One of the many highlights of my recent trip to Europe was my visit to Dress Circle, the premiere retailer of theatre music in the world. I’ve wanted to visit this store for years, and it did not disappoint. I bought fifteen albums, mostly things that are either hard to find or prohibitively expensive in the US. (A couple others were just so deeply discounted there that I couldn’t say no.) Over the next couple weeks I’ll share highlights of what I picked up.
It’s most appropriate to start with the London cast album of Me and My Girl, the 1937 Noel Gay musical that had a blockbuster 1985 revival that took both London and Broadway by storm. I grew up with this album on cassette, but once the Broadway cast recorded an album, the British album vanished from US stores so I was never able to get this one on CD. It’s notable for a few reasons — the stars are Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson (yes, that Emma Thompson), and there’s one song that was replaced for the American version.
Me and My Girl is particularly special to me because the national tour was the second “first-class” musical production I ever saw. (The first was the national tour of Big River.) The show made a huge impression on me - I can still vividly recall some of the sets, costumes, and stagecraft more than twenty years later. I am grateful to the gift my parents gave me of thoughtful exposure to quality theater from a young age.
This track is Emma Thompson singing a song that never fails to make me smile. I hope you enjoy it too.
I prefer the Sarah Jessica Parker revival of Once Upon a Mattress to the Carol Channing original. Not to disparage the genius that is Carol Channing, but my preferred cast recording is the SJP revival.
Sorry, I know you posted this a while ago, but I was surfing the Carol Channing tag and saw this, and I can’t believe that not a single soul corrected you to point out that it was Carol Burnett, not Carol Channing, in the original cast of Once Upon a Mattress.
Cast recordings aside, the SJP revival on stage was painfully unfunny.
When I was a freshman in college, my main extra-curricular activity was The Freshman Musical, a full-scale production entirely created start-to-finish - script, score, orchestrations, cast, crew, etc., all members of the freshman class. (I think we cheated with a couple of ringers in the orchestra, but who’s counting?)
I was one of the producers of the show, which was (as the Harvard Crimson noted) “a surprisingly conventional musical comedy” called No Bull. What can I say? Those of us who put it together were all, in our own ways, unabashedly devoted to the conventional musical. Our early brainstorming sessions had a lot of references to Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Disney musicals of Alan Menken.
This song, “Stick Around a While,” is one that I cowrote with John Baxindine (who has gone on to be an actual professional arranger/orchestrator/music director/accompanist/composer/etc.). John wrote all the music (and the orchestration); we collaborated on the lyrics. I’m pretty sure all the terrible lyrics are mine and the passable lyrics are his. But listening to this song 15 years later, I’m impressed with how capable it is. Sure, there are a couple of clunkers, and John tried a little too hard to create something that was a cross between Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill (you should have heard it before I begged him to simplify the counterpoint section!)… But I’m actually pretty proud of this. (I take no responsibility for the performances, however…)
At the request of fuckyeahstephensondheim—for some reason, Dance, Ten, Looks, Three and Music and the Mirror are the only two that say they’ll post!
If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to say “Tits and Ass” in Japanese, here’s your chance.
I’ve long had a fascination with foreign-language cast albums of American musicals. I have a whole playlist of them on Spotify. I have a sizable collection of such albums myself, mostly in Hebrew, but a few in other languages such as German, Catalan, and Yiddish. On my recent trip to Paris, I picked up the French-language cast album of the new production of Cabaret that’s currently playing a return engagement (based on the Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall production from the 90s).
On a whim, my brother and I got last-minute, cut-rate tickets to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, nearing the end of its West End run at the Palace Theatre. Last-minute, half-priced tickets meant we were in the last row of the orchestra, all the way to the side, in a theatre that might have the worst overhang I’ve ever seen…. for a show that uses the full vertical of the stage in nearly every number. (The “divas” who sing, live, the songs that the drag queens lip sync are usually hovering over the action, and a couple of climactic moments take place on top of the bus.) The theatre management has placed a couple of monitors under the balcony for those of us without a view, but crappy closed-circuit cameras were no match for the stage lighting, rendering those monitors more or less useless.
The show is exceedingly slight, with much of the gravitas of the film cut out to make room for more splashy drag numbers. But it’s a lot of fun. The costumes are really the stars of this show, although one often wishes that dancing had been given more priority. (Many of the outfits don’t allow for a whole lot of movement.) I understand that about half the score has been swapped for the US version, which almost makes me curious to see it, just for comparison’s sake. (Well, that and to see the show from better seats.) I know when the show first came to Broadway, some folks online complained that the substitutions were unnecessary, and Americans can relate just as well to Kylie Minogue as they can to Madonna, but honestly? The show’s charm relies on audiences’ nostalgia filtered through the delightful surprise of a drag lens, and I definitely enjoyed the songs I know well more than those I don’t.
And, of course, despite the fluffiness of the story-telling, I’m a sucker for a good reunion story, so the bit when Tick finally meets (and is accepted by) his young son got me a little teary-eyed. (And aren’t British children just exponentially more adorable than American children?)
I’m not sure I’d recommend this for the top of anyone’s “to-see” list, but if you have a free evening and can’t possibly take another go at Les Miz, you could certainly do much worse (e.g. Ghost).
On my second night in London, I saw Matilda. Friends on Twitter and Tumblr had been raving about it, and when the rapturous reviews came out I convinced my brother we should buy tickets right away. Neither of us had heard any of the music, and so I decided to keep it that way and experience the show fresh in the theatre.
The show is a real winner, and it’s clear why the house was packed and the press went bonkers for it. The cast was marvelous, particularly the children. The score has its moments, but much like Billy Elliot, I think the songs are likely to work better in context than out. (I bought the cast album, but I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet.) I understand that the songwriter, Tim Minchin, is a famous comedian in the UK, although I was totally unfamiliar with his work. Some of his best numbers (such as the Act Two opener, “All That I Know I Learned from Telly”) are firmly in the music hall and pantomime tradition. He has a nice way with melody, too, as demonstrated in this song (which follows the riotous “All That I Know…”), the best chance the show has at a pop hit. And yet… the lyrics are often clumsy. (The non-rhyme of “story / for me” nearly ruins this song.)
The script is very funny. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the original Roald Dahl novel (or since I’ve seen the 1996 film), but I’m guessing that bookwriter Dennis Kelly hewed very closely to Dahl’s original… which is structurally problematic for a two-act musical. Because Matilda is presented as a fairly well-adjusted girl despite her horrid upbringing, we don’t have a sense of what she wants out of this story. It feels cliche even as I type it, but the show could be improved by a strong “I Want” song early in the first act. Similarly, the act ends with Bruce’s cake-eating incident, which is a fantastic scene but neither about the protagonist nor particularly cliff-hanging.
Intermission felt rather like an excuse to sell ice cream. (And boy did they ever! When the ice cream seller in the aisle next to me ran out of chocolate, I thought there would be a riot. When he ran out of all flavors, I feared for his life.) And then the first ten minutes of Act Two are taken up by two wonderful songs that have nothing to do with launching us back into the story. The show is strong on character but fairly weak on narrative propulsion.
And yet, the cast, the stagecraft, and the message all add up to far more than they might in less-skilled hands, so by the end of the show, all these deficiencies melt away. Still, should the show come to Broadway, I’d imagine it would be well served by some reworking. Whether the minds behind such a runaway hit will take a step back and consider how the needs of an American audience might differ from those of a British one remain to be seen.
Elaine Stritch: “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” from Noel Coward’s Sail Away
I’m heading to London and Paris for the next two weeks. Expect far less frequent posting here. If you really miss me, I’ve queued up a dozen or so British recordings of Sondheim songs over at Fuck Yeah Stephen Sondheim to run in my absence, beginning Monday.
Happy Chanukah if that’s your thing. (And if it is, check out the Chanukah page over at JewishBoston.com!) As the song goes, I’ll be home for Christmas, but in case I don’t rush to Tumblr on the 25th, have a Merry one if that’s your thing. If neither is your thing, please enjoy the next two weeks on their own merits.
A new VP at work started this week. She’s my boss’s boss. Today she came to my office to say hi and set up a time for us to get to know each other better. It was the first time we’ve met outside of a 40-person meeting. The minute she walked in, Legally Blonde started playing on Spotify. I don’t think she noticed, but I don’t care. I’m proud to love this show, which I saw twice on Broadway (despite its faults, which I could enumerate at length).
Matthue Roth is an incredible writer whom I’ve gotten to know over the past few years online. (We travel in similar circles, have similar day jobs, and both occasionally contribute to the same group blog.)
His latest book (initially released as a Kindle Single, and now out in dead tree format) is an incredible mini-memoir structured around R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. It’s good. So good that it made me cry about a quart of the way in, and then again periodically until it was done.
There was a question-and-answer session with Richard Rodgers in 1971. A session from 1973 called “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Neil Simon” with — guess who. A conversation from 1977 with Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Sheldon Harnick about the anatomy of a theater song. And about 200 other reels, the oldest from 1956, the newest from 1991.
1. I want. This could be the most amazing podcast series ever.
2. June Havoc wrote a memoir? (Checks Amazon) She wrote multiple memoirs? Why haven’t I read them yet?
3. That correction. Jesus fucking Christ, New York Times, get your shit together on the first try.