CD Reviews: Newsies, Bonnie & Clyde, End of the Rainbow

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature by our reviewer Brad Hathaway, 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

Newsies – Original Broadway Cast Recording

Alan Menken is on something of a roller coaster ride. He has just pulled off that exceedingly rare feat of having three musicals with his scores playing on Broadway at the same time and, what is more, all three were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Still, it was a brief trifecta. With last season’s Sister Act still playing, which was nominated but didn’t win the Best Musical Tony, March saw the opening of Newsies and April had the opening of Leap of Faith.

Newsies, which tells the story of the real-life 1899 strike by the young newspaper boys who were exploited by papers like Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal, looks like a solid hit playing to near-capacity houses grossing between 83% and 95% of the Nederlander Theatre’s potential take.

Leap of Faith, however, has become that rare bird – a show with a Tony Nomination for Best Musical of the Year which closed after the nomination was announced but before the awards were given out.

Having posted terrible box office figures, never getting above 22% of potential gross, Leap of Faith had its last performance despite having been nominated for the Tony Award as the Best Musical of the year. (If you can’t sell more than $171,000 in a theater where the potential gross is $1.3 million in the week you are nominated for the Best Musical Tony Award you might as well admit you’re never going to make back your investment and close up shop.)

It doesn’t look as if we will get a recording of the score of Leap of Faith, but the original Broadway cast recording of Newsies is a gem. A well-produced album with all the features you need to appreciate the score’s ample strengths delivers this almost relentlessly upbeat score with clarity, energy and flash.

Every time I listen to the album I like the score more, at least until I get to the oh-so-predictable bad guy song for the heavy of the piece, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer played by John Dossett. The dreary song “The Bottom Line” is, however unfortunate, a single deviation from an otherwise very high standard of exciting musical story telling.

Based on the Disney live-action movie musical which flopped quickly in 1992, this stage version retains half a dozen of the better songs from the film and adds an equal number of new ones by Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman. Some of the most stick-in-your-head big chorus numbers for the dancing Newsies are still here – “Seize The Day,” “King of New York,””The World Will Know” (which, for some reason, sounds like it is from Elton John’s score for Billy Elliot) and “Carrying the Banner” which should really have been titled with its most insistently memorable phrase “Ain’t It A Fine Life”).

New numbers have been written. In addition, the movie’s tender “Santa Fe” has been decked out in new lyrics which make it even more heart-touching in its new context.  The music hall songs for the hostess of a vaudeville house have been replaced with “That’s Rich” which Carpathia Jenkens puts over solidly and a new big chorus/dance number, “Brooklyn’s Here” adds two minutes of excitement.

These songs are mounted within a book by Harvey Fierstein who proved with his book for La Cage aux Folles that he can balance comedy and schmaltz with the best of them. That’s what he does here. His most noticeable change in the story is the combining of the roles of the reporter who covers the newsboys’ strike, which was played in the movie by Bill Pullman, and that of a young girl into a single character. That character, played by Kara Lindsay, is the daughter of Pulitzer who has gone off on her own to establish a career as a reporter, only to fall in love with the leader of the “newsies.” She gets one of the best new numbers, a plot-moving elaboration song called “Watch What Happens,” which she delivers with a flair. She also handles a more sentimental song, “Something to Believe In” where her somewhat shrill voice is an early distraction.

She sings that song as a duet with the star of the show, Jeremy Jordan – yes, the same Jeremy Jordan who starred in that other musical nominated for a Best Score Tony this year, Bonnie & Clyde. I don’t know if it is unprecedented for an actor to have sung the leading role in two Best Score-nominated shows in the same season, but I would be willing to bet this is the first time one actor’s face is featured on the cover of two Tony nominated best score original Broadway cast albums released within a month of each other.

Jordan sounded appropriately West Texan in Bonnie & Clyde while here he’s decidedly lower east side Manhattan. Both performances impress and it is fortunate we have both recorded for future listening as it is fairly certain that Jordan will be around for a while.

The recording grows on you because it isn’t all surface glitz, although there is enough sparkle on the seventeen tracks of the main portion of the recording to entertain you even if you aren’t paying much attention. Pay attention and you will find much more to like than just its generally genial first impression.

