Thursday, March 26, 2009

Allegro - The New Recording

…..But enough about politics. Let’s turn our attention to weightier matters, like the thrilling new recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO. This musical, following on the heels of OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL, was so eagerly awaited (it had the largest advance sale in history) it just had to disappoint. And disappoint it did, for reasons that people still argue about today. In my opinion it was by far the best of the R&H flops and the one most deserving of another chance. If you would like to learn more about my thoughts on the original ALLEGRO (which I saw, incidentally, back in 1947), you’ll find it in a blog posting dated April 28, 2006.

But today I would like to rave about the new, “first complete recording” of ALLEGRO. It is wonderful, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Ted Chapin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, R&H Music Director Bruce Pohamac, conductor Larry Blank, David Lai of Sony, and a few other colleagues. And a dream cast, including Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Nathan Gunn, and Liz Callaway. And a talented group of musicians in Bratislava.

Bratislava? Well, yes, because a Slovakian orchestra was looking for work, schooled in the romantic tradition, and available. So off Chapin and buddies went to Bratislava, where they gave the orchestra the magnificent Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, rehearsed, and recorded – just the orchestra. Then, the audio tracks safely stowed, they flew back to the U.S., recorded the chorus, then the soloists, then a final recording session to add some neat touches, like the voice of Oscar Hammerstein. When you hear the final product, you will think all 70 cast members and the Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra were gathered together in a huge recording hall, but you will be wrong, because we are living in the age where little children have learned to ask “Is it real, daddy?”

But all the audio razzle-dazzle would have been wasted without sure-fire casting and without one of Rodgers’s most melodic scores to work with. Whatever the faults of ALLEGRO, the score is not among them. If you are old enough, you may remember A Fellow Needs a Girl or So Far. If you are also tuned in to show music, you may even recall You Are Never Away or The Gentleman is a Dope. But my own favorites are I Know It Can Happen Again, Winters Go By, Wish Them Well, and Come Home, Joe, sung by Audra McDonald. Hearing Audra wrap her glorious voice around that one song is worth the cost of the entire two-disc set.

The play tells the story of Joseph Taylor, Jr., son of a country doctor and destined to become a doctor himself. It begins with Junior’s birth, follows him through school, medical school, romance, marriage, and his fateful encounter with the decision of his life: whether to climb the medical escalator in the big Chicago hospital or return to join his dad in his home town. This being a Hammerstein book, you’d expect Joe to chuck the high life in favor of the honest labors of the country doctor, and you’d be right. But, in a most un-Hammersteinly twist, the girl he married, his childhood sweetheart, turns out to be seduced by the glitter (and by a wealthy hospital benefactor), and Joe goes home without her – but with nurse Emily, who, it is assumed, will marry him once the legalities are sorted out.

In the original, Emily was played by Lisa Kirk, and a highlight was her The Gentleman is a Dope. Lisa came off as a sadder but wiser nurse, who knows the score, even though the gentleman doesn’t. In the new recording, Emily is sung by Liz Callaway, a much sweeter proposition with a less torchy reading of the lyric. The casting apparently surprised a few people, but the producers asked themselves who would be more likely to leave the big city and follow her fellow back to the sticks – Elaine Stritch or Julie Andrews?

There is a lot of music on these two discs, and it is not, I must say, all gold. A few songs – Yatata Yatata, Money Isn’t Everything, and the title song – are clunkers, because their irony places them more in Sondheimland than in the world of R&H. In fact, it is worth noting that Stephen Sondheim was a gofer for the original ALLEGRO, just as Ted Chapin was a gofer, much later, for Sondheim’s FOLLIES.

These few shortcomings aside, the new recording of ALLEGRO deserves a place in the collection of anyone who loves Broadway music and musicals. I also have the original cast recording of the show, but I doubt that I’ll listen to it any more; the new one seems destined to be, for the foreseeable future, the definitive recording of this fine, underrated musical.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is There a Statesman in the House?

A lot of people are very angry about the bonuses paid to AIG employees, as they should be. But should that fact serve as a signal for members of Congress to form a lynch mob? Should we expect better of our representatives, or must we accept the fact that a politician will never pass up the chance to play the demagogue, especially when the TV cameras are present?

The most shameful exhibitionist of them all was Senator Grassley of Iowa, who said that the AIG people should contemplate suicide, Japanese style. In interviews later, he passed that off as "rhetoric." I pass it off as despicable.

Today a Massachusetts congressman had his turn to vent. Badgering the AIG CEO (who just came on the scene, had no culpability whatsoever, and works for a dollar a year), the Congressman lashed out at the hapless executive, and when the victim said he "took offense" at the Congressman's remarks, the Bay State politician shouted that the offense was intended. That exchange, the Congressman no doubt figured, was worth at least 1000 votes in the next election.

As bad as George Bush's poll numbers were, Congress's were worse, deservedly. Yes, there are venal businesspeople, but there are venal Congressmen, too. The difference is that the businesspeople never get the chance to call Congressional crooks crooks, at least not while the cameras are running.

Then there is the matter of a new tax, narrowly configured to snare only the high-income employees of firms accepting TARP money over a certain, Congressionally mandated, threshold. No matter how much we dislike the much publicized AIG bonuses, it is monstrous for Congress to retaliate in this way. Once we cede Congress the power to impose confiscatory tax rates on any group of people the public hates, we are not much better than the good Massachusetts folks in 17th century Salem.

All this Congressional foaming at the mouth gives President Obama a wonderful opportunity to rise above it and act the statesman, vetoing the most outrageously vindictive bills. Just as Candidate Obama made a wonderful, historic speech about race during the campaign, President Obama now has the chance to remind everyone that class warfare is just as insidious and just as destructive as race warfare. Do we have a statesman or a politician in the White House? We will see.