Three from Masterworks Broadway

The Saint of Bleecker Street, Gian Carlo Menotti’s penultimate Broadway opera, ran for only 92 performances at the Broadway Theater in 1955. However, the piece garnered enough attention to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. Set in 1954 Little Italy, the devout but sickly Annina sees visions and suffers the stigmata and neighbors flock her to her sick room thinking she can heal them. Annina, aware that her time is limited, wants only to take the veil, but is met with opposition from her atheist brother Michele, who feels that her visions are hallucinations and that the Church is exploiting her. Emotions run high, and this being Menotti, it doesn’t end well for anyone. The cast consists mostly of unknown performers, but the two leads (Gabrielle Ruggiero and David Poleri) are outstanding, offering passionate performances and some truly glorious singing. Gloria Lane (the Secretary in Menotti’s The Consul) is also briefly on hand as Michele’s ill-fated lover, Desideria. Broadway baritones John Reardon and Reid Shelton were also in the cast. This is the first digital release of this particular album, and makes a great case for re-exploration by opera companies.

Not quite so ready for re-exploration, but a fascinating curio nonetheless, is the off-Broadway production of Half-Past Wednesday, a musical adaptation of Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin. The show, which played 2 performances in 1962 at the Orpheum Theatre, was recorded by Columbia Records. Dom DeLuise leads the cast of five as the King, with Sean Garrison as the Prince, Audre Johnston as Erelda, Robert Fitch as Grandfather and David Winters (an impish delight) as Rumpelstiltskin. The album plays less like a cast album and more like a children’s recording, the kind that used to include a companion book. Much of the dialogue is included to give the album a sense of story, which is especially unusual for Columbia albums of the era (this was produced by Clifford Snyder, not Goddard Lieberson). The songs, by Robert Corley and Nina Jones, are more notable for their clever lyrics than melodies. DeLuise and Fitch get a fun number in “Grandfathers (Ev’ry Baby’s Best Friend).” The album has been pulled from obscurity and is available for the first time since a 1966 reissue. I think it’s telling that in all three issues of the album, Half-Past Wednesday is overshadowed by the big block letters which state “THE NEW MUSICAL VERSION OF RUMPELSTILTSKIN.” It’s better than its two performance run would indicate, especially for the kids.

When most Broadway shows celebrate an anniversary, there is usually a cake and a photo op. Sometimes even a party. However, when the original production of Hair turned 3, the company celebrated the anniversary with an Episcopalian Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 9, 1971. (The first two anniversaries had been major celebrations in Central Park). Galt McDermot, Hair’s composer, wrote a Mass which was sung by the Cathedral choir. In place of hymns, songs from the score of Hair were interpolated into the afternoon’s service sung by current cast members. Divine Hair/Mass in F is a live recording of excerpts from the festivities, which includes a chance to hear the Dionne of future Tony-winner Delores Hall. Also among this replacement cast were Allan Nicholls and Dale Soules. It’s a unique experience, as the album includes the welcome from Reverend Canon Edward N. West (who would have made a terrific Starkeeper in Carousel), as well as The Collect, The Epistle and the Gospel (each read by a different priest, one of whom is Gerome Ragni’s brother). There’s also something highly entertaining hearing organist Jack W. Jones perform variations of “Aquarius” on the cathedral’s mammoth pipe organ. It’s not an aurally polished recording, but it presents parts of the Mass in F and songs from Hair in an unusual and fascinating setting. Reverend West provided the original liner notes, which make for a fascinating read.

Pure Joy

The other night, a good friend and I were having a conversation about No, No Nanette and he seemed both surprised and bemused that I was just over the moon espousing the show’s virtues. Though it was two and a half years ago that I saw the show at Encores!, my memories of the Broadway ready revival are vivid and fresh. (Why oh why didn’t this one transfer?!) When asked why I like it so much, the simplest answer I could give was that “It’s pure joy from start to finish.” I’ve been giving that statement a great deal of thought. It’s one of the most honest answers I’ve ever given, but one of the most unique. That’s not to say I don’t find myself regularly having a miserable time at a musical. Far from it. But there are so few shows or productions that give that fizzy champagne/good time feeling – and are able to sustain that feeling from the beginning to end. These are the musicals where I find myself smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the overture until long after I’ve left the theatre, and mostly because of the sheer happiness I feel as a result.