Alan Menken’s music makes no effort to establish a period feel for the turn of the last century tale but he pulls a number of rhythmic riffs that build to exciting climaxes and he keeps his tenderer material free of distractions so simple melodies can work their magic.

Feldman’s lyrics are notable for the different voices he uses for different groups of characters. The street argot of the “newsies” who sell “papes” on the streets of New York is used again and again with phrases like “We goes where we wishes / We’s as free as fishes / sure beats washin’ dishes” or “Suddenly I’m respectable / Starin’ right at’cha / Lousy with sta’cha” while the young girl reporter’s lyrics resemble tight newspaper prose when she sings “Those kids will live and breathe / Right on the page / and once they’re center stage / You watch what happens.”

The relatively short disc (just 64 minutes) holds three “bonus tracks” following the finale. One is a piano backed vocal by Jordan of the song “Santa Fe.” The song is the show’s opener with dialogue and a brief duet between Jordan and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as another one of the newsies. It is worth having it as a solo and the first bonus track is interesting because he is backed by the composer on piano.

The other two bonus tracks are of big chorus songs that have extended dance breaks.
Often, the dance breaks that are so exciting in the theater when you can see the choreography being executed can be a bit dull and repetitive sounding when you only have the audio. Ghostlight records solves the problem for this score which has quite a bit of dance music by offering edited versions of some of the more dance-intensive numbers in the order they appear in the show but then including un-edited versions at the end. Thus, “Seize the Day” runs 5:23 as track 9 of the album but the full 6:40 version is track 19. The Act II opener, “King of New York,” is just four minutes long as track 11 but you can listen to all five minutes as track 20.

This is a fine solution, giving full exposure to Mark Hummel’s work as dance music arranger. Besides, the album would only run 50 minutes without the “bonus” tracks. With so much time left in the capacity of a CD these days, I wonder why they didn’t bother to record the music used for the bows and the “exit music” played while the audience leaves the theater. That would have been appreciated.

Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records catalog # 8-4457
Running time: 64 minutes over 20 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and 14 color photos

Bonnie & Clyde – Original Broadway Cast Recording

Okay, now you can be the judge. I think Frank Wildhorn and Don Black wrote a great score for Bonnie & Clyde. Some of the most influential critics don’t. Listen and make up your own mind.

The critics savaged it when the show opened last December and it promptly closed. But the evidence is now available on the original Broadway cast recording. Listen and judge.

The new label accurately named Broadway Records has issued a first-class CD of this, Wildhorn’s latest score, the one that has just been nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Score for a Musical.

This, mind you, is the score for a show that closed so fast I didn’t have a chance to get to Broadway to see it live. On my next trip to New York, however, I made an appointment at the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape at Lincoln Center to watch the archival video they made before the show folded up shop.

What I saw was a slick, entertaining show – well designed, very well performed and nicely directed. The score was full of highlights and moved the story along with style and energy, with wit when appropriate and emotion at just the right points.

So, exactly why was it that after only 33 previews before and 35 performances after its December 1, 2011 opening the show closed, becoming Frank Wildhorn’s second flop in as many years? (Bonnie & Clyde had just six more performances than his Wonderland of last season.)

The ultimate answer to that question for any show that closes shortly after opening is, of course, that theatergoers weren’t buying enough tickets at a high enough price. In the nine weeks of its run, the box office take averaged just over 40% of the potential gross.

But why? Was it poor word of mouth, meaning that people who did see it didn’t have a good enough time and told their friends not to bother? Possibly. But what I saw on video was highly entertaining.

So perhaps it was the impact of the reviews. And some of those reviews included some of the most vitriolic and caustic putdowns imaginable. What was worse, the harshest words came from some of the critics in the most important outlets. For example:

– New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley got in cute barbs like “Clyde, honey, t’ain’t nothing you can do to raise the pulse of something that’s as near to dead as the show you’re in.”

– The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout said it was “so enervatingly bland and insipid that you’ll leave the theater asking yourself why you ever liked musicals in the first place.”

Even when being positive, many of the critics used a faint praise phraseology that made their compliments sound like grudging acknowledgements:

– AM New York’s Matt Windman did say it was “the best musical to date composed by Frank Wildhorn” but added that this is “not saying very much – it’s only barely a compliment.”

