Sound Advice Reviews
Covering and Re-discovering Showtunes and Standards
In approaching material that many music fans know inside and out from repeated exposure inside and outside theatres, thinking outside the box might help a singer get inside such songs in new ways. Without respect, radical reinvention for its own sake can feel gimmicky. The other extreme, a footstep-following approach adhering slavishly to originals' tempi, arrangements, and phrasing can feel like copycat karaoke; the result risks redundancy. The artists surveyed are different in background, with a few coincidental similarities: the same surname (Miller); two choosing the same number ("Ol' Man River"); two dipping into the same score (Guys and Dolls) or writers (Richard Rodgers; Cy Coleman with Carolyn Leigh).
The genre known as R&B that fuels and informs Broadway Soul, Vol. 1 may as well stand for "re-branding & bold" instead of just "rhythm & blues". Using his flexible voice with flair, Kyle Taylor Parker sings up slinky and sassy storms. Arrangements, co-created by himself and pianist Joshua Stephen Kartes, perform audaciously creative personality transplants on familiar material spanning several decades. Purists may shake their heads and wring their hands, but more adventurous, open-minded musical theatre fans will move and groove in other ways.
Beyond just the impact of initial surprise or bemusement, the real accomplishment here is that, despite some extreme musical overhauls, often the core of intensity and emotion first written into these pieces comes vibrantly through. We think we know what's contained therein, but our senses are awakened, alerted to the strongly surviving motivations and messages with fresh urgency. Granted, it's somewhat like having your attention grabbed via a pail of ice-cold water thrown on you, or getting an electric shock, but, um, in the best way possible. I quite enjoy it.
Fierce, fun-filled, and free-spirited, this singing actor who's trod the boards in Kinky Boots takes a brief but juicy romp, making "Anything Goes" a candidate to serve as the endeavor's mantra and thesis. Much feels celebrational in Parker's parade. A boisterous and campy "I Feel Pretty," with chorus, is complete with spoken urgings to join in the self-affirmations, and bringing that West Side Story joy and self-satisfied glee up several notches. The Phantom of the Opera's "Think of Me" is perhaps the most radically overhauled, as what was once a rather formal and elegant item becomes rather raw and wild. It would now seem at home in a dance clubbelieve it or not. "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Misérables is transformed from its simple, pounding assertion and sense of warning to make the titular question rhetorical and the mood ecstatic and cathartic, especially with an all-stops-out guest vocal solo by Tiffany Mann.
With gravitas somewhat at an ebb, "Ol' Man River" surges and sways more than the mighty Mississippi usually does, here combined with an (uncredited) "A Change Is Gonna Come," the mid-1960s Sam Cooke soul classic that begins "I was born by a river...". This interesting insertion balances the Show Boat lament's resignation with hope. (Unlike the others, the singer's arrangement partner is Sherrod Barnes, who also takes over guitar duties from David Cinquegrana in the band that is completed by drummer Zach Eldrige and bassist Colin Dean.)
Included among the theatre items, too, is the group Fun's Grammy-winning Song of the Year, "We Are Young," which was also used in the Broadway-friendly TV series "Glee." There are only 10 tracks in all, so I imagine the low count and the existence of Parker's growing series of videos tweaking other showtunes means he's holding onto some for another round of re-imaginings, since the current collection is titled Vol. 1. I hope that isn't just wishful thinking, as this is not only a novelty, but a formidable and fascinating dissection and resurrection.
Although vocalist Rebecca DuMaine isn't radical in her approach to the songs on her plate, there are two things that make her renditions and her five recordings a bit special. In this, like her four previous releases, her singing shares the spotlight (and billing) with the small band which takes a big chunk of the playing time. For those just as content to focus solely on the melodies (and many are by the great composers), that's a welcome opportunity rather than an "intermission" that might breed impatience to return to the "story" of the song. The other DuMaine main attraction is a strong sense of sunniness that permeates her singing and sound. Blithe and unfettered, her vocals are vibrant and almost always breezy, with material weighted towards happier, uncomplicated subject matter in the lyrics. The included oldie "Give Me the Simple Life" could double as her merry motto.
The co-starring group is The Dave Miller Combo, named for its pianist/leader who is seen on the cover, and who is Rebecca's father and a professional musician for many years. They share not just genes, but also the credits for arranging and producing the recording, and, seemingly, a musical agenda and attitude. His playing is nimble, crisp and direct, and the midway instrumental passages stay in the same established lane as the vocal presentation, rather than taking a side trip of exploration or abstractness. That is the case whether or not the tempo and style are close to how the most established songs were most famously/originally ingrained in our consciousness. His combo-colleagues are all grade A, though their last names all start with B: drummer Bill Belasco and bassist Chuck Bennett, with guest guitarist Brad Buethe.
