Liz Callaway in the Age of Aquarius
Michael J. Bandler gets in the groove with LIZ CALLAWAY's new CD of swinging '60s pop hits.
"La-dee-da-dee-dee...la-dee-da-dee-da." These are not exactly typical Liz Callaway lyrics. As it turns out, this Broadway baby has some surprises in store for fans via her latest CD, as she segues from the Great White Way to the great pop era of the '60s.
It's quite a twist for an actress-singer who spent much of the '90s enveloped in fur as Grizabella in Cats, following her Tony-nominated performance in Baby and stints in Merrily We Roll Along, Miss Saigon, and several Off-Broadway and regional shows. This is not to mention her time spent recording musical theater collections and playing cabaret dates, sometimes with her sister, the incredibly talented Ann Hampton Callaway.
Liz, the younger Callaway sibling, was born in 1961. It's a no-brainer to calculate that she was all of nine when the '60s ended. "But that's the age when you first discover music," she told me recently, and music--bubble-gum melodies, surfer tunes, the Mersey sound, protest songs, even Broadway--filled the Callaways' Chicago household. It's taken another 30 years and her establishment as a musical enchantress for Liz, who does "tender" like no one else, to leap daringly yet gleefully into a well-chartered genre that, nonetheless, is new to her as a performer. With The Beat Goes On from Fynsworth Alley, her repertoire and her range expand wondrously.
From the very first notes of the title track, it's clear that Callaway is going for a different sound here. Within a few lines, we discover from the precision and articulation she brings to the opening lyrics that her theatrical sensibilities are guiding her. "History has turned a page, uh-huh," she sings in her piercing soprano, adding that "men still keep a-marchin' off to war." Across the span of 15 tracks, she never lets us forget that the decade of the '60s was a musical era like few others, particularly because of the change and tumultuousness it encompassed.
The genesis of this project lies in is the fact that Callaway simply loves old-fashioned, goofily romantic pop, as evidenced by her choice of such songs as John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four," John Phillips' "Monday, Monday" Laura Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues," and the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" About a quarter of the numbers on the CD are in this vein, but Callaway wanted substance too, and serves it up in some of her other selections. Fans may question the presence of one number or another but, as the singer puts it, "This is a very biased collection of songs that I like." One example is the Nyro number which, at the age of nine, young Liz sang with hairbrush in hand to an imaginary Bill Bradley, the basketball star and future politician who was her earliest crush.
Callaway doesn't forsake theater music entirely on the CD: She includes "Half As Big As Life," a pulsating Burt Bacharach-Hal David song from one of the decade's edgier shows, Promises, Promises, as well as "Frank Mills" from the prototypical MacDermot-Rado-Ragni protest musical Hair. She also offers a lush interpretation of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, enhanced by Larry Moore's surging orchestrations.
Moore's fellow orchestrator, Lanny Meyers, brings a powerful perspective to Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Opening with a piano and flute to accompany Callaway's hushed rendition of the opening lines, he then embellishes the musical tapestry with strings and horns. As the young men go off to die in the war, drum rolls and trumpet staccatos filter through the background. Callaway's passion rises, receding only when "all the flowers" are picked by young girls.
This is a collection firmly rooted in the belief that songs should tell a story. A singer who is a proven storyteller can bring something new to numbers previously defined by their music rather than their words. Callaway underscores this fact in several songs, but never more powerfully than in two of the most familiar numbers on the album, Jimmy Webb's "Up, Up and Away" and John Denver's "Leavin' On a Jet Plane." In the latter tune, Callaway says, she was "trying to let the emotions take me." Slowing the number down considerably to an "early morning" pace and volume, she evinces a contemplative, somber mood as her character--with bags packed and a horn-blowing cabbie on hand--prepares to go. "Kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you'll wait for me," she sings with her trademark breathlessness. And then, in a cry from the heart, she slows the pace even more as she begs her partner to "hold me like you'll never let me go." The sadness contained in that extended word "hold" and the strongly accented "v" in "never" is palpable; most listeners will never have heard these lyrics sung with such compassion and such an evocative sense of loss. P.S.: Callaway recorded the song in one take!
The choices she makes throughout the disc reflect her musical savvy, on the one hand, and her theatrically-nurtured imagination on the other. Take "Downtown," ever identified with Petula Clark. Along comes Callaway, whispering conspiratorially like a delinquent among a group of impressionable ninth-graders as she urges us to "listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty." On another track, John Madara and David Ernest White's "You Don't Own Me," she darkens the mood to reflect a teenager's confusion and angst.
What of the songs that got away? Callaway toyed with "It's Not Unusual" as one of "a bunch of songs that I have these weird impulses to do." But it didn't make the cut. Neither did "Soon It's Gonna Rain" from The Fantasticks. Perhaps they'll be included when and if Callaway decides to do a second '60s album. For now, as fans impatiently await her return to Broadway--live or on disc--they have this blast from the past to savor.