– Bloomberg News’ Jeremy Gerard said, as did some other critics, that “Bonnie & Clyde is by far his best score” but can’t resist tying it to the fact that it “has catchy songs … that’s high praise for Wildhorn whose predilection for generic-sounding pop tunes with a high dose of treacle hasn’t won him many fans among the critics.”

Well, he has a fan in this critic and this score adds to my admiration for the man’s output. I ask myself if there ever has been a composer who turned out such great scores to such scorching reviews? I can’t think of one.

Jekyll & Hyde was a gothic pop-opera classic. It ran over three years on Broadway only to be dismissed by “the powers that be.” He followed that with The Scarlet Pimpernel, a pop-operetta that was fabulously enjoyable in any of the three versions that played on Broadway without the compliments for the score it deserved. Then came his country-tinged song cycle The Civil War that thrilled audiences but confounded reviewers.

All three of these shows were playing at the same time on Broadway … the first time one American composer had a trifecta on the Great White Way since Stephen Schwartz accomplished that some 20 years before.

If you sit down for the nearly eight hours it would take to listen to all six his Broadway scores, you would get a tour of their quality, variety and vitality. What is more, you would hear casts delivering the material with an obvious appreciation for the quality of the songs they get to sing.

So – tell me – what is going on here?

One theory is that the scores are in shows that are distinctly inferior to the music he’s provided. There is some truth to that in some instances. Certainly, Dracula with its confusing book and distracting design wasn’t ready for prime time, and Wonderland was disappointing for those who had fallen in love with its infinitely superior concept recording.

But Jekyll was a thrill, Pimpernel a delight (especially in its first incarceration at the Minskoff) and The Civil War was a thumping good time for everyone in the audience at the St. James except for the critics who just could not comprehend what it was that was being presented.

It is a blessing that Mr. Wildhorn has an inexhaustible ability to roll with the punches and keep composing great scores. If Broadway isn’t that interested in his work, he’ll take his wares overseas. He keeps turning out works like Rudolf: Affair Meyerling which premiered in Budapest, Carmen which is still playing as part of the rotating repertoire of its original venue in Prague, The Count of Monte Cristo (Switzerland) Never Say Goodbye (Japan) and Tears of Heaven (Korea).

Now, we get an original Broadway cast recording of Bonnie & Clyde that is a rousing good time. After my recent column complaining of how the original Broadway cast album of Once did not have a synopsis or give any valid indication of what the show was actually like in the theater, here is an example of how a show’s recording should be done. You come away from both the visual and the aural experience feeling you know what Bonnie & Clyde was like during its brief tenancy in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Exactly how Broadway Records managed to get the cast to sound as up-beat and enthusiastic as they do is a mystery to me considering that the recording session came just three days after closing night.

The Act I opener, “Picture Show” sets the depression-era, country back roads feel of the score and then “This World Will Remember Me” strikes the recurring theme for the show. Bonnie is Laura Osnes, who has been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical, delivers the lovely “How ‘Bout A Dance?” in the first act and the touching “Dyin’ An’t So Bad” in the second. Throughout the score, she joins with Jeremy Jordan’s Clyde for the rousing “Too Late To Turn Back Now” and the touching “What Was Good Enough For You.”

One of the most entertaining of the songs in the show is sung by Melissa van der Schyff as Clyde’s sister in law who tells her husband who just broke out of prison that he should turn himself in and complete his sentence.

The entire package benefits from the nicely detailed country-sounding orchestrations of John McDaniel for a band of eleven.

By the way, the production’s Clyde, Jeremy Jordan, has also been nominated for a Tony for a leading role in a musical, but it wasn’t for this musical. It was for the aforementioned Newsies. After Bonnie & Clyde closed, he re-joined the cast of Newsies where he had originated the lead role in its pre-Broadway engagement at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.

Get this recording and judge for yourself how good a theater composer Frank Wildhorn really is. You just might want to indulge with copies of his other scores as well. We are fortunate that most of them have been recorded.

