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Cherry Red’s él Label Revisits Henry Mancini, Esquivel and Piero Piccioni On New Anthologies

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Playboy ThemesThe latest crop of titles from Cherry Red Group’s él label criss-cross the globe from the U.S.A. to Mexico to Italy with releases from American legend Henry Mancini, bandleader Esquivel, and composer Piero Piccioni.

Fans of Henry Mancini’s cool jazz and lounge stylings are the target audience for Playboy Themes, a collection of the great maestro’s music recorded between 1958 and 1962.  This 28-track compilation takes in both Mancini’s own compositions as well as those he recorded by others.  The title is derived from the Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Barnum) song interpreted by Mancini on his 1960 Combo! album featuring such jazz greats as Art Pepper, Shelly Manne, Pete Candoli, Dick Nash and Ted Nash, as well as the young Johnny (later Academy Award-winner John) Williams on piano and harpsichord!  In addition to Coleman, Mancini brings his distinctive touch to songs by Claude Thornhill (“Snowfall”), Nino Rota (“Drink More Milk”) and Mikis Theodorakis (“Love Theme from Phaedra”), but the emphasis is on his own classic music from the television series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, and the films Touch of Evil, High Time, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bachelor in Paradise, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, The Days of Wine and Roses and more.  Both sides of his RCA single from the film The Great Impostor are also here.  A couple of tracks are actually covers of Mancini songs, such as the sublime guitarist Laurindo Almeida’s “Moon River” and “Baby Elephant Walk” from another guitar great, Al Caiola.  Brief liner notes round out the package.  You can further explore Mancini’s groundbreaking film music on a new box set from RCA Victor and Legacy Recordings, The Classic Soundtrack Collection.

EsquivelTracks like “Playboy’s Theme” and “A Cool Shade of Blue” are perfect accompaniment for a groovy bachelor pad; and so is the music you’ll find on the two-for-one expanded reissue of Latin-Esque and Exploring New Sounds in Stereo from bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel (1918-2002).  The King of Space Age Pop made his name on these early records, migrating from RCA Victor’s Mexican division to its American label with his “exotica” records featuring trademark cocktail piano, quirky and lush, often Latin-inspired instrumentation, wordless vocals (like his famous “zu-zu-zu”) and a futuristic sound.  On these albums, he pushes the envelope of stereo separation; there’s even a “Guide to Listening” in the booklet explaining the exaggerated, frequently striking stereo effects used.  Recording in Hollywood, Esquivel used many of the same musicians as Henry Mancini, including Bud Shank, Ted Nash, Plas Johnson, and Vincent De Rosa; Laurindo Almeida sat in on guitar.  This set pairs 1962’s Latin-Esque with 1959’s Exploring New Sounds in Stereo, and adds selections from both volumes of Infinity in Sound (1960 and 1961) for a swinging overview of Esquivel’s early period at RCA.  Standards like “My Blue Heaven,” “Lazy Bones,” “All of Me” and “Take the A Train” – all of which were featured alongside Esquivel originals and traditional tunes – never quite sounded the same!

There’s much more after the jump, including full track listings and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

December 18, 2014 at 11:20

Give ‘Em a Spin: The Second Disc’s Essential Back to Black Friday 2014 Release Guide

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black_friday_logo

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is here, and with each Thanksgiving comes another Black Friday, the day for consumers to start off the holiday shopping season on a mad, frenetic note. This year is just in the latest one in which numerous retailers in the U.S. have made headlines by blackening Thursday, or Thanksgiving Day itself, with sales starting on the holiday. So many might give thanks that the folks behind Record Store Day are waiting until the traditional Friday for the second of their twice-yearly events.

In keeping with tradition, Mike and I have once again selected our picks for the crème de la crème of titles being released this Friday from many of our favorite labels, including Legacy Recordings, Omnivore Recordings, Rhino Records, Varese Sarabande, Blue Note, Sundazed and more. Don’t hesitate to head over and drop by your local independent record store, and don’t fear the crowds. With everybody at the mall and the big boxes, the Black Friday RSD event is usually a bit more manageable than the April festivities. You can find a full list of RSD Back to Black Friday exclusives (and a list of participating shops) here.