Nanette is definitely one of those shows. The 1971 revisal that is. I’ve heard the original 1925 show with its original arrangements and orchestrations and I honestly feel that they somehow did it better in ’71. The experience of getting the show up and running was a bit of a nightmare, but it produced a surprise smash at the 46th Street Theatre. Folks wanted nostalgia and this show offered a wonderful slice of period flavor, with a familiar score, a simple farcical plot and tap-happy showstoppers. Ralph Burns did the orchestrations, Buster Davis did the vocal arrangements and Luther Henderson provided incidental and dance music.

I knew I was in for a treat the moment the orchestra started playing the overture with strains of “I Want to Be Happy” and I was flooded with warmth from head to toe once the twin grand pianos started playing during “Tea for Two.” My happiness didn’t let up for a long time; I was humming “I Want to Be Happy” ad nauseam, listening to the superb 1971 cast recording. The score (music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) is filled with songs that are breezy, light and evoke another era altogether. Listening to the original cast album is just as much fun as seeing the show, from that delightful overture to the finale of “I Want to Be Happy” with the entire cast strumming ukuleles.

Another one is Mame, with one of the freshest, most wondrous original cast albums ever recorded. It gets off to a sock start with those first trilling strings and winds that soar up the octave as the brass belts out the title song. Its orchestrations by Phil Lang are pitch perfect, brassy, bold and exciting. It starts the ball rolling with one gem after another. The Mame score may not be anything revolutionary, but it was musical comedy writing at its finest. Easily my favorite Jerry Herman score and I’ve enjoyed them all. Angela Lansbury shimmers in her star turn – the trumpet blast that was added for the 1998 reissue makes her entrance in gold pajamas all the more vivid. The original show made a musical theatre star of Lansbury, who took the town by storm. Each performance sparkles: Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Jane Connell, Frankie Michaels, Jerry Lanning and Charles Braswell are all wonderful and blessedly definitive. The ensemble is stunning – big voices, lots of great arrangements and an energy that just flies out from the speakers.

Then there’s the title song, a master class of musical comedy unto itself – and the leading lady doesn’t even sing a word of it! It starts slow and builds and builds through several choruses. Then the ensemble breaks into a spirited gallop, by which point the leading lady is still silent but overjoyed and moved. Just when you think it can’t get better, Lang and Pippin bring the gallop back in for the first pullback which consists of a cakewalk across the stage (props to Onna White for the choreography). But it’s not done! It modulates up a half step for the final section, a full-out fortissimo to bring it to its requisite big finish. The banjo is only measures away from needing new strings, the trumpet is blasting a high solo while the trombones descend in the bass line. All through this, the drummer is steadily beating out a simple but insistent 4/4 downbeat. It’s enough to make you stand up and cheer in your living room.

The album, superbly produced by Goddard Lieberson, captures the high spirits of those first days when the show was getting ovations like you would not believe. (SarahB has relayed the story of the title song in Philadelphia bringing the show to such a halt, theatregoers were standing on their chairs). The orchestrations are beautifully balanced and there is that light touch of reverb that made those Columbia albums the best ever recorded. You’d think they’d just recorded it in a theatre, full costume and all. I even like “That How Young I Feel,” which is the one number from the score that most dismiss (though I do wish they had recorded its jitterbug dance break). Mame is an album I would bring to a desert island without having to think twice. I’ve never seen a stage production of the show that has equaled the album, but I’m still waiting for the Broadway revival with Donna Murphy.

These are the kind of things I turn to when I want a score that will make me feel happier. Joy at its simplest is a hard emotion to evoke without causing cavities or a diabetic coma. There are many, many shows that try to force that joy on the audience and those usually seem mechanical and fall flat. The joy I speak of isn’t something tangible. You can’t quite put the finger on it, but there is that quality that makes it stand out from the rest (not unlike star presence). It’s easier to charm, provoke or even get a laugh, than it is to evoke the feeling of pure, unadulterated happiness and elation. There are performances on other albums that give me joy, even if the score doesn’t, or a song here or there. But it’s incredibly hard for a show from first note to last to do it.

