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Kevin James (UK)

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A Million Miles from Broadway -- Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London
A Million Miles from Broadway -- Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London
by Mel Atkey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.84

5.0 out of 5 stars Travels in space and time, 11 July 2013
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This marvellous book, annotated with real academic care, is brimming with affection for this multi-headed beast we call "musical theatre". The author's task is considerable: to round up landmark musicals most Broadway fans will never have heard of (or contemplated existed), and make the story of their creation utterly involving. Not only does Mr Atkey (our undaunted and very affable guide) take us around the world - to Australia, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada - so many destinations, but we travel back through time too, with histories of operetta, of French (and German) cabaret, of South African musical theatre... too much to list here. Suffice to say, this assiduously gathered mountain of research is presented in an accessible way, offering a terrific springboard from which the reader may launch his own personal investigations. But this book is much more than an encyclopedia. It is a beautifully structured discussion about where this world-wide phenomenon, MT, has sprung from, and where it might be heading. It poses many questions: how do you successfully translate a work from one culture to another; how is MT best funded; can MT thrive without democracy? So many ideas thrown up, and so many examples to illustrate. The oft-lengthy development process of selected musicals, such as Canada's The Drowsy Chaperone, are described in great detail, and make for fascinating reading. Throughout the book, Mr Atkey's handling of quotations is always apposite, always thought-provoking. It's like being at a global symposium of elite MT creatives! And the chapter on the rock'n'roll influence on MT is very well-observed and very funny. Although Mr Atkey writes as a Canadian, I could relate entirely to what he was saying here. Which illustrates the central theme (so clearly set out in the superb preface), which is: writers function best when they speak from the heart, working from their own experience, from within their own culture. With talent and integrity (and nurturing from outside) universal truths may then emerge from which others can benefit. Even if they live a million miles away.

Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da
Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da
Offered by plusnoise
Price: £5.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A yes in any language, 3 Jan. 2013
This a very strong selection of songs, well played, and well-sung. Suggs' trademark timing is properly intact, his vocal double act with Carl now practised to perfection. There are some very effective brass arrangements and string parts, and, true to their punkish roots, none of the tracks outstays its welcome.

"How can I tell you" is a superb parent-to-child declaration of love, not in the least bit mawkish. As a forty-something Dad, I can relate to this song whole-heartedly. It's so thoughtfully written, catchy and full of bounce, and so generous in feeling, I can be moved whilst simultaneously bounding round the room with my two young daughters! (Yes, Madness are still the most family friendly band ever!)

Another stand-out is Mike's "Never knew your name". It's a rather painful portrait (and I recoiled on first listen) - conjuring the idea of a middle-aged divorcee incapacitated by shyness at a disco, haunted by the girl he's spent only a little time with. But the song reflects the truth of actual experience, and this honesty and unpretentiousness is one reason why Madness are a very special act indeed, and so much loved.

There are other highlights, like the ominous "Death of a Rude Boy." (Chas Smash's rap is obvously influenced by a younger generation of London vocalists.) I like Smyth's other solo offering here, "So Alive" - what a fabulous groove! And there are countless musical subtleties that register more on repeated hearing (the "fate" theme from Beethoven 5 which wittily pops up in "Misery", for example. Or the gorgeous Beatlesesque conclusion to "Powder Blue".)

It is nice to see Woody's writing talent rewarded by three substantial contributions. Lee and Chris seem to have taken a back seat this time round, but that's one of the advantages of having so many songwriters in the group - the collective well hopefully doesn't run dry. It hasn't yet anyway.

With producers including the experienced Owen Morris (Oasis) and Stephen Street (Smiths), the band's earthy, "live" sound is very fathfully captured. Yes, it's different from the jigsaw puzzle brilliance of Clive Langer's work with them in the 80s (and on 1999's wonderful "Wonderful.") One assumes that kind of labour intensive approach is forbiddingly expensive these days, I don't know. It's a shame we have lost Bedders' wonderful melodic, punchy bass lines, but he's left (amicably), and that's life. The new bassist is no slouch.

Why not 5 stars? Well, I don't like the ordering of tracks, a problem I also had with the previous (excellent) Norton Folgate song collection. Some may beg to differ, but I think the songs might sit better in a different order. I don't like My Girl2 as an opener. And the bonus tracks section is a bit of a fudge. What I want is an album that plays right through from start to finish. (For the record, here's my attempt to improve the listening experience: Never Knew your name, How can I tell you, My Girl 2, La Luna, Misery, So Alive, Death of a Rude Boy, Black and Blue, Leon, Small World, Kitchen Floor, My Girl 2(2), Cicus Freaks, Powder Blue.) That really is my main reservation. 5 stars otherwise.

In short, this offering from the Nutty Boys is certainly no embarassment. Buy it!

A Floating Life: Adventures of Li Po
A Floating Life: Adventures of Li Po
by Simon Elegant
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable and well-researched, 31 Mar. 2010
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A very imaginative and lively reconstruction of the last months of the life of Chinese poet Li Po. As he dictates his life story to a young scribe we are left to work out how much he is embellishing the actual truth. (Quite a lot in some parts!) The handling of the love story with courtesan Peony is beautifully told, as is the depiction of the extravagant Court life of Emperor Hsuan Tsung. Some of Li Po's most famous poems are brought to life and put into imaginative context. Once read, I had to go and read more of Li Po's poetry - a very fulfilling journey indeed.

The Legendary Mizners
The Legendary Mizners
by Alva Johnston
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Kings of the Con expertly documented, 23 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Legendary Mizners (Paperback)
I tracked down a copy of this long out of print book as part of my studies into the work of Stephen Sondheim. His most recent musical "Road Show" uses the lives of the two most notorious Mizner brothers to make points about opportunism and greed in American society. I can certainly see how this 1950s book inspired him. Alva Johnston's biography is tremendous, very stylishly written, full of gorgeous, dry understatement. Wilson was the epitome of the charming con man, born into American respectability, evading it whenever he could. Addison contributed a style of architecture which literally pillaged Old Spain. Together they played a significant part in the Florida land grab of the early 1920s, a colossal boom and bust scenario which echoes recent times. A fascinating tale, extremely well told.

Road Show
Road Show
by Stephen Sondheim
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very neat job, 31 Jan. 2010
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This review is from: Road Show (Paperback)
Great to read the libretto now I'm familiar with the cast recording. A cogent and punchy book by Weidman, with typically faultless lyric construction by Sondheim. (Such inventive rhymes!) And the theme of the play - wasted resources, human greed and opportunism - is as topical as ever. One might think of it as the third instalment of a Sondheim-Weidman collaborative trilogy (together with Pacific Overtures and Assassins.) Once again they are documenting the more destructive aspects of the American Dream/ human nature. It is a musical comedy though (albeit a dark one,) so nothing here is overly didactic or earnest.
Some critics have complained that the main two characters aren't sympathetic enough to be the focus of a musical. How sympathetic can opportunitic con men be, for heaven's sake? It really isn't that kind of a show, and I'm glad!
One quibble - as a musical biography of the Mizner Brothers I find it takes a tiny bit too much liberty with the truth. For intance, I was confused to read afterwards that Hollis Bessamer (Addison Mizner's love interest) is a fictional, composite character. If Hollis was really based on Paris Singer, then why isn't Singer a character in the play? Anybody know? Then again, those Presidential assassins were probably part-fictionalised too (as was Mama Rose, and the Von Trapp family too, no doubt!) It's a tradition of warping fact into convenient fiction that goes right through Broadway history.
Just a quibble. This is a great chamber musical.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 30, 2011 2:19 PM BST

Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions
Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions
by Mark Eden Horowitz
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For musicians only, but utterly fascinating, 29 Oct. 2009
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The first half of this book will suit any Sondheim enthusiast familiar with his mature works and able to read musical notation. It consists of transcribed interviews by author Horowitz, a seasoned musical theatre historian from the Library of Congress. The interviews were held over three days in 1997 to shed light on manuscripts Sondheim had bequeathed to the Library. They reveal much about his compositional approaches, including the systematic development of motifs and his insistence on character-based writing.

