Theater News

Take Broadway First Take — Please!

Broadway First Take, a new release of musical demos, proves less than inspiring, according to Aaron Villa.

No entertainment industry seems as heavily plagued by nostalgia as the music business. No sooner does a decade close than a barrage of CDs is released touting the best of that decade. Broadway is a champion of this phenomenon, as Original Cast Recordings are re-released on CD with re-mastered and additional material and tribute albums are compiled featuring pop stars crooning their favorite numbers from shows past. Broadway First Take, Volume 1 (implying that the Slider Stage label is planning more, God knows why) is the latest example of this trend.

The CD unearths studio recordings of Hello, Dolly!, the movie musical Gigi, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying from before there were original casts attached to the shows; as the liner notes tout, these recordings were supervised by the composers and then presented to “popular artists like Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Andy Williams, and Johnny Mathis who, hopefully [would] make their own hit-parade versions of the songs that [would], in turn, guarantee a public who will come into the theater loving the songs.”

Essentially, then, this amounts to a glorified demo CD. There’s little wrong with the idea of these recordings, but by the same token, there’s little right in their execution. Rose Marie Jun, one of the studio singers for all three shows, has furnished these recordings from her personal archives. She and several male singers lend their adequate but run-of-the-mill voices to the tracks with varying results.

The selections from Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! fare poorly, with Jun crooning through an annoying “Ribbons Down My Back” and a hokey “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” the banjo in the latter–and in the title song–pushing these tunes toward the unlistenable. “Dancing,” the only song presented with alternate lyrics, is forgettable, and “A Penny in My Pocket” recalls a second-rate lounge singer trying to sell his act. The remaining Hello, Dolly! extract, “It Only Takes a Moment,” is sung sweetly by a Johnny Mathis clone and is one of the few renditions that avoids sounding trapped between cheesy Broadway and less-than-radio-ready. Yet even this cut has a creaky, antiquated air that discourages repeated listening.

Overall, the numbers from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Gigi are given the most successful interpretations. The sentimentality looming over the CD works for “I Remember It Well,” a tale of a couple remembering their first date–as the woman constantly corrects the man’s false memories. “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” and the musical’s title song are also served well by this sentimental tone. The next excerpts, “She Is Not Thinking of Me” and “The Night They Invented Champagne,” recall the mood of the film (and subsequent Broadway show), but “The Parisians” sounds like a Lawrence Welk rerun, replete with fake smiles and hokey arrangements. The remaining Gigi selections, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” return to the lounge singer motif and trigger the skip button.

Skipping is a bad idea in this case, since it brings you to some wonderful, playful songs from Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying that are butchered by Broadway First Take. The arrangement of the title song recalls the theme from The Jetsons with its hyperactive drums and chorus of voices, here ooh-ing and aah-ing out of time and out of key. The Lawrence Welk singers return for “Brotherhood of Man” and “Grand Old Ivy”; lively and brash in the show, the songs are toned down here, and thus fall completely flat. But not as flat as “Paris Original,” “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” or “Love from a Heart of Gold,” all of which are slowed down to a merciless crawl and massacred by Jun and the others’ messy crooning. “Love” does morph into swing for its second half, but this is hardly a good thing. Fortunately, “I Believe In You” is presented in the same tempo and style as in the show, and it works wonderfully. The liner notes point out that this is the one song from the show that was repeatedly covered–hardly surprising given its status as the only quality demo!

What, then, is the appeal of Broadway First Takes? The remastering is top quality (but in this technological age, one expects nothing less), and the additional documentation of the genesis of these musicals is noble. Slider claims on its web site [] that these archival recordings “are no mere intellectual curiosities, but a listening experience of tremendous charm.” Yet they are, in truth, little more than intellectual curiosities, virtually impossible to listen to in one sitting. They may be fascinating in theory, but they prove painful in practice.