Without further ado, we’ll kick things off with five of Joe’s favorite slabs of vinyl due tomorrow…

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American Hustle: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia/Legacy)

Writer-director David O. Russell’s 2013 motion picture American Hustle transported viewers to the era of bell bottoms and disco with a cast of oddly irresistible con artists, mobsters and feds. Though the Academy Award-nominated production and costume design were crucial to revisiting the film’s time period of 1978, much of the heavy lifting was accomplished thanks to the movie’s impeccable soundtrack. In fact, the movie was so stuffed with music that a number of the film’s songs weren’t included on the original CD release of the soundtrack. Legacy has rectified that with a new 150-gram double-LP release on red and blue vinyl containing six tracks not on the original soundtrack CD. To the era-defining hits by America (“A Horse with No Name”), the Bee Gees (“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”), Wings (“Live and Let Die”) and Elton John (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), the album featured surprising tracks like Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues,” Mayssa Karaa’s Arabic rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and a new recording by Jack Jones of the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh standard “Real Live Girl.” It also had three tracks from Jeff Lynne and ELO including the exclusive instrumental “Stream of Stars” and the rare Japan-only Zoom bonus track “Long Black Road.” This deluxe vinyl presentation – with red Columbia 360 Sound labels – adds key recordings by Todd Rundgren (“I Saw the Light”), Steely Dan (“Dirty Work”), The Temptations (“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”), David Bowie (“The Jean Genie”), Ella Fitzgerald (her 1956 treatment of Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely”) and Frank Sinatra (his 1946 Columbia version of “The Coffee Song”). The end result is a perfect accompaniment to the film and an incredibly entertaining listen in its own right which both avoids kitsch and celebrates a memorable musical era.

Guardians Awesome Mix Tape

Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 (Marvel Music/Walt Disney Records)

American Hustle has an unlikely companion on this list. The music of the seventies played a far more surprising part in Marvel Studios’ 2014 blockbuster superhero space epic Guardians of the Galaxy. With a mix tape playing a prominent role in the film – and providing a source of both great emotion and humor – it’s only appropriate that Disney/Marvel is actually releasing the Star Lord’s favorite tunes on cassette as depicted in the film! Rupert Holmes’ “The Pina Colada Song,” The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way,” Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” and Blue Swede’s version of B.J. Thomas’ “Hooked on a Feeling” are just four of the, well, awesome hits you’ll hear on this must-have tape (which doubles as a cool collectible for fans of the smash hit movie).

Wham - Last Christmas

Wham!, Last Christmas (Legacy)

Can it be that “Last Christmas” is really 30 years old? Since its original release in 1984, the song by writer-producer George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley’s Wham! has become a staple of every holiday season, spawning covers by such latter-day pop stars as Hilary Duff, Ashley Tisdale, Ariana Grande and even the legendary Carole King. For Black Friday, however, the original recording is back on a special 12-inch vinyl release co-produced by our very own Mike Duquette! And that’s not all. “Last Christmas” will be backed with a special, previously unreleased instrumental mix of the song – and it’s all on red and green vinyl! Hands down, this is the most festive item of the Black Friday RSD line-up – you know you want to give it your heart!

Game Theory EP

Game Theory, Pointed Accounts of People You Know / Distortion (Omnivore Recordings)

Earlier this week, Omnivore unveiled the first U.S. release of the alternative pop band’s compilation Dead Center. That original French release gained 11 bonus tracks in Omnivore’s U.S. edition and featured new music along with selected tracks from the EPs Pointed Accounts of People You Know and Distortion (produced by Michael Quercio of Paisley Underground greats The Three O’Clock and featuring Earl Slick on guitar!). On Black Friday, listeners will have the chance to experience those two EPs in complete form, as originally heard. Both will be reissued on 10-inch vinyl, with a customary Omnivore twist: the latter will be on green vinyl, and the former on clear vinyl! These EPs provide a fine introduction to the beguiling music of the late Scott Miller’s California band.

Miles - Blue Xmas

Miles Davis, Blue Xmas (Legacy) and Enigma (Blue Note)

The late Miles Davis is being recognized by both Legacy and Blue Note, two of the keepers of the trumpeter’s immense musical flame, on this Black Friday. In 1962, Davis, Gil Evans and bebop singer Bob Dorough turned the holiday season on its ear with “Blue Xmas,” an original tune mocking the crass commercialism of the Christmas season. This recording, along with “Devil May Care,” another Dorough tune recorded by Davis and Evans, is being released by Legacy on a 7-inch 45 RPM blue vinyl single. Blue Note turns the clock back even further – to 1952-1953. Four previously unreleased Davis performances have been unearthed from the Blue Note vault for a black 10-inch single designed in the same style as Miles’ original Blue Note 10-inch discs; Enigma features Take 2 of the title track plus “Kelo (Take 1)”, “Chance It (Take 3), and “Chance It (Second Alternate) (Take 4).”

