Sound Advice Reviews
Liza, "Eliza" (that Fair Lady)
A legendary lady leads off our listening, with a more complete version of a live 1979 concert engagement. It's Liza Minnelli, then 33 years old. Next, let's consider a remixed studio cast recording of a legendary musical show about a lady also sometimes referred to as Liza, My Fair Lady (once titled My Lady Liza). Its writers, Lerner & Loewe, are represented with one track each on new releases from two singing ladies: Ann Kittredge includes a Camelot ballad and Angela O'Neill and company start a lively set with a My Fair Lady choice.
It may have been 43 long years ago, but in the remix of the recording of a multi-night Liza Minnelli engagement, everything even now is "feeling so fresh and alive," to quote from the opening of her opening song, done a cappella. It's "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" and, while it's just a snippet of its verse that we hear, that attention-grabbing start actually never made it to the initial release (which was not released on CD). And there's more from the vaults in this doctored documentation that has been renamed Live in New York 1979. The original title, Live at Carnegie Hall, invoked the name of the venue, Carnegie Hall, thus later risking confusion with an almost identically titled release that preserved a 1987 live recording there. Now available digitally and on a 3-CD set is what's subtitled The Ultimate Edition. Also, the remixes of just the material that had been on a 2-LP record set and also available on cassette in 1981 are back in vinyl format (improved sound).
This Ultimate Edition experience starts with 14 tracks (they are the contents of the first disc), matching the material that had been available once upon a time: 10 stand-alone songs; three medleys (including the mega-mashup of odes to New York City); the band playing for the bows; some patter; and applause. Lots of applause. These had been culled from three consecutive nights of the engagement. The other discs bring forth the full set as it actually was programmed, including the newly rescued material, all in the actual sequence. There was the option to newly consider, compare, pluck, and prune from all of what had been kept over the years.
Let's turn our attention to the songs not released before. In addition to the aforementioned brief a cappella bit, there are five other recoveries. "Everybody Has the Blues," written by James Taylor, lets Liza sashay her way through a not-so-blue-toned acknowledgment of what's stated in its title and to do some back-and-forth interaction with the blues-wailing musicians. The Cole Porter standard "You Do Something to Me" is a short and snappy blast sung by the strutting star as she trades spoken quips with Obba Babatundé, one of the two dancer-singers supporting the star. His own solo song is now included: a creditable rendition of the lament of "Mr. Cellophane" from the Chicago. The other fellow is Roger Minami; another showpiece once cut/now present featured him visually (but not singing) to re-create the winking "Arthur in the Afternoon," from Liza's run in The Act which had closed the year before this Carnegie Hall appearance. The remaining resurfacing item is mainly instrumental, serving as the music to let the trio "Dance Across the Floor" and is described as a "funky disco jam." It is just that for sure. And, in this audio release, it becomes a six-minutes-plus killer showpiece for the ace pack of a dozen musicians.
Some Minnelli milestones from the 1970s, which continued to be standby "usual suspects" in concerts and TV appearances, are here. Also from The Act is the showstopper "City Lights" (preceded by a spoken set-up that was cut from the old set), and numbers sung in movies that decade are represented, too. The title song of Cabaret is its usual signature home run, preceded by an in-character, on-target monologue with the score's "Mein Herr" played in the background. It had just been two years since the release of the movie New York, New York and three pieces she sang therein are sung herein. Of course, its titular number (to end the long montage of things about the Big Apple), plus the heartbreaker "But the World Goes 'Round" and the standard "The Man I Love" (one of a few Gershwin-penned things on the bill; all the others in this paragraph, are John Kander/ Fred Ebb creations, with Ebb also penning other sung and spoken words and serving as director.
I would be lying if I said that side-by-side analyses of sung material reveal vast differences in phrasing, accompaniment, vocal dynamics, timing, tempi, and acting choices. On the contrary, it's rather amazing how consistently precise things are! Should a note be breathy or belted? Does a moment require a mini-pause, a giggle, or a gasp? What might seem in one night's work to be so convincingly in-the-moment and natural, down to the most minute of minutiae, is evidenced as having been a deliberate decision for desired effect. While that's impressive, it makes those performances from different nights not allowing much to mine for variety as the spice of life.
However, sometimes a word or phrase or instrumental adornment is heard to be clearer or crisper. And I'll offer two little examples of tiny variations in words used: At the very end of the bravura performance of "Some People" from Gypsy, on one night she retains the name of the character, exploding with "But not Rose!" and keeping the rhyme of the original lyric ("I suppose"), whereas she concludes the other time with the more generalized "But not me!" And in the spoken intro to a three-song combo, on one occasion she twice refers to the "different writers" and on another evening the word is "composers." Not exactly earth-shaking stuff.
