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The Demos:
Hearing 2 composer-lyricists singing/playing their early drafts
Reviews by Rob Lester

I say "hooray" for the value in knowing songs as initially conceived by their creators. Let's hear it for hearing a demonstration recording—"demo" for short—whether it was an audio audition for its writer(s) to be picked to do a full score, meant to "sell" a project to possible investors or desired cast, or as a reference/guide for others coming on board. Here are two private collections going public, courtesy of two men, both of whom write music and words, playing and singing everything themselves. Sampling several musicals is a scrapbook of scores by Maury Yeston, while Eddie Perfect sticks just to his output intended for Beetlejuice, mostly sticking to revealing what they didn't stick to in choosing the final line-up.


(2-CD SET)
PS Classics
CD | mp3 | iTunes

He was born one year after filmmaker Federico Fellini, 33 years after the sailing of the Titanic, 199 years after the birth of the painter Francisco Goya, and a whole lot of years after the events described in the first five books of the Bible, but talented Maury Yeston looked back at all the above to find inspiration for musicals. This composer-lyricist goes back in history 30 years to the fall of the Soviet Union for the setting of the project he has been working on for future unveiling. Marking his 75th birthday, the release in question is a career-spanning survey called Maury Sings Yeston: The Demos. Now collected together for release are his demonstration recordings of some of the songs from the scores referenced above—and more.

If you listen to the tracks as they're sequenced, grouped by show, you'll begin with that Fellini-inspired show, Nine. Maury Yeston conceived it as a project in the BMI writing workshop in the 1970s, and it landed on Broadway in the next decade, making quite the splash. If you acquired the expanded edition of that production's first cast recording, you heard his demos of two of the four numbers chosen to represent Nine here. In that case you know how effective and impressive a demo can be when Maury sings Yeston—and plays the keyboards and plays all the roles, multi-tracking his voice his voice when a group sound is called for. (He also presented a few of his songs on a recent set featuring various Broadway writers called Behind the Curtain.)

With these ostensibly "private" recordings having been done in different decades, written in different styles to be eventually performed by all kinds of character and voice types, some variation in comfort level can be expected. Overall, the creator acquits himself quite well, a solid and smooth self-accompanist if not always thoroughly in the zone for vocal grandness (but, hey, let's note that some of those big notes and big flourishes in Goya were designed for opera's Placido Domingo!). When it comes to trying more than a little tenderness, tentativeness sometimes seems present; ballads that might win potential points for passion can feel restrained. Let's keep in mind that the M.O. for a demo is not to present oneself as an all-stops-out actor-singer fully inhabiting a long-rehearsed role, having worked out all the nuances. The ink on the sheet music was barely dry when the mic was turned on.

In any case, some comic numbers definitely find him displaying abandon and zing. His aptitude for being a vocal chameleon can result in showing a wide scope of sounds and projected attitudes. I'd bet that if you were to be playing Maury Sings Yeston through speakers and someone not clued in should wander in, the person might not guess that everything heard is all the same person (and the splendid multi-tracked "group sound" could seal the deal). The guy can also pull off foreign accents, and that brings a lot of flavor to the likable pieces glimpsed as samples of the long-gestating Soviet Union-set Club Moscow.

Collectors of cast recordings well-versed in Yeston's yesterdays should be pretty glad to revisit a few selections each from Nine, Titanic, Death Takes a Holiday, and Goya (studio cast for that one). Titanic tracks are a mix of the very familiar and the not-so-much. The latter—abandoned concepts—are of particular interest. One was assigned to a class-conscious group of passengers bursting with pride to be "Sitting at the Captain's Table." The other is a discarded but definitely dramatic concept for "Barrett's Song" that brought in what would happen after the production's time parameters, legal testimony investigating the ship's sinking. (I trust that didn't need a spoiler alert.)

The musical menu demonstrates each score's contrasting types of songs and moods, rather than opting for going extra heavy on character-establishing solos or overdosing us on showcasing the showiest showstoppers. The sequencing that presents each musical's specimens in clusters lets us vacation in the world of each and settle in for a while. This works better than jumping back and forth in shuffled mode for Yeston creations because many of his lyrics are tightly tethered to plot elements or non-generic characters. Thus, they are often best appreciated when not stripped of the garb of context and the company they kept.

Particularly entertaining are high-energy, invested renditions of delights from the (often cheeky and vaudeville-styled) imagined view of the life of folks in Biblical times, In the Beginning. And we get the sense of a full scene, dialogue and tension included, with the title song of the aborted The Queen of Basin Street (the assignment to musicalize La Cage aux Folles that would later land on Jerry Herman's to-do list). These last two under-the-radar scores also got some very recent renewed exposure with the release of the cast recording of the five-person all-Yeston revue Anything Can Happen in the Theater.

There are a few stand-alone miscellaneous items, too. The double-disc physical set comes with a booklet containing all the lyrics, some introductory comments, and a few photos. With a total of 40 tracks, this latest entry in PS Classics' menagerie of Maurydom is a mighty mix of the welcome usual suspects and unusual surprises.