After the jump: Mike has his five picks for RSD Must-Haves! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 27, 2014 at 11:19

Klaatu Rising: Bernard Herrmann’s “The Day The Earth Stood Still” Returns To CD

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Day The Earth Stood StillKlaatu barada nikto. With those three words, Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) saved the world from certain destruction at the hands of the eight-foot robot Gort in the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Director Robert Wise’s film remains one of the most chilling and effective Cold War-era films, wrapping its plea for peace in a compelling, documentary-style sci-fi narrative. Chief among its assets was a score by maestro Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver). Herrmann’s intense, exciting themes will soon be reissued on CD by Kritzerland in a newly-remastered edition which is currently available for pre-order.

Reissue producer Bruce Kimmel notes, “It’s no surprise that every fantasy filmmaker—including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Carpenter, Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan—has cited the influence of this picture upon their own. The film did everything right – from a superb screenplay by Edmund H. North (from a story by Harry Bates), to the beautiful cinematography by Leo Tover, to the stellar cast of Michael Rennie [as humanoid alien Klaatu, whose name later inspired a cult band – JM], Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe and Billy Gray (having a cast of great actors playing the reality of the story is what helps ground the film and make it timeless). The Day the Earth Stood Still, simply put, is a masterpiece and one of the most important science fiction films ever made. “

To accompany the film, Herrmann crafted his score to utilize unusual instrumentation – and most notably for the composer renowned for Psycho, no traditional strings. Instead, Herrmann employed electric violin, cello, and bass, Hammond and pipe organs, various percussion instruments (including vibes, glockenspiels, marimbas, timpani and gongs) and brass (such as trumpets, trombones and tubas), and most notably – two theremins. Herrmann also eschewed woodwinds to create a score unlike any other.

Hit the jump for details on what to expect on this new CD! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 26, 2014 at 13:16

It’s A Happy New Year with Real Gone Music’s January Slate

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Jackie Moore - CompleteReal Gone Music is saying “Happy New Year!” a couple of months early with the announcement of the label’s January 6 slate of releases. This customarily eclectic batch is highlighted by the classic soul of The Main Ingredient and Jackie Moore, blue comedy from Redd Foxx, two otherworldly soundtracks from the films of cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (on both LP and CD!), and more live jam-band greatness from Grateful Dead.

Real Gone’s press release, with full details on each title, follows!

LOS ANGELES, CA – One of the ironies of the career of Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is that while he is best known as a visual stylist, his most avid and loyal champions have often been musicians. When Jodorowsky arrived in New York from Mexico City in 1970 carrying a copy of the then-unreleased El Topo, it was the jazz producer Alan Douglas who bought the distribution rights to the film. When Jodorowsky and Douglas were looking for a venue in which to screen El Topo, it was John Lennon and Yoko Ono who asked for it to run at midnight following their short-film festival at New York’s Elgin Cinema. And after six months of sold-out midnight screenings at the Elgin, it was Lennon’s manager, Allen Klein (ABKCO’s founder), who bought the rights to El Topo and agreed to produce its follow-up, The Holy Mountain. But then, music has always played a very large role in Jodorowsky’s films—and that has never been more evident than in the soundtracks to The Holy Mountain and to his latest film, The Dance of Reality. Both soundtracks are being issued by Real Gone Music in association with ABKCO Music & Records for the first time on LP and stand-alone CD on January 6.