As someone who has long owned and often played the vinyl issue, I am glad to now dig into this Ultimate Edition for the pleasures of its sonic improvements and buried treasures, but feel I'd need the ultimate edition of a thesaurus to come up with adjectives not already used by the writers of the articulate and detailed liner notes in the 36-page booklet that comes with the compact discs. In his six pages, reissue co-producer Joe Marchese, in addition to supplying fact-rich history, characterizes the proceedings as containing "passionate fire," "powerful frisson," "abundant spirit," "honesty, authenticity and pure pizzazz." Fellow producer Charles L. Granata calls it "electrifying" and "truly sensational." The booklet, along with the credits and 20 photos, is replete with more expressions of admiration and awe from numerous veteran performers, one of the musicians, a longtime fan, and love letters from reviewers, with Obba Babatundé adding many comments and memories.
As with other long-careered artists with discographies full of in-person recordings and with concerts available in video form, too, many of the numbers Miss Minnelli sang in this Carnegie Hall set can be found elsewhere, performed before or after. But this is any Liza fan's fantastic feast.
And the crowd goes wild.
MY FAIR LADY
With the vast number of recordings drawing on the score of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner's My Fair Lady since 1956, even avid collectors can be overwhelmed and overlook something lost in the deluge. There have been preservations of stage productions in numerous languages, the film soundtrack, studio casts albums galore, and records devoted to pop singers, pianists, or instrumental groups covering the material. (Yes, you could have danced all night to Let's Twist to the Music of My Fair Lady and with "a little bit of luck" you can find a parody by Allan Sherman with cheeky rewrites like the delicatessen-inspired "A Little Bit of Lox.") The length of an old vinyl record, cassette, or one compact disc could accommodate a fair amount of My Fair Lady's score, but Loewe and behold!–in the 1990s, one diligent record producer, John Yap, offered an entry boasting that descriptive phrase that is music to the ears of those collectors who miss that missing material: "First Complete Recording." Hooray for all those extra instrumental track treats and reprises to relish. Now, Mr. Yap has brought it all back, re-tooled.
Yes, reappearing in remastered form, like other musical theatre items in his JAY Records catalog, is this standout studio cast treatment that is upgraded via their own DigiMIX program, aimed at proving better balance between orchestra (which the earlier issue heavily favored in regular stereo playback) and vocals. There are rewards in hearing this particular committed cast interpret the familiar material in their own ways, with the notable plus of having quite a bit of included dialogue. Recorded at London's famed Abbey Road Studios, the sumptuous sound features the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Owen Edwards, playing the terrifically colorful original Broadway orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang. A large chorus is employed, too.
As Eliza, the cockney lass who gets schooled in speech and social graces to morph into the titular fair lady (or a reasonable facsimile to pass as such) is opera soprano Tinuke Olafimihan. While she comes off more stately or formal in spots than freer, feistier Elizas have, she seems game and graces the glorious melodies, shining in many moments. As the impatient Professor Henry Higgins, Alec McCowen assertively tackles the role with aplomb. In handling the musical numbers, he finds a pleasing balance between fully singing notes and the amalgam of speech and song that Rex Harrison used in the original Broadway, London, and film versions.
With gravel in his voice and an irrepressibly bon vivant spirit, Bob Hoskins is appropriately boisterous and bossy, barking lyrics as Eliza's father. McCowen and Hoskins, who died a few years apart in the last decade, had a headstart with their characters for this studio set recorded in 1993 and the first week of 1994, having essayed them onstage two decades earlier in the non-musical play My Fair Lady is based on, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. For "On the Street Where You Live," tenor Henry Wickham is Eliza's suitably ardent suitor, but is neither vapid nor vehement. Michael Denison is a sturdy Colonel Pickering to bolster Higgins or temper his tantrums. In real life, he was the husband of Dulcie Gray, who here ably plays the professor's housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce.
What a major asset it is to have the wonderfully played instrumental passages preserved: the atmospheric set-ups to both scenes at Eliza's flower-centric home turf; the dignified melodic strains at the ball; the entr'acte; a long stretch of vibrant dance music in "Get Me to the Church on Time" (a track that runs almost six and a half minutes); and even the "Curtain Calls." Vocally, there are the bonuses of a usually trimmed set of lyrics to a chorus of "You Did It" and a piano-accompanied bonus track: McCowen's rendition of the charming "Come to the Ball," cut from the score after one performance.