These are two of mine, but I know that there are others. What I’d like to know is: what scores bring you joy?

“Song of Norway” – The 1959 Revival Cast Recording

The unabashedly old-fashioned, nostalgic operetta Song of Norway opened on Broadway in 1944 a year and half after Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the American musical with Oklahoma! The show was the brainchild of Edwin Lester who first produced it at his Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Song of Norway told the fictionalized life story of composer Edvard Grieg, with Robert Wright and George Forrest adapting the long dead composers’ themes into songs. With direction by Charles K. Freeman and choreography from George Balachine, the show was a smash running 860 performances. It would become the first American musical to open in London after the Second World War and became a staple in stock and local productions. There is also the notorious 1970 film version starring Florence Henderson. I’ve never had the privilege, but I am curious because I’m told it’s even worse than I could imagine.

I’ve only recently encountered the score. The original Decca cast album didn’t hold my attention very much, it was recorded for 78s and the only thing that stood out to me was Kitty Carlisle (who was filling in for floperetta queen Irra Petina – in her only hit, who couldn’t be on the Decca album due to her contract with Columbia). I also listened to the complete 1989 studio cast album, which was actually chore to sit through. I have to confess – as someone who does enjoy legit singing and operetta –  I just don’t care for the show. Overall it’s rather dull, treacly and uninteresting (and in reality, Grieg’s life was rather mundane). Lester, Wright & Forrest re-teamed for Kismet in 1953, which while that one’s not a particularly strong show it’s infinitely far more fun and entertaining. The  music is lovely, but we owe that more to Grieg than Wright & Forrest. I’d rather see a revival of Anya than Song of Norway.

There was one recording of the score that escaped me until now: the 1959 Jones Beach Marine Theatre revival cast recording. It sounds a bit obscure, but it turns out that this was the first one in stereo (and is even a revival of a revival cast album). Of course, I never knew that any of the Jones Beach musicals were ever recorded. The theatre there used to be a popular location for summer revivals of musicals turned into extravaganzas by producer and musical director Guy Lombardo. The outdoor venue is famed for its location on the water – the stage was built in Zachs Bay. This album is the latest rarity from Masterworks Broadway and it features John Reardon, William Olvis, Helena Scott and in the Irra Pettina role, Brenda Lewis, who sung the title role on the recently released Regina. Sig Arno recreates his original Broadway role of Count Peppi La Loup. The orchestra is conducted by Lehman Engel, with Stan Freeman (composer for I Had a Ball and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen) on piano for the climactic concerto.

The plot is as follows: Grieg, his best friend and sweetheart trill gaily through Scandinavia while the composer dreams of creating great Norwegian music. Enter Italian diva who charms Grieg and whisks him off to Italy for the high life. However, the composer finds himself unfulfilled and on learning of his friend’s death returns to Norway and his true love, culminating in the composition of his incredibly famous Piano Concerto in A Minor. Gag me with a spoon.

While I can’t say much to recommend the show itself, I will readily confess it’s never sounded better to me than it does here. I could listen to Reardon’s exceptional baritone all day long; he’s also on the 1960 studio album of On the Town as well as the original Broadway cast of Do Re Mi. Lewis is recent discovery, thanks to the aforementioned Regina. The singer first appeared in its original Broadway production as Birdie (and if you can track down the piano-only recording of “Lionnet” it’ll be worth your while) then moved into the title role for NYCO. In Norway, she’s a lot of fun as the diva, livening things up with a spirited rendition of “Now.” Helena Scott has a lovely lyric soprano, and sparkles in “Hill of Dreams” and the show’s big hit “Strange Music” (which still strikes me as a bizarre song title). Arno revels in the lively act two opener “Bon Vivant.” If there’s a recording of the show to be heard, this is the one. All in all, it makes for a pleasant listen, but it’s also one of the rare times I hope a new release doesn’t inspire a revival.

