Theater Shelf: Godspell, Death Takes A Holiday, The King(s) and I (Actually Several I’s)

comtrag2By 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.

Death Takes A Holiday – Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

Do you look for ravishing romantic beauty in your musicals? If so, Maury Yeston is probably on your list of favorite composers. Think of “Only With You” (Nine), “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” (Titanic) or “Love Can’t Happen” (Grand Hotel). If you are a regular follower of this column and took my advice last February, think of “I Will Paint Sounds” from Goya … A LIfe in Song.

The man knows how to craft a soaring love song or a joyful burst of exultation.

That he took on the project of making a musical of the play Death Takes A Holiday is not at all surprising if you look at the titles of the musicals above. He has a habit of taking on extremely romantic material. “‘Titanic’ romantic?” I hear you asking. Yes, in his hands along with those of book writer Peter Stone, the tragic tale of disaster on the frigid high seas became an overwhelmingly romantic treatise on love, destiny and duty.

The team of book writer Stone and composer/lyricist Yeston moved on from Titanic to attempt this musical about a weekend when Death abandoned his duties in order to assume a human form so he could learn what it is about life that human beings value so highly.

If the story sounds familiar, and you are a fan of Italian theater, you probably are thinking of Alberto Casella’s 1923 supernatural comedy. If you are a fan of the American theater you may be thinking of Walter Ferris’ 1929 adaptation. If you follow movies, you may think of the 1934 movie starring Frederic March or, if your taste is to more recent films, Brad Pitt jumps into your mind from the re-titled remake, Meet Joe Black.

Stone died at the age of seventy-three in 2003. At that point the musical was not ready for public exposure. The project was brought to completion by Thomas Meehan, the owner of Tony Awards for the books for Annie, The Producers  and Hairspray. Both Stone and Meehan had strong story-telling skills and the resulting book sticks fairly close to its source material. Even its setting remains in the lake country of Italy in 1921 where a houseguest in the guise of a prince would be accepted without question, rich people dressed for dinner and a glorious melody would feel right at home.

Yeston provides just such melodic glories. Yes, some of the melodies tend to demonstrate how you are supposed to feel rather than make you feel the emotion in question. Still, time and time again, you become aware of the beauty of the music. He’s particularly effective in communicating the joy of living, not only in the song “Life’s a Joy” but elsewhere in “Alive!”

There’s also the fun of life, his “Shimmy Like They Do In Paree” gets your feet tapping and puts a smile on your face.

The somber side of life isn’t ignored. Longing is communicated through a lovely long melody for “What Do You Do”.

Yeston isn’t just a composer, however. He is a lyricist and here he gives us a bit less magic. He and his book writers have clearly identified the points in the story that call out for musicalization and offer the most promise for affecting lyrics, and Yeston crafts lyrics that deliver plot points quite clearly while landing some telling emotional images.

But his points are rarely delivered with much subtlety and his rhymes are rarely clever. What is more, they can be seen a line or two ahead.

He often stretches to reach a point or a rhyme while being less than precise in his language. Some examples:

― “How will I know if I’m destined for somewhere far beyond what my eyes can see.” (Not “where” my eyes can see?)

― “Death is in the house / Bringing on this fear I’ve got.” (Does anyone refer to being fearful as having a fear?)

― “We’ll be ‘specially more thankful.” (I could see using either ” ‘specially thankful” or “more thankful,” but both?)

Still, he does come up with a fine phrase from time to time, as when Death longs to experience human existence as “to be inside the world of you.”

Perhaps his finest lyric is one of sadness. It is sung by Rebecca Luker as the mother of a character named Roberto who died during The Great War a few years earlier. Yeston compiles a host of memories to torment the grieving mother, topping it with “Look! In that mirror. Combing his hair. No Roberto where once a Roberto was there.”

The show had its Off-Broadway run last summer at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. Julian Ovenden was set to star as the Prince who is really Death. He sang the role through most of the previews, but what was said at the time to be laryngitis kept him out of the final previews and his replacement, Kevin Early went in. By opening night, July 21, it was Early who was singing the role. Ovenden attempted a return, but the vocal problems continued and he had to drop out again. It is Early who sings the role on this recording.

