THIS IS THE LIFE By Peter Filichia
All right, so THE LIFE at Encores! didn’t turn out to be a triumph.
What was once the Best Musical of the 1996-1997 season (per the Drama Desk Awards) wasn’t what was on stage at City Center. It had been changed, proving once again that change is good when change is good.
To glean what THE LIFE was once like, two distinctly different albums feature Cy Coleman’s music and Ira Gasman’s lyrics. Two years before the original cast sauntered into the studio, the score made its debut on a recording by other artists.
At that time, no one knew that Coleman would eventually win his fifth Drama Desk Award for this score. It followed I LOVE MY WIFE, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, CITY OF ANGELS and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.
All but the first-named dealt with the entertainment industry in one form or another. One could say that THE LIFE also involved it, too, in a very broad manner of speaking. It looked at Times Square during the time when entertainment was found in topless bars and hotel rooms where ladies of the evening worked daytime hours as well.
So if I LOVE MY WIFE showed us so-called “regular people” who were wary of sexual experimentation, THE LIFE displayed what some would say “irregular people” who weren’t. Still, Coleman wasn’t judgmental about them. I learned that after CITY OF ANGELS had opened to raves (en route to its Tony-winning Best Musical run), and I asked him “What’s next?”
“THE LIFE,” he said, “because I want people to realize that many outside the mainstream of American life are people, too.”
That wasn’t all that Coleman had in mind. Where women’s reproductive rights were concerned, he was decidedly pro-choice. Thus he welcomed Gasman’s lyric that supported his view.
“What Ira has to say in ‘My Body’ is what I staunchly believe,” said Coleman at the time. “It’s nobody’s business but the woman’s as to what she should or should not do with it.”
So Coleman wanted this song and others released as soon as possible; hence, the first album.
Ah, a concept album, you’re saying. It’s a valid assumption, for after JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR released such a recording in 1969 and saw it become a whopping best-seller, producers clamored to make the collection of Lloyd Webber-Rice songs into a genuine Broadway musical. That it happened in less than two years’ time secured a place for concept albums of would-be musicals. Songwriters used them as a type of backers’ audition. Some, from EVITA to JEKYLL & HYDE and beyond, did result in Broadway productions.
In the name of accuracy, though, the 1995 recording of THE LIFE could be better described as the “companion cast album” that was occasionally seen and heard during Broadway’s Golden Age.
In 1958, after OH CAPTAIN! had recorded its original cast album, best-selling artist Rosemary Clooney and her then-husband Jose Ferrer (who directed the musical) gave their own spin to Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ songs. The style and orchestrations didn’t go for Broadway theatricality, but were squarely aimed to be played on the AM radio stations that hadn’t yet converted to rock.
The same approach was in place four years later with Irving Berlin’s MR. PRESIDENT. After Robert Ryan, Nanette Fabray and Anita Gillette had recorded their original cast album, then-TV star Perry Como, along with his weekly regulars Sandy Stewart and Kaye Ballard, did their own renditions.
The first album of THE LIFE used that easy listening mode, too. Better still, because the recording would require its singers to only spend a few hours in a studio and not demand eight performances a week, the album received luxury casting.
Oscar-winner George Burns did “Easy Money,” which still speaks to all of us who’d like to move to Easy Street. Amazingly enough, Burns recorded it when he was ninety-nine – not long before he died at 100. (The album’s liner notes offer some fond words about him.)
Tony-winner Jennifer Holliday sang “He’s No Good.” It would be done in the actual musical by a character called Queen who isn’t treated royally. She realizes that the man on whom she counted is a man she should count out.
Will she? Not until she reminds him that once “We Had a Dream.” Can she and he stop the relationship from becoming a nightmare?
This was one of the three selections that Oscar and two-time Tony-winner Liza Minnelli contributed. She also recorded “Use What You Got,” a phrase that’s followed by “to get whatcha want before whatcha got is gone.” It’s always good advice, isn’t it?
Finally, Minnelli duetted with frequent collaborator Billy Stritch on “People Magazine.” It’s the song that was earmarked for two characters who believed they’d soon grace the pages of this legendary periodical.
(You’ve heard of “Easier said than done”? This was a case of “Easier sung than done.”)
The album’s seven other performers made their fame and fortune with songs from what’s known as The Great American Songbook. Unlike those four stars listed above, none of the others had ever performed in a Broadway musical. Bobby Short, Jack Jones, Billy Preston and Joe Williams each sang one song while Lou Rawls did two.
As for the aforementioned “My Body,” who better to do it than Leslie Gore, the sixties’ icon of stand-up-for-yourself anthems? Such a song is in the same wheelhouse as her 1963 number two hit “You Don’t Own Me.”
What you may find most alluring of all is the cut called “The Composer’s Corner” where Coleman himself does three of his melodies. Hearing a songwriter do his own material is almost always a treat; it certainly is here. Before he turned to Broadway, he was the frontman for Cy Coleman and His Trio, which made many pop and jazz-flavored recordings.
Coleman did the first two as instrumentals. Thus “The Oldest Profession” doesn’t have the lyrics that Lillias White would eventually sing in her Tony-winning performance. Because “Was That a Smile?” was eliminated before opening night, we’ll never know from this piano rendition what its place was in the score. But its melody does delight.
What Coleman did sing, though, is the medley’s piece de resistance: “A Lovely Day to Get out of Jail.” From his jaunty delivery, you might assume that the song was written for a harmless hobo who was picked up for vagrancy and had to spend a few nights in the cooler.
Actually, in the show, it was placed in a much more gritty context. Not as gritty, though as Encores! There are those who were there who will tell you that you were lucky to miss it.
Peter Filichia is a writer for Encore Monthly, a weekly correspondent for Broadway Radio, and the author of “The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes, and Disagreements,” now available on pre-order from Amazon.