Jazz is the reference point, with star player George Shearing mentioned prominently (in the liner notes) as a favorite and inspiration, his LP with singer Nancy Wilson saluted in the cover photo. Jazz-leaning composer and theatre giant Cy Coleman is represented by "When in Rome (I Do as the Romans Do)," one of his non-Broadway collaborations with Carolyn Leigh (mistakenly listed here as Carol), its sly lyric tossed off with a sense of bonhomie. The selections also include three things from the songbook of Rodgers & Hart: the standard "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and two less frequently recorded, the sarcastic "Ev'rything I've Got (Belongs to You)" and "Do It the Hard Way." Another musical theatre item is "I've Never Been in Love Before" from Guys and Dolls. All are handled with efficient aplomb and good spirits.
Can there be such a thing as overdosing on cheeriness? With 14 tracks that are almost all perky and peppy, it could be a long stay in the carefree zone so that it starts to feel like slightly shades of the same bright color. Some significant shadow, however, comes to change the mood with the sadnessthough more ruminative than distraughtof "Yesterday" (Paul McCartney), with piano taking the accompaniment reins, which shows that daughter and dad can deliver more than a one-trick pony presentation. More variety and depth would have made for a richer recording. A missed opportunity comes when she goes bilingual, first delivering the original despairing French lyric "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" with as much bounce as is given to the unrelated and far less fraught English lyric ("I Wish You Love").
Chez Nous (whose title, by the way, references another French-language piece in the package, "Chez Moi") may not be essential listening in breaking new ground or introducing a cornucopia of new material. Still, it's an enjoyable, undemanding, unpretentious romp ripe for the picking if you fancy an unfancy pick-me-up.
I am very happy to see a low-profile 2008 recording by John Miller, with especially fresh interpretations of musical theatre gems, reissued independently. It's too good to miss; and it seems especially timely now by virtue of its inclusion of four songs from shows recently revived on Broadway: My Fair Lady represented by "Wouldn't It Be Loverly"; "Why Can't You Behave?" from Kiss Me, Kate; and two things from Oklahoma!.
An instrumentalist, handling bass and guitar, Miller also sings with an appealing, easygoing, and folksy style. He has long been a mainstay for major musical theatre productions in New York, concerts, films, etc., as a music contractor/coordinator. Once upon a memorable time, in the late 1970s, his first such Broadway assignment also included singing and playing bass as part of the chipper on-stage participants in I Love My Wife. If your memory goes back to the show or its original cast album, the thoroughly engaging Stage Door Johnny will recall that same familiar sense of playfulness.
Here's the kind of recording that invites frequent smile-inducing listens. Songs that may have been grandly presentational and declarative in their original contexts are now cozy and conversational. If you had a hammock and a lemonade, it would complete the ideal summer afternoon of relaxation for a Great White Way sway, with these winning and warm arrangements by Miller and participating band member, guitarist David Spinozza, who is among an impressive group of top-drawer instrumentalists.
The dozen delights here favor famous and older shows, Show Boat with a mellow "Ol' Man River" being the earliest, having first rolled along 92 years ago. Their age and familiarity only emphasize the triumph of how fresh, contemporary and colloquial the masterful Miller makes everything soundwith seeming effortlessness. Affection for the material is palpable, despite the retooling that places so much in settings and stylings that evoke folk, pop, country, American rootsiness, and jazz sensibilities. In the latter category, two stalwarts from that field are shining guest vocalists chiming in with Miller for an inventively jazz-tweaked blend on Guys and Dolls' contrapuntal treasure, "Fugue for Tinhorns": Janis Siegel and the late Bob Dorough.
While some of the material may come off as offhand, don't doubt the underlying sincerity. It comes through soft and clear when more seriousness is needed instead of the more frequent mood of contentment, such as "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I. The two items plucked from the score of another Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!, offer more pleasures. We're treated to a laidback glide through that score's opening number, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," that is the very picture of serenity. Andhere comes the surprisethere's a cutely gender-switched selection: with some adjustments to the words, the comical character Ado Annie's "I Cain't Say No" takes on the point of view of a guy in his lust for the ladies. Have you ever heard this high-spirited confession of low resistance sung by a man? The gentler side of the same coin has Miller sweetly expressing shyness and awe as a guy having his first dance with "A Real Live Girl," with Little Me's little gem of a lyric by Carolyn Leigh set to the graceful melody by Cy Coleman, composer of the aforementioned I Love My Wife. By the way, two Broadway revivals each of Little Me and Oklahoma!, as well as the late-'90s return of The King and I, are among Miller's dozens of credits as musical contractor.
John Miller takes care to make John Miller Takes on Broadway a thoughtful and well-thought-out recital, and his "takes" on these old-timers are well worth the time to savor.