The off-Broadway orchestra of 10 has been augmented by two additional violins and one cello playing the lush orchestrations of Larry Hochman. This gives a satisfyingly solid sound under and behind an impressive list of vocalists including Linda Balgord, Matt Cavenaugh, Rebecca Luker, Jill Paice and Don Stephenson.

No Yeston score should go unrecorded. Each is too rich musically. This one is a welcome addition to any theater shelf.

Death Takes a Holiday
Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Running time 66 minutes – 21 Songs
Packaged with notes, synopsis, full lyrics and 13 color photos
PS Classics PS-1104
List Price $15.95

The King and I Recordings

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and Who”? Or perhaps the question should be “The Who and Who?”

Surely The King and I is just about the most glorious score ever written for, how shall we say this, a leading lady of limited vocal range. It is also one of the best scores ever written for a leading man of idiosyncratic vocal qualities.

Let’s deal with the “I” in The King and I first, for that is the role and the original casting for which the piece was created. The legendary Gertrude Lawrence was the star who came to Rodgers and Hammerstein with the request that they write a musical version of Anna and the King of Siam for her.

Lawrence is described by theater historian Gerald Bordman thusly: “Although she could not dance well and sang off-key, this graceful, haughty beauty was one of the great stars of the Musical Stage.” Steven Suskin, in his treasure of a book The Sound of Broadway Music  (ISBN 0199790841), puts it a bit more precisely: “Lawrence had what might be called a wandering voice, which was strong enough but not necessarily accurate.”

Her last great role was the one Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for her in which she introduced such lush sounding classics as “Getting To Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” The original Broadway cast album is available on Decca Broadway’s CD (ASIN B00004T9TE) and it provides ample evidence of her vocal charm as well as of her limitations. She sells the numbers and delivers Hammerstein’s lyrics with all the charm they deserve, but she doesn’t bring out all the musical glories that Richard Rodgers gave the role.

So – if you want to hear her songs sung more musically – what are your options? Plenty. The Cast Album Data Base ( lists 27 recordings of the score. I haven’t heard them all (I’m still ignorant of the Japanese Cast Recording, among others) but some of the most prominent seem to me to be the most promising.

New York revivals have left behind some quality recordings of the score. The most recent was the 1996 revival with Donna Murphy who was nothing short of wonderful, fully deserving of the Tony Award she won for Best Actress in a Musical. Her co-star was a thoroughly satisfying Lou Diamond Phillips, who was also nominated but did not win a Tony. That performance was captured on the Verese Sarabande label (ASIN B0000014ZZ).

In 1964 Richard Rodgers’ own program “Music Theater of Lincoln Center” staged a revival with Rïse Stevens playing Anna opposite none other than Darren McGavin, (the father in the movie “A Christmas Story” who, if the recording is any indication, tried awful hard to bluster past his own vocal limitations).  Sony Broadway has re-released the recording of that production (ASIN B000GPIPUQ).

Of course, you could opt for the soundtrack of the 1956 movie version on which Marni Nixon dubbed the voice for Deborah Kerr (Angel Records ASIN B00005A7XC). Nixon’s delivery is superb and her tone rich.

There was also an animated version that offered the delicately lovely voice of Christiane Noll and a hearty Martin Vidnovic as the King (ASIN B00000I92F). This, however, has new arrangements and orchestrations by William Kidd which are understandably better suited to a cartoon than a beautiful Broadway romance.

There are studio recordings of note:

– Julie Andrews lent her distinctively lovely tones to the score under the direction of John Mauceri for Philips Records (ASIN B00000415N). Her co-star was Ben Kingsley who isn’t known as a singer, but who did a competent job.

– John Yap included the score in his Master Works Edition series, producing the only complete recording of the score in a two disc set with Valerie Masterson as Anna. It includes the complete “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet arranged by Trude Rittman (ASIN B000005BHM).

– The 1964 recording available on Sony Broadway (ASIN B0000028YK) features Barbara Cook’s marvelous musicianship, but she sounds somehow American rather than British, and the recording uses new orchestrations by Philip J. Lang. They are fine but no match for Robert Russell Bennet’s glorious original charts. She does have Theodore Bikel as her king, and he sings very well, but not well enough to shake the memory of the original.

Original? Just who was that original? Why, Yul Brynner, of course.

