Theater News

Visiting Broadway: Johnny Mathis and Kathie Lee Gifford

JOHNNY MATHIS and KATHIE LEE GIFFORD sing songs of Broadway on their new CDs, reviewed by Michael Portantiere.

Johnny Mathis has never done a Broadway show, but the Top-40 hits of his early career included recordings of songs from such shows as West Side Story and Gypsy. Though Kathie Lee Gifford is known primarily as a TV talk show hostess, she made an initial foray into Broadway territory this season as a once-a-week substitute for Carol Burnett in Putting It Together. Both singers have brand new albums which traffic wholly or partly in the Broadway musical theater repertoire.


Mathis on Broadway

In a rapidly changing world, few things are more comforting than the performances of singers who somehow manage to keep their voices intact over many decades. I’m talking the Barbara Cooks, the Vic Damones, the Johnny Mathises.

On his latest CD, Mathis sounds pretty much the same as he did 40 years ago. Though it surely wasn’t the intention of anyone involved, this disc might as well have been subtitled “Terrific Songs from Problematic Broadway Shows.” So we have “Loving You” from Stephen Sondheim’s noble failure Passion, “They Live in You” from the intermittently exciting The Lion King, “Bring Him Home” from the occasionally brilliant but pretentious and overlong Les Misérables, “Children Will Listen” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods (only the first half of which is artistically successful), “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera (no comment), and Once Upon a Dream from what may be the worst musical in history: Jekyll & Hyde. The disc is rounded out by pop songs that merit a place here only because they happen to have been performed in Broadway musical revues: “On Broadway” (Smokey Joe’s Café) and “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (featured in the current Fosse). In fact, Mathis offers only two numbers from bona-fide musical theater masterpieces: “Seasons of Love” from Rent, and “Our Children” from Ragtime.

Throughout, Mathis comes across with the smooth, rich, velvety vocalism for which he is legendary, singing in pretty much the same keys he favored in his youth. Though some of the selections are not especially taxing, others–“Bring Him Home,” “Once Upon a Dream”–require the kind of breath support, legato, and phrasing that precious few singers of Mathis’ age can supply. But this guy still has the right stuff, in abundance.

He is joined by guest stars for two of the disc’s nine cuts, and they perform with widely varying degrees of success. Betty Buckley is admirably restrained in “Our Children,” but Nell Carter wreaks havoc in “Seasons of Love,” sounding snide, sarcastic, and angry in a number that is meant to convey profound joy.

It should be noted that the album has a playing time of just over 33 minutes, which is very short by CD standards. But if you feel that quality is ultimately more important than quantity–and who doesn’t?–this is a highly recommended purchase.


Born for You: Kathie Lee
(On the Lamb Records)

For some years, Kathie Lee Gifford has been an easy target. But whatever negative feelings might be aroused by certain aspects of her public persona shouldn’t blind us to the fact that she is a fine singer, as her new album proves.

Upon hearing Born for You, a friend of mine exclaimed: “This is much better than I thought it would be.” Ironically, though the image Gifford projects on TV is based largely on wholesome motherhood and old-time religion, the CD’s very best tracks are those in which she displays her romantic/sexy side. The haunting title song–music by David Pomeranz, lyrics by David Zippel–is persuasively rendered through the medium of Gifford’s warm, slightly husky voice, as are Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and the Bergmans’ “On My Way to You.”

This is not to imply that Gifford is adrift in the more inspirational and/or touchy-feely selections, which include Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” Annie Dinerman’s “Child in Me,” Julie Gold’s “The Journey,” and David Friedman’s “Help is on the Way.” On the contrary, she seems to have learned a lot from the late, great Nancy LaMott (whom she staunchly championed) about getting out of the way of a song and just letting it speak for itself. Gifford has a special gift for expressing the romantic melancholy of Burke and Van Heusen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” and Michael Leonard and Russell E. George’s “Not Exactly Paris.”

Friedman is the album’s producer and conductor, and he and Gifford have come up with a generous batch of musical theater songs to fill up the program. Track #12, which consists of “Sunrise, Sunset” (from Fiddler on the Roof) into “Try To Remember” (from The Fantasticks) is lovely. Track #8, “I Got Lost in His Arms,” gives us some idea of what Gifford might have been like in the title role of the current Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun. (She was mentioned as a possible successor to Bernadette Peters, but that’s not happening.) And if track #6 begins with an odd, slow arrangement of “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!, it segues to a highly creditable rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl (but I don’t expect Gifford will be tackling that show anytime soon).

Doug Besterman’s full orchestrations are lush but never overwhelming. Gifford’s liner notes are a bit much, and there’s a photo of her with hubby Frank that may induce snickering in certain camps…but the content of the disc itself is laudable.