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HOLLYWOOD GOES TO BROADWAY, PART THREE

THE CAST ALBUMS OF DAVID SHIRE (AND RICHARD MALTBY)

By Scott Bettencourt


STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW ***1/2
RCA Victor 2360-2-RG
18 cues, 58:53

By the time Starting Here, Starting Now opened off-Broadway in March of 1977, David Shire had been working steadily as a film and television composer for the better part of a decade, and his then-wife Talia Shire had just earned her second Oscar nomination, for playing Adrian in the first Rocky. The mid-70s saw him at the peak of his film scoring career, with two Best Picture nominees to his credit - The Conversation and All the President's Men - and though he had yet to receive a nomination himself, his scores for Conversation and The Hindenburg were in the Academy Music Branch's ten film shortlist for the Best Score Oscar nomination in their respective years.

But for years before he began writing film scores, Shire and fellow Yale alumnus Richard Maltby Jr. were writing stage musicals, none of which had managed to make it to Broadway. Starting Here, Starting Now was a revue collecting a variety of songs from their first two decades of collaborating, essentially a "Best Of" collection which, unsurprisingly, manages to show the team in their best creative light.

This first of the Shire-Maltby cast albums is also the best (though some may find the vocal performances a little overemphatic, especially in the broader songs like "Crossword Puzzle"), with infectious Shire tunes and, even more importantly, Maltby's clever lyrics (Shire's tunes tend to be more reliably strong than Maltby's words, and this revue shows off Maltby's talents much better than their stand-alone scores like Baby or Big).

Their early show, The Sap of Life, featured three songs which ended up in Starting Here, Starting Now - "The Word is Love," which opens Starting Here; "Watching the Big Parade Go By," yet another in the seemingly endless series of parade songs from the era ("Before the Parade Passes By," "A Parade in Town") and the propulsive "New Life Coming," which ends the show. Love Match, a musical about the romance between Prince Albert and Victoria, has four songs in Starting Here: "I Think I May Want to Remember Today" is a charming, light-hearted love song; "I Don't Believe It" was substantially reworked for Starting Here, and in its cynical depiction of relationships is reminiscent of the Sondheim/Rodgers song "We're Gonna Be All Right," especially the version heard in Side by Side by Sondheim; "I Hear Bells" is especially lovely and well sung, while "Today is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life" is engaging and fun, but even the songwriters admitted that the central idea is rather anachronistic for a period show.

Girl of the Minute provided the fast-paced but rather obvious "We Can Talk to Each Other" (the guy expresses the title's sentiment while ignoring everything the woman says). From the Ronnie Graham revue Graham Crackers came "Crossword Puzzle," whose cleverness and subject matter might even please the master, Stephen Sondheim (both Maltby and Sondheim are puzzle creators). How Do You Do, I Love You was the source of three songs, the pleasant "Just Across the River," "Pleased With Myself," and "One Step."

Two of the best songs came from a musical version of Rumer Godden's novel The River, which had been previously made into a film by Jean Renoir -- "Travel" has a lovely flow befitting its title, while "Song of Me" is genuinely childlike and touching. Starting Here's title song is one of the show's highlights, written while Shire was an assistant conductor for the original Broadway run of Funny Girl, and was ultimately recorded by its star, a certain Barbra Streisand. Streisand also recorded "What About Today?" the one song on the album for which Shire wrote both music and lyrics, and even though Shire's lyrics aren't quite at the level of Maltby's, Streisand used it as the title for the album which featured it, and she also recorded "Autumn," the earliest of the Shire/Maltby songs, written while they were attending Yale.

There are also a few songs not written for other shows. "Barbara" was written by Maltby to celebrate the first anniversary of his marriage (Barbara Maltby would later produce Steven Soderbergh's excellent film King of the Hill). The jaunty "Flair" was written for Starting Here, as was the terrific I Don't Remember Christmas, whose uptempo bitterness is worthy of Sondheim.

In 1993, Jay Records released the cast album to the London revival of the show, which added four additional Shire/Malbty songs - "Beautiful," "I'm Going to Make You Beautiful," "The Girl of the Minute" and "A Girl You Should Know" - but overall the score isn't as well performed as the original Off-Broadway version, which despite the shorter repertoire is the preferred recording.