Holy MountainWhen Jodorowsky wanted, in his words, “another kind of music—something that wasn’t entertainment, something that wasn’t a show, something that went to the soul, something profound,” for the soundtrack to The Holy Mountain, forward came jazz legend Don Cherry and crack studio musician (and one-time Archie) Ron Frangipane to share composing and (along with Jodorowsky) conducting duties. And, boy, did they deliver—the score to The Holy Mountain is every bit as hallucinatory as the fantastic visual imagery in the film itself. The deep, primordial chants that begin the movie, “Trance Mutation,” give way to an almost jaunty percussion-and-plucked-strings melody, “Pissed and Passed Out.” On the next track, “Violence of the Lambs,” a single flute is slowly joined by a set of mournful strings while, onscreen, Gestapo-like soldiers in gas masks parade with bloody lamb carcasses on sticks. “Drink It,” an upbeat sitar folk melody, follows, briefly accompanying the main protagonist The Thief’s ill-considered decision to guzzle tequila (or sleeping potion). Then there is “Christs 4 Sale,” a blaring orchestral riff that sounds like it was ripped from a 1950s swords-and-sandals epic. The next track, “Cast Out and Pissed,” begins with a bee-like buzz, then is overwhelmed by a cacophony of drums, horns, and, finally, screaming. “Eye of the Beholder” which follows, changes moods entirely once again—a string section swells with overwrought romanticism. (Onscreen, a group of young prostitutes prays in a church. One of them later walks arm and arm with a chimpanzee.) And then there is “Communion,” a brooding, trumpet-led number that would be at home on the noir-steeped Chinatown soundtrack. (As “Communion” plays, the Thief is not driving through Los Angeles at night but eating the face off a statue of Christ.) This veritable cornucopia of musical styles would be more than enough to fill an entire movie. It would be more than enough to fill three movies. But in fact, the eight musical compositions described above play entirely in The Holy Mountain’s first 24 minutes. Still ahead lie the hard rock of “Psychedelic Weapons,” the pomp and circumstance of the waltz “Miniature Plastic Bomb Shop,” the gospel-inflected sax of “Isla (The Sapphic Sleep),” and so on. Every one of the 24 tracks on the film’s soundtrack presents another vertiginous twist in the philosophical and spiritual journey that is The Holy Mountain.

Now, Real Gone Music/ABKCO presents, on gatefold double-LP and CD, the original soundtrack to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 masterpiece The Holy Mountain. Both editions feature liner notes by New York Times contributor Eric Benson that include exclusive quotes from Jodorowsky himself, festooned with copious production stills. Produced for release by Grammy-winning producer Teri Landi and Mick Gochanour, and mastered from the original tapes by Joe Yannece (with lacquer cutting on the LP by Carl Rowatti at Trutone Mastering), this long-awaited release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain: Original Soundtrack offers a major addition to the soundtrack canon and a completely unique listening experience.

Dance of RealityFor the soundtrack to The Dance of Reality, which marked his triumphant return to the film world in 2014 after a 23-year hiatus, Jodorowsky tapped his own son, Adan Jodorowsky (a.k.a. “Adanowsky”), whose work as a composer and performer (with Devendra Banhart among others) has won him an international following in his own right. In the radiantly visceral autobiographical film, a young Jodorowsky (played by his son, Brontis) is confronted by a collection of compelling characters that contribute to his burgeoning surreal consciousness. Adding to the autobiographical nature of the work, the film was shot in Tocopilla, a coastal town on the edge of the Chilean desert, where the filmmaker was born in 1929. Blending his personal history with metaphor, mythology, and poetry, The Dance of Reality reflects Jodorowsky’s philosophy that reality is not objective but rather a “dance” created by our own imaginations. To accompany the film’s rich, dense and disturbing imagery, Adanowsky’s score is alternately lush and comical, blending brooding string passages with hypnotically repeating piano figures that create a mood that is at times foreboding, at times wistful and, as is always the case with a score to a Jodorowsky film, surreal. Real Gone Music/ABKCO’s release of the complete soundtrack to The Dance of Reality on LP and CD features a number of beautiful production stills from the film displayed on the album jacket and CD booklet, with mastering by Joe Yannece. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s tradition of remarkable film soundtracks lives on with The Dance of Reality.

After the jump: a look at a treasure trove of rare and never-before-heard music from Jackie Moore (of Sweet Charlie Babe fame!), plus some off-color laughs from the inimitable Redd Foxx and more from The Main Ingredient and Grateful Dead!

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 18, 2014 at 01:08

Kritzerland Premieres Dave Grusin’s Score to “Falling in Love”

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Falling in LoveFor its latest classic soundtrack, Kritzerland is returning to the music of renaissance man Dave Grusin.  The Academy Award-winning composer’s skillful and unfailingly melodic blend of jazz, pop and orchestral sounds has well served him for a Hollywood career that’s lasted for more than forty years.  One of the highlights of Grusin’s 1980s was his score to 1984’s Falling in Love, which is receiving its world premiere soundtrack from Kritzerland.