The interviews begin exploring musical drafts of "Passion" (the most recent completed score), then work back through "Assassins", "Into the Woods", "Sunday in the Park With George", "Sweeney Todd" to "Pacific Overtures". Not discussed in the same extraordinary detail (though touched upon here and there) are "Merrily We Roll Along", and the early Hal Prince collaborations "Follies", "Company", and "A Little Night Music".

Horowitz is clearly well prepared, and Sondheim is a wonderfully relaxed, enthusiastic and honest interviewee. The emphasis is very much on the process of music composition rather than lyrics. All musical extracts are clearly and diligently transcribed from the original manuscripts. This reader felt he was being given a privilledged insight into the careful blend of intuition and skill that has produced the most inspiring body of work in post-war Broadway history.

Part two of the book is less compelling and a bit of an anticlimax. Sondheim's list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written (at least in part)" unearths some lesser known gems from yesteryear. The list is of some interest (though we don't learn why he wishes he'd written a lot of them,) and the words of praise by his contemporaries that fill several pages more add little to our understanding. (This whole section comprises reprinted programme notes from a Birthday Tribute Concert.)

The extremely full Discography which follows, and takes up the second half of the book, was added at the request of the author and may be considered a useful reference work in its own right. (Personally, I would have loved more interviews!)

Although quite expensive, I'd say this book is well worth having if you are a more musicologically-minded fan, or a musician interested in composing for the theatre. Of the books on Sondheim I have read, this is one of the most absorbing and insightful, and makes a marvellous companion piece to Craig Zadan's magnificent "Sondheim and Co."
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2009 12:31 AM GMT

Follies / 1998 Cast
Follies / 1998 Cast
Price: £27.26

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Restored to its former glory!, 12 Oct. 2009
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This review is from: Follies / 1998 Cast (Audio CD)
This double CD is as near as anyone could reasonably hope to being a full recording of all the music from the 1971 collaborative masterpiece "Follies". (That is, considering the OCR was radically shortened to fit onto an LP.) The energy and edginess of that original record is not quite present in the same measure. (How could it be 27 years afterwards, with an entirely different set of participants?) Yet the 1998 actors here are perfectly convincing in their roles. The orchestrations sound magnificent. It is worth the price just to hear the glorious Prologue in full.
My only tiny quibble is that Phyllis' Act 2 Follies song is the 1987 revision "Ah, But Underneath", rather than the peppier "Ballad of Lucy and Jessie" (from '71), which works so much better as part of the quartet. (However, Lucy and Jessie is included as one of the bonus "cut" numbers on disc 2, so with a bit of track adjustment everyone is happy!)

Nice work, Paper Mill!

Follies (Highlights From Original London Cast Recording, 1987) (CD)
Follies (Highlights From Original London Cast Recording, 1987) (CD)
Price: £8.48

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting revisions, but pales next to the original, 12 Oct. 2009
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Revivals will always be a tricky juggling act. In the case of Follies, the original 1971 Hal Prince production had an absolutely massive budget. (It never recouped its investment despite running for a year!) Also, it was perfectly tailored to its stars, brilliantly designed and costumed, and sensationally choregraphed by the late, great Michael Bennett. The storyline was gritty and unflinching, examining the ageing process, and the failure of love to make candyfloss dreams come true. No revival could ever truly recreate the power of Prince's show.

