BradHathaway.com

Not in this century have we musical theater lovers been so lucky as to have all three of the scores of the season’s series of Encores! concerts at New York’s City Center recorded for our listening pleasure and collecting treasure. This is no small thing, for whenever an Encores! presentation is preserved on CD, it instantly becomes an indispensable part of a theater lover’s collection.

This year’s season represented a wide range of material – a Rodgers and Hammerstein score that almost qualifies for the title of a lost musical, a Jule Styne gem and a Stephen Sondheim flop, which despite its initial rejection, offered a score as sparkling as any he had delivered.

First, a word about Encores! itself. In his notes to the Rodgers and Hammerstein item in this troika of treasures, the President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin, explains that “When City Center’s Encores! began in 1994, its mission was to present American musicals of merit that were not part of the standard repertoire, in a 2,000+ seat theater in the middle of New York City in some artistically and economically sensible format, with the orchestra featured prominently on stage, a sense of staging and choreography, and with some scenic embellishments. First rate Broadway musical theater talent would be engaged and put in a pressure cooker – a week and a half of rehearsals, half a week of performances. Scripts in hand were encouraged. In other words, give rarely done or lesser-known shows the best possible presentation by Broadway’s first tier, and let the strengths shine through.”

The 2012 season began with an unusual entry into the Encores! catalogue. Since its inception in 1994, the series has attempted to present scores with their original orchestrations wherever possible. Many required a great deal of research and even detective work to come up with something approximating the original sound heard from the pit of the Broadway house where the show had originated. The charts might simply be trashed when a show closed unless a tour was in the offing. Sometimes, new orchestrations had to be prepared when it simply wasn’t possible to recreate history.

A radically different approach was taken with the February presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s 16 performance flop from 1981, Merrily We Roll Along. The highly esteemed orchestrator of that show, Jonathan Tunick, was given the unusual opportunity to try a “do over.” Completely new charts were commissioned with an orchestra of a very different character. In his notes in the booklet accompanying the CD, Tunick said that in 1981 he made “the never-to-be-repeated error” of choosing the mix of instruments to have in the pit before he had “actually heard and studied the score.” On the basis of a description of the score, he presumed it would be “some sort of rock musical” and had “ordered a fender bass and electric guitar” and limited strings to just three cellos.

This new recording – a two disc set that captures the entire score with the glorious sound of Tunick’s newly created charts played by an orchestra of 24 under Rob Berman’s solid direction – is a delight from the energetic overture to the final “button” on “Our Time” one hour and 29 minutes later.

The cast is – as is always the case at Encores! – a strong one. There is a very interesting performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda as the best friend of the central character, a composer whose battle with the corrupting influence of success is at the core of the show. He’s played by Colin Donnell, taking a break from his duties as the male lead in Anything Goes which was then playing at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Celia Keenan-Bolger and Elizabeth Stanley stand out as the women in his life.

Encores! moved on from a wonderful score for a show that didn’t make it for Stephen Sondheim to a wonderful score for a show that didn’t make it for his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II working with Richard Rodgers. Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein did have some shows that didn’t make it: Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream all failed to live up to the team’s expectations. Pipe Dream – an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “Sweet Thursday” – had a lot longer run than Merrily – 246 performances over seven months in 1955-56. But that was considered a letdown for the team whose four fabulous hits to that date averaged over 1,500 performances each!

Using Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, the concert cast re-introduce us to some marvelous Rodgers and Hammerstein songs such as “The Party That We’re Gonna Have Tomorrow Night,” “The Next Time It Happens,” “All at Once You Love Her” and – a personal favorite from their catalog – “The Man I Used To Be.”

Will Chase is just a tad bland as the male lead, but the same can’t be said for Laura Osnes as the love interest, or of Tom Wopat or Stephen Wallem who bring plenty of personality to their parts. Most interestingly, Leslie Uggams takes the role originally written for opera soprano Helen Traubel. Uggams sounds a bit tentative with the most operatic aspects, but brings a refreshingly popular theater sound to the role that seems to me to work better here than Traubel’s did on the original Broadway cast recording of the score.

Encores! closed out the season with a score by Jule Styne working at the peak of his melodic and rhythmic skills, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Based on a novel by Anita Loos the musical comedy had a book by Loos and Joseph Fields and lyrics by Leo Robin. It was a hit in 1949 (running until 1951 for a total of 740 performances) establishing Carol Channing as a major star. It was made into a movie with Marilyn Monroe in Channing’s role and co-starred Jane Russell.

Megan Hilty and Rachel York shared the spotlight for Encores! and the recording reveals just how their musical competition progressed with York stealing the show from Hilty only to have Hilty steal it back … and back and forth it goes. The thirty players of the orchestra give Styne’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” “It’s High Time,” “I Love What I’m Doing (When I’m Doing It For Love)” and the title tune a jazzy sparkle using Don Walker’s original orchestrations.

Interestingly enough, the three recordings are on three different labels with different approaches to capturing and presenting the scores.

PS Classics does its usual superbly classy job of packaging Merrily as a two-disc set delivered in a jewel case with a slick, thick booklet wrapped in a cardboard package. The booklet, lushly illustrated with two dozen color photographs from the concert, includes notes on the show, its score and the orchestrations, a full synopsis (particularly important in this case as the show runs in reverse chronological order and is, thus, confusing without full explanation) and the complete lyrics.

Ghostlight Record’s more slender package for Pipe Dream holds a single CD but, unlike all the recordings of Encores! concerts in the past, this one is a live recording captured in the newly-upgraded City Center. Audience reaction is evident – and it is evident that the audience is reacting with admiration and adoration. Berman’s conducting of the 30 players starts out lacking a bit of the enthusiasm we came to expect from an Encores! performance when Rob Fisher was the musical director and conductor, but they get into it shortly after the overture in great style and the entr’acte is a blast as is the brief but wonderful music played during the bows.

The booklet, with its more than a dozen photos from the original production and the concert, does provide notes and synopsis, but saves space by pointing out that the lyrics are available online at the Rodgers and Hammerstein website (www.rnh.com/PipeDreamLyrics).

Masterworks Broadway prints the full text of Leo Robin’s delightfully witty lyrics for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in its colorful (8 photos) booklet and still has room for a clear synopsis and a note from Rob Berman appreciating the vocal arrangements of Hugh Martin which, along with Don Walker’s orchestrations, give Styne’s brilliant songs the sparkle that they deserve.

A well stocked Theater Shelf just might benefit from an Encores! section all to itself. 

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Merrily We Roll Along
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:29 over 26 tracks on two discs
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos
PS Classics Catalog Number PS-1208
ASIN: B007Q1IT1I
List Price $14.95

Pipe Dream
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:15 over 22 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis and photos
Ghostlight Records Catalog Number 8-4463
ASIN: B008QE9GUM
List Price $14.99

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
2012 Encores! Recording
Running time 1:12 over 27 tracks
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos
Masterworks Broadway Catalog Number 88725 44451 2
ASIN: B008BCHADE
List Price $11.98

Three – Count E’m Three – from Encores!

September 25, 2012