Director Ulu Grossbard’s bittersweet romantic drama starred Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro against a backdrop of contemporary New York City.  Grusin was not only a perfect choice to capture the modern, urbane setting but to deliver the requisite emotions in the film’s shifting moods.  As noted in Kritzerland’s press release, “At times funny, at times rueful, at times beautifully romantic, at times sad, and at times painful, Falling in Love hits all the right notes and weaves its spell quite effortlessly.  And part of what makes it effortless is the incandescent and beautiful score by Dave Grusin.  No one did this type of romantic film better than Dave Grusin.  He simply and effectively captures every mood of the film, with several stunningly gorgeous melodies that weave their way throughout the score, along with some classic upbeat Grusin tunes.”

Hit the jump for more, including a pre-order link and the full track listing! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

November 5, 2014 at 11:20

Release Round-Up: Week of October 21

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Ghostbusters Stay Puft

Ray Parker Jr. & Run-DMC, Ghostbusters: Stay Puft Edition Super Deluxe Vinyl (Legacy)

The Marshmallow Man is back!  The Stay Puft Super Deluxe Edition Vinyl is a limited edition collectible that every Ghostbusters fan will want to take home!  Co-produced by The Second Disc’s Mike Duquette, this set contains the No. 1 hit single “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker Jr. and the “Ghostbusters” rap by Run-DMC for the film’s hit sequel, with both tracks on a white 12” single in a deluxe, puffy, package that smells like marshmallows!

Suzi

Suzi Quatro, The Girl from Detroit City (Cherry Red) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Cherry Red has a 4-CD, 82-track overview of the glam rock icon (and Happy Days star)’s career, including her early, 60s pop sides, her prime hitmaking period, and even her forays into musical theatre!  Joe will have a full review up soon!

Hollies - 50 at Fifty

The Hollies, 50 at Fifty (Parlophone/Rhino) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

This new 3-CD Hollies anthology, marking the harmony purveyors’ 50th year of recording, arrived in the U.K. last month but today gets its American release from Rhino.

Oldfield Box

Mike Oldfield, The Studio Albums 1992-2003 (Rhino) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Rhino boxes up eight Oldfield albums in one CD box set, including three Tubular Bells variations.

Spandau

Spandau Ballet, The Very Best of Spandau Ballet: The Story (Rhino)

The New Romantic hitmakers behind “True” look back on their career with this set, available in 1-CD and 2-CD iterations.

1-CD: Amazon U.S.  / Amazon U.K.

2-CD: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. 

Ian Hunter - All American

Ian Hunter, All-American Alien Boy (Varese Sarabande) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Varese is restoring the second solo album from Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter to print in the U.S. with the six bonus tracks first appended to the 30th anniversary edition.  The 1976 album features personnel including Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, Lew Soloff, Auyn and the members of Queen!  Watch this space for an exciting opportunity to WIN a copy of this reissue!

Gavin DeGraw

Gavin DeGraw, Finest Hour: The Best of Gavin DeGraw (RCA) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

The singer-songwriter and Dancing with the Stars contestant has an 11-track compilation, featuring producer Max Martin’s previously unreleased version of “In Love with a Girl” and a new version of “Finest Hour.”

Melody Road

Neil Diamond, Melody Road (Capitol) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Neil Diamond returns with his 32nd studio album and first for Capitol, and its 12 songs in the artist’s vintage style add up to a warmly nostalgic trip for longtime fans.  Target has an exclusive edition with two bonus tracks which may be outtakes from his 2010 covers project Dreams: renditions of George Harrison’s “Something” and Harry Nilsson’s”Remember,” and this edition is also available as an import at this link.  Look for my review of Melody Road soon!

EWF - Holiday

Earth, Wind & Fire, Holiday (Legacy) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

The venerable R&B outfit offers its first-ever holiday album, with favorites like “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride” alongside reworked versions of “September” (yup, it’s “December”!) and “Happy Feelin'” – which this joyous celebration just might give you!

Scott Walker - Soused

Scott Walker and Sunn O))), Soused (4AD) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

The sixties pop crooner-turned-avant garde hero Scott Walker teams up with California drone metal band Sunn O))) for a 5-track, 50-minute record that pushes the envelope for both artists.  We’re marking this unusual release this week with a look back at the entirety of Walker’s career in a special two-part Back Tracks retrospective beginning tomorrow!

Aretha - Diva

Aretha Franklin, Sings the Great Diva Classics (RCA) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

The Queen of Soul reunites with Clive Davis for her latest studio album, a tribute to her fellow divas – then and now – including Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Dinah Washington and Adele!

Billy Idol - Kings and Queens

Billy Idol, Kings and Queens of the Underground (Kobalt) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Billy Idol is back with his rebel yell and sneer intact on his first album since 2005, produced by Trevor Horn and Greg Kurstin!