There are many legendary stories of Brynner’s creation of the role of the King of Siam. One, as told by Richard Rodgers himself in his memoirs, is of Brynner’s audition for the role when he strolled on stage in jeans (this, of course, was 1950 when such a thing was unheard of) sat cross-legged on the stage, banged out a chord on his guitar and “gave out with this unearthly yell and sang some heathenish sort of thing, and Oscar and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that’s it.'” It was. The match between actor and part was so strong, and Brynner’s career in the role lasted so long, what with the film and over 4,500 live performances, that as much as any Broadway musical role can be said to belong to one performer, The King is his.

Indeed, it is reported in some circles that Lawrence herself recognized the contribution of this formerly unknown actor, who was listed on opening night not as a co-star with his name above the title next to hers, but as a featured player listed below not only the title but the names of the composer, the lyricist and even the author of the book on which the musical was based. She is said to have asked that he be given the star billing she felt he had earned.

So what is to be done if you want a gorgeously lush performance in the role of Anna and the inimitable personality of Yul Brynner as the King? Simple: buy the 1977 Broadway revival version on RCA (ASIN B000002W40). Brynner comes across nearly three decades after he originated the role as so regally assured with every word of the lyrics sung (or shouted, or grunted or blurted) in a dramatic reading of note but with melody and meter both properly served.

His co-star on this recording is Constance Towers, who seems to offer the best balance of vocal heft, pitch fidelity, emotional singing and a hint of a British accent that fits.

It is a combination that belongs on a well-stocked theater shelf.

Two Ways to Study The History of the Musical

It is awfully hard to dig deep into the history of musical theater without having access to the essential thing that sets it apart from other theatrical events – the music.

Of course, you can buy recordings of the full scores of all the major shows and study them in some sort of systematic sequence (chronological, all the operettas, all the light comedies, all the jukebox musicals, all the revues [if you can find them … that is a sadly neglected sub-genre] or all the star vehicles). That is, however, extremely expensive in terms of money and in terms of time.

Or you can get a history book such as Gerald Bordman and Richard Norton’s superb American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle and “read all about it.” However, if you are anything like me you’ll read along for a while and then get to a reference to a score you’ve got somewhere on your theater shelf and you’ll stop, plug in the CD and listen before proceeding. It may take you a long time to get very far into such a history book.

Here are two options that might give you a broad brush acquaintance with the topic without requiring that you retire, head to a desert island and devote a season to study.

Naxos records has issued a 4-disc, 5 ¼ -hour “talking book” of The History of the Musical narrated by the often wonderful Kim Criswell, a Broadway and West End actress who has recorded a wide range of scores including a sparkling Annie Get Your Gun.

The nearly 100 tracks of Criswell reading the text are separated by another 100 tracks of excerpts from the songs being discussed. While not all references to songs or shows are accompanied by excerpts from the scores, enough are that you don’t need to stop every few minutes and find your own recordings.

Nearly half of these musical snippets are from historic recordings, and the other half come from the catalog of John Yap’s JAY Records. That catalog is a reliable source for quality recordings often using the original orchestrations.

The booklet accompanying the discs includes a complete track listing which adds up to a good table of contents. This makes it easy to go back to check something if you need to. The samples are not complete, but they are long enough to give a good idea of the importance of what you are listening to. It is a shame that the booklet doesn’t include photos which could have illustrated some of the points from the text.

That text is by Richard Fawkes whose credentials are more impressive in the area of classical music and opera than in stage musicals. His text covers the ground quite well, however. Without checking source material for all the dates and credits he cites, it is clear that he sketches the long history quite well and that is quite an accomplishment. After all, only a topic as broad as the history of the musical from 1728 (The Beggars Opera) through 1985 (Les Miserables) could result in a 5-hour briefing!

Fawkes does make a number of gaffes that weaken his credibility however. He describes Richard Rodgers’ decision to ask Oscar Hammerstein II to work with him on what became Oklahoma! as being done in “a fit of pique.” Everything I’ve read on that momentous decision indicates that Rodgers agonized over the decision to end his partnership with Lorenz Hart; it was not a spur of the moment impulse.

He goes on to dig himself deeper into a hole with the observation that “Rodgers … opened the show … with a solitary person on stage and the sound of off-stage singing.” Yes, Richard Rodgers wrote the music for that moment, but it was Oscar Hammerstein’s book that “opened the show” that way.

