Theater Shelf: Lend Me a Tenor & The Trumpet of the Swan CDs

Brad Hathaway, our critic of CDs, DVDS and books related to theater, has been busy this fall looking at a large number of potential additions to your library. We’re going to start running several over the next two weeks as you try to determine what to buy for that theater lover on your list or for that matter to ask for.  His holiday gift giving guide will run next week.

Lend Me a Tenor – The Musical
Original London Cast Recording

The stars seemed to be in magical alignment when the opening of this new musical was announced for the West End, London’s equivalent of Broadway. A big, bold, colorful musical based on Lend Me A Tenor, Ken Ludwig’s farce, was to open this June in The Gielgud Theater where the play premiered back in 1986 (when the theater was known as The Globe). Ludwig’s first and his most successful comedy ran for over ten months. A subsequent Broadway production ran for over a year and was recently revived with Tony Shaloub.

Since then, the play has become a staple for professional, community, college and even high school theaters. It is a well constructed farce with a plot that moves smoothly from set up to complication to resolution, filled with both funny situations and funny dialogue.

Set on the night of a crucial fund-raising performance of Verdi’s Otello at the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, the complications arise when the guest soloist, a world famous tenor, accidentally takes an overdose of a sedative. Thinking he is dead, an assistant dons his costume and goes on in his stead – after all, “The Show Must Go On!” However, the tenor revives, dons a backup costume and heads off to the theater. Add the wife of the real opera star discovering the girlfriend of the substitute in the arms of a man in an Otello costume, and you have full-out farce.

Magic, however, can’t always be summoned at will – or is it that lightning isn’t supposed to strike twice in the same spot? Whatever. The musical closed in just over two months, the victim of disappointing sales. What went wrong? Perhaps a clue can be found in the Original London Cast album, an import from England’s First Night Records.

Ken Ludwig writes funny plays, but this recording of the musical based on his farce simply does not have many laughs. I don’t mean the recording doesn’t have the sound of laughter. This isn’t a live performance recording. I mean why doesn’t the score have much to laugh at? Where are the funny lines? Where are the comic twists? I listened to all 66 minutes of the recording, and didn’t laugh out loud once. I did, however, break out in a grin a few times – starting at 2:43 minutes into track #5.

It starts out with a sparkling but all too short overture in the mold of traditional musical comedy form that segues into a musical scene of faux-opera. This is followed by a full company patter song that is musically interesting. But it is here where I started to wonder when I was going to get a chance to start laughing. It seemed, instead, that the lyricist, Peter Sham, was so busy laying out the convoluted plot points that there just wasn’t any room for punch lines. Perhaps, I began to think Officer Lockstock was right when he told Little Sally in Urinetown that “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

Despite the disappointing quotient of laughs, there are pleasures to be had in the score. Sham does come up with clever ways to relate those plot points and composer Brad Carroll provides melodies and meters firmly in the time-honored formulas for a satisfying evening of musical comedy. When Cassidy Janson (as the impresario’s daughter) sells her “Fling,” all seems to be going swimmingly. “How ‘Bout Me?,” a debate-in-song over the assistant’s idea of going on for the “dead” tenor is witty (but not laugh-out-loud funny) and Joanna Riding (as the tenor’s wife) certainly sells her first act big number “The Last Time.” There’s a rousing number in the tradition of all those songs of advice to a younger character from an older and presumably wiser one, “Be You’self.” But, things bog down again with an Act I finale that seems all too concerned with wrapping up plot points.

There are a few times when tap dancing breaks out. It isn’t quite clear why, but the exciting sound is all we get of Randy Skinner’s choreography. He was the dance assistant on the original production of 42nd Street, who went on to be the choreographer for its 2001 revival that ran for over 1,500 performances before heading off on a successful tour. In between he choreographed the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, which reversed that habit, touring before landing on Broadway for a brief run in 1996.
With many numbers reflecting well-established traditions of the genre, things do start to sound a bit familiar even on first hearing. The title tune and the big company song “Il Stupendo” certainly seem that way. But Sophie-Louise Dann’s big number as a diva, “May I Have A Moment?” breaks the mold with an audition scene as she works her way through snatches of famous operas.