Annie Lennox - Nostalgia

Annie Lennox, Nostalgia (Blue Note) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

Annie Lennox usually hasn’t been one to bask in nostalgia, but here she is, bringing her own spin to such Great American Songbook standards as “Summertime” and “God Bless the Child.” The Amazon U.S.-exclusive edition has a bonus disc featuring a Lennox interview and a live version of blues staple “I Put a Spell on You.”

Darling, It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: “The Little Mermaid” Gets Legacy Collection Expansion

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Little Mermaid - Legacy Collection

When God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater opened in May 1979 at New York’s small WPA Theatre on the Bowery, it heralded the birth of a promising new songwriting team: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Ten years later, the team would forever alter the course of one of the most venerable institutions in entertainment history: The Walt Disney Company. Their score to The Little Mermaid, which Ashman also produced and contributed to the story of, ushered in a new golden age for a studio which many had written off. On November 24, Walt Disney Records will celebrate Ashman and Menken’s music with the release of a Legacy Collection expanded edition of their score to The Little Mermaid.  It follows previous Legacy Collection releases of The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty.

Introduced by Lehman Engel, legendary Broadway musical director and founder of the BMI Workshop for songwriters, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were off to a promising start when Mr. Rosewater, based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel, opened to stellar reviews and transferred to off-Broadway’s Entermedia Theatre. Three years later, though, the team had their breakthrough. Their Little Shop of Horrors opened at the WPA in the spring of 1982 and was an instant sensation. The musical moved that summer to the East Village’s Orpheum Theatre under the aegis of Cameron Mackintosh and David Geffen, and went on to spawn a major motion picture along with countless revivals on both the professional and amateur levels. (The original production ran over 2,200 performances in New York.) Following Little Shop, Ashman and Menken pursued various projects together and separately, but later in the decade, Ashman found himself working for The Walt Disney Company. The lyricist had teamed with composer Barry Mann to pen a song for 1988’s animated film Oliver and Company, but took a bigger role in the production of the studio’s next planned movie, a musical version of The Little Mermaid. And he called his friend and collaborator Alan Menken to join him as composer.

Ashman and Menken brought their stage experience to The Little Mermaid. Disney chief of music Chris Montan observed in 1994 that “most songwriters don’t have the experience of solving dramatic lines and storytelling. That’s the advantage Howard and Alan brought in.” Little Shop had proved that the team knew the ins and outs of effective musical theatre writing, but as Montan further opined, “they were old enough to have solved those problems for twenty years but young enough to have been brought up with The Beatles.” Musicals have always reflected a melting pot of influences, and true to form, Little Shop brought in a variety of influences from classic Broadway to doo-wop, R&B, and rock-and-roll. The team’s music for The Little Mermaid would find inspiration in calypso, chansons, theatre and vintage Disney. Ashman and Menken had the know-how to bring the best of the musical theatre form into the cinematic landscape, and Disney’s gamble on their talents paid off when Mermaid – the studio’s first feature-length fairy tale since 1959 and Sleeping Beauty – soared at the box office.

During its original 1989 release, Mermaid scored $84,355,863 in North America, and earned three Oscar nominations, the first Disney animated film to be recognized by the Academy since 1977’s The Rescuers. Ashman and Menken took a statuette home for the joyful production number “Under the Sea,” and Menken took a second home that night for the orchestral score, his very first attempt at film scoring. As chronicled in the documentary film Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid brought luster back to The Walt Disney Company, and that was in no small part due to Ashman and Menken.

The team went on to fully complete one more picture, the even more successful Beauty and the Beast, before Ashman’s tragic death at the age of 40 in March 1991 from AIDS. Tim Rice stepped in to complete the lyrics for Aladdin, though not before Ashman had left behind such future classics as the manic showstopper “Friend Like Me.” Howard Ashman’s impact is still felt on Disney films today, including 2013’s Frozen, which also embraced the Broadway aesthetic he and Menken brought to the studio. Ironically, Ashman had written a children’s musical in college based on original Little Mermaid author Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, the same source material as Frozen! Menken, of course, has continued to write on stage and screen over the years, and has amassed eight Academy Awards for his work. He has also carried Ashman’s vision out in stage productions of all three of their animated classics.

After the jump: what will you find on Disney’s new Legacy Collection release of The Little Mermaid? Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

October 13, 2014 at 10:10

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