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Aiming a Critic's Spotlight at the Series

August 25, 1996|Laurie Winer

"UNSUNG MUSICALS"

This is a compilation of songs from shows that closed before they got to Broadway or shortly thereafter. Some songs are as lackluster as the shows they were in; others transcend. A highlight: Harry Groener singing the title song from the Marvin Hamlisch-Howard Ashman musical "Smile."

Ashman, who died in 1991, was one of the great theater lyricists, a man who could write with perfect simplicity without ever being simple. Sung by the character of a beauty pageant emcee, "Smile" makes me unaccountably happy.

*

"PART OF YOUR WORLD--DEBBIE SHAPIRO GRAVITTE SINGS ALAN MENKEN"

This is an example of how Varese Sarabande can run amok. A sexy and appealing performer onstage, Shapiro Gravitte comes off all wrong here. She mangles the title song, a great Menken-Ashman number, from "The Little Mermaid." Hampered by an awful orchestration that tries very hard to be "magical" on electric keyboard, Shapiro Gravitte seems to have no sense of the song's perfect structure and sings each chorus as if it were unrelated to the next one.

This CD will be re-released this month with two songs added from the Disney film "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and with more marketing emphasis on Menken and less on the singer.

*

"LOST IN BOSTON"

This compilation of songs cut from shows is one of the strongest theme albums in the Spotlight Series.

Lillias White sings "Come Down From That Tree," a wonderful number cut from "Once on This Island," with music by Steve Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. In it, the heroine is urging a little girl to come down from her safe perch in a tree, in essence to give up the familiar life and the attitudes she clings to in order to try the unfamiliar, scary life below. This is a great theater song thanks to its strongly drawn character and perfectly sustained metaphor. I am thankful forever to Varese Sarabande for recording this song and recording it well.

However, the very next song on the disc, "Tick Tock Goes the Clock" from "Promises, Promises," is unlistenable. Three single women fret together: "Tick tock goes the clock / With every single second each day / The time for getting married / Is passing, is slipping away." The poppy orchestration is insipid; the whole enterprise offensive. Some cut songs should just stay cut.

*

"BROADWAY BOUND"

This CD features the work of songwriters who haven't yet made it big. "Nina," a song by Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell, is a witty comment on how actors feel about earning a "Nina"--that is, being immortalized by theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who always hides his daughter's name, Nina, in his drawings. Sung with perfect Noel Coward drollness by Jonathan Freeman and Christopher Durang, this delicious song includes the lyric: "There's a teeny Nina on the front of Linda Hunt, it's said / And a rather hairy Nina on the tail of Mr. Ed / On the head of Horton Foote / And on the foot of Edith Head / . . . Everybody has to have a Nina."

Another clever song by Alan Chapman called "Everybody Wants to Be Sondheim" is sung by the pleasant-voiced Guy Haines, who shows up on a lot of the Spotlight recordings. Haines, whose features are always blocked in the liner note photos, is reportedly none other than Bruce Kimmel, though Kimmel will not own up.

*

"THE ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER ALBUM"

At 50,000 copies sold, this is the Spotlight Series' biggest hit, largely because the company marketed the composer's name over the singer's--Laurie Beechman.

Beechman sings some of Lloyd Webber's worst dreck as if it were music for the ages, particularly "Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life)," which Lloyd Webber wrote for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and one of the worst songs ever from a hit show, with the incomprehensible lyrics "Starlight Express / Answer me yes / I don't want you to go."

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