The new release is available as a digital download from Masterworks Broadway or Amazon, and in CD-R format from ArkivMusic.

At Large Elsewhere: Fighting Clean

A few weeks back, Peter Filichia wrote a column called “Fighting Clean,” in which he talked about how he went note for note with a boom-box squatter on his front stoop. The guy came and sat with his radio blasting, so Peter fought fire with The Sound of Music motion picture soundtrack. I immediately related; I did something similar back when I was in college. I love a shout-out and I got a brief one in his August Leftovers column, which contains other similar anecdotes. Here was mine in its entirety:

It was fall 2003 and I was a junior in New Paltz. I was never one for partying, so I usually stayed in on weekends while the rest went out. During the second weekend of this semester I came down with a terrible sinus infection, and a nasty one at that. I could hardly breathe, my head was pounding and was shaking. I lived suite style in the dorms. My roommates were all out getting drunk. I was in bed highly medicated and trying to get some much needed rest. Unfortunately, I was in a corner room, so the wall next to my bed was shared with another suite area entirely (no one we bothered getting to know). Well sir, the neighbors come in around 3:30AM (bars closed at 4) and proceeded to blast their music as loud as possible. I couldn’t even tell you what it was, but it was loud, dissonant and rather angry. (and did I mention loud…?)

Anyway, I was lying there sick and growing increasingly frustrated. When I’d had enough, I started pounding on the wall. They either couldn’t hear me or were ignoring me. My calls to the RAs and night watch crew were unanswered. I couldn’t get through to anyone. So I took it into my own hands. I pulled myself out of bed, brought myself to my desk and very casually flipped through my CD collection. I then set up my computer speakers facing the wall, popped on the original Broadway cast recording of “Evita” and played “A New Argentina” at the loudest volume possible. Within ten minutes not only had the music stopped, they left. I turned everything off, medicated and got back into bed with a smile and slept until I felt human again.

A few weeks later, they pulled the same stunt. I was home by myself again, but healthy. Again, couldn’t get through. So I grabbed my phone, put on my shoes and stormed over to their suite door. I pounded; they opened up the door and with as much authority and attitude I could muster, said “We’ve been getting complaints…” They cut off the music, apologized and I gave them one last disappointed dad glare before heading back to my room. Never had a problem again.

“Promises, Promises” – Original London Cast Recording

Just when it seemed as though there wouldn’t be anything more to say about Promises, Promises cast albums, Bruce Kimmel went ahead and released the long unavailable original London cast album on CD. Kimmel’s label, Kritzerland, recently made a splash with the 2 disc limited edition of the original Broadway album a couple months ago, which was so popular a second single disc edition was pressed. Sony Masterworks released a revival cast album which has been selling well. But for die hard fans, this is one of those rare cast albums that’s been long awaited. I, for one, lived with an mp3 rip of a good quality LP for the last couple of years and was one of those folks crying out for a CD.  The good news is that it’s been entirely worth the wait, the bad news is the limited pressing of 1,000 CDs has sold out (they did in a flash!)

Producers didn’t waste much time in bringing Promises, Promises to London. It opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1969, running a respectable 560 performances. Tony Roberts was Chuck Baxter. He does a decent job, if he’s not nearly as distinctive as Jerry Orbach. Betty Buckley and she sings the hell out of the score as Fran, easily the best sung on record. Her “Knowing When to Leave” is definitive, particularly the way she crescendos from head voice pianissimo to full out belt on the last line. Jack Kruschen, who played the doctor in The Apartment reprised his role in this production. Donna McKechnie flew to London to recreate the showstopping “Turkey Lurkey Time” for six weeks, but apparently this album was recorded after she left. (Her name is credited on the album cover, but inside the credit goes to Alix Kirsta).

Like the Kritzerland release of the OBC, the London album has also been placed in show order. It was produced similarly to the first, but offers an entirely different listening experience. The inherent idiosyncrasies make this London recording required listening. The pit singers are much clearer, especially in the overture. But the thing that really struck me, and it was probably the remix that helped me realize this, was the percussion. I have no idea who the drummer was, but his or her work really just pops on the album, especially in “Turkey Lurkey Time.”

