From a wintry New Zealand fireside, listening to new American CD....
When I was a wee, small chap, my taste in music ran to the vast, the dramatic, the voluminous, and the Wagnerian (from Richard to Robert's chorale). Then I grew up a bit, began to sing myself, and, as puberty threatened (age 11), started to realise that the words of a song were not there solely on which to practice one's vowels and consonants. They meant something.
Many of the lyrics of that era were, in both 'art song' and in popular music, pretty soggy stuff, or irritatingly Christian, but then one came upon a piece of wonderment such as 'Der Erlkönig' ... and understood that the words and the story of a song were utterly crucial to its wellbeing. Sometimes ever more than the music.
I remember how my father recounted to me the dreadful story of the Erl King and, then, at my insistence, the other tales which had served the great Lieder composers for texts ... and on we went from there .. 'Mein Vater, mein Vater ...'
Leap forward 60 or more years. During which, during my time and life in music I have never underestimated songwords, on the stage, the platform, anywhere. Even, Lord love us, in opera. The brilliant witticisms of the French revues, of Willemetz, Barde et al, of their English sort-of-equivalents, from which Noel Coward today remains the remembered-one ('Dance, Little Lady'), such gems as 'Miss Otis Regrets' from across the pond .. No voluminosity needed. Crisp tales, sung to, often, a solo piano accompaniment, thanks to which one could hear and appreciate the words ...
There was a backward step in the 1930s, with the arrival of the microphone ... but I guess we're stuck with the ghastly thing now...
Songwords got a bit banal in the 1950s (but who can forget those masterpieces 'Tell Laura I love her' and 'El Paso'?), before plunging, in the 1960s, into baby-baby and yeh-yeh ... whil, at the same time, too many stage shows tumbled into pitiful pasticcii of yay-time old songs.
There were, however, still, in my time, shows which followed the songs with piano (and listenable lyrics) way. My favourite was Songbook. A laugh in every bar! 'Messages are .. for Western Union'. But, more and more, in spite of the revivification of the small theatre in London, we still await a new flood of musical plays and shows of the Gate or New Lindsay Theatre kind et al. Is it coming? No helicopter nor chandeliers, but, instead words ... no hundred piece band, but the friendly tones of the ivories.
Bon. Enough general chat. But it is relevant. For this disc -- played as an evening's performance from the COVID years -- is made up of the original word-work of one man. A delightful panoply of musicians, but a single writer. New York's Michael Colby. I have been acquainted with Mr Colby since he was Master Colby of the Algonquin Hotel. And I was delightedly surprised to hear, years ago, his delicious early musical Charlotte Sweet.
If you want to read what I thought of that darlin' show, here is my old review, which is the reason I am hastening to this collection of songs.
OK. A pleasant afternoon. I not going to write about the numbers individually. Because you have to listen to the words on a disc which is professedly angled towards its lyrics. So I didn't type with one half of my brain while I listened with the other.
So, what do we have? The usual 'revue'/'concert' mixture? Naturally. It's a tried and proven mixture. The witty and lively, the thoughtful, even the melodramatic. With the items barely linked one to another.
Since this is a New York concert there are songs with a New York -- no, a Very New York -- flavour. And a New York -- no a Very New York -- accent. Some so very New York that this New Zealander had a bit of trouble deciphering the always clearly enunciated and recorded words in some songs. Of course, my hearing is not declining! (Is it?) I just don't speak Bronx.
Since this is a New York album we also have what I consider the most anguishing type of New York song: the elderly or passée actress (never an actor) pouring out her glorious swansong ... please, guys, we're sick, sick, sick to death of this theme. For the sake of the American songbook - Can It?
This collection -- many of which songs are excerpted from Michael's shows -- is far and away at its best when it is at its jauntiest and liveliest, and its least conventional. And that is most of the time.
Listen for yourself, and you will see what I mean.
The performance is not what this 'show' is all about, but it is delightful to hear such singers of my generation in the theatre, as Sarah Rice (I am fascinated by a musicalised Léocadia!) and Marianne Tatum, showing us that their voices (unlike mine!) have scarce been withered by time. Some others do less well, especially when they effortfully try to howl out a vibratoless top note. But audiences, I'm sure, will love these latter 'veterans' for trying. And then there is the splendid Klea Blackhurst from -- surely -- this generation...
Michael himself delivers his anthem 'Growing Up At the Algonquin', as a finale. I didn't know he could sing. If he could, his voice has suffered much, much more than mine. But character? .. yes! This track will be a classic when all the rest are gone. It is a part of on-the-spot New York history.
So, put the disc on, open a bottle, LaZboy, transport yourself to NYC, and just listen. There's fun for everyone. Like me, you will have a jolly time, with only the occasional errrrm (what would life be without the odd errrm?) but for Zeus's sake don't stop before track 20. It is one of the glories of the age.
Well done, Master Colby.