Much-anticipated is an understatement in heralding the release of Life Begins at 8:40 (PS Classics). Here we have the first complete recording of one of the best and smartest Broadway revues of all time, created in 1934 by three immortals: composer Harold Arlen and lyricists Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg. The original orchestrations sparkle; so do the performances by a young company of terrific musical theater artists including Roger Bart and Kate Baldwin. What writing! “Fun to be fooled,/ Fun to pretend,/ Fun to believe/ Love is unending./ Thought I was done –/ Still it is fun/ Being fooled again.”
Sondheim on Sondheim (PS Classics) documents the recent Broadway revue conceived by James Lapine and starring Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams and Tom Wopat. The show revealed Sondheim’s artistry and humanity not only through his songs (both famous and rarely heard) but in his video testimony. The good news is that this two-CD set works well on purely audio terms. To hear Sondheim introduce “Happiness” (from Passion), for example, in the context of his own “first serious relationship” is to be reminded that bracing theater songs can only be built from human truth. And to hear the truth told in this revue by the 83-year-old Barbara Cook is one of the most moving experiences in the American arts.
She Loves Him (PS Classics) Kate Baldwin, who made such a winsome Sharon McLonergan in the 2009 revival of Finian’s Rainbow, recorded She Loves Him live at Feinstein’s – the “him” being master lyricist Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Fiorello!), now 86 and still utterly engaging. How do we know? Because Baldwin invited him to introduce some of the songs and take the microphone on five of the vocals, including what is for me the definitive “If I Were a Rich Man.” As for Baldwin, she glows. “I Couldn’t Be With Anyone but You,” from the Harnick-Joe Raposo It’s a Wonderful Life, is one of those thrilling moments when a singer owns a song.
We found Rio Rita at WarnerArchive.com; she’s one of many friends you’ll make there. Warner Bros. Studios uses the site to distribute movies that can’t be obtained anywhere else, and there are dozens of rarely seen film musicals organized by decade. I had never before experienced the western Rio Rita (1929), but it’s pivotal: Produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, the Harry Tierney-Joseph McCarthy show is one of the first musicals to be adapted from a Broadway success, and the last third of the movie was actually filmed in two-strip Technicolor. Singing Texas Rangers combined with a shoot-‘em-up…essential viewing!
Sondheim’s Evening Primrose (Entertainment One), written in 1966 with his Follies collaborator, James Goldman, is arguably the last important musical created for television. Based on an eerie short story by John Collier, it tells of a poet who, seeking refuge from the world in a department store, encounters a secret society of wraith-like creatures that inhabit the store at night. He also meets a young woman with whom he falls in love – but there is apparently no escape from the “dark men.” The musical, which stars Anthony Perkins and Charmian Carr, includes two songs that have become cabaret perennials, “I Remember” and “Take Me to the World.” Until now, collectors have had to settle for faded, bootlegged copies, but this edition is remastered from a newly discovered kinescope print. Rejoice!
A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook) underlines the point we often make at TMTP concerts and cabarets: Almost all of the major songwriters from the golden age (1915 to about 1975) were Jewish, and either immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants. It’s a cultural phenomenon that has been explored in many books. What makes this one different (and invaluable) is that author David Lehman is a ranking American poet, so his analysis comes with a poet’s gift for distillation: “In singing America’s praises, Jewish songwriters were reinventing themselves as Americans and changing America itself at the same time.”
Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (W.W. Norton) by Morris Dickstein will intrigue anyone who saw TMTP’s cabaret Optimistic Voices: Songs for Tough Times last fall (the show will be reprised in May 2011 at the Breen Center). Dickstein’s thesis coincides with our own: that often the most compelling clues to understanding American history can be found in popular culture. In Dickstein’s view, “The 1930s offer an incomparable case study of the function of art…in a time of social crisis.” This is what he has to say, for example, about “Dancing in the Dark,” a haunting ballad by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz featured in our show: “It’s about a community of two surrounded by a great darkness, a moment of tenuous joy whose backdrop is impermanence and insecurity – ‘the wonder of why we’re here…and gone’.”
– Bill Rudman