One of my main quibbles with both the original Broadway and London albums is that “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” doesn’t have its dance break or big finish, both recordings repeat the refrain as they fade out. As a sort of consolation, Mr. Kimmel has included the song from the Italian cast album in its entirety as a bonus after the title song. Kimmel once again supplies the liner notes which covers much of the same area as the Broadway Promises, but gives a concise history of the London run.

As I said, the CD is sold out (though you may still be able to snag a copy on Footlight Records) so if you’ve missed out, I hope you’ve got a friend who’ll be nice and let you borrow their copy. You’ll definitely want to give this one a spin.

“Regina” – The 1958 NYCO Cast Recording

Long considered a Holy Grail recording by musical theatre enthusiasts, the 1958 NYCO cast album of Marc Blitzstein‘s Regina has been released by Masterworks Broadway for the first time since its LP release. An opera based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949, running  a mere 56 performances. While other Broadway operas, such as Street Scene and The Consul received original cast albums (even if they were highlights), Regina didn’t get recorded for nine years. (Though there is a piano only recording of certain musical numbers recorded after the original closed).

The Little Foxes, one of Hellman’s most famous plays, is a melodramatic study of an avaricious, desperate Southern aristocracy in decline. Tallulah Bankhead played the role of Regina Hubbard Giddens, who finds herself at odds with her brothers and husband, the result of patriarchal societal mores. She fights the gender oppression as best she can, doing what she must to get what she wants but at a considerable cost. Due to its extreme characters and heightened emotions (to say nothing of its malicious cynicism), it’s ideal for operatic consideration. (I won’t go into the plot details here. You’d have more fun seeing the film or a local production than reading a synopsis).

The opera was culled from obscurity by the City Opera in 1958 which made some alterations from the Broadway production. Blitzstein envisioned a three act opera utilizing musical idioms prevalent to the American South at the turn of the 20th century. On Broadway, he was forced to edit the piece to two acts and Hellman was very stringent regarding the dramatic structure. For NYCO, the opera was returned to its three act form, but there were some more revisions and the excision of an onstage Dixie band. The show was first performed in 1953, and revived in 1958 when Columbia stepped in to record. It may not be the complete opera, but it’s a lively 2 disc recording from the first notes of its prologue to its unbelievably breathtaking finale.

Brenda Lewis, who played Birdie in the original Broadway production, graduates to the role of Regina and sings the role with a dramatic intensity worthy of her predecessors in the play. She is especially memorable with the insistent “The Best Thing of All.” Her performance builds to a fever pitch as she does battle with her dying husband with “Do You Wish We Had Wed Years Ago?” and all but explodes with the climactic high C during the “Gallop” as she ominously tells him “I’ll be waiting.”  Regina is fascinating: she’s conniving, ruthless, steely, determined and flirtatious all in one fell swoop. Lewis is nothing short of extraordinary.

And then there’s Birdie, the fading southern belle who receives malicious abuse from her unloving husband and son while dreaming of her childhood. The role is a show stealer, and is pretty much the audience favorite. Patricia Collinge, who originated the role in the original production preserved her performance in the classic 1941 William Wyler screen adaptation, presents a characterization of such startling realism and honesty, that she all but steals the film from star Bette Davis and was Oscar nominated. Here in Regina, the part also walks away with the best of the score, most especially her confessional aria in the third act “Lionnet…Lionnet.” This showstopper sets to music one of the most famous monologues from the play, where Birdie admits her alcoholism to her beloved niece. She also admits that her husband married her for her family’s estate and that she hates her own son. It’s a glorious piece of dramatic writing, and soprano Elizabeth Carron is glorious.

The supporting cast is superb. Loren Driscoll sings the role of Birdie’s disagreeable son Leo (and would go onto sing “One Kind Word” in Blitzstein’s Juno the following year). Joshua Hecht’s bass makes an imperious impression as Regina’s husband Horace. George S. Irving and Emile Renan are excellent as the two conniving and deceitful brothers. Carol Brice (The Grass Harp) lends her supple contralto to the expanded role of Addie, the family’s housekeeper, while I would have much preferred Broadway original William Warfield singing the role of Cal. Helen Strine, as Regina and Ben’s daughter Zan, sings the recitative with a youthfulness that disappears during her one major number.

