Editor's note: Welcome to our 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, which has an upcoming Valentine's cabaret on Feb. 12 at the Margo Jones Theatre. It features Duke Anderson, Damon K. Clark, Sergio Antonio Garcia, Jay Gardner, Jeff Gardner, Shelley Osterberger Kenneavy, Jennifer Kuenzer, Jim Kuenzer, Calvin Scott Roberts, Diana Sheehan, Sherle Stevens and Jodi Crawford Wright!
The month, they have reviews of the 2016 Broadway revival of William Finn's Falsettos and vocalist Brad Simmons on an album of Simon & Garfunkel covers.
2016 Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records/Sh-K-Boom Records
Released Dec. 16, 2016
William Finn’s genre-exploding masterpiece Falsettos recently was revived on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater. With direction by James Lapine and music direction by Vadim Feichtner, the production received almost unanimous raves; among them, a review in the New York Times that can only be called “a love letter”. Actually composed of two separate yet related musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Falsettos is set in 1979-1981 and tells the story of Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, their son Jason, Marvin’s boyfriend Whizzer, and Marvin and Trina’s physiatrist Mendel. The second act introduces the lesbian couple that lives next door to Marvin: Charlotte and Cordelia. The revival cast recording is beautifully produced and hopefully will bring the limited Broadway run to a wider audience.
The performances on the recording are terrific. As Marvin, Christian Borle sets aside his over-the-top comedy of Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten in favor of directness and simplicity. His “Father To Son,” Marvin’s apology to Jason and explanation of his choices is especially moving, as is “What Would I Do” in the second act. Andrew Rannells as Whizzer is young, bright, opinionated and curt, really coming into his own for “You Gotta Die Sometime” — Whizzer’s “danse macabre” soliloquy upon his realization that his life is going to end much sooner than it should. Anthony Rosenthal is terrific as Jason, particularly in “Jason’s Therapy.” Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are splendid as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, especially in “A Day in Falsettoland” and “Something Bad Is Happening,” the moment when Dr. Charlotte, an internist, realizes that there is some mysterious disease spreading through New York City’s gay men.
The two most compelling performances, however, are Stephanie J. Block as Trina and Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel. Ms. Block’s singing, from “I’m Breaking Down” to “Holding to the Ground” is, of course, spectacular. Her Trina is simultaneously angry, ecstatic, sexy, confused, motherly, loving and, ultimately, the moral center of the whole show. Her relationship with Mendel is palpable even on the recording, from their first meeting in “Love Is Blind” straight through to the very end. Brandon Uranowitz is zany, loving, tough and smart as Mendel. His journey from self-absorbed psychiatrist to loving and supportive husband and father is beautiful and very clear. A Tony-nominee for An American In Paris, Uranowitz is one to keep an eye on in the future.
Ultimately, this recording is important for three reasons.
This is the first time there has been a complete recording of the entire show with the same cast. The original 1992 Broadway production of Falsettos wasn’t recorded. Recordings of the Playwright’s Horizons productions of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were made, but feature different Trinas and Jasons, different versions of some songs, and don’t include “I’m Breaking Down.”
Second, any time we get another recording of anything by William Finn, we have another opportunity to explore one of the late 20th Century’s most important musical theater voices. Finn is a true original, and will surely be researched by scholars and spoken of by aficionados for many, many years.
Finally, in this time of PrEP and antiretrovirals, people with HIV/AIDS living into their 60s, 70s and beyond, and changing definitions of marriage, Falsettos presents a portrait of a time when not even the medical community knew what HIV/AIDS was, being infected meant dying, and gay marriage was a far-fetched idea. How far we have come scientifically and socially in 35 years!
— James McQuillen
The Simon and Garfunkel Collection
Released Jan. 9, 2017
It is a daunting thing to cover any artist whose catalogue is not only made up of lots, and I do mean LOTS, of number one hits, but also is part of the soundtrack of a generation. I realize I’m using a worn out cliché but in the case of Simon and Garfunkel it’s true.
I have a memory of the summer after my undergrad when I worked at Yellowstone National Park where I lived in a very small, very drafty old employee cabin. Most nights I fell asleep to Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits playing softly on the boombox. There was a wistful melancholy about the songs that made them perfect for after hours listening. I was 22 and Simon and Garfunkel was the ideal soundtrack for the remaining vestiges of my teen angst. And, to be honest, it fit the hippie-dippy vibe of working at Yellowstone.
This has always been a very specific memory for me and now, 22 years later, I realize why. Their best songs, starting with “The Sound of Silence” in 1964, were a perfect combination of melody and lyric and dind’t sound like anything else being written at the time. They were also a clear reaction to the straight-jacketed 1950’s.
The soundtrack of a generation.
It is, therefore, a brave thing that music director and vocalist Brad Simmons (Lysistrata Jones, the film adaptation of Hello, Again and seven solo albums) has done in recording an entire album of what are arguably some of the most recognizable songs produced in the second half of the 20th century. It begs the question, what else can one say about these iconic songs? In this case it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
Mr. Simmons’ readings of “Homeward Bound,” “Cecilia” and “Hazy Shade of Winter” seem to hone too closely to the originals. Re-interpretations of material this familiar run the risk of reminding us of the original and that is what seems to be happening here.
That being said, there are also some wonderful surprises. “Mrs. Robinson” is arguably Simon and Garfunkel’s most famous song. Here, Mr. Simmons has found a fun and funky interpretation that brings new life to this modern standard. His interpretation of “America” is heartrendingly understated and deeply emotional. The pairing of the songs “Bookends” and “Old Friends” is a stroke of genius. The two songs share the themes of time having passed and memories long passed. The connection of the two songs through the words “book ends” was not lost.
There are also some obscure songs that are wonderful discoveries. “At the Zoo,” written for the 1967 film The Graduate but not used in the final cut, is a delightfully whimsical song given an easy swing by Mr. Simmons. “The Only Living Boy in New York” was written by Simon as a response to Art Garfunkel’s absence during the writing and recording of their last album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simmons captures a sense of longing, and sadness that foreshadows the duo’s impending break up.
Of course, this album wouldn’t be complete without a cover of the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Here again, Mr. Simmons doesn’t stray far from the original but why bother? It’s a perfect song. In an interesting contrast, his interpretation works in a blue note or two that aren’t in the original. One wonders if this is to say that in these troubled and unsure times the bridge over that troubled water may not be as sturdy and sure as we’d like it to be. One can hope.
— Jay Gardner
» Beginning with the Feb. 1, 2017 column, The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner, and is teaching this fall at Binghampton University in Binghampton, New York.
» 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. He can be seen in the chorus at the Dallas Opera this fall.
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.
August 2016: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
September 2016: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton
October 2016: Reviews of new albums by Kristin Chenoweth, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Diana Sheehan and cast recordings of Disaster! and The Robber Bridegroom.
December 2016: New releases from Carmen Cusack, Leslie Odom Jr., Charles Busch, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel, and Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp.