Theater Shelf: People In The Picture, Hammerstein, Spiderman, Connecticut Yankee

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

By Brad Hathaway

The People in the Picture — Original Broadway Cast Recording

Before the Tony race starts up in earnest for this year, let’s take a look at one show from last year’s race that nearly got away.

The People InThe Picture was a klezmer-infused musical of the struggle of Jews in a Yiddish theater troupe to survive in Warsaw during the Holocaust. It only ran for two and a half months – and that’s including the three weeks of previews before opening night. It closed without having had an original Broadway cast album recorded.

Bruce Kimmel’s Kritzerland label came to the rescue. A week after the closing, the cast of 24 and orchestra of 12 went in to the Avatar Studios just around the block from Studio 54 where the stage hands of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local Number One were striking the set.

They recorded the 22 musical numbers in the score, most of which featured music by Mike Stoller, the surviving half of the song-writing team Broadway remembers best for the flood of hits assembled by Jerry Zaks in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. (The other half of that team, Jerry Leiber, died last August.)

Stoller composed the music for 12 of the songs in this score and collaborated with Artie Butler on two more. Butler makes his composing debut on Broadway with the four songs he wrote for this show.

The music doesn’t feel disjointed, as is so often the case for a score with different composers producing different songs. Instead, there is one overall aesthetic, even though the songs cover a range of emotions from bitter sorrow to sweet affection. Part of the reason for the unified feeling is the use of klezmer styles throughout. (If you aren’t familiar with the style, just think of the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof’s wedding scene and you’ll know all you need to know.)

Butler’s four songs are the most klezmerish, but with “Saying Goodbye” he shows a tender side, and the reprise of “Remember Who You Are” presents the sentimental side of a melody originally delivered in a comedy setting.

Conversely, Stoller’s dozen, not surprisingly, includes more pop-like numbers such as “Hollywood Girls” which is easy to believe comes from the pen of the man who gave “Hound Dog,” but he composed the most affecting tender musical moment in the score, “Selective Memory.”

Another reason the score has a consistency of sound is the work of orchestrator Michael Starobin who may well have had only 12 players for the orchestra in the theater, but who wrote charts that had them playing 29 different instruments. Producer Steven Epstein gave him more resources for the recording. While the orchestra in the theater had but two string players (a violin and a cello) a string section of 14 was brought in to enrich the sound at selected moments.

One of the recurring themes in the reviews of the show when it opened was the opinion that the lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart were weak. The New York Post’s blogger Elizabeth Vincentelli said “Dart’s lyrics are clumsy, at best.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney said “The rhymes in Dart’s lyrics are often so shamelessly hoary that you laugh and wince at the same time.” Online critic Chris Caggiano liked most things about the show “except the book and the lyrics” (saying “Yeah, that’s a fairly major liability”) and Steven Suskin, about whom I have written encomiums before, finds the book and lyrics to be the show’s problem, writing in Variety that the “the die is cast in Dart’s very first lyric, which rhymes ‘skittish’ with ‘Yiddish.”

These are people whose opinions I have come to respect, but each only heard the lyrics once and then in the context of the show for which they were written. Upon repeated listening with the text before me, I found the aspects of the lyrics which seem to have annoyed critics in the theater to be a strength of the score on the recording. The booklet includes the lyrics and I found myself underlining particularly funny or clever turns of phrase or effective images again and again.

True to the traditions of Yiddish Theater with its broad brush for every stroke, you find lines like “Hollywood girls are glamorous / They’re gorgeous and very mammarous,” Jewish-specific gags like “They call us Jewish Hams / But that’s an oxymoron” and flippancies like the idea that in Hollywood not only will they change an actor’s name, they may die his hair and “re-install his foreskin.”

They aren’t all shticky comic one liners, however. There’s a lively little ditty that goes “Laughter’s exquisite / So don’t repress it / You feel a giggle bubble up / Go on, express it.” A marriage of convenience between a heterosexual and a homosexual stimulates this: “Man plans and God laughs / My mother used to say, and it’s true / When man schemes, God chuckles / He must be quite amused by me and you.” The Yiddish theater troupe sings “Because we live on bread and theater / Body and spirit must be fed / Without our bread we’d just be hungry / But without theater we’d be dead.” That’s pretty heavy stuff.

The show never did find its audience, with attendance hovering below 60% most weeks. Perhaps awards would have stimulated interest, but nominations were few and there were no wins. The Tony Awards hadn’t been a great help to the show. There was only one nomination and no win. That nomination was for the show’s star, the incredibly talented Donna Murphy who has had multiple roles of a lifetime (Fosca in Passion, Miss Anna in the 1996 revival of The King and I, Ruth Sherwood in the 2003 revival of Wonderful Town, Lotte Lenya in the Kurt Weill bio-musical Lovemusik).

Murphy may not list the dual role she played in this short lived production as “roles of a lifetime” but she garnered kudos from practically every reviewer who wrote about the show and the evidence on this disc is that she succeeded in creating two separate and interesting personas. She played both the grandmotherly “Bubbie,” who acts as the narrator for the show which tells its story in flashback from New York of 1977, and her younger self in the flashbacks to Warsaw between 1935 and 1946.

The rest of the cast includes well respected Broadway vets like Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Chip Zien and Joyce Van Patten, all of whom come across on disc as distinct but fairly standard characters. Rachel Resheff stands out as the ten-year old granddaughter of Murphy’s “Bubbie” to whom the story is being told. Resheff has had a good deal of experience as a youngster on Broadway, having been Jane Banks in Mary Poppins and Young Fiona in Shrek.

All in all, The People in the Picture is a pleasant listen that rewards a second or third visit, but is not likely to find its way into your frequent listening list. Amazon seems not to have it in stock at the moment, but you can order it directly from the label on their website, kritzerland.com.

The People In The Picture – Original Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 66 minutes over 22 tracks
Packaged with short note, a synopsis, full lyrics and 8 color photos
Kritzerland catalog number KR 20020-8
ASIN: B005F62WB4
List price $19.98

—–

Oscar Hammerstein II – Out Of My Dreams

The search for a full understanding of the life and works of Oscar Hammerstein II might well begin with this 12-song disc, but it certainly won’t end here. Indeed, the disk will serve only to whet an appetite, not satisfy it.

Described as a “companion” to the PBS documentary of the same title, Oscar Hammerstein II- – Out of My Dreams leaves one wanting more.

Of course, any attempt to represent this man’s career with just one disc is not only an impossibility, it is a folly. That career covered over forty years, involved writing the book or lyrics or directing over forty-five shows on Broadway and producing a half-dozen more. In the process, he published over eight hundred song lyrics.

Even if Decca Broadway loaded up the CD to capacity with Hammerstein songs, the disc would be more notable for what it excludes than for what it includes. As it is, they called it quits after just 12 songs using only half the running time that could have been used.

Let’s take a look at what is here.

A few tracks from original Broadway cast albums? Yes – the title track, plus “People Will Say We’re in Love” from 1943’s Oklahoma! “If I Loved you” from 1945’s Carousel and a young Yul Brynner’s “A Puzzlement” from The King and I from 1951. There’s also a track (“Dat’s Love”) from the original cast recording of Hammerstein’s re-working of Bizet’s opera Carmen into a Broadway show, 1943’s Carmen Jones.

Some of the tracks, however, are from revivals, concerts or studio recordings of scores. Julie Andrews lends her distinctive soprano to “Getting To Know You” from The King and I backed by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under John Mauceri, while the equally distinctive baritone voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell handles “Some Enchanted Evening” from the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific. Sarah Brightman and Barbara Cook team up for “Mister Snow” from Carousel, Simon Estes gives “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat the heft it deserves in a 1991 recording backed by the Munich Radio Orchestra, and Connie Fisher (yes, Connie Fisher!) does a superb “Do-Re-Mi” from the London Palladium’s version of 1959’s The Sound of Music.

Then there are some recordings from the days when pop music stars “covered” songs from musicals in the hope of landing on the hit parade. There is Dick Haymes’ 1949 record of “It Might As Well Be Spring” from the movie State Fair and Rosemary Clooney’s 1958 recording of “Love, Look Away” from Flower Drum Song of the same year.

OK. That’s what is here. It was inevitable that what isn’t here would include a multitude of songs that are on any theater lover’s list of favorites. The disc doesn’t even hint at the richness that preceded the collaboration with Richard Rodgers. You’d hardly suspect from this collection that their first show together, Oklahoma!, was Hammerstein’s 35th Broadway show.

True, there is “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat, which he wrote in 1927 with Jerome Kern. But that show had more hits than any musical up to that time and he wrote four other major musicals with Kern which produced more songs that have become standards (or, as in the case of Sweet Adeline’s “Some Girl Is On Your Mind,” should have).

There’s nary a clue that he worked with other famous composers and had major hits which produced well known songs in the 1920s and 1930s. He had hits with Rudolf Friml (Rose-Marie which ran from 1924 to 1926) and Sigmund Romberg including The Desert Song and The New Moon (anyone remember “Stouthearted Men”?).

In order to even begin to understand the way he affected the art form of musical theater, the quality of his output and the essential humanity of the man, you must listen to full scores from his shows. As luck would have it, a great many of them are available either in their original cast form or in revivals or concert presentations.  Just enter “Oscar Hammerstein II” into your browser and follow the links to your heart’s (and your head’s) content.

Serious delving into Hammerstein the lyricist, however, requires a volume that should hold down the coffee table of any lover of musical theater – or of the English language, for that matter. It is The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II edited by Amy Asch.

There are quite a few books about Hammerstein which a theater lover could devour. The best of the bunch has to be Hugh Fordin’s treasure of a book, Getting To Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hammerstein II. The later part of Hammerstein’s career, the seventeen-year collaboration with Richard Rodgers, makes good reading in Frederick Nolan’s The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Stephen Citron found themes in the life and work of Hammerstein and Alan Jay  Lerner, the lyricist of My Fair Lady, Camelot and so many others, to justify one volume on both, The Wordsmiths. It is out of print but used copies can easily be found on line.

A personal favorite of mine puts the life of the man into the context of his family history. It is The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family by his grandson, Oscar Andrew Hammerstein which was published in 2010.

This isn’t true about every creator of musical theater, but the more you learn about this great man, the more you want to know. His life is as inspiring as his work. So start your study now.


Oscar Hammerstein II – Out Of My Dreams
Decca Broadway Catalog B0016488-02
Running time 46 minutes over 12 tracks
Includes a short essay
List price $14.99
ASIN B006QV9QLQ

Additional Shopping List:

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II
Edited by Amy Asch
Knopf
ISBN 0375413588
List Price $65

The Hammersteins: A Musical Theatre Family
Oscar Andrew Hammerstein
Black Dog and Leventhal
ISBN 1579128467
List Price $35

Getting To Know Him: A Biography of Oscar Hamerstein II
Hugh Fordin
Da Capo Press
ISBN 0306806681
$18.95

The Sound of Their Music: The Story of Rodgers & Hammerstein
Frederick Nolan
Applause
ISBN 1557834737
$24.95


Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark (Music From)

The surprise of the original cast album Music from Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark is that it is better than its show, which as everyone even marginally aware of musical theater knows, is reported to be the most expensive Broadway musical ever.

I do wish I could carry that line of reasoning along to a conclusion that this means the album is one that musical theater enthusiasts will enjoy. But I’m afraid the reasons this semi-document of the show comes in as superior to its show are the weaknesses of the show, not the strengths of the recording.

The pop music stars  Bono (real name Paul David Hewson) and The Edge (real name David Howell Evans) of the Irish rock band U2 make their debuts as composers/lyricists in musical theater with this who-knows-how-many-millions-of-dollars production. Their fans will find in the album a number of cuts that they like, although none that would supplant U2 hits in their affection. I’m afraid that “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” is safe as is “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In The Name of Love)” and any number of U2 big sellers.

