Next Sunday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s “March Madness” will officially begin. We’ll know which sixty-eight teams will play for the 2013 NCAA’s men’s basketball championship.
As for musical theater, we got a head start on “March Madness” a couple of weeks ago. That’s when I started making suggestions on how to go delightfully mad this month: by playing songs and songs that commemorate March anniversaries and birthdays. This week, let’s concentrate on March 12 through 18.
March 12 marks the 15th anniversary of The Sound of Music’s 1998 revival. First, the good news: the sophisticated “No Way To Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?” – both of which had been dropped from the film – were included in this revival. They’re delightfully well on this new cast album.
Now the better news: for those who have become accustomed to hearing “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” from the landmark 1965 film, they’re here, too.
Before I deliver the best news: have you ever noticed that the sound on a soundtrack album (i.e., one taken from the track of sound from a film) is a little fuzzy and that the singers sound much too close to the microphone? That’s never the case on a cast album, as you’ll hear when experiencing the crystal clear sounds of Rebecca Luker and Michael Siberry.
March 13 commemorates the fortieth anniversary of Irene, one of the first true Broadway revisals. No, this wasn’t quite the show that set the long-run record for musicals in 1921 (when all it took was 597 performances to sprint past A Trip to Chinatown’s 596).
The 1919 Irene was a smash at 675 performances, but in the early ‘70s, Hugh Wheeler came in to update the book, and Joseph Stein helped out, too. Although a few old songs interpolated their way into the score, three new songwriters were hired to buttress the score. By the time Irene had finished its tryouts in Toronto, Washington and Philadelphia, it offered only four songs from the original show: “The Last Part of Ev’ry Party,” “We’re Getting Away with It,” “Alice Blue Gown” and the title song.
Nevertheless, the 1973 Irene is my personal candidate for the most underrated cast album of the seventies. Debbie Reynolds, playing immigrant Irene O’Dare, starts the disc off in sensational fashion by insisting that “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue.” Ruth Warrick, portraying a high-toned lady who’ll eventually try to prevent Irene’s upward mobility, gets “The Family Tree” – a song that will make you pine for operetta. (Want something snazzier? Wally Harper’s “The Riviera Rage” is a must for inclusion on the list of the best orchestral pieces on cast albums.)
There’s more. Hear why George S. Irving won a Tony as Madame Lucy (yeah, you read that right), a dress designer who insists “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, over Me.” Reynolds gets plaintive in “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” a song that she occasionally dropped during the show, but luckily she’d started that practice after she’d recorded it.
And if Irene is the most underrated cast album of the seventies, Sweet Smell of Success is the most underrated one of the new century. March 14 marks the eleventh anniversary of the film noir turned musical noir. Listen and be reminded of how much we lost when Marvin Hamlisch died last year.
“I Cannot Hear the City” is oxymoronically named, because a listener can indeed hear New York. This is the city when late-at-night turns into early-in-the-morning. Hamlisch’s music somehow makes Manhattan seem to be in the shades of black and white in which the original 1957 Sweet Smell of Success was filmed. Craig Carnelia’s lyrics have the same feeling, too, especially when the excitement builds in “Welcome to the Night.” This one features John Lithgow in his Tony-winning performance as poisonous gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker.
J.J. has such power that when he suggests to publicist Sidney Falcone that he change his name to Falco, the guy does it. Brian D’Arcy James shows how much Sidney wants to please in “At the Fountain.”
But omnipotent as J.J. may be, he does have his own Achilles’ heel: his half-sister Susan. We experience that in “For Susan,” a lovely waltz that must be interrupted for the sake of the story. But until it is, it’s quite beautiful.
Susan is in love with Dallas Cochran, and their duet “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” is, sexually speaking, one of the hottest numbers you’ll ever hear between lovers. If it snows on this March 14, just open the window, stick out a speaker and play this song. The snow will melt away much faster than it would if you shovel it.
