, those brave do or die-rs with no safety net walking on them high wires we struggle so. And even though we falter and fall, most people never try at all.”

Hands on a Hardbody
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records Catalog 8-4475
Run time 66 minutes over 21 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos

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Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre

My theater shelves are already groaning with books about the history of musical theater. Some are well researched but terribly dry reference works. Some are entertaining but hardly definitive source documents. Many of them bear the imprint “OUP” as in Oxford University Press. Today, OUP releases another one, and I’m just going to have to make more room.

Seems that Ethan Mordden, author of many, many books on musicals and theater, has taken on the task of creating a single-volume survey of the topic that previously occupied seven of his more than three dozen titles: the Broadway musical. Just as with those earlier volumes, I won’t be using it as a reference, but I will most definitely peruse it when the topic of the moment is a specific show or an identifiable trend. Thank goodness, the volume sports a twenty-plus page index guiding the reader to the pages discussing particular shows or people.

Unfortunately, the index doesn’t cover the contents of the two appendices – Discography and For Further Reading. But more about that later.

Best taken in small bites, Mordden’s discussions of important musicals, or of any of a number of categories into which like-shows can be grouped, are both entertaining and thought provoking. He isn’t really the author to pick up to introduce yourself to an aspect of the history of Broadway – there are more authoritative and more usefully assembled volumes for that.

But once you think you have a handle on a topic, reading his ruminations can challenge your complacency and stimulate the consideration of alternative views.

Of course, if you already own his volumes on the musicals of the 1920s (Make Believe), 1930s (Sing For Your Supper), 1940s (Beautiful Mornin’), 1950s (Coming Up Roses), 1960s (Open A New Window), 1970s (One More Kiss) or the effort to cap the series with one volume dealing with the 1980s, ’90s and the first half of the ‘oughts (The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen), you don’t need me to do anything but inform you of the existence of his new book Anything Goes, A History of American Musical Theatre. You will either say “Oh, wow, another dose of Mordden” and place your order, or “Uh, oh, another dose of Mordden” and move on to things that interest you more.

He is a bit of an acquired taste. If you haven’t acquired it yet, you may want to know what this volume offers that you can’t get in, say, Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, in its fourth edition updated by Richard Norton (also, by the way, published by OUP) or Larry Stempel’s superb Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater published by W. W. Norton. After all, with Bordman/Norton you get well documented factual details on all the Broadway musicals from before there was a Broadway till they had to cut it off with 2010’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in order to go to the printer. With Stemple you get a historian’s eye view of trends and trendsetters.

With Mordden you get, well, Mordden. A sense of certainty pervades his opinions and there is no dividing line between them and factual statements. And not all those opinions are in tune with popular consensus. He knows what he knows and believes what he believes and isn’t hesitant about sharing it with us. And that is refreshing in its honesty and always interesting.

The book starts out with a terrific 70-page survey of all that preceded the time when Victor Herbert became, in Mordden’s phrase, “America’s composer” turning out 41 Broadway shows between the 1890s and the 1920s. It is a readable and entertaining zip through The Beggar’s Opera, The Black Crook, the works of Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan, Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz, Floradora and George M. Cohan.

Of course, Mordden being Mordden, it includes a host of asides and entertaining comments including some whoppers like the book from Otto Hauerbach (later Harbach) for Rudolf Friml’s The Firefly “might be the worst book written for a famous title.”

But it is his connecting the dots between shows he’s actually seen and the entire history of musical theater that is the best thing about the book’s main text. He delights in sharing details that might not have caught the attention of others from his innumerable nights in Broadway theaters. He makes that clear in his introduction when he disdains research as merely “ransacking the archives,” thanking a host of people with personal experience who helped him add to his understanding but also saying “I was there for a good deal of it, and I vividly remember certain bits of staging that one cannot glean from surviving documents.”

The man is now in his mid-60s, so his personal recollections go back only to around the mid-1950s. While the book is interesting as it runs through the history that preceded his personal attendance, it gets to be something more as he begins to thread personal observations into the narrative. It becomes something like a leisurely chat with an observant expert who uses personal memories to illustrate his points. Each memory makes you wish you’d been attending the shows with him along the way.

No. This isn’t a book to study. It is a book to enjoy. The more you bring to it, the more you will take away from it.

But Mordden saves the best part for last. Not the last of the main part of the book – in fact he seems to run out of steam as he tries to wrap up too much in too few pages, leaving the final chapter frustratingly sketchy.

No, it is after the final chapter that the book becomes something more than good, it becomes superb. Mordden offers up a 10-page survey of the extant literature on his subject under the title “For Further Reading” which is a fabulous guide to building your own theater shelf. He discusses the relative strengths and weaknesses of over 50 volumes (only one of which is his own) which would constitute a superb theater book shelf. In it he pulls some of the great quotes from the books in his list. (Surprisingly, he overlooks Stempel’s Showtime.)