There is an 18-member orchestra (four more than in the pit in the theater) playing chipper charts by Chris Walker who orchestrated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a few years ago.

First Night Records is a label with an outstanding catalogue of cast recordings that should interest those with sizable theater shelves. Among other interesting items, it offers the original Les Misérables, a beautiful Brigadoon, three different recordings of Blood Brothers, a chipper Charlie Girl from 1986, Martin Guerre, The Witches of Eastwick and the bizarre The Fields of Ambrosia. Check out the webpage:

Lend Me A Tenor – The Musical
Original London Cast Recording
66 minutes over 21 tracks including overture, entr’acte and exit music
Packaged with synopsis and multiple color photos
First Night Records Catalogue # CASTCD112
Import price from Amazon $21.84

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The Trumpet of the Swan – A Novel Symphony for Actors and Orchestra

One small side-section of a theater shelf should have a couple of the all-too-few works for children’s ears that combine oral storytelling and orchestral music – Peter and the Wolf, Tuby the Tuba, The Trumpet of the Swan.

The Trumpet of the Swan? Yes. The novel for children by E. B. White, who also  dreamed up Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, not to mention Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do, belongs on that same shelf. Not only is The Trumpet of the Swan a nifty story told in a script by The Secret Garden‘s  Marsha Norman, it has a jazzy symphonic setting by one of musical  theater’s finest composers/lyricists, Jason Robert Brown, who gave us Parade, Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years and 13.

After a three-year-plus wait, we finally have a recording of the piece conducted by Brown himself and featuring a star-studded cast of readers. I do wish I could report that the recording has as much charm and delight as did the world premiere at  the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater back in 2008. It comes close, but one cast change makes a world of difference.

The “star part” in the piece is the narrator who, as a young boy named “Sam,” tells the story of a swan with no voice. On the recording it is John Lithgow who tells the tale. He’s just a bit too emphatic, coming off as something of a stuffed shirt of a big name actor instead of a friend relating a story for child’s enjoyment.

This might not be as obvious to those who didn’t attend the premiere of the piece at the Kennedy Center, but those who heard the superb job that Richard Thomas did on that occasion will notice the difference. It may not have been entirely Lithgow’s fault, however. The premiere utilized a stage director – Gary Griffin. In the booklet for the recording, there is mentioned of Joe Calarco also having a hand in directing the premiere.

Whoever had the final touch as director in 2008 managed to impose a coordinated feel for the six actors who were on stage together at the same time. The recording, however, is not credited to any director and two of the voices were recorded in New York while the other four were “laid down” in California. The music was recorded at yet a third location. No wonder it comes off sounding more like the product of a committee than the charmingly coordinated performance delivered before an audience full of attentive and at times enraptured kids.

The difference isn’t fatal, however. Lithgow has his charms at times and he’s certainly accompanied by a superb supporting cast including Kathy Bates, James Naughton and Martin Short. The orchestra assembled by PS Classics’ Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin gives Brown’s music a lovely, lively rendition and the jazzy interludes are a great deal of fun.

Truth to tell, however, it is a non-speaking part that is the real starring role. It is the music that Brown has written for the trumpet that is played on the recording, as it was in the premiere concert, by Christopher Michael Venditti. At the time of the premiere, Venditti  was a master’s degree student at the Juilliard School. He contributes a velvety smooth tone to the work while Brown conducts the orchestra in his supporting score. There are no songs in the piece, but certain instruments and melodies represent different characters and places as the story unfolds.

That story is of a trumpet swan born without a voice. He learns to write on a chalk tablet, but finds it worthless since the rest of the swans can’t read. His father, concerned that his son won’t be able to attract a mate without the ability to make the loud trumpeting honk of the species’ mating call, steals a trumpet for him from a music store. Once he learns to play the trumpet, he sets off to earn enough money as a musician to pay back the music store.

When Venditti’s trumpet soars, so, too, does the story.

The Trumpet of the Swan:
A Novel Symphony for Actors And Orchestra
1:18 over 21 tracks
PS Classics Catalogue # PS – 1197
List price $14.95

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