Still, the sound in the theater, and the sound on much of this “Music From” album, should please U2 fans. Fans of musical theater, however, may find it somewhat less pleasing. This is not because it is rock music. We’ve enjoyed many scores that effectively use rock to communicate something more than one oversimplified thought at a time. But this score has the distinct feeling that The Edge and Bono bought a book on musical theater (perhaps Lehman Engel’s The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration) and said “It says here, we need a ‘Charm Song’ and an ‘I Want Song’ and a ‘List Song'” and so on.

The song “No More” works as a sort of reverse “I Want” duet… its about what Peter and Mary Jane don’t want. Another song, “D.I.Y. World,” on the other hand, doesn’t work at all as a “list song.”

Of the songs that sound as if they have been constructed from a how-to manual, the one that works best on the disc is also the most theatrically effective on stage. It is the slow lament “If The World Should End.” In the theater it is a lovely moment staged elegantly as the young couple (Peter Parker, the young man who is turned into Spider-Man, and Mary Jane, his would-be girlfriend) share a private, quiet moment on a fire-escape suspended just below the proscenium. On the disc, the song is treated strictly as a solo for Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane. It is effective this way although in the theater it is just as effective with Reeve Carney joining in as Peter Parker.

Of the 19 songs in the production, 12 make it onto this 14 track, 52-minute long disc. It doesn’t present the songs in the order they appear in the show. Instead of the brief orchestral introduction that opens the show in the theater, the recording offers a 3:10 instrumental titled “NY Debut” which nearly qualifies as an overture.

Next comes Carney’s big Act II number, “Boy Falls From The Sky.” He delivers it well, but its lyrics make more sense in the Act II position than right after the overture.

Three of the tracks on the album feature Patrick Page, the superb classically-trained  actor reduced to vaudeville shtick as Spider-Man’s nemesis, the mad scientist Norman Osborn who is turned into arch-villain The Green Goblin.

Mr. Page (and listeners to the disc) can be grateful that his most embarrassing scene in the show, where he has to introduce a collection of the silliest looking “monsters” in the history of fright shows to the strains of “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” has been reduced from its interminable seven and a half minutes which open Act II to a relatively brief, up-tempo 3:42. Given that this sequence actually looks cheap on stage, it is amazing that they retained the lyric “I’m a 65-million-dollar circus tragedy.” This draws entirely too much attention to the monetary excesses which have been so thoroughly reported in the theatrical press and in the tabloids.

There’s not much of Page left in another cut, “Pull The Trigger” which, on stage, is a goose-stepping militaristic dance number that makes little sense.

Both The Edge and Bono take part in the recording. Bono does a lead vocal on “Picture This.” The Edge is out front for the song “Sinestero,” which on stage is an ensemble number designed to move the story along. It does so without much distinction while Patrick Page slow-motion walks the silly looking monsters down stage.

The booklet provides very little information on the production. No synopsis. No detail of the troubled path to the opening after a history-making 128 previews. There are, however, a dozen production photos and the lyrics of the songs as they appear on this recording.

It is difficult to determine just who you are listening to at times. There is an 18-member band that plays for the show from two off-stage rooms filled with microphones to carry the sound into the Foxwoods Theatre in New York (formerly the Hilton Theatre, formerly the Ford Center for the Performing Arts … one wonders how many times this theater’s naming rights will be sold before Spider-Man can recoup its initial investment).

For this recording, all 18 of those players are credited along with an additional 30. None of the tracks seem to have 48 players, however, so there must have been selective augmentation here and there.

While the “65-million-dollar tragedy” line in “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” was just too apropos to ignore, it is not the only line in the score which a lyric writer should never dangle in front of caustic critics. However, “I’ll search through trash for a melody” is just too easy a target for me to take the bait. It would be a cheap shot because the score does contain some decent melodic moments and pop-rock in the style of U2 isn’t about melody. It is about attitude and energy, and some of that comes through on this disc.