He follows that with an even more ambitious project, a “Discography” that is much more than a simple list of CDs and DVDs. He sets out his intentions in its first paragraph: “one, to guide the reader to a re-discovery of old music and the styles in which it was originally played and performed; two, to outline the development of the cast album, the single most influential element in the creation of a permanent repertory of works; and, three, to point out recordings both enlightening and entertaining.”

How well did he do on those three ambitious goals? Very well, indeed – at least for the first 27 of the discography’s 31 pages. He covers a wide swath of theater music recordings, giving mouth-watering descriptions to those he loves and interesting and informative précis of those he respects while never pulling his punches where he has been disappointed. He devotes no fewer than five fairly lengthy paragraphs to recordings of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, gives a rundown on the various labels’ efforts to record the Gilbert and Sullivan scores, lets the reader know about Opera Rara’s two-CD sampler of Jacques Offenbach with its 240-page booklet (if you can call a 240-page document a “booklet”) and highlights a number of packages of historic recordings on Pearl.

For an inveterate, irretrievably addicted collector of theater music, this write up is a marvelous blend of new discoveries and reminders of the best of old friends.

But just as the main text of the book seems to lose focus and Mordden’s interest seems to flag when he gets to what he calls the “Fourth Age” of the American Musical Theatre, the discography gets to the end of the 1970s and then comes to a frustrating semi-halt. Rather than continue with a discussion of the best and most notable of the recordings of musicals post – say – The Phantom of the Opera, Mordden launches into a recording-by-recording analysis of all the Broadway productions of Gypsy that runs to over three pages and ends with a personal diatribe on that oh-so-easy-to-hate playwright/director/author Arthur Laurents.

A disappointing ending to an otherwise superb book.


Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre
by Ethan Mordden
Oxford University Press
360 Pages including Index, Discography and Further Reading
ISBN-13: 978-0199892839

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2013 Broadway Revival Recording

Ghostlight Records’ “New Broadway Cast Recording” of Pippin offers an hour of highly melodic soft-pop Stephen Schwartz music from what must be one of the most fun shows on Broadway today. It is ample evidence of the musical and performance strengths that justify the show’s capturing the Tony Award for best revival of a musical.

It features the impressive title character performance of Matthew James Thomas and the personable work as the “Leading Player” that earned Patina Miller a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical. More importantly, it documents the most memorable single moment in this or any recent season: six of the 10 ½ minutes when Andrea Martin takes total control of the emotions of all 1,020 paying patrons and brings everyone into the revelry.

Also of note are the subtly soft sounds of Miami native Rachel Bay Jones as Pippin’s love interest, Catherine, and the suitably strident ones of Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charles (better known to history as Charlemagne). Mann actually comes off a bit better on the disc than in the theater as the audio-only recording doesn’t include his sometimes distracting mugging or the other times when he seems to switch on some sort of performance autopilot.

The original production, which was directed by Bob Fosse, ran for nearly 2,000 performances in the 1970s, a decade when Broadway seemed dominated by Stephen Schwartz projects. He followed Pippin with The Magic Show which ran for only 24 fewer performances but, since it relied so much on the work of magician Doug Henning, has rarely been performed since it closed. And , of course, there was Godspell (527 performances). Only Working, at 24 performances, marred Schwartz’ string of successes in the decade – and he didn’t write the score for it. His credits were book adaptation and direction of that piece that had a score written by a collection of then-popular composers and lyricists.

This production is the third revival director Dianne Paulus has brought to Broadway. She did a superb job with the Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, James Rado American Tribal Love Rock Musical, Hair, and then stirred emotions with the liberties she considered taking with George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.

Paulus brought a new concept to the show. Instead of staging it as if being performed by a touring troupe of medieval minstrels as in Fosse’s original, she stages it as a circus spectacular. With the circus creations of Gypsy Snider and five performers who have circus rather than theater experience, the show is unlike any other on Broadway. The CDs booklet does a good job of giving you an idea of what the production was like with photos of some of the circus moments as well as of the theatrical moments.

The revival rehabilitates the reputation of the Music Box Theatre as a house that can successfully house a musical. It is such a small house (just above a thousand seats) that it doesn’t get a chance to host a musical that often. Musicals are so expensive to mount that producers look for larger houses in order to have more seats to sell. The last musical here was Joseph Brooks’ ill-fated (and ill-conceived) In My Life – the Tourettes Syndrome love story marred by a subplot about God going on vacation! Before that, the only other musical in the house in this century was the equally short lived but certainly not poorly conceived Michel Legrand musical Amour.

This album seems to have been well recorded with the superb orchestrations of Larry Hochman performed with loving panache by Charlie Alterman’s 12-piece pit band. I say “seems” because the mastering puts the entire score at such a high gain level as to be right at the edge of distortion, creating a disturbing fuzziness, or at least a hint of one.