BABY ***
Polydor 821 592-2 Y-1
19 cues, 65:05

By the time Baby opened on Broadway on December 4th, 1983, David Shire had received two competing Oscar nominations in one year, for his songs to Best Picture nominee Norma Rae and The Promise, winning the award for Norma Rae's "It Goes Like It Goes." He had also earned Emmy nominations for Raid on Entebbe and The Defection of Simas Kudrika, and contributed music to the blockbuster hit Saturday Night Fever (directed by another of Shire and Maltby's fellow Yalies, John Badham), and divorced his first wife, two-time Oscar nominee actress Talia Shire. Mrs. Shire went on to marry producer Jack Schwartzmann, who has since passed on but not before fathering two children with Talia - actors Jason Schwartzmann (Rushmore) and Robert Schwartzmann (The Princess Diaries). One of Talia and Jack's collaborations as film producers was Bed and Breakfast, scored by...David Shire.

Baby proved to be the first Shire musical to reach Broadway, and was an extremely unusual show -- it was not based on a pre-existing movie, play or book (though it did somewhat resemble those Having Babies TV movies from the 70s), and it was about ordinary, contemporary people -- in this case, three couples in a college town dealing with childbearing (oddly, there were briefly rumors of plans for a movie version of Baby -- but without the songs). The show ran for 241 performances, not exactly a hit but pretty impressive for a show with no big stars and no strongly commercial hook, and received 7 Tony nominations (but no awards) including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Featured acting (the Tony equivalent of Supporting) nods for Liz Callaway and Todd Graff, who played the youngest of the three couples. Callaway went on to several other Broadway shows, playing the wife in Miss Saigon, and has recorded four albums on her own. Graff has had an eclectic career: beginning as a quirky male ingénue in the Matthew Broderick vein in such films as Five Corners (he played Jodie Foster's crippled boyfriend), he did his finest acting work in the kind of roles Steve Buscemi gets cast in these days, in Dominick and Eugene, An Innocent Man, and as "Hippy" in The Abyss. He largely gave up acting to pursue screenwriting, providing the scripts for Used People, Angie, The Beautician and the Beast, and the underrated Americanization of The Vanishing. In 2003 he made his directorial debut with Camp, about which the less said the better (though it does feature a cameo by Stephen Sondheim as, of course, himself).

Baby is an enjoyable album (I've never actually seen the show, nor have I seen any of the Shire/Maltby shows on stage), though it suffers from Maltby's uneven lyrics as well as the 80s-pop sound of the orchestrations, a sound which hasn't dated as well as, say, Burt Bacharach's classically 60s Promises, Promises. It's refreshing to hear a Broadway musical deal with realistic characters and modern day problems (Sondheim's Company and William Finn's Falsettos trilogy are among the few major shows that attempt this - and Shire wrote the dance music for Company), and while Shire's melodies are as strong as ever, Maltby's lyrics aren't always up to the task (in his defense, I feel that stage lyricists have a much harder job than composers. Each song requires just a melody, while the lyricist has to fill each line with words that are apt, rhyme cleverly, and scan metrically. And that damn Sondheim sets a pretty high standard to live up to).

While the comedic songs ("What Could Be Better," "The Ladies Singing Their Song") fail to earn their desired laughs (though benefiting from catchy melodies), the more serious, emotional songs are the show's greatest asset. "Easy to Love" has some of the show's cleverest lyrics, and the final major song, "And What If We Had Loved Like That" is one of the most satisfying and genuinely moving. One of the best songs, "Patterns," was actually cut from the show before its opening, but later resurfaced in the next Shire/Maltby revue, Closer Than Ever. Strange as it is to hear comedic songs graphically describing childbirth ("Twenty-six hours in labor/How I farted and I swore") or lyrics like "Picture a flailing spermatozoon/Not even knowin' where he is goin'," Baby has sufficient pleasures for those willing to try a not-quite-traditional Broadway cast album.


