Editor's note: Welcome to the fourth of our new column dedicated to reviews and discussions of theatrical recordings: original cast recordings, solo records by theater and cabaret greats and anything else we think fits. The Music Men is written by James McQuillen, a locally well known music director and arranger, and Jay Gardner, an actor, vocalist and potter. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series, one of several local organizations reviving the art of cabaret in North Texas.
This month we're doing something different. James McQuillen explains it:
There is a podcast out there aimed at the Musical Theater Nerds called Behind the Curtain: Broadway’s Living Legends (we highly recommend it), and every Thursday they release an episode they called “Our Favorite Things.” On these Thursday episodes, the two guys who do the podcast—Rob Schneider and Kevin David Thomas—each choose one person, recording, book or video that holds a special place in the heart or life. They then surprise each other and share their “favorite thing.” This month, Jay and I take inspiration from “Behind the Curtain” and share two of our Favorite Things. (J.M.)
James McQuillen's Favorite Thing
In 1989, in a world where Amazon and iTunes didn’t exist, a young boy living in Plano, Texas had fairly limited options for buying cast recordings. Camelot Music at Collin Creek Mall had almost nothing, Sound Warehouse sometimes had some good stuff, but to get something foreign or unusual, there were two possibilities: Footlight Records on 12th Street in NYC or Dress Circle in London. The stores operated in similar ways: they sent out a newsletter several times a year listing current and upcoming releases, and then you would call and place an order.
When the Dress Circle newsletter finally arrived and listed “Miss Saigon — London Cast — NEW,” I knew I had to call. I asked Mom for her AmEx card, called London, and ordered the double cassette recording (I didn’t have a CD player yet) of Miss Saigon. I’d read a lot about the show in Playbill and TheatreWeek (can we just say a prayer of remembrance for TheatreWeek?). I couldn’t wait to hear this new show from the writers of Les Miz. The subject matter sounded so compelling—a retelling of the Madama Butterfly story set in Vietnam in the 1970’s instead of Japan in the early 1900’s.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity but was really about 10 days, I got home from school one day, and on my bed was a package with ROYAL MAIL stamped on it. There it was: Miss Saigon. I opened the package and popped “Cassette 1 — Side 1” in my player.
What?! It begins with the sound of A HELICOPTER FLYING OVER?? I am hooked! The big opening section at the bar is so exciting. That great, driving “The Heat is on in Saigon” theme, the incredibly quick changes of scene from the soldiers in the bar to the girls “backstage” to back in the bar, all of these really individual characters singing—you immediately get a sense of who these people are. Suddenly everything focuses in on one of the bargirls and Kim: “The Movie in My Mind.” Great melody. Great orchestration. A big establishing song for Chris the American soldier (“Why, God, Why?”) comes next, then a beautiful “morning after” duet (“Sun and Moon”) for him and Kim. There’s some drama with Kim’s betrothed (Thuy) where she tells him their engagement is over in favor of her relationship with Chris, then she and Chris sing another big duet (“The Last Night of the World”). Saigon falls, three years pass, Vietnam is reunified (“The Morning of the Dragon”), and we get to the reason this is one of my most favorite cast recordings: Claire Moore.
Claire Moore plays Ellen, Chris’s American wife whom he marries after he returns to the USA. We are introduced to her in a duet with Kim (“I Still Believe”) in which both women, on opposite sides of the world, confirm the depth of their devotion to Chris. Claire Moore’s singing is beautiful, powerful, passionate, frustrated, loving, determined…it’s all in there. Not to say that it’s perfect. She actually sounds like she has a tiny lisp, but you just don’t care because everything else is so wonderful. (Before Miss Saigon, she replaced Ellen Greene in the West End production of Little Shop of Horrors and was the original Christine alternate in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. You can find recordings of her in both shows if you look hard enough, and it’s pretty wonderful.)
None of my adulation of Claire Moore is to diminish anyone else! There’s so much good singing on this recording. It’s just that in her songs, Claire Moore takes everything up to the next level.
Her featured scene and song in the second act confirmed everything I was feeling. In “Room 317,” Kim goes to Chris and Ellen’s hotel room in Bangkok (long story) and, after Ellen mistakes her for being the maid, Kim demands that Ellen and Chris take her and Chris’s son Tam (Ellen didn’t know Chris and Kim had a son) back to the USA with them. She then sings what is possibly the best song in the show: “Her or Me.” In it, she swings from shock to disbelief to anger to empathy to determination. The songwriting and performance are terrific, and just before the end of the song, she belts a high E with seemingly zero effort. Most people just weren’t doing that in 1989. I must've hit REWIND and listened to that one song 10 or 15 times. Incredible.
Curiously, a friend bought the CD a few months later, and “Her or Me” had new lyrics (exactly the same music, though) and was called “Now That I’ve Seen Her.” I still think “Her or Me” is the better song—the lyric makes Ellen a much stronger character.
So my first “Favorite Thing” is the Original London Cast Recording of Miss Saigon, mostly because Claire Moore is just so freaking good on it. In my opinion, the material itself is terrific, and is in some ways stronger than Les Miz. It has an immediacy that Les Miz doesn’t have, and it certainly is an interesting exploration of issues surrounding American imperialism and the Vietnam War. So many of my peers in musical theater point to this recording of Miss Saigon as a real touchstone and source of inspiration for them as young theater-people.
I know that this show has a checkered history in terms of portrayal of Asian characters onstage, and I remember the controversy surrounding the casting of Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer and his use of “Asian” makeup. I am not condoning any of that, simply saying that it’s a terrific cast recording with excellent performances in it. It is wonderful to see and know that 25 years later, we are more aware of issues surrounding race and ethnicity in theater. I look forward to seeing what we can all accomplish together in terms of representing race, ethnicity and gender fairly, thoughtfully and theatrically over the next 25 years.
