For this recording, Lehrman assembled a small cast and led them through 19 Blitzstein numbers, including 13 never before recorded and several that Lehrman reconstructed or completed. The final product is a distillation of all that we love and find fascinating about Blitzstein, a child prodigy born to Philadelphia gentry turned wide-eyed champion of the proletariat.
Blitzstein's place in the canon is evident in each song included here, from the first to the last. Track 1 is "The Nickel Under the Foot," a clever and sad little blues sung by a prostitute. The story goes that Blitzstein played the song for Brecht, who suggested he expand the theme and write a whole bunch of songs about "all kinds of prostitution--the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system." Thus was born The Cradle Will Rock, the famous renegade performance of which led to Blitzstein's fame, John Houseman's firing from the Federal Theater Project, and Orson Welles' formation of the Mercury Theater....all thanks to a little song about an impoverished hooker.
Though Blitzstein never turned far from the stories of injustice that most inspired him, his range of subject matter and his musical acumen are evident as the listener jumps from "The Nickel Under the Foot" to the Songbook's final track: "Vanzetti's Last Statement" is from Sacco and Vanzetti, an unfinished opera from the early '60s about those infamously persecuted Italian anarchists. The CD notes equate this aria in eloquence to the Gettysburg Address, and the comparison is apt: both speeches are meditations on death and on the singular nobility of sacrificing one's existence for a larger cause. "Our words, our lives, our pains, nothing," cries Vanzetti. "The taking of our lives is all. That last moment belongs to us."
Lehrman, who plays piano and sings on a track or two, is joined by soprano Helene Williams, tenor Gregory Mercer, and baritone James Sergi. This is a very fine group, though on occasion the singers tend in style towards the fussy and overly emoted, so that some of the songs come off as a bit precious. Smoking Glasses, about a movie star trying (perhaps unnecessarily) to hide his identity, should be silly and fun; but, as camped up by Mercer, it's silly and kind of annoying.
The three most marvelous moments of this Songbook are the three songs written for Juno, Blitzstein's adaptation of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. (The original Broadway cast album of that show was recently released on CD by Fynsworth Alley and reviewed by Marc Miller for TheaterMania). In terms of Blitzstein's craftsmanship, these numbers--"I Wish It So," "Ireland's Eye," and "Farewell Me Butty," the latter two of which didn't make it into the show--have an extra special passion and facility. The same can be said for the performances, particularly Mercer's rendition of "Ireland's Eye." "Farewell Me Butty" presents a too-often-overlooked side of the composer: Blitzstein the Social Agitator fully gives way to Blitzstein the Humorist, who shapes the love-hate relationship between two drinking buddies into an escalating insult contest. My favorite bit goes as follows:
'In purgatory they tell
How the condemned personnel
Are forced to stare upon the likeness of your features,
Till they yell, "That's enough! Which way hell?"
Marc Blitzstein died tragically, and tragically young, in 1964. Lehrman's CD reminds us what was lost.