That is not the only significant criticism the album deserves, however. Record producers Schwartz and Kurt Deutch realized that they had room for about another ten minutes on the disc and made a bum choice of filler. They give us four tracks of the pit band playing songs without the vocals they were written to support. These karaoke-style tracks may be fun for singing along, but they are not good listening. It is almost like watching video of the show without the actors – boring!

It isn’t as if there wasn’t something else that would have been great as a “bonus track” of just about ten minutes. I’ve already mentioned that a strength of the disc is that it gives us Andrea Martin’s singing of “No Time At All.” That track is just under six minutes. However, her scene is just over 10 minutes and includes a both hilarious and touching introductory spoken section and almost a dozen laugh-inducing asides. As grateful as I am for the six-minute track, I do wish they had thought to give us the full in-theater experience of her time on stage. Now that would have been extraordinary!

New Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 66 minutes over 20 tracks
Packaged with notes, lyrics and 26 color photographs
Ghostlight Records Catalog 8-4473

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2012 Broadway Cast Recording

From the opening trumpet statement of the melody for “Tomorrow” to the launch into “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and the release of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile,” the new recording of the current revival of Annie establishes a chipper enthusiasm that gladdens the hearts of theater music fans … and that’s just the first minute of the overture!

By the time vocalists are added – Lilla Crawford as the 11-year old personification of optimism, Miamian Katie Finneran as the kid-hating head of the orphanage, Anthony Warlow as the richest man in America, and the rest of the cast – the recording becomes a real joy.

The problem could be, of course, that you already own the original cast album of the show from its 1977 release on Columbia records, and you might doubt you need another. The new recording does not offer songs that hadn’t made the earlier recording, but it does have a number of reprises which brings the duration of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s score from the nearly 44 minutes on the original recording to just over 51 minutes on the new disc. What’s more, the new one has three bonus tracks.… More about that later.

If you don’t already have the original, and you only have room on your shelf for one Annie, make it this new one. Crawford’s vocal performance is practically indistinguishable from Andrea McArdle’s legendary performance on the original Broadway cast album. The first 10 tracks (including “Little Girls” in both the initial delivery and then the reprise) leave me thinking it is something of a toss up. But the sparkle level of “Easy Street” in the revival recording is so much higher than in the original that it makes this the one to buy.

Part of the reason for the excitement of this version of “Easy Street” is the skill of record producer Thomas Z. Shepard who here shares credit with Douglas Denhoff and Dennis J. Grimaldi. No one is better than Shepard at capturing the laughs and exclamations that dancers call out either through exuberance or in an effort to appear excited in order to get the audience into the spirit during a dance. Larry Morton and composer Charles Strouse, who produced the original cast album, didn’t even try to record the sound of the trio of Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster and his floozy girlfriend on this number.

Another reason this version of “Easy Street” is so exciting is the superb conducting of Todd Ellison and the orchestrations that his 17 musicians are playing. On the original Broadway cast album Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations were top notch, and sounded even a bit fuller than the new ones credited to Michael Starobin with dance music arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. But Starobin (who shares credit in the booklet for this recording with Doug Besterman) brings more humor and a cleaner, clearer, sharper sound to the entire project.

This revival opened at the Palace Theatre across the street from the TKTS booth on Times Square last November and was nominated for the Tony Award for Outstanding Revival. The title role went to the big-voiced young lady who was, at the time of the opening, the same age as her character. As Daddy Warbucks, Warlow doesn’t get much of a chance to demonstrate the glories of his voice, which is a shame since his is a marvelous one as Australians well know from his work down under in half a dozen classic musicals, and his recordings including the “complete work” version of Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde. But Strouse and Charnin didn’t write their best stuff for his character.

It is in the role of Miss Hannigan, the orphanage operator who can’t figure out why any child would want to be an orphan, that the contest between the original disc and the revival disc gets interesting. The original, of course, documents the greatest work of the wonderful Dorothy Loudon in her most famous role. Her “Little Girls” is simply the best. That’s not to say that Katie Finneran is any slouch in her rendition. She’s nearly as satisfying a drunk, as her Tony Award winning turn in Promises, Promises proved.

But I guess the producers of this disc didn’t want to rest on those laurels. Since the score leaves plenty of room on the disc for bonus tracks, they serve up “Little Girls” (with its reprise) and “Easy Street” all over again with a different Miss Hannigan, Jane Lynch who plays Sue Sylvester on the television series Glee. Lynch played the part for two months on Broadway when Finneran left to take a shot at a TV series with Michael J. Fox and before Faith Prince took over the role last month.

2012 Broadway Cast Recording
Shout Broadway catalog 82663-14208
Running time 59:30 over 25 tracks including 3 bonus tracks
Packaged with notes and complete synopsis but no lyrics

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