Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Singing, Swinging, Scamming, and Scatting

There's something quite mystifying about the dearth of popular songs coming out of new musicals. In Broadway's prime years (1940-1970), musicals would often produce 2-3 hit songs per show, songs which were made famous by pop singers on the radio as well as appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Looking at the the past decade's crop of musicals, one would have to struggle to find a hit song that crossed over into the public's consciousness. This does not, of course, include the scores from jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia (2001) or Jersey Boys (2005). Nor does it include stage musicals that are adaptations of popular movie musicals like Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), Mary Poppins (2006), The Little Mermaid (2007), White Christmas (2008 and 2009) and 9 to 5 (2009).

Examine the musical scores for the following shows and note the paucity of hit songs (if any):
Now look at the list of Broadway musicals that were given revivals during the past decade:
Notice anything different? With very few exceptions (mostly the Sondheim musicals), the above shows produced at least one popular hit song. You could probably sing or hum most of them!

That point was brought home to me last weekend as I attended three performances whose range spanned eight decades of American music. The perspective was at times exhilarating and yet often perplexing.

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On Friday night, I attended the opening of the 2010 Broadway By The Bay season, a production of 2005's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. With music and lyrics by David Yazbek, this show is an adaptation of the popular 1988 movie that starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin as two professional grifters working the French Riviera.

What stunned me was that, other than Freddy's Act I showstopper ("Great Big Stuff") there isn't much to capture the imagination in Yazbek's score. While I enjoyed the Act II duet for Muriel and André ("Like Zis, Like Zat"), many of the songs sounded like leftovers from The Full Monty. Most of Yazbek's score is what I would call "functional."
Robert Brewer and Tom Reardon (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

While Robert Brewer threw himself into the role of Freddy with total abandon (demonstrating great skill at physical comedy), I was a bit surprised by Tom Reardon's portrayal of Lawrence. Reardon, who recently appeared as Henry Higgins in the Lamplighters' production of My Fair Lady, is an immensely appealing actor who bears a striking resemblance to Graham Norton. However, he again demonstrated a tendency toward pitch problems when singing that undermines his effectiveness onstage.

Tom Reardon and Robert Brewer (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Were it not for the animated stage direction by Brooke Knight, the audience might not have enjoyed the show quite as much as they did on opening night (a bad pun about Mutual of Omaha sailed right over their heads). Mindy Lym scored strongly as Christine Colgate. An extremely likable performer who is also a gifted farceur, she has a powerful soprano and uses it well.

Mindy Lym as Christine (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Equally impressive were the performances by Kyle Payne (as Lawrence's co-conspirator, André), Kate McCormick as the predatory Muriel Eubanks, and Kate Paul as Renee, a spoiled little rich girl from Oklahoma. Robyn Tribuzi's choreography brightened the evening, with Rick Reynolds conducting the pit band.

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On Saturday night, I headed over to the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco where Mark Cantor was presenting another one of his popular programs entitled Jazz Greats of the Silver Screen. A favorite of the JCCSF's audience, Cantor's latest program was devoted to the great jazz singers rather than the instrumentalists.

Marc Cantor

As he tried to outline what he thought made a singer a jazz artist, Cantor explained to the audience that in his eyes, the most important quality is whether a singer brings a certain sense of swing to the music. Over the years, he has built up an amazing archive of film clips (many of which are almost impossible to find). A great deal of the joy to be found in his lectures involves the thrill of the archival hunt.

Cantor's website, Jazz on Film, demands to be bookmarked by any jazz historian. One of the most curious set of clips he showed came from a series of commercials in which Frank Sinatra's singing was used to plug a line of Italian chocolates. Among the clips on display Saturday evening were:
Cantor has recently acquired some new editing tools which will help convert old film and video into digital files. He returns to the JCCSF on May 8th for a program entitled "Benny Goodman and the Kings of Swing." You can order tickets here.

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While researching video clips for this article, I was amused to discover two of the greatest jazz singers of all time -- Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé -- merrily scatting their way through the title song from George and Ira Gershwin's hit musical, Lady Be Good.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a semistaged performance of this delightful musical produced by 42nd Street Moon. A curious piece of history: This show premiered on December 1, 1924 at the Liberty Theatre on West 42nd Street (the same theatre where, 20 years prior, George M. Cohan's musical Little Johny Jones was a big hit). Here's Mel Tormé performing another one of Lady Be Good's great hits: "Fascinating Rhythm."

The original production of Lady Be Good was a smash hit, largely due to the charms of Adele Astaire (who was then teamed up with her brother, Fred Astaire). By the time Hollywood became interested in making a movie of Lady Be Good, Adele had retired and her popularity eclipsed by that of her younger brother.

Like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the plot of Lady Be Good involves an attempt to scam someone out of a huge amount of money. The plot begins to thicken when Dick Trevor (Ian Simpson) and his sister Susie (Rena Wilson) get evicted from their apartment and face a life on the streets. While Dick is really in love with Susie's friend, Shirley Vernon (Lexie Papedo), he feels that his only option is to marry a rich and vapid socialite named Josephine Vanderwater (Lisa Shepard Hensley).

Ian Simpson and Rena Wilson (Photo by: David Allen)

Meanwhile, Susie meets a handsome and sweet hobo (Noel Anthony) who falls head over heels in love with her. When Dick and Susie crash Jo's soiree (hoping to score some free food), Jo's attorney, Watty Watkins (Andrew Boyer), tries to interest Susie in a scheme to collect $4 million from the estate of Jack Robinson, whose widow is supposedly languishing in a Mexican jail.

The only problem is that the intended victim doesn't have a widow. Mr. Robinson is very much alive and has recently returned from Mexico. Also present at Jo's swell party on Nob Hill are two society nitwits -- Daisy Parker (Lilian Askew Everdell) and Bertie Bassett (Ben Knoll) -- whose abundant lack of intellect makes them a perfect match for each other.

42nd Street Moon's revival made some interesting changes that were approved by the Gershwin estate. The story was easily relocated from spending Act I in Boston's ritzy Beacon Hill neighborhood and Act II in Newport, Rhode Island to having Act I take place on Nob Hill in San Francisco and Act II in Napa, California. The song "I'd Rather Charleston" (which was added to the show when the Astaires took it to London in 1926) was included as well.

Ian Simpson and Alexis Papedo (Photo by: David Allen)

Under Chris Smith's crisp direction, the lively ensemble enjoyed themselves onstage, with Rena Wilson having a fine time dressed up as a senorita who could barely speak Spanish. Rudy Guerrero -- looking exceptionally hot 'n hunky at the beginning of Act II in a period bathing suit from the Roaring Twenties -- doubled as Mexican gangster Manuel Estrada and Rufus Parker (the executor of the Robinson estate).

As usual, musical direction was by Dave Dobrusky. However, for this production, Zack Thomas Wilde's choreography brought a special level of energy to the proceedings that wisely did not attempt to equal Fred Astaire's work but kept the cast happily on its feet. Special mention should be made of Nicholas Yenson, who appeared as Jo's Butler, Jeff White, and stood out in Act II's "Little Jazz Bird" number.

While 42nd Street Moon's production was great fun, it could never match the sheer goofiness of this bizarre clip from MGM's 1941 version of the Gershwin musical. Take a few moments to relish the spectacle of Eleanor Powell tapping her way through the title song to Lady Be Good with the help of an extremely obedient stunt dog. Some things just have to be seen to be believed!

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