Enter Cameron Mackintosh in 1987, and this brave attempt to commercially refashion Follies for an 1980s London audience. Much of the music seems to have been recreated pretty faithfully, (even if some songs have been mysteriously shifted around or updated,) and the leads (particularly Diana Rigg) acquit themselves well enough (if not as well as the original cast.) The main problem, however, is that all the new songs created especially for this revival by Sondheim, although typically brilliant in construction and detail, are generally inferior to the songs they replace. The discomfiting tone of the original James Goldman book has clearly been softened too. In short, here is an interesting attempt to update a classic, that pales by direct comparison with its distinguished former incarnation.

"Ah, But Underneath" is by far the best-fitted new song, and Rigg sings it quite brilliantly. She also does full justice to "Could I Leave You?". She is very much the star of this recording. The men's vocals generally lack distinction (though "Buddy's Blues" zips along), and the other Broadway babies struggle to match their forbears.

The main interest of this recording is therefore as a transitional curiosity, as an illustration of that open-minded, revisionist tendency in Sondheim (here presumably cajoled by Mackintosh.) In many ways Sondheim's adaptability is admirable (like his willingness to make cuts for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd movie), but sometimes it does produce inferior results. To lose "The Road You Never Take" is damaging enough to our understanding of Ben's troubled character, but to axe "Live, Laugh, Love" as well? Folly indeed! (One presumes Hal Prince would have scratched his head at these revisions.)

This version of the play was withdrawn from circulation after the end of the run. The version of Follies now officially sanctioned is, in terms of musical numbers, much closer to the 1971 edition, though the currently available libretto is still not a patch on the original out-of-print one. (Writer James Goldman seems to have had unfortunate revisionist tendencies too!)

To understand what Follies opened up in terms of radical concept musicals, do read the fascinating account of its creation in Ted Chapin's excellent book. Listen too to the brilliant (though sadly truncated) 1971 Broadway Cast Recording, and also to the superb 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse double CD which is very faithful to the original, and has much valuable bonus material to offer.

Follies / O.B.C.
Follies / O.B.C.
Offered by davidw_1212
Price: £9.40

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sublime musical with the definitive cast, 5 Oct. 2009
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This review is from: Follies / O.B.C. (Audio CD)
This recording comes in for a lot of stick. Sonically there are a few oddities, yes. (Some too-prominent persussion in places, and some rather over-ripe, rip-roaring trombones too!) However, listen on headphones and the balance of orchestra and singers is lovely and natural. The colours of Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestrations are beautifully captured, and the stereo panning is creatively done, conjuring actors actually walking across the stage whilst singing. Most importantly, there is a real urgency in everyone's performance, an edginess so right for this controversial landmark in modern musical theatre.

It is certainly unfortunate that a double album wasn't offered by Capitol Records. That said, the cuts are very intelligently made, and the album that results is concise and punchy. Incredibly vauable as a document of the cast's huge amount of work developing this legendary masterpiece (see Ted Chapin's marvellous book "Follies: Everything was Possible"), it is still a thrilling listening experience in itself.

The sleeve notes by Mark Kirkeby are superb, and a great help in grasping the plot and characterisations.

A further tip: if possible seek out the libretto from 1971 to accurately imagine these recordings in their proper context within the play. Book-writer Goldman revised the script over the years, removing a lot of the bitter sting of the original. The 2001 script is a bit blander as a result.

Also recommended is the double-CD 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse recording, which contains all the music excised in 1971.

Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical "Follies": The Birth of the Musical "Follies"
Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical "Follies": The Birth of the Musical "Follies"
by Theodore S. Chapin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.58

5.0 out of 5 stars Very valuable document, 5 Oct. 2009
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Amazing book. Couldn't put it down. What a phenomenal genius producer Harold Prince was in the 1970s, so tireless in his efforts to perfect this behemoth of a production and save it from the too-hasty talons of tetchy critics! The image of Sondheim pacing the back of the auditorium on opening night, whisky bottle in hand, is just one of many that will stick. Fair, balanced, thorough, this is great reportage, essential reading for any fan of Broadway.

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