He also blows it a bit with the comment that “all” of the wonderful songs that George Gershwin composed in Hollywood prior to his death in 1937 were “written while he was in excruciating pain from a brain tumor.” The pain came intermittently, becoming constant only late in the process after most of those songs had already been composed.

The text is a bit heavier on musical developments in London and Europe than in America and gives a bit of a short shrift to the important films in the development of movie musicals, but Fawkes is English so I guess we can forgive him for placing the “Dust Bowls of the Great Depression” in California. Overall, however, the briefing gives a listener a solid feel for the evolution of the art form for the reasonable price of five hours of your time and $25.99.

If you want to dig deeper into particular aspects of the topic, you might invest in a more pricey method with a $150 copy of The Oxford Handbook of the American Musical which offers 29 learned essays on many aspects of the topic. Each is a stand-alone scholarly lesson. The editors say they designed the book as a teaching tool. The introduction says “We intend this book not (necessarily) to be read cover to cover, nor (necessarily) assigned in order, but as a resource for instructors, students and aficionados of the musical.”

The editors, UCLA’s Raymond Knapp and Mitchell Morris and Princeton’s Stacy Wolf separate the 29 essays into six parts (historiography, transformations, media, identities, performance, and audiences) with articles such as “Musical Styles and Song Conventions,” “Minstrelsy and Theatrical Miscegenation,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Orchestration and Arrangement” and “Performance, Authenticity and Reflexive Idealism of the American Musical.”

Pretty heavy stuff!

But the publishers, the Oxford University Press, have established a website where they have posted audio and video examples as well as images and additional textual material to help you appreciate just what the authors are talking about. The book comes with the password to the site and the text of the book has icons at appropriate places identifying the specific example relevant to that point in the discussion. Even the footnotes have icons pointing you to examples.

The site is pretty slow to load and this can be frustrating when you really want to hear a specific strain of melody or see a particular step of choreography to understand what an author means by a particular observation. Still, the clips make it much easier to comprehend the points being made if you can stand waiting for the example to load.

Not all the authors of individual sections avail themselves of the website. The opening essay, Mitchell Morris’ “Narratives and Values,” is pretty heavy going, which all but serious history students may find pure gobbledygook, and it has no icons referring to the website at all. However, it raises a half a dozen ponderable precepts in the space of less than a half dozen pages. It certainly could have benefited from some samples, a few snippets and perhaps a clip of Joel Grey as the Wizard in Wicked saying “where I’m from we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true … we call it ‘history.'”

Liza Gennaro (the choreographer of the revivals of Once Upon a Mattress and The Most Happy Fella and the daughter of legendary choreographer Peter Gennaro) uses more website examples for her chapter “Evolution of Dance in the Golden Age of the American ‘Book Musical'” and also does an excellent job of describing some classic dance sequences. Her description of Oklahoma!’s ballet “Laurey Makes Up Her Mind” is easy to follow, which is a good thing since the website example in this case is a clip from the Hollywood movie version which is much less earthy than Agnes de Mille’s Broadway original. (There’s not a “post card girl” to be found in the clip!)

Knapp and Morris’ chapter on Tin Pan Alley songs, on the other hand, exploits the website opportunity fully. This is good as even the most avid musical theater recording collector is unlikely to have 1896 and 1901 discs on their groaning theater shelves.

Using the Naxos talking book and then the Oxford book-with-website to gain a fuller sense of the evolution of the musical is a pleasant way to enhance your appreciation of the genre.

The History of the Musical
Naxos catalog number NA422712
5:15 over 197 tracks on 4 discs
ISBN 9-62634-227-7
List Price $25.99
The Oxford Handbook of The American Musical
Oxford University Press – New York
470 Pages including bibliography and index
ISBN 978-0-19-538594-6
List Price $150

This ain’t your father’s Godspell

Fifty-eight seconds into “Prepare Ye” it becomes clear that this is a new Godspell, one for the early 21st century rather than the mid-20th. The difference is dramatic when the band breaks loose with a thumping, driving, blast of energy which is way beyond what the original “rock musical” provided in the 1970s.