The label's website currently offers the 2-CD set with a booklet (which has some history of the show and a detailed plot synopsis) at a sale price now, as well as an even steeper discount for those who just want the discs (indicated as a nod to those who got it back in the day when it was on the TER label and heard ideally with Dolby surround sound through multiple speakers).
Get yourself settled in "a room somewhere/ Far away from the cold night air/ With one enormous chair" because, once again, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" to just sit back and revisit one of musical theatre's most enduring classics?
Seemingly fueled by unflagging optimism, armoring herself with determination and with no dearth of drama, Ann Kittredge earnestly sings affirmations and ballads. The reIMAGINE repertoire comes mostly from musical theatre and film. Choices span more than a century, reaching back to 1910 for the operetta relic "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" (refreshingly reflective and relaxed, rather than declaimed and grandiose) and coming up to 2016 for "Another Day of Sun" (Justin Hurwitz/ Benj Pasek/ Justin Paul from the film La La Land).
An especially interesting illustration of that great musical tradition of rescuing and recycling a worthy melody comes with two vastly different lyrics for an Irving Berlin tune. A movingly interpreted expression of gratitude for living in the land of the "Free" was cut from the theatre score of Call Me Madam, deemed too serious for the light musical comedy; it was repurposed to cheerily sing the praises of "Snow" in the film White Christmas. We get (on separate tracks) both lyrics.
Vibrato comes into play when passion or sustained notes intensify to convey conviction on this debut release by the singer with a background of theatre roles and cabaret. Among what we might dub the "Ann Anthems" are two Stephen Flaherty/ Lynn Ahrens steely statements in a medley: "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime and Rocky: The Musical's "Keep on Standing." Their combined force is a one-two punch of grit and power. And certainly "The Power of One" pulls no punches in laying out its thesis: " Life can seem impossible/ It's never easy, when so much is on the line/ But you can make a difference/ With courage you can set things right." (Doesn't that have more philosophy and gravitas than you'd expect of something that came from an animated adventure featuring the frisky yellow fellow of video game fame, Pokémon: The Movie 2000?) Arrangers and musicians vary from track to track, with almost all restricted to two or three players, proving that less can be more and, when it's just piano or guitar accompaniment, note "the power of one" (to coin a phrase).
Pensive moments include Camelot's "Before I Gaze at You Again" and a tender treatment of "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music. The poignancy of the latter is greatly enhanced by the expertise and simpatico participation of cabaret veteran Steve Ross (vocal and piano).
If you're seriously looking for mostly serious-minded musical interpretations, emphatic and dramatic, reIMAGINE might be your cup of (strong and sometimes sweetened) tea.
ANGELA O'NEILL AND THE OUTRAGEOUS8
Solid and sizzling, California-based vocalist/bandleader Angela O'Neill and the Outrageous8 deliver an invigorating set with their enjoyable newest release, Light at the End of the Tunnel. Actually, she only sings on six of the 10 tracks with this formidable octet of musicians. These include the My Fair Lady classic "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" (here, it's "His Face") and it's kind of breezily upbeat, as opposed to the bittersweet and reluctant realizations of the musical's original context. She turns her attention and skills to two standards with Harold Arlen melodies from the 1940s that reference the same two weather extremes: "Come Rain or Come Shine" (lyric by Johnny Mercer, introduced in the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman) and holding on through the storm for the time "When the Sun Comes Out" (Ted Koehler's words). A somber turn arrives with the pop song "New York Minute," here darkened and deepened as an homage to friends lost to COVID-19.
Other vocalists bringing high spirits to the party are: clarion-voiced Bill A. Jones taking on the title song of the musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever which recalls Frank Sinatra's recording of it; Al Timms for a buoyant "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die"; and Jackie Gibson for Rodgers & Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring." Gibson successfully brings brisk, frisky fun to "... Spring" instead of the predictable path of taking a cue from the lyric about feeling "restless" and "vaguely discontented". Seven of the arrangements are by the band's trombonist, Harry Smallenberg, who also composed the one purely instrumental piece, the likably fast-moving romp titled "Now and Again."
So, don't let that adjective "outrageous" in the group's moniker cause you to think things are super-wild or campy or shocking. This bright Light at the End of the Tunnel is mostly undemanding, agreeably accessible entertainment that goes down easy and won't get you down.