Ghostlight Records
mp3 | iTunes

Many of the songs written for the irreverent musical comedy Beetlejuice suffered the same fate as the characters in its plot: They died. Well, not completely. Also like those folks in the story, 18 pieces of cut material now rematerialize, showing plenty of—excuse the expression—life. Eddie Perfect, the composer-lyricist, does all the singing and accompanies himself on keyboards and guitars for a grand gathering of what had been solely intended as illustrations for other members of the creative team, never intended for the public. Also heard on the collection called Beetlejuice: The Demos The Demos The Demos are early drafts of seven things that did make the show, albeit with some changes. (Included are his very first on-spec submissions when he pitched himself as the writer.)

The renditions benefit from this author also being a professional performer. So, his "sketches" naturally go above and beyond merely suggesting the high energy, quirky sensibility, and full-out commitment needed to bring out the full potential of his proposed pieces. Vocal stylings and projected sass align with what we've encountered in the characterization of the titular demon. If Beetlejuice were real and had procreated, our Mr. Perfect would be the ideal chip off the old block with his sneers, snubs, and chip-on-the-shoulder strutting that cry out for court-ordered matriculation in an anger management class. He tones things down and sheds his prickly skin when essaying the less brash dramatis personae.

Getting to know the score as it was finalized is a logical perspective prerequisite. Your view will be informed by such 20/20 hindsight. But if you haven't been there/done that, I suppose it could be interesting to start at the very beginnings as a very good place to start. You'd meet predecessors without foreknowledge of what came later or better, sort of like the writer's colleagues and the cast of the Washington DC tryout did. As in the cast recording, this digital-only release has a light touch with the ghosts; both are issued by the appropriately named Ghostlight Records. No need to be dismissive of what was dismissed before and during rehearsals or what came between DC and the CD; this Beetlejuice bonanza has much worthy of rescue. You may still prefer the more homogeneous finished product and wonder if there's much point to this haul of The Demos for non-completists. If you ask, "Is it a useful product?" I say yes, especially because it shows us both what is and what is not a good fit, and many of these previously "lost" articles succeed as stand-alone entertainment.

Overall, The Demos... is a somewhat overwhelming, overflowing sampler. Try to go with the flow, and you may (as I did) find pleasures. Loaded with lowbrow content, some are guilty pleasures, but I enjoyed the guilt trip. The score's surviving song stack has heavy doses of snark, crass vocabulary choices, juvenile humor, pop music pastiche, true wit, and false rhymes. There's no shortage of any of those ingredients in the less reigned-in things.

This cockeyed, crazy quilt cornucopia of struts sticks out its tongue at the world without losing a tongue-in-cheek approach. If you're a fan with an unquenchable thirst for Beetlejuice as presented on Broadway, you're the target audience, of course. In that case, some of what's here will seem like logical extensions or expansions of the score, greeted as you would when meeting the close relatives of a friend, remarking on the strong family resemblances of facial features or manner. However, the DNA does not always match, and the characters you thought you knew show other sides, due to personalities somewhat rebooted.

As a prime example of characters changed, let's consider the father in two cut numbers. In "Sign Yourself Over to Me," there's a strong sign of his mercenary priorities trumping romantic leanings in his marriage proposal; in another discarded piece, he'd been presented as self-aware and rueful, realizing that loved ones need "A Little Bit More of Your Time." The eventually woke wife celebrated in her finalized portrait as "Barbara 2.0" was given two tearier tries for same post-mortem on her life. Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C are all included, and all have value, but we can see why the one created and chosen at the 11th hour was spot-on for this spot. But it's surely interesting and instructive to consider all three in the big picture as well as separately. Tender treatments usually exited, leaving more LOL stuff sitting side by side-splitting side.

But some loony tunes went away, too. For the segment in the Netherworld, there was an "oh, the hell with it" verdict that banished the 1990s-esque boy band whining that in their environs "Everything Is Kinda 'Meh'" where "every radio plays Cher... coffee is crap... We all buy clothes from The Gap in The Netherworld." The quest for the best opening number to get the audience on the right wavelength was found after some lengthy efforts. It was finally achieved by simply moving to the top something he already had that won him the assignment—the kinda casual ice-breaker about "The Whole Being Dead Thing." We hear him have a fun field day with it and no fewer than three candidates that didn't pass muster to master nailing the subject matter, which is indeed a matter of life and death. Here are amusing smarty-pants samples of the lyrics of each noble try:

1. "Death's far from ideal/ Death has a sick way of keepin' things real/ Could be lurking right there in the next shellfish on your plate" (from some of the mountain of evidence in a song titled with the understatement of "Death's Not Great")

2. "I hate to be the fly in your ointment/ But get ready for disappointment" (in "The Hole," setting up what happens to all after death)

3. "You invented the wheel, and that's pretty much it" and "Maybe get off your phone now and then and look up!" (mocking what people have done over the centuries in "I Gotta Get Outta This House")

Eddie Perfect has recorded online comments about all these cut songs: for what reason and at what point they were put aside; his initial satisfaction upon writing them; and why some had seemed like good ideas at the time (at least to him). Indeed, Beetlejuice: The Demos The Demos The Demos (so titled as a nod to the need to say his name three times to make him visible) is not just demonstrations of a mixed bag of ideas, but objects in an object lesson of making a musical's songs mesh. While the production's stay in New York had to be cut short, announced for the future is a mounting in South Korea. Will that present new challenges for acceptance? To misquote Oscar Hammerstein: How do you solve a problem like Korea? Meanwhile, we can dig the demon and the demos.

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