Four new CDs reflect the development of musicals—where we were, are, and may be. The progression, if we can call it that, is from the familiar AABA structure (theme/theme/release/theme) through more complex pseudo-operatic scores to shows that overlay plots onto album-based concerts.
From the past is Taking a Chance on Love, highlighting the superb lyrics of the gone-but-not-completely-forgotten John Latouche. The delightful revue, produced by the York Theatre last season, brought back the man responsible for words to Cabin in the Sky, Beggar's Holiday, Ballet Ballads, Banjo Eyes, The Vamp, and the immortal The Golden Apple.
For someone born in Virginia, Latouche (who died in 1956 at age 41) adjusted quickly to the rhythms, sounds, and bohemianism of New York. Revealed are not only his work, but also the milieu that inspired lyrics of scintillating sin and "happy ending" redemption. His antic brilliance is nowhere more in evidence than in "Ringaroundarosie" from Candide, a song about, of all things, the passing around of syphilis ("Then a man from Japan/Then a Moor from Iran/ Though the Moor isn't sure how the whole thing began").
On the disc, narration is kept to a minimum, allowing full appreciation of lyrics by turns romantic and sophisticated, set to music by such big shots as Vernon Duke, Duke Ellington, Jerome Moross, Leonard Bernstein, even Mozart (for the impish "Nail in the Horseshoe"). Latouche himself wrote music for his Noël Coward-ish "The Surrealist" ("For what is more jolly than sex on a dolly?").
Sharply recorded, the disc features four well-matched singers—Terry Burrell, Donna English, Jerry Dixon, and Eddie Korbich—and skillful dual pianists Jeffrey R. Smith and David Harris. The remarkable "Ballad for Americans" is unfortunately omitted due to space limitations, but compensation comes with the penultimate "Lazy Afternoon," transformed into a sensitive duet for Dixon and Korbich.
With one foot in the past, one in the present, the current hit, The Full Monty, takes off with its pile-driving first number, "Scrap," a hymn to the out-of-work and the down-and-out. David Yazbek's music and lyrics are in the classical musical comedy mode, with a no-nonsense grittiness and excursions into country ("Breeze Off the River") that avoid investing its blue-collar characters with a sophistication they wouldn't have. As the men complain of unemployment ("I just want some veal/Or a steak on the table/'S that too much to ask?), their women have other things on their minds ("I know all I need to clear the system's/Just a raunchy little studfest").
Terrence McNally's adaptation of the hit British film not only moves the action to Buffalo, but, as others have indicated, strips the veneer from the American macho façade and our obsession with body types, male and female. The hero, who defines being a man as "kicking a hole in the moon," soon learns kicking up his heels is more productive. The transformation begins with "Big-Ass Rock" and whirls right through to the proudly sexist "The Goods," climaxing in "Let It Go." That Yazbek can write touching ballads as well as defiantly bawdy up-tempo numbers is proved by the breakout "You Rule My World."
Music director Ted Sperling firmly keeps all the strands in place, including the truly funny "Life With Harold" and "Jeanette's Showbiz Number." Every cast member has a moment in the sun in a score guaranteed to get listeners' derrières shaking, just as it does for the steel workers who bare their all at the end. From start to finish, the album, like the show, is a big, warmhearted, grinning embrace, one that bears replaying.
Less distinctive are the melodies in Jane Eyre, which flow like a never-ending stream, pushing past the shores on which Charlotte Brontë's story plays out its Gothic escapades. In the decades-old tradition of pop opera British musicals, Paul Gordon's score (additional lyrics by John Caird) is more illustrative than revealing. It's a serious effort, of course, but the effect is a singsong monotony that eventually numbs the listener.
Many individual cuts are difficult to distinguish one from the other, a sort of stage version of New Age background music. Keeping sensitive control is Steven Tyler; his handling of the orchestra and the haunting choral harmonies is expert throughout.
Certainly, the performances are full-bodied, even breathless. Marla Schaffel gives Jane Eyre a yearning purity all the more effective for being forthright. James Barbour's Rochester is far more obviously romantic and softhearted than the novel's original, but he sings with full-throated flavor. (They soar on "Secret Soul.") Mary Stout's amusing Mrs. Fairfax is distinctive.
Recorded before the show's New York opening, the CD's penultimate track, "Poor Sister," became "Poor Master" on stage, switching the explanation of Rochester's fate from mad Bertha's brother, played by Richard Mason, to Mrs. Fairfax. The change doesn't make the moment any less blatant.
Even though Jane Eyre is not British, it sounds like a progeny of those across-the-pond behemoths. Our cousins are also noted for turning record albums into stage musicals. Witness Mamma Mia!, the London hit opening in New York this fall. Whatever the thin plot (something about parents and a wedding—the accompanying booklet lists lyrics but no synopsis), the music promises a pulsating evening.
The score is based on the songs of ABBA (credited to Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with Stig Anderson), the Swedish group that's been burning up the wires since the '70s. The songs appear to have been selected to serve a purely theatrical idea that doesn't take itself seriously.
Still, there's a sameness about the disco beat here, making a listener wonder if this will be another staged concert, a visualization of ABBA's "greatest hits." Regardless, there are delights, from the Evita-ish "Chiquitita" to the exciting "Take a Chance on Me" to "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!," the last of which has the advantage of including dialogue hinting at human interaction, an advance from the score's mostly mundane lyrics.
Under the no-holds-barred musical direction of Martin Lowe, Mamma Mia! should have 'em dancing in the aisles and, for those who don't get to the theatre, in living rooms. But the journey from AABA to ABBA, from language-based to instrument-based, traditional to formless, subtle to detonating, is depressing.