Then, the folk/rock feel seemed outlandish and shocking because it was so very un-Broadway. Now, “The Great White Way” is used to rock. Rock of Ages, American Idiot, Spring Awakening and next to normal shake up Broadway houses while many shows use rock along with other genres to establish contemporary credentials.

Of course, Godspell wasn’t the first “rock musical.” That distinction really belongs to Hair with its 1968 transfer to the Biltmore on Broadway. Jesus Christ Superstar also opened on Broadway before Godspell arrived. It also wasn’t really a “book musical” in the classic meaning of the term. It didn’t tell a linear story using songs and scenes designed to illustrate character and plot. It was, rather, a theatrical setting of a sermon.

It was also perhaps the most theatrically successful term paper in history. Well, actually, it was a master’s thesis. Twenty-two year old John-Michael Tebelak developed it at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he was studying Greek and Roman mythology. At Easter in 1970 he focused on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Later, fellow Carnegie Mellon alum Stephen Schwartz wrote the score we know today. With Schwartz’ score, the show opened off-Broadway and ran for five years before a Broadway production was mounted.

The current Broadway incarnation takes you back to the ambiance of off-Broadway by mounting the show in the least Broadway-ish Tony-eligible theater of them all, the 776-seat Circle in the Square Theatre in the basement of the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked continues its phenomenal run. (Thus, both the big house upstairs and the small one downstairs are filled with the songs of Stephen Schwartz.)

This arena-style theater in the round rocks to the sound of a pit band of six and a cast of ten. The musical environment becomes enveloping.

That feeling is well captured on this disc. “The Tower of Babble” can be a bit confusing as an intro. It is composed, after all, of snippets of Sartre and Socrates, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, Hegel and Edward Gibbon. But it does build from solo to full crowd scene in measured steps just as it does in the theater.

Then, in a moment reminiscent of another Schwartz project, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass for which Schwartz wrote most of the lyrics, cacophony is interrupted by beauty. In this case the interruption is the strong voice of Wallace Smith as John the Baptist leading into the rock-blast of “Prepare Ye.”

The series of parables and hymns set as musical scenes, which constitutes the essence of the show, takes over with some of the best known of the songs Schwartz composed using the lyrics of hymns as well as biblical quotations.

The big hit of the show is “Day by Day,” a setting of a 12th century text from St. Richard of Chicester, which is given a lovely up-tempo rendition by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle.

“We Beseech Thee,” which Nick Blaemire turns into a romp, is actually based on the lyrics of Thomas Benson Pollock’s 19th century hymn.

“Save the People” uses the lyric of the hymn “The People’s Anthem” by 19th century English poet Ebenezer Elliott.

The tender “All Good Gifts” sung in a clean near falsetto by Telly Leung uses lyrics by Jane M. Campell’s 19th century hymn.

Other songs use biblical quotes. The solo for Hunter Parrish’s Jesus, “Alas for You,” is Schwartz’ take on Matthew 23:13-17, while “Light of the World,” which cast member George Salazar leads as the finale of Act I, comes from Matthew 5:13-16.

The distinctive sound of this production is a result of new orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Michael Holland and the efforts of music director Charlie Alterman who leads the band from his keyboard position at one side of the stage. In the theater the guitarists are sprinkled throughout the seating area while the drum set is off to one side. While this recording isn’t a “surround sound” disc attempting to reconstruct that spatial relationship, it does a good job of blending sounds to create a full environment using the same six players.

The 40-page booklet does a fine job of providing an idea of the visual qualities of the show.  It also has useful notes by Schwartz explaining his role in developing the score (and giving full credit to Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger who wrote “By My Side” for the show before he joined the project) and Paul Shaffer, whose career has been linked with Godspell ever since the 1972 Toronto production. (The night I saw the show he had come over from his gig at The Late Show with David Letterman to join in the festivities. He doesn’t, however, appear on the recording.)

The relatively short recording is bolstered by two “bonus tracks.” One has Schwartz’ “Beautiful City” from the film version of Godspell sung here by John Ondrasik who is also known as Five for Fighting in the pop music world. The other is an after hours recording of “Learn Your Lessons Well” which you can compare to the version in Act I in which Celisse Henderson accompanies herself on the Ukulele before switching over to a rocking electric guitar.

The New Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records Catalog Number 8-4456
Running time 1 Hour over 18 tracks
List Price $14.99

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