Saturday, December 13, 2008

10 Broadway CDs: I [Don’t] Get a Kick Out of You

Marie Christine, summer of 2000. I picked up the Original Broadway Cast Recording from Barnes and Noble, and within moments, I was lost in the music and the story.

There’s nothing quite like buying a Broadway Cast Recording for a show you’ve never seen. It’s a little like getting a book on CD. You get to experience a show for the first time. There are plenty of shows out there that have closed on Broadway for which there is little chance that many of us will ever get to experience on stage—Wildcat, Triumph of Love, Do Re Mi—and the shows’ only chances of surviving are people picking up the OBCRs.

But for every Marie Christine, Ragtime, Parade, there’s one of those CDs you listen to here and there, recordings that never win a place in your heart. Here are ten from my collection.

All American—This was one of those browsing through Barnes and Noble, “Hey, this looks like it could be a rare gem” purchases that never paid off. Ray Bolger, you steered me wrong! It’s not that the songs aren’t fine. There are some fun satirical songs, like “It’s Fun to Think” (which I often wanted to play for my high school students at my last teaching position), but as a whole, the story never lifts through the songs, and the songs never jump from the disc. Plus, it doesn’t help that Eileen Herlie’s voice, at times, reaches nail-on-chalk-board proportions, which was probably effective for her character on stage but is less tolerable in my car.

Barnum—Talk about a charming, humable score. Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart really knocked one out of the park with Barnum, the circus/autobiographical musical which starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close on Broadway. Never having seen the show, however, it seems more like a great pop album rather than a cast recording. Song after song after song is great—“There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” “The Colors of My Life,” “One Brick at a Time,” and many others. But when you pop in a Broadway Cast Recording, you’re looking for something different than when you pop in a CD from Jordin Sparks or David Cook. You want a full story, rich with characters, and Barnum just doesn’t give you that. Perhaps after I see the DVD of the show, I’ll listen to it more. Until that time, I’ll think fondly of it, then pop in Hairspray instead.

Bombay Dreams—I honestly got what I deserved when I went into the store to get Passion and walked out with Bombay Dreams (though in my defense, they didn’t have Passion in stock). I’ve written about Bombay Dreams before, so I’ll work on not repeating myself, but there are some good songs on the disc—“Shakalaka Baby” is infectious and addictive as is, to a lesser degree, “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” and “The Journey Home” is pretty moving. Most of the other songs, though, are too repetitive and lacking in lyrical depth. “Like an Eagle,” for example, repeats itself so many times, you can’t listen to it all. I can’t help but feel that on stage Bombay Dreams was plenty of fun, but on disc, there’s no spectacle to bedazzle you away from its weaknesses, the very little hint of story or character.

Children of Eden—I got this CD used for an amazing price. I’m awfully glad I didn’t pay full price. I don’t know if I’m failing the musical or if the musical is failing me; I honestly believe that I will probably love the musical if I ever get a chance to see it performed. Until then, I’m not a big fan.

I am a huge fan of Stephen Schwartz’s work, but I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through both Children of Eden discs (though I have been known to earnestly attempt it). My theory is that the story isn’t strong enough. Not that the sources material isn’t—how many centuries has that survived—but the music comes across as “This happened, then this happened, then this happened,” so that, while it is in essence telling one coherent story, it doesn’t come off that way on disc.

A Christmas Carol—For the longest time, I thought I wasn’t getting into Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens’ score to A Christmas Carol because I wasn’t listening to it enough. I’d often pop it in only around Christmastime and then contemplate why I wasn’t absorbed into it.

There are few tunesmiths as talented as Alan Menken, and Lynn Ahrens is a genius as well; however, their score to A Christmas Carol simply lacks a “stick-to-your-ribs” quality. As with the other scores in this list, there are strong songs in the score—“Link By Link” and “A Place Called Home” are two whose melody and lyrics I recall with fondness—but perhaps it is the familiarity with the story or something else, but I just don’t get into the score like you would think I would.

