Friday, February 1, 2008

Album Droppings: Tributes

I have close to a dozen vinyl recordings of various tributes, concerts, and revues, all focusing on one composer or another. Many of them were important enough to me to purchase on CD once they were released, but I have several which I needed to transfer to digital.

The most represented in this group is certainly Noel Coward. I have more than a handful of vinyl albums of his music, though on store-bought CD, I own only one of his shows, Sail Away. I know exactly why I never bothered to purchase these various compilation albums once they became available on CD. I don't really like Noel Coward's music. I know I'm supposed to like it, but for me, a little Coward goes a long way. For the most part, the songs strike me as brittle and unfeeling. I have the cast recordings of two high-profile revues of his work. Noel and Gertie is a two-character piece covering the longtime friendship between Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Oh, Coward! had a successful run on Broadway, and included in its small cast one of my favorite stage actresses, Barbara Cason. In listening to these pieces again, I have confirmed my opinion that I like Noel Coward's plays more than Noel Coward's music, and I like Noel Coward's music only in small doses. He's a bon bon, not a meal.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green were extremely successful lyricists and book writers, but they began their careers as performers. Back when no one would hire them, they began writing their own material and performing it in small Manhattan clubs. They eventually gained fame for their writing, and are very well known as contributors to On the Town, Wonderful Town, Singing in the Rain, On the Twentieth Century, and countless other shows and films. Late in their careers, they put together an evening of reminiscences called A Party with Comden and Green, which visited Broadway a few times over the years. The cast album from that retrospective confirms that they are not the best interpreters of their own work. The highlights of this double album are the spoken narratives between the numbers, as the duo recalls who they worked with, when they wrote what, and the like. When they start to sing, it's a little painful.

These Charming People (and Other Vocal Duets) features the husband and wife team of William Bolcom and Joan Morris, joined on this recording by Max Morath, who is better known as an historian of Ragtime music. This album could just as easily have been included in my list of One Offs, as it does not appear to be a recording of any specific concert or revue. The participants are not known to me, and I have no recollection of purchasing this album. The twelve tracks are meant to reflect the period between the World Wars, and include duets written by Kern, Hammerstein, Rodgers, Hart, and the Gershwins. I have been unable to locate any internet mention of this recording except on the website of Balcom and Morris themselves, who are still married and performing together. As it's never been released on CD, and seems to have otherwise disappeared, I may have a very valuable album here.

Or a real stinker.

I have already revealed myself to be a Sondheim fan. I surely have way too many CDs as proof: two Sundays, two Night Musics, two Into the Woods, two Forums, two Sweeneys, two Merrilys, at least three or four Follies, and on and on. I have Unsung Sondheim (songs cut from his shows), jazz Sondheim, piano Sondheim, Sondheim on Film, Dick Tracy (Madonna singing Sondheim? Don't shudder: one of those songs won the Oscar), and obscure pieces such as Saturday Night and even his musical for television, Evening Primrose.

And has anyone had so many tribute concerts recorded? I must have half a dozen celebrations recorded in various venues, from Carnegie Hall to the Barbican in London to the Doolittle in LA to the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. And that's not to mention other people performing the Sondheim songbook, from Cleo Laine to Barbara Cook to Bernadette Peters to Mandy Pantinkin and on and on and on.

How did all this get started? Well, it probably all started on March 11, 1973, when a bunch of Broadway actors gathered onstage at the Shubert theatre in New York and performed the first Sondheim tribute. It may have been here that it was first recognized what we all know now: that Sondheim's songs are one-act plays, and can be performed independently of their respective shows. Of course, that first tribute was recorded, and naturally, I have it on CD.

Probably the most famous of all the concerts, tributes, and revues of Sondheim's work is Side by Side by Sondheim. For some mysterious reason, it is the one production I do not have on CD, though I played my vinyl recording constantly way back when. The show was conceived as a light entertainment for "off nights" in London. The piece took off, and a very young Cameron Macintosh produced it in the West End, years before he became enamored with the Bigger Is Better mentality his subsequent hits have projected. Side by Side moved to Broadway and enjoyed a healthy life there.

I saw the show twice during its New York run (in a single week!). The show's original cast had moved on, but the replacement cast I saw was top-notch: my favorite Nancy Dussault was singing the soprano role, and Georgia Brown (remember her from Oliver?) was singing the alto part. Larry Kert was the man in the show, and the narrator was none other than Hermione Gingold, who lent a ribald quality to the elegant proceedings. She even sang two numbers (the original narrator, Ned Sherrin, who was also the director of the show, did not sing). Because of Gingold's previous role in A Little Night Music, she performed her number from that show, Liaisons. But the highlight of her performance in Side by Side was surely her rendition of a little known Sondheim song, I Never Do Anything Twice. Her dry, delicious delivery of this song, sung by a sexually adventurous woman, brought down the house. I wish her performance were captured on this recording, but as this is the original London Cast, no such luck.

My store-bought CD collection includes tributes, concerts, and revues of just about every composer and lyricist who ever worked in the American Musical Theatre. I am glad to now have home-made CDs of the above recordings to add to that collection. I am also glad that I am very close to finishing this monumental task of transferring my vinyl recordings to digital format. I wonder if I will ever listen to any of these things again?