I’ve heard the score before, on a 1992 recording from the Scottish opera. Most interestingly, I didn’t care for the piece at all. But with this recording, it’s like hearing the work for the first time. The opera comes alive in a way the restored version does not (the only things I really remember from that one is the end of the “Gallop” and Birdie’s aria. Hearing it on this NYCO album leads me to wonder – isn’t it about time we had the chance to see Regina in NY again? If there’s a case to be made for another production at NYCO (or anyone else who might consider it), it’s this riveting cast album. The album is available as a digital download or CD-R via ArkivMusic.

“Promises, Promises” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

When I received the new Broadway cast recording of Promises, Promises from Sony Masterworks last week, I have to confess I didn’t have high expectations. The reviews for the show were far from raves, and had been led to believe the show was a huge bomb. Much to my surprise, the cast album for this production is quite enjoyable. In fact it is one of the more spirited cast albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the revival so I cannot comment on the quality of the production as it plays onstage, but am aware of instances where the cast album can make a production sound better on disc than it played in the theatre.

From start to finish there is much to enjoy. Sean Hayes isn’t as distinctive as either Jerry Orbach or Tony Roberts and while his vibrato is a bit on the reedy side, he is certainly up for the inherent challenge and gives a welcome comic turn. He especially shines in “She Likes Basketball” and the title song. Kristin Chenoweth is somewhat more problematic as Fran. First off – interpolating Bacharach’s pop hits “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” make absolutely no sense for her character to be singing. Period. Chenoweth is famed for that seemingly endless coloratura range, and her voice doesn’t translate as well to belt/mix like other sopranos. Also, making “A House is Not a Home” an emotional focal center of the production shows genuine mistrust of the material by the creative team, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Tony-winner Katie Finneran gives it her all as drunken Marge and she makes an interesting impression on “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful,” which has a fantastic dance break. Dick Latessa does well in his duet “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You.” On the other hand, “Turkey Lurkey Time” is a complete dud. You’d be better off with the original Broadway cast recording or that glorious youtube clip. Tony Goldwyn has very little to do on record as the cad boss who leads Fran on, singing “Wanting Things” and duetting with Hayes on “It’s Our Little Secret,” which features its verse on record for the first time).

The sound is crisp, there is extra music as well as the show’s finale with the famed last line  and really makes the rideouts of the songs just really hit home (it’s also easier to hear the pit singers here, too). The set is also blessed with ample liner notes, complete with the lyrics but lacking a thorough plot synopsis. Oh, and naturally there are plenty of photographs from the production.

Another thing about the score and show Promises, Promises. It’s based on the 1960 film The Apartment, but composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and librettist Neil Simon created a contemporary musical in 1968 and the music is so much of that era that it genuinely strikes me as odd that the show has been pushed back to 1962. The syncopations, the rhythms and orchestrations are all evocative of the late 60s and it ‘s absurd to try and make it otherwise. The nature of the decade was so turbulent that 1962 is a million light years removed from 1968. It makes absolutely no sense to do that, especially if it’s to capitalize on Mad Men (which is referenced in advertising for the show. Mad Men the Musical is about the last thing I would ever care to see).

So it’s not the perfect reading of the show, but it’s still quite an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The real surprise about this particular album is the way it’s recorded. I’ve felt that a lot of recent revival albums have failed to capture the vibrancy of the onstage experience (Patti’s Gypsy and South Pacific come readily to mind) or the energy of earlier counterparts. This album, warts and all, pops from the overture to finish. Almost everything about this recording is alive and quite engaging (with the exceptions noted above); so much so that though I was wary of seeing the actual show, I’m now quite interesting in going. What can I say? The power of the cast album compels me.