CLOSER THAN EVER ***1/2
RCA Victor 0399-2-RG
DISC ONE: 12 cues, 52:56
DISC TWO: 11 cues, 45:17

By 1989, Shire had written two more outstanding film scores, 2010 and Return to Oz, and had one of his few boxoffice successes, Short Circuit, but unfortunately his feature scoring career was declining and he was beginning to get more work as a television composer. He had also married his second wife, the actress Didi Conn (who changed her acting name to Didi Conn Shire), a familiar face from Grease and her leading role in You Light Up My Life.

Closer Than Ever was a return to the format of Starting Here, Starting Now -- an off-Broadway revue making copious use of songs Shire & Maltby had written for other shows -- but whereas Starting Here featured a fair number of novelty songs, Closer Than Ever had an overriding theme dealing with the compromises of adult life, continuing the essentially serious, humanistic thrust of Baby, and like Starting Here was widely acclaimed (and still inspiring new productions 16 years later)

Closer compares quite favorably to Starting Here, and its more serious, emotional nature is welcome and well earned. Five of the songs were originally written for Baby but cut before the Broadway opening; "Patterns" (clearly a Shire/Maltby favorite, since they included it on the Baby cast album), "Fathers of Fathers," the moving "Like a Baby," the energetically catchy "I Wouldn't Go Back," and the clever "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole," which looks at the reproductive habits of various species. Some of the other songs originate from shows which provided songs for Starting Here. "She Loves Me Not" (featuring a trendy gay twist probably not featured in the original) comes from The Sap of Life, "Next Time" (part of the act one finale) originated with the Albert & Victoria romance Love Match, and the Ronnie Graham revue Graham Crackers was the source of "The Sound of Muzak," which cleverly tells the history of Muazk in a waltz. "It's Never Been That Easy" came from The River, but is much less memorable than the two River songs featured in Starting Here.

A revue called Urban Blight was the origin of "One of the Good Guys" (an ordinary man telling his life story), the unmemorable "There's Nothing Like It," and the frenetic "Three Friends," telling the history of the friendship between three women whose lives diverge (and with one of the women sung by a male co-star, Brett Barrett). An unproduced musical with a book by Mass Appeal author Bill C. Davis produced two forgettable songs, "What Am I Doin'" (essentially an uptempo stalker's ballad) and "I've Been Here Before." Two other songs came from what Shire and Maltby termed their "urban file," a collection of contemporary themed songs without a show, the angry, country-inflected "You Want to Be My Friend" and the female solo "Life Story," a moving and superior companion piece to "One of the Good Guys." "Another Wedding Song" was written for Shire's wedding to Didi Conn, while "If I Sing, " about how Shire and Maltby's fathers inspired their musical careers, features a moving chorus which is one of the emotional highlights of the score.

Several songs were written expressly for Closer Than Ever (including the title song), more than for Starting Here. The catchy, uptempo opening song, "Doors," terrifically sets up the show's focus on contemporary adult life, and one of the best songs, "Fandango," is a furiously paced duet featuring a two-career couple debating which partner will care of their baby.

Overall, Closer Than Ever is a more than worthy successor to Starting Here, Starting Now, and though it's less overtly fun than its predecessor, it more than compensates in genuine feeling and depth.


BIG: THE MUSICAL **1/2
Universal UD-53009
17 cues, 65:31

It was Shire's wife, Didi Conn, who had the idea of turning the hit fantasy comedy Big into a stage musical, after catching the film on TV (Coincidentally, Shire had scored Vice Versa, one of the other boy-in-a-man's-body comedies from that era, starring Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold). Shire spent several years developing the project with Richard Maltby and book writer John Weidman (best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim on Pacific Overtures and Assassins).