Bonnie & Clyde
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Broadway Records catalog BR – CD00112
Running time 60 minutes over 21 tracks
Booklet includes notes, synopsis, lyrics and dozens of photos

Other Frank Wildhorn scores:
Jekyll & Hyde – Atlantic Records ASIN: B000002JC2
The Scarlet Pimpernel – Atlantic Records ASIN: B000002JFB
The Civil War – Atlantic Records ASIN: B00000DP1V
Dracula – Global Vision Records ASIN: B000J2AEEQ
Wonderland – Sony Masterworks ASIN: B004RV6ZW0
Rudolf: Affair Meyerling – Hit Squad Records ASIN: B0030YV26O
Carmen – Disc available as an import from Sound of Music in Essen, Germany
The Count of Monte Cristo – Hit Squad Records ASIN: B001NW8E16
Never Say Goodbye – Disc available as an import from Sound of Music in Essen, Germany
Tears of Heaven – Global Vision Records ASIN: B005RY2U8Y

End of the Rainbow CD

This isn’t exactly a cast recording of a show’s score, but it may be of interest in the days before the Tony Awards are announced on June 10. One of the nominees for “Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role In A Play” is Tracie Bennett. She plays Judy Garland in the bio-play End of the Rainbow, which has her singing nearly a dozen of Garland’s most famous songs. She’s released a recording doing some of these songs as well as other Garland hits in the style that recalls their originator.

Bennett is a British actress with quite a bit of experience in musical theater. On London stages she earned an Olivier Award for She Loves Me in 1994 and was nominated again for High Society in 2004. Les Misérables and Hairspray also appear on her resume.

With the Judy Garland role she again copped an Olivier nomination in the London West End production. She has now transferred in the show to the Belasco Theatre in New York where she is making her Broadway debut.

Peter Quilter’s bio-play is set in London’s Ritz Hotel in December of 1968. Garland’s fans know the importance of that date. It was when she made her last London appearances, these at the nightclub The Talk of the Town where they became just that. It was only six months before her death of a drug overdose at age 47.

This recording of Garland numbers begins with a quick big-orchestra intro with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” after which Bennett moves on to a solo-piano backed first chorus of “Just in Time” in which she manages to summon something of the “Judy Garland Sound.” It isn’t a full-out impersonation. You aren’t likely to say “That’s Judy Garland!” so much as you will probably say “That Sounds Like Judy Garland” – there’s a difference.

That difference may be a reflection of the fact that the play has her representing Garland late in her career, when she delivered more emotion than music, more energy than melody, and her songs were often representations of her persona rather than interpretations of the composers’ and lyricists’ creation.

Listen to her (Bennett’s) rendition of “Smile.” Notice the surfeit of vibrato which is so Garland-like and her tendency to let notes slip just slightly to the flat side without actually abandoning the key. It is a typical Garland arrangement with a big build in the middle and a stretch-out ending that carries the audience with her. Hear, too, the dip on “sewing” in the phrase “and for weeks they’ve been sewing” in the “For Me and My Gal” section of the medley that joins that song with other classic Garland tunes “You Made Me Love You” and “The Trolley Song.” It isn’t any more a “wrong note” than many others, but it isn’t on a pitch that any other vocalist would deliver.

Garland’s delivery also shone with distinctive but immaculate enunciation. She delivered lyrics with such clarity that it became a trademark. Think the line “zing went the strings of my heart” – zing is a word that, before the song made it almost a cliché, wasn’t something you heard often enough to recognize instantly. But with Garland’s delivery, no one wondered what it was her heart did. Bennett doesn’t have to worry about anyone not knowing that the word in question is “zing” but she still delivers it with a Garlandish clarity.

The recording’s full title is “Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs From The Broadway Production End of the Rainbow and other Garland Classics.” It includes songs not in the show such as “I Could Go On Singing,” “San Francisco” and “When The Sun Comes Out.” She is backed by a nine-piece band, none of whom are appearing on stage with her in New York. The arrangements for the album are credited to Chris Egan and the band is conducted by Gareth Valentine. For the show Egan is credited with the orchestrations and Valentine with the arrangements.

Given that Judy Garland’s own multiple performances of these songs are available, the value of this album may be more as a souvenir for those who actually see Ms. Bennett in performance. Others may well prefer to purchase the real thing.

Tracie Bennett Sings Judy: Songs from End of the Rainbow and other Garland Clasics
Running time: 43 minutes over 12 tracks
ASIN: B006J914VA

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