Masterworks Broadway

April Fool’s Day annoys me. Mostly it’s because everyone thinks they’re suddenly writing for The Onion and inundate the interwebs and my email box with attempts to “get me.” As a result, I tend to skip out new on this particular day – both real and faux, just because I prefer the facts (and not to be sallied with countless fake information, etc). However, that said, there is something wonderful happening today – Sony Masterworks is celebrating the launch of the Masterworks Broadway website. I first got wind of the new site a couple months ago and being the musical theatre geek, I immediately signed up for an account. (Come join me!)

The website has been dubbed “Where Show Tunes Take Center Stage” and they are not wrong. A few years ago, due to some corporate blah blah blah, Sony founds itself with both its own Columbia Masterworks catalogue as well as RCA’s. The consolidation brought about the new Masterworks Broadway label in 2006. The new catalogue will eventually feature 400 cast albums (about 275 are already available) and the productions represented have acquired 265 Tony awards, 450 Tony nominations and 27 Grammy Awards. Not too shabby.

Now, to celebrate and to bring it into the era of social media, they’ve decided to create a place for showtune lovers to gather. The aim of the website is to “document the history of the cast album from Finian’s Rainbow (even if Columbia’s first cast album was the 1946 revival of Show Boat, but that’s neither here nor there) to last year’s revival of West Side Story.

The site allows the individual to establish an account, friend other album enthusiasts as well as browse through the catalog. Masterworks has planned that every single cast album under its label will eventually be released digitally. Some of the more famous titles: Annie, My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, Mame, Hello Dolly!, The Producers, A Little Night Music, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, among many many others. But now, many albums that are long out of print or have been hitherto now only available on LP will now be introduced to an entirely new generation of theatregoers (and as one who has collected many obscure LP cast albums, and has had many of them ripped to mp3 use I approve wholeheartedly).

They are continuing to build the site, with more albums to be added. A streaming radio of continuous Broadway musical is up and running. My pal Peter Filichia, who writes for Theatremania, is now hosting a new blog every Tuesday. There are also podcasts, including one recorded for the release of Stephen Sondheim collection The Story So Far and another on the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music last year. Each recording has its own page and readers can rate, review, and purchase the albums through amazon or itunes. There is of course the obligatory message board forum for folks to rehash the perennial “Merman or Lansbury” debate.

In celebration of the site’s official launch, there will be a giveaway every day in the “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” sweepstakes. Some of the prizes include: A trip for two to NYC to see a Broadway show, the entire Masterworks Broadway catalog (over 275 CDs!), signed copies of Kristin Chenoweth’s memoir A Little Bit Wicked as well as her latest CD A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas, and a rare framed pigment print of Gwen Verdon from the Sony Music archives/ICON Collectibles. Every Tuesday and Friday the site will feature a prize related to the work of Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim respectively, including an autographed CD collection of their works. New prizes will continue to be announced throughout the month. Visitors can enter the daily drawing by visiting the site and signing up for free membership.

"Kitty’s Kisses"

There was this musical about three years ago that came to Broadway by way of Canada. It was about a middle age recluse who listened to his favorite cast album as it came to life in his own living room. It won a few Tonys, was a decent hit and endeared co-librettist/star Bob Martin to the theatre world. The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, which glibly spoofed 20s musicals of a certain ilk, namely the light romantic musical comedy.

The first time I popped on the cast album of Kitty’s Kisses from PS Classics, I was immediately reminded of Chaperone, seeing the character archetypes and plot contrivances popular in the pre-Show Boat musical that are reflected on and spoofed in the later show. Kitty’s Kisses ran for 170 performances, not bad for a show of the era, back when it took a couple of months if not weeks to recoup. Though a success, it wasn’t a blockbuster like No No Nanette or Good News, and like many other likable period shows, fell by the wayside. Some of the songs by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn became hits (the liner notes mention that Queen Marie of Romania was particularly fond of the title song), but the show has been mostly forgotten, except as a footnote in musical theatre history books.