The resulting show, which opened on Broadway on April 28, 1996, was expected to be the big hit of the season but closed after only 193 performances (even Baby had run longer), as the big hit of the season turned out to be the award-winning (and much less expensive to keep running) Rent, which is still running 9 years later after over 3800 performances, and whose Chris Columbus-directed film version will be released later this year. Dan Jenkins, who had starred as Huck Finn in Broadway's Big River, played the Tom Hanks role, with Crista Moore ("Louise" from the Tyne Daly Gypsy revival) as the Elizabeth Perkins role, Jon Cypher (best known as "Chief Daniels" on Hill Street Blues) in the Robert Loggia role of the toy company boss, and Barbara Walsh as the boy's mom (played by Mercedes Ruehl in the movie). Mike Ockrent (director of Me and My Girl and Crazy For You) directed, with Susan Strohman choreographing. Ockrent and Strohman married before his untimely death from leukemia in 1999, and Strohman has since gone on to become a top Broadway director in her own right, her credits including the stage and film versions of The Producers.

Big's song score is a mixed bag. As is fitting for the writers of Closer Than Ever, the highlights are the smaller, more intimate numbers. Barbara Walsh has a lovely song, "Stop, Time," about wanting to appreciate her child before he's grown up and away, and the love scene between the "adult" Josh and Susan is deftly handled with "I Want to Know," the boy Josh singing the grown Josh's thoughts. This melody is the strongest in the show, and Shire used it prominently in his overture. Some of the uptempo songs are notable, such as the opening "Can't Wait," and "Coffee, Black" is an energetic piece showing Josh as an office dynamo the day after losing his virginity.

The movie of Big was scored by Howard Shore (its music eventually released by the Varese Sarabande CD Club), and was during that brief period (encompassing Awakenings and parts of A League of Their Own) when Penny Marshall was a sensitive, talented and promising director. Despite its big Hollywood budget and high concept premise, Big's strengths as a movie were its charm and modesty, and that's what's too often lacking in the cast album. The show often seems determined to live up to its title, and many of the youth oriented numbers are overbearing, an awkward mix of Broadway and rock (though that kind of awkward mix didn't keep Rent from becoming the hit of the season). Jenkins' was reportedly terrific in the lead, and at times his singing even sounds like Tom Hanks, but though like all the Shire/Maltby albums it benefits from repeated listenings, Big is ultimately a pleasant but unsatisfying album. Shire and Maltby have since reworked the show for its subsequent productions, trying to restore it to their original vision and fix the compromises made during its tryout run.

Soon after the show's closing, Barbara Eisenberg published the book Making It Big, a sympathetic, journal-like account of the show's entire history, which offers a thorough look at the dispiriting process of putting a show on Broadway, featuring such fascinating appendices as a complete list of all the songs written for the show (literally dozens were dropped before the opening) and Richard Maltby's letter to the Tony Awards committee after the show shockingly went unnominated for Best Musical (along with Rent and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, two already closed shows received the nod -- the revue Swinging on a Star and Chronicle of a Death Foretold), while earning nominations for Book, Score, Actress (Crista Moore), Featured Actor (Brett Tabisel, as Josh's best friend) and Choreography. Maltby actually polled several Tony committee members on their voting, and reached the conclusion that a few members had voted for the closed shows to deliberately exclude Big from the running (the hit Victor/Victoria received even fewer nominations, just one for star Julie Andrews.)

Perhaps the last word on the subject (or at least the most vicious) came from the long running, always enjoyable Forbidden Broadway, as the DRG CD Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back features a scathing number about the show, to the tune of Shire and Maltby's "Fun," making cruel sport of the producers' attempts to lure audiences with coupons and other give-aways--

BIG
We'll give you t-shirts and tanks
BIG
You want a ticket?
No thanks
--as well as everything else about the show--
FAO Schwartz has put up the cash
So they could have their foot in a smash
Instead their cash went into the trash
Right along with BIG

BIG
The show that thinks it's a ball
BIG
The show that looks like a mall
BIG
The kids'll make your skin crawl
BIG is slightly obnoxious
When the girls do a jig
What I wouldn't give to be
In somethin' else besides BIG

At least it's smooth and very slick
And Michael Ockrent does the trick
But sexy kids are kinda sick

BIG is all it's meant to be
It's the biggest yessiree
Biggest flop in history
That's what happened to BIG


Parts One and Two of this series are available on the website.

And David Shire's scores (featuring no songs whatsoever) for Farewell My Lovely, Monkey Shines, Raid on Entebbe and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three are available from our label, and are highly recommended.

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