Jay Gardner's Favorite Thing
When I was asked what would be my Favorite Thing—what recording could I come back to over and over—almost without hesitation, I said the 1983 revival cast recording of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s 1936 musical On Your Toes.
Not Hamilton!? Not Wicked!? Not Les Misérables!? No, I'm afraid not. What's even stranger, I discovered this recording in 1983 at the tender age of 13! I was visiting my grandmother who lived in Central Texas. One day we drove in to Austin to visit my great-grandmother. After lunch at Luby's Cafeteria (we always went to Luby's Cafeteria: square fish, mashed potatoes, green beans, a slice of apple pie and a glass of UNSWEETENED iced tea with half a packet of Sweet n’ Low.) we went to Sound Warehouse.
That was a record store. Remember record stores?
I was thumbing through the cast recordings, trying to choose one to purchase. I had settled on four finalists, all LP's.
Two were classics: Hello, Dolly! and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The other two were new musicals...sort of. One was the Broadway Cast Recording of Cats, a very hot musical at the time, and the other was the 1983 revival of On Your Toes.
I had heard of On Your Toes by way of the 1983 Tony Awards, where it won Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Natalia Makarova, star of American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Ballet. I had only heard of it, as there was no performance on the telecast. Otherwise, it hadn’t really registered with me.
As I was studying the cover of this album, my grandmother, who was standing next to me said, "Oh! I've heard of that show. It has that song." And she sang in her gravelly voice, "There's a small hotel with a wishing well!" There was a photo on the cover of Natalia Makarova wearing a slinky, sequined black dress, doing a deep back bend while at the same time extending a leg directly up into the the air over her head. It was a very dramatic and intriguing picture, and it definitely sparked my interest.
I stood there looking at the four albums.
"I'm not sure which one to get." I said.
My grandmother replied, "Well, I'm sure your great-grandmother and I could each buy you two."
“Really!? All four albums!? ”
When we got home, I chose to listen to On Your Toes first. It is a good old classic Broadway musical. Originally, it wasn't one of Rodgers and Hart's more successful shows, but this revival had caused a stir since it ran much longer than the original 1936 production. That much I knew. I also had picked up on the fact that Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in the film The Wizard of Oz, became a star playing lead in the original production. I hadn't seen pictures of the revival and had no idea what any of the actors looked like except for Makarova when she accepted her Tony Award wearing a very wild and slinky bugle bead-encrusted gown with matching hat. Talk about glamour!
There were no synthesizers as there were in Cats and no pop-tinged songs, either. There was, however, an orchestra heavily punctuated by piano and percussion, a character named Frankie who sang a lot of beautiful ballads, and two very long, jazzy ballets that ended the first and second acts. I don't know why, but I wanted to listen to this show over and over. My grandmother had a stereo that could record an LP to a cassette which afforded me the opportunity to listen to it anywhere at any time on my bulky Sony Walkman. As I recall, I had the words to every song memorized almost immediately. I made up elaborate choreography for the nearly 20-minute-long “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet which was the show’s finale. I spent many joyful hours acting out the songs in my living room and was sure my version was much more engrossing than the Broadway revival could ever hope to be!
Since then, I've discovered a few things about this show that might explain why it affected me so deeply. First, most of the score went on to be incorporated into the Great American Songbook: “It's Got to be Love,” “There's a Small Hotel,” “The Heart is Quicker Than the Eye,” “Glad to be Unhappy,” “Quiet Night” and the title song all became classic standards recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams and many other singers. These standards became disassociated from the original source and have made an invaluable contribution to the soundtrack of our national identity.
Second, the 1983 revival began life at Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, where the plan had been to present the show in its original form with its original orchestrations. The problem was that those orchestrations had been placed in several boxes in no particular order and stored at the Richard Rogers Archive in New York City. Prior to the work of orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett and his symphonizing (I know. Not a word.) of the Broadway musical in the 1940's, your typical Broadway pit orchestra was a dance band consisting of two pianos, percussion, a large brass section and a small string section. In an effort to restore the original sound of the show, Hans Spialek, age 87 and the original orchestrator, was called in to reconstruct the orchestral parts for the revival. When the production moved to Broadway, the pit at the Virginia (now the August Wilson) Theatre had to be expanded to accommodate twenty-five players.
Most significantly, it was the first Broadway musical to use serious ballet as a plot device, predating Oklahoma! by about eight years. (I find it interesting that Richard Rodgers would go on to write the music for that Game Changer of the American Musical Theater.) “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the show’s finale, was choreographed by George Balanchine who had made his name working with the Ballet Russes and was a co-founder of The New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet. This piece has gone on to be an entity unto itself, entering the repertory of the New York City Ballet and other companies. The ballet's score is regularly performed by symphony orchestras all over the world.
Let’s face it. When a show is good, it's good. Perhaps my 13-year-old brain had clued into this. The score is Rodgers and Hart at their best. The songs are well-constructed, vibrant, youthful and straight forward. The lyrics are erudite and snappy. The ballet sequences pulse with life and the American jazz sound that two pianos and brass lent to the musicals of the 1920's and 30's. A freshness and verve come through on this recording leaving one to wonder what the live performance must have been like. I experienced this energy over and over through the convenience of my Sony Walkman. To this day, it is a show I can come back to and feel regenerated after a listen. Thank goodness for that day in Sound Warehouse when my grandmother was feeling so generous!
» The Music Men runs periodically on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here.
February 2016: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
March 2016: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.
July 2016: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.