March 15 is, of course, “The Ides of March,” which had always been considered an ominous day since Brutus and his buddies knifed Julius Caesar. But on March 15 of 1956, the curse was broken, when My Fair Lady opened, en route to becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Given that we’re talking about madness, the songs in which Henry Higgins – played by the exemplary Rex Harrison – expresses at least frustration and fury are among the funniest: “I’m an Ordinary Man,” in which he proves he isn’t; “A Hymn to Him,” more commonly known as “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” (‘nuff said) and at least the first part of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” before Higgins sheds his sexist cocoon.
Harrison and Julie Andrews can be heard on both the original Broadway and British cast recordings. What I’ve found over the years, far more often than not, is that fans of Harrison prefer his performance on the Broadway recording, while Andrews adherents prefer her London performance. You decide what’s best for you.
On March 16, 1969, approximately a dozen years after the British-centric My Fair Lady won the Best Musical Tony, the all-American 1776 won the same prize. Sherman Edwards’ score is one of the most atypical in Broadway history. Has there ever been another cast album that doesn’t contain even one A-A-B-A song?
None of the twelve songs suffers from the uncharacteristic structure, however. Case in point: “He Plays the Violin,” the first song that Betty Buckley ever sang on a Broadway stage. Hear her portray Martha Jefferson, the young bride who was only too happy to accept John Adams’ suggestion that she travel from Virginia to Philadelphia to see her husband.
Good as the song is – partly from Eddie Sauter’s elegant orchestration – the dance music by Peter Howard is particularly exemplary. Howard was also the musical wizard who penned the dance music for Chicago and Hello, Dolly! And really, aren’t the dance sections of “Hot Honey Rag” and “Hello, Dolly!” some of the best music you’ve ever heard? If either show had opened in March, I’d be urging you to play one of both of them now. (Oh, go ahead and enjoy them right now, anyway.)
On March 17, you can celebrate what would have been Frederick Brisson’s 101st birthday by playing three cast albums of shows he co-produced: The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and New Girl in Town. Not enough time for those three jewels of the triple crown? Then play “Drop That Name” from Bells Are Ringing.
No, Brisson didn’t co-produce that hit (although he undoubtedly wished he had), but he and his wife are both referenced in the song – to wit, “Roz Russell and Freddie” – among the many celebrities of the day. (They include “Debbie and Eddie,” as in Reynolds and Fisher, the love couple of the mid-fifties; by the mid-sixties, revivals were touting “Lizzie and Eddie.”)
Don’t tell Stephen Sondheim that you plan to listen to Do I Hear a Waltz? on March 18, the forty-eighth anniversary of its opening. He had such a hard time working with Richard Rodgers that he cites this show as his least favorite professional experience. Rodgers, after all, was the producer, and what he said went – along with many of Sondheim’s better lyrics.
After Sondheim: A Musical Tribute was released in 1973, we finally understood his point. On the original Do I Hear a Waltz? “We’re Gonna Be All Right” makes far less of an impression than the expanded and uncensored version does on the benefit album. This version is so fetching you might play it into April.
Nevertheless, plenty of Sondheim wit remained in Waltz: “Such lovely blue-Danube-y music; how can you be still?” is asked in the effervescent title song. “What Do We Do? We Fly!” is a devilishly comic indictment of air travel, which you’ll never hear on any airline’s audio system. “This Week, Americans” has a pensione owner saying how she “much prefers the millions of the U.S.A.” (And she doesn’t simply mean the number of guests she’d like to host.)
Rodgers wrote glorious melodies: the bolt of lightning “Take the Moment,” the haunting “Moon in My Window,” and “Someone Like You,” which contains one of his famous “wrong notes” that strikes a listener as oh-so-right.
Whether they thought so or not, Rodgers and Sondheim made a helluva team. That they didn’t continue might make us all a little mad in both senses of the adjective – and not just in the month of March.