One of my biggest issues with The Drowsy Chaperone was its initial conceit, a point exemplified by the obscurity of Kitty’s Kisses. There was no such thing as an original Broadway cast album during the decade. It wasn’t until the 1930s that record producers started to experiment in preserving musical theatre scores. It seems a minor sticking issue, but it’s what’s kept Chaperone at bay for me. Though, I took less issue with the London production which adapted the show for the West End (the original London cast album predates the original Broadway cast album by quite a few years). My main beef – the Chaperone is pastiche. It’s sometimes amusing, but it’s mostly mediocre, coming off as a rehash of a rehash of a rehash (and truth be told, I hope and pray there is a moratorium on new 20s musical comedy spoofs).

But now we get a sample of the real thing, and what a superb treat it is. Kitty’s Kisses was a success in NY, then it went to London where it was merged with the Rodgers and Hart musical The Girl Friend (that’s something you don’t hear every day…). It was a charmer that got lost in the shuffle, and was eventually shelved in a New Jersey warehouse where it would have continued to languish were it not for Tommy Krasker. He stumbled upon the material while cataloging the Warner Bros music archive in the mid-80s and it is through his persistence that the restoration was done, with painstaking research and commitment as well as the blessing of Donald Kahn, Gus’ son (to whom the album is posthumously dedicated). Now after 23 years of hard work, he has given us an unexpected surprise this fall: an official cast recording of Kitty’s Kisses, billed as “The Bright New Summer Musical Delight.”

Rebecca Luker lends her shimming soprano to the title role, the innocent ingenue who finds herself at the center of the ridiculous period farce going on around her. The big scandal – Kitty poses as a married woman to get a hotel room and is mistaken for another married woman. Hijinks, mistaken identities and your usual machinations propel the plot (of which there is admittedly very little). But as was often the case, the script was an excuse for gags and light musical entertainment. The score is light, engaging and often delightfully clever with Kahn’s lyrics beautifully complemented by Conrad’s period sound. There are many studio recordings of scores that feel like a textbook document of a musical, rather than a vibrant cast album. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt such joy and warmth from hearing a “lost” score.

The effervescent Kate Baldwin is the free-spirited Lulu, getting things off to a fresh start with the opener “Walking the Track.” Victoria Clark is an absolute riot as grand dame opera singing dowager Mrs. Dennison, who shares the duet “I Don’t Want Him” with Luker. The “Him” in that number happens to be played by Danny Burstein, while Malcolm Gets plays his brother. Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald take on the specialty material, originally created for vaudeville duo Ruth Warren and William Wayne. Phil Chaffin is Robert Mason, Kitty’s stoic love interest. Jim Stanek makes a brief appearance as the train conductor leading “Choo Choo Love.”

The album was not only produced by Mr. Krasker, but he has supplied a concise, informative essay on the show, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and resurrection. The show’s synopsis is provided by Robert Edridge-Waks. Orchestration was provided by Sam Davis, who also conducted the recording. The CD booklet also contains various production photos and images of newspaper clippings as well as the program from the Newark tryout.

According to the Krasker, the material for the finale ultimo was never recovered. The show ended on Broadway with a song called “Steppin’ on the Blues,” (with additional music by Will Davidson) and I can only assume that the song itself is also lost. The powers behind the album have created a brand new finale ultimo for the show using the composing duo’s Oscar-winning song “The Continental” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the score, but it’s a cute way of wrapping things up.

This is the third in a line of score restorations for the label; they released Vincent Youman’s Through the Years in 2001 and Kay Swift’s Fine and Dandy in 2004. I cannot stress how wonderful it is that the folks at PS Classics have taken the time to painstaking refurbish a show like Kitty’s Kisses. In the late 1980s and 1990s, John McGlinn was pretty much the go-to archivist with an emphasis on the works of Jerome Kern, while John Mauceri took care of the Gershwin canon. Those albums, however, were intent on restoring the works of major composers. However, the audience for show music sadly appears to be shrinking and shrinking, so less recordings like these are less likely to be made. John Yap make a series of full studio cast albums of entire vocal scores, but given the economy has left them sitting on the shelf (including the full album of One Touch of Venus made with Melissa Errico). It’s unfortunate, as each of these recording provides musical theatre fans with a further link to the history of the genre. I only hope it’s not another five years until PS Classics releases its fourth restoration.