Charlotte Sweet is one of that increasingly rare breed: an original musical. And this “madcap musical,” as it was billed, sure is original. Lyricist/librettist Michael Colby and composer Gerald Jay Markoe delivered the unexpected with their delightfully unusual show which premiered at New York’s intimate Westside Arts Theatre on August 12, 1982 and ran for over 100 performances. JAY Records has recently brought the complete Original Cast Recording to 2 CDs for the first time; a previous CD iteration on the DRG label truncated the score as originally released on John Hammond Records. (Yes, that John Hammond! The legendary talent-spotter and Columbia Records exec who played a major role in the discovery of artists including Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen was a champion of this quirky, Drama Desk-nominated musical. So was another longtime Columbia artist, Leonard Cohen.)
The rousing opening number “At the Music Hall” sets the tone for this turn-of-the-century romp inspired by the tropes of that venerable British tradition. Within the music hall framework, the comical melodrama features an array of off-kilter characters with rather memorable names: Charlotte (Mara Beckerman), Ludlow Ladd Grimble (Christopher Seppe), Katinka and Barnaby Bugaboo (Lynn Eldredge and Jeff Keller), Cecily Mackintosh (Sweeney Todd‘s Merle Louise), Skitzy Scofield (future Bed and Sofa composer Polly Pen), Bob Sweet (Timothy Landfield) and Harry Host (Michael McCormick). A stylish hybrid of music hall, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque operetta and pure musical comedy styles, it boasts wall-to-wall music in through-sung fashion as it chronicles the exploits of the titular heroine (born on Valentine’s Day), Ludlow (born on Christmas), and their various, and odd, acquaintances.
Felicitously, Colby’s well-crafted, playful and engaging words are matched by Markoe’s tuneful and often darkly jaunty melodies taking in plenty of trilling as well as vaudeville, lullabies, a tango, a march and so on. The authors make clever use of the various vocal types – high, low, and everything in between! – that might be found in a music hall troupe, introducing the dastardly and villainous Barnaby’s ragtag bunch in “The Circus of Voices” and in individual spotlight numbers performed by the delectable and versatile ensemble of top-notch actors: “Keep It Low” for the low-voiced Katinka; “Bubbles in Me Bonnet” for the bubble-voiced Cecily; the tongue-twisting “Vegetable Reggie” for the fast-voiced Harry; “My Baby and Me” for the dual-voiced Skitzy; and “A-Weaving” for high soprano Charlotte.
There’s more than a touch of the comically macabre in Charlotte Sweet, from suffocation via “Layers of Underwear” to an addiction to helium (“Your High Note”) and a balloon filled with poisonous gas. Jolly absurdity reigns, too, when the Queen of England and a whistling bobby drop by – or do they? But there’s sweetness and heart in the musical, too, for all the madcap merriment.
John McKinney’s orchestrations for a four-piece band are effectively preserved on the album which McKinney himself produced. JAY has handsomely packaged this reissue, freshly remastered by Chip Fabrizi, with a 16-page full-color booklet featuring a synopsis of the musical and Richard Traubner’s liner notes, plus photos of the original production and a reproduction of the legendary Al Hirschfeld’s portrait of the cast. “It Can Only Happen in the Theatre,” goes one of Charlotte Sweet‘s memorable tunes. That title definitely goes for Charlotte Sweet, a whimsical treat waiting for your rediscovery in this splendid new CD presentation. (Note that orders made directly through JAY Records’ website will also receive a CD-R of Colby and Markoe’s Ludlow Ladd, the prequel to Charlotte Sweet. The 1979 recording of the Christmas-themed musical features Markoe at the piano, and preserves Mara Beckerman’s original-cast performance as Prudence Grimble. Her work inspired the authors to fashion Charlotte for her talents.)
JAY Records’ reissue of Charlotte Sweet has been joined by another Michael Colby musical on the label. Tales of Tinseltown is Colby’s 1930s-set screwball musical comedy, co-written with composer Paul Katz, first produced in 1985 in New York. The show has been revised and revisited over the years, culminating in this world premiere concept album recording featuring – as MGM used to boast – more stars than there are in heaven: Tony winner Harriet Harris (Frasier, Desperate Housewives, Thoroughly Modern Millie), Richard Kind (Gotham, Inside Out, Guys and Dolls), Jake Epstein (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) Tony nominees Tony Yazbeck (On the Town, Finding Neverland) and Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden, Romance/Romance), actress-singer-impressionist Christina Bianco (Forbidden Broadway, The Marvelous Wonderettes), Klea Blackhurst (Everything the Traffic Will Allow) and Nat Chandler (The Scarlet Pimpernel), plus a vibrant ensemble of singers.
As gossip columnist Adele DeRale, the deliciously deadpan Harris introduces Tales of Tinseltown with “The Public Wants to Know.” Indeed, the scandals that populate Adele’s movie magazine (not-so-coincidentally titled Tales of Tinseltown!) are front and center in the musical. Much as in Charlotte Sweet, Colby has created an assortment of larger-than-life characters, not just DeRale but also the Ethel Merman-like Bertha Powell (the purely perfect Blackhurst), the studio head and resident despot of NGN Productions, Norman G. Neinstein (the always-delightful Kind), and the fallen one-time sweetheart of America, Ellie Ash née Hinkelberry (the versatile vocal chameleon Bianco).
Katz and Colby’s score is filled with happily melodic showstoppers, among them Blackhurst’s “I Can Sing,” Bianco’s attractive “All I Dreamed” and country-flavored “Born to Be Bad,” and Epstein’s angst-ridden “So This is the Movies” and warm pop-style ballad “I’ll Stand by You.” They also pay homage to movie musical stars and styles of the Golden Age of Hollywood with a number of gently ribbing pastiches. The ghosts of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald are summoned on “Hunchy” (from The Singing Hunchback and I, naturally). Shirley Temple is conjured on “Sounds in the Night,” and the spirit of Ginger Rogers pervades “Keep in Step.”
JAY’s recording of Tales of Tinseltown features colorful orchestrations by Tony Award winner Larry Hochman (The Book of Mormon) for a small band led with panache by the accomplished musical director Michael Lavine (who also plays keyboards). The recording has been beautifully produced by Jeffrey Lesser, whose diverse C.V. as producer includes classic albums by Rupert Holmes, Barbra Streisand, Loudon Wainwright III and The Roches, plus numerous cast recordings such as the recent Honeymoon in Vegas. Lesser, Lavine, Colby and Katz have crafted an album in the classic Goddard Lieberson style, not reliant on dialogue and presenting the songs as both standalone tracks to be savored and integral parts of the score as a whole.
The CD release includes a booklet with a plot synopsis and an essay reflecting on the musical’s history plus color photographs of the musical onstage as well as the recording session for the new album. The public wants to know: this satirical and madcap journey through the seamier side of Hollywoodland is a happily daffy romp from the start of the picture to “The End.”
Charlotte Sweet is available at Amazon U.S. and Amazon U.K., and Tales of Tinseltown can also be ordered at Amazon U.S.! For more on Michael Colby, check out his acclaimed page-turner of an autobiography, The Algonquin Kid, at Amazon U.S.!