Destry Rides Again—I bought this recording based on the recommendation Destry Rides Again got in Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s original edition of Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. There’s no reason why it should not be a great album—Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray are the leads. The music and lyrics are by Harold Rome. There are plenty of fun songs and strong performances on the CD, particularly Gray’s charming “I Hate Him.” But somehow, it never all comes together. Perhaps the story—about a sheriff without a gun reforming a crime-ridden town and falling for the mistress of the residents of the residence of ill repute—isn’t strong enough. Perhaps the songs don’t do enough. Maybe “Anyone Would Love You” is a signature moment in the score, a song so studiously ripped off from a Rodgers and Hammerstein score, you can’t help but skip over it. I don’t regret getting Destry Rides Again—it has such a nice cover and liner notes—but I also don’t listen to it often.

Do Re Mi (1999 Cast Recording)—This was another score I bought after seeing it in Bloom and Vlastnik’s Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time. Overall, I’d say they made great choices, but here was another one in the “Not So Much” category. Heather Headley and Brian Stokes Mitchell’s songs play really well, including Headley’s hilarious “What’s New at the Zoo.” The rest of the score, however, feels rushed. Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green wrote one of my favorite scores—Bells are Ringing—but here, the lyrics fall awkwardly on the ear, refusing to rhyme when it feels like they should, ending before they seem completed. The characters seem to have some charm, but when everything written for the supporting characters of John (Mitchell) and Tilda (Heather Headley) soars, it only shows how weak the rest of the show is. By the end of the score, you’re only concerned about hearing “Cry Like the Wind,” “Fireworks,” and “What’s New at the Zoo” again. After I got Do Re Mi, I pretty much had to force myself to listen to it the whole way through.

First Impressions—As a Jane Austen fan, I rushed out to order First Impressions after I read a negative review on Yeah, the reviewer was right after all. I once wrote an entire column on the thought of a Jane Austen musical, so I won’t repeat myself here, but the score simply doesn’t work. First of all, the show isn’t authentic in feel. The choices aren’t even made out of mis-visioning, but the heavily-spoken score seems to be trying too hard to be My Fair Lady. Either way, the score doesn’t do justice to Pride and Prejudice, and with one or two exceptions, the songs just aren’t that good.

Martin Guerre (1999 Cast Recording)—I’m one of those types who loves Les Miserables, but Martin Guerre simply doesn’t do anything for me. I love expansive, epic scores, but my feeling is that the plot for Martin Guerre doesn’t match the vision of the creators. I haven’t listened to the recording for awhile—and to be fair a number of songs have stuck with me over the years—but my memory is that most of the second half is a court trial. A court trial as a key setting doesn’t strike me as terribly engaging on stage. It work for two songs in Hello, Dolly!, but Martin Guerre is more People’s Court: The Musical than Night Court.

RaisinA Raisin in the Sun is one of my two favorite plays (tied with The Crucible), and I have immensely enjoyed reading it multiple times as well as teaching it a few times. Reading the libretto of Raisin (available because it is licensed by Samuel French) shows that Raisin was likely a very enjoyable show on stage, but the score is perhaps too bound to the intimacy of the original play to thrive independently.

There are some very fine songs—“Not Anymore” is a particular favorite, a dark comedic number where the younger Youngers explain to matriarch Lena about the man coming from the Clybourne Park Association to keep them from moving into a white neighborhood. “Man Say,” “Runnin’ to Meet the Man,” and “Measure the Valleys” are all strong enough, but the score never fully engages you in the story, despite its strong rooting in Lorraine Hansberry’s original brilliance.

the Broadway Mouth
December 13, 2008


Anonymous said...

I agree with you on Destry. I did that musical my sophomore year of high school, and loved the experience. But the music never stayed with most of the cast, myself included. There were times, a few years later, that we couldn't remember the names of most of the songs. They weren't bad, just not memorable. Chris

WarsawWriter said...

I agree with you on most of those. ALL AMERICAN has several songs that I enjoy, but for the most part not my favorite. DESTRY has "I Hate Him", which I can listen to over and over, but not much else. However, I really enjoy most of RAISIN. Not sure why. I think my problem with BARNUM is just that the sound is awful on the Broadway recording. I could add a dozen more to that list.