Music From Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark
Interscope Records Catalog Number B0015782-02
Running time: 52 minutes over 14 tracks
Booklet includes lyrics and 12 color photos
ASIN: B0042X90N4
List Price $18.99



A Connecticut Yankee – 1955 Television Adaptation

The new release on DVD of a 1955 telecast of Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee is more of a curiosity than a must-have addition to your theatre shelf. There are highlights, of course – it is Rodgers and Hart after all! Any show that has “Thou Swell,” “My Heart Stood Still” and “To Keep My Love Alive” deserves a look or a listen from time to time.

The art of adapting a Broadway musical for another medium, another audience and another length is just that – an art. It can be done with great results. The recently released DVD of the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate gave us a view of a very successful adaptation to the small screen. No such luck attended the effort to bring A Connecticut Yankee into living rooms on the night of March 12, 1955.

The end-of-program credits of the Yankee disc reveal just who gets the blame for the ham-handed handling of Herbert Fields’ book of the musical which was itself an adaptation, based as it was on Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The adaptation was by William Friedberg, Neil Simon, Will Glickman and Al Schwartz … all writers with solid reputations and bright futures ahead of them.

Producer/director Max Liebman gets the ultimate blame for the weaknesses in this production, but it must be tempered with a touch of gratitude for preserving some nice work on the score. The team of Eddie Albert (yes, Eddie Albert!) and Janet Blair find romantic lilt in Richard Rodgers’ melody in their duet on “My Heart Stood Still” and they swing nicely on “Thou Swell.” John Conte is his reliable self delivering a strong “I Feel at Home With You.”

Best of all, Gale Sherwood delivers “To Keep My Love Alive” with a sense of conviction that makes Lorenz Hart’s witty lyrics work while delivering the rarely heard Rodgers and Hart gem “Can’t You Do A Friend A Favor” as if it were a standard in the pop music repertoire. (Unfortunately, Mr. Albert then mugs his way through the number.)

Those are the highlights of the 77-minute disc. There are more lowlights.

There’s the visor on John Conte’s helmet of his suit of armor that keeps falling over his face. There’s Leonard Elliott as Merlin looking for all the world like Johnny Carson in a Karnak The Magnificent skit. Most embarrassing of all is the performance of special guest star Boris Karloff who, as King Arthur, is visibly uncomfortable and yet apparently unaware of the weakness of his portrayal.

And there is what must be the most uncomfortable “curtain call” since the night one year earlier when Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Bert Lahr said “good night” at the end of a telecast of Anything Goes only to find they had three more minutes to stand there and “do something.” In the case here with A Connecticut Yankee it doesn’t seem to be a glitch. It seems to be intentional. The entire cast stands as if acknowledging applause – but there is no applause for there is no audience. So they just stand there while the camera pans back and forth. Talk about awkward!

As it happens, there is another, much more successful attempt to adapt this show for a smaller/shorter version. It is not a two-hour television version but, rather, a half-hour radio adaptation that keeps the strongest of the songs, blends them smoothly into a precis of the story and preserves both a sense of wit and of charm. It was presented on The Railroad Hour which, despite its title, never was a 60-minute radio show. It ran at 8 p.m. on Monday nights with Gordon MacRae costarring with a stream of well known leading ladies. The adaptations were often by Jean Holloway, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. You can listen to it on the Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/details/TheRailroadHour. “A Connecticut Yankee” is #42 on the list of programs on its audio player.

The video on this DVD is in black and white, even though the announcer makes the proud claim that it is presented in NBC’s compatible color system. This disc was made from a black and white kinescope of the original broadcast. No color copy is known to exist.

Max Liebman A Connecticut Yankee
DVD of the 1955 NBC Telecast
77 minutes – black and white
Packaged with brief notes and contents list
Fidea Artists International catalogue VAI 4541
ASIN: B00566HKKG
List price $29.99

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