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Back Tracks, In Memoriam: The Musical Legacy of Arthur Laurents

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The late Arthur Laurents wrote many of the most beloved musicals and films in entertainment history including West Side Story, Gypsy, The Way We Were and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.  He passed away on May 5, but today’s special Back Tracks celebrates this great writer’s legacy in music.

“If you have a good strong finish, they’ll forgive anything!”

So implores stage mother Madame Rose to her daughter Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, in the 1959 musical Gypsy.  Rose’s bon mot was one of many priceless lines written by Arthur Laurents, and unsurprisingly, an incredibly true one.  Laurents, who died on May 5 at the age of 93, certainly had a good strong finish, directing the smash 2008 Broadway revival of Gypsy and following it in 2009 with an equally-successful production of his 1957 musical West Side Story.  But Arthur Laurents had amazing first and second acts, too, making his mark in the worlds of film, literature and most especially theatre.

Arthur was a true American original.  He wrote the timeless screenplay to The Way We Were, and was among the first to discover its star, Barbra Streisand.  He penned Rope for director Alfred Hitchcock, and was an Academy Award nominee for The Turning Point.  Laurents was a passionate advocate of the truth, and stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) at the height of the blacklist.  He directed and guided the original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles, recently revived to much success in New York.  His greatest legacies may be the books for two of the most significant musicals ever written: West Side Story, on which he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, and Gypsy, with Sondheim and Jule Styne.   A librettist of a Broadway musical may have the most thankless task of any member of the creative team; his job is to create the words that will inspire a song to take flight – and in most cases, replace that original dialogue.  And Arthur was second to none in creating the characters and situations that allowed Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and others’ melodies to soar.

Today’s special edition of Back Tracks looks at the musical world of Arthur Laurents through the original soundtracks and cast recordings of his the films and musicals he wrote.  (He also had success as a director; in addition to La Cage aux Folles, he was the original helmer of I Can Get It For You Wholesale, which introduced Barbra Streisand to the world in 1962.)  We’ll explore all of the many reissues of these timeless titles and let you know just where to find bonus tracks and additional material.  You can hit the jump below if you’d like to skip to that portion of our post, but in a break from tradition here at The Second Disc, I hope many of you will indulge me in a personal reminiscence about this most remarkable man and writer who was so mightily influential to me and many others.

Having grown up with many of the works mentioned above, your humble author found himself quite intimidated when first introduced to Arthur in the fall of 1999.  The occasion was the first day of rehearsals for the world premiere of Laurents’ revised version of Do I Hear a Waltz?  Arthur collaborated with Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim on this 1965 musical based on his own play The Time of the Cuckoo (which in turn was adapted into David Lean’s film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn).  The original production was an unhappy experience for many of its creators, but Arthur was in high spirits when we began rehearsals that crisp fall morning at George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint.  I was assisting David, for the first but not the last time, and any nerves quickly evaporated that very day. Arthur was passionately dedicated to making this musical sing anew, sharply focusing his own text and always at the ready with a new line or bit of staging that would just make a scene click.  It was simply a joy getting new pages to type for the cast!  He charismatically and generously imparted the experience gained over 50 years in the theatre to all in attendance.  Even when I must have seemed like the green kid asking another question about what it was like to work with Richard Rodgers or Alfred Hitchcock, I was never turned away.   Arthur was fiendishly clever and unfailingly honest, with the best theatrical instinct I’ve ever encountered.  I considered Arthur a teacher; David was among those he mentored, and David, in turn, remains a treasured mentor of mine.  Like his frequent collaborator David, Arthur always led by example.  Our company was proud to be working with him on this important reclamation of a lost musical.

I was lucky enough to work with him again in the ensuing years, including on a new play, the cheekily-titled and decidedly contemporary The Vibrator, and to see him with semi-regularity at opening nights and other occasions.  I remember Arthur engaging audience members in the George Street lobby, greeting complete strangers like old friends.  He was far from shy, and his candor is legendary.  I can hear his hearty congratulations on each opening and also his incisive, sharp criticism when something wasn’t right.   Yet most of all I think of the joy he took in collaboration, the big hugs and bigger smiles, and his refusal to ever remain stagnant.  Energetic beyond his years, he was writing up until the very end of his life, and constantly inspiring with sheer tenacity and limitless vivacity.  He continually looked with new, critical eyes at projects acclaimed long ago, never content to rest on his well-earned laurels.  I learned from Arthur the importance of considering those people and those works which came before me, while still looking forward.  Arthur made good on his beliefs.  He established The Laurents-Hatcher Award, a $150,000.00 prize distributed annually to deserving young playwrights and named for Arthur and his late partner of 52 years, Tom Hatcher.

Arthur’s work and reputation will live on, thanks to the innumerable theatres who will continue to celebrate his life and art, and especially his beloved George Street Playhouse.  Each day, somewhere in the world, there will be a pushy lady making her way down the aisle with a dog and a hatpin admonishing “Sing out, Louise!” or a Maria holding her beloved Tony in her arms, praying the violence will stop.  But much like his characters, Arthur Laurents was larger than life.  I’ll always be grateful and privileged to have known this great man over the past twelve years, and will long cherish those misty watercolor memories of the way he was.

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Written by Joe Marchese

May 9, 2011 at 13:29

Back Tracks: The Shirelles on Scepter

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Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and Mary Weiss – and even Joan Jett, Victoria Beckham and Nicole Scherzinger – all owe a debt to Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee. That quartet doesn’t have the name recognition of those that followed them, but those four young women from Passaic, New Jersey ignited the girl group phenomenon when they joined forces as The Poquellos, soon to be renamed The Shirelles. Were The Shirelles the first girl group? Probably not. Were they the first to gain national prominence? Unquestionably.

The first major female group of the rock and roll era, The Shirelles claimed the first girl group No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Discovered in New Jersey by Florence Greenberg’s daughter Mary Jane, the group laid the cornerstone for Greenberg’s Scepter Records empire – later home to Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, Ronnie Milsap and The Kingsmen – and paved the way for the Motown revolution with their blend of uptown soul, pop, and street corner harmonies. This potent combination, of course, found them “crossing over” to the predominantly white audience and quietly breaking down barriers of gender and race with an intoxicating series of pop songs from some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Yet The Shirelles have unaccountably been overlooked as the years have passed despite induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The songs written for them by Luther Dixon, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and others have endured, but the voices behind the songs have receded into the background.

The new Broadway musical Baby, It’s You!, named after the 1962 hit penned by Bacharach, Mack David and Barney Williams (actually Dixon, writing under his brother-in-law’s name), redresses this, giving The Shirelles some overdue attention. The Floyd Mutrux/Colin Escott musical (readers here may recognize Escott’s name from the innumerable CD liner notes he has penned) utilizes the Shirelles’ deep back catalogue and that of other period artists to illustrate the dramatic dual stories of Greenberg’s founding of Scepter Records and The Shirelles’ rise and fall. It may have taken fifty-odd years, but The Shirelles are back on Broadway, where their career began at Greenberg’s 1650 Broadway offices just seven blocks away from the musical’s home at the Broadhurst Theatre. Only Shirley Owens (now Shirley Alston-Reeves) and Beverly Lee are still alive to enjoy the accolades, but in celebration of the remarkable body of work recorded by The Shirelles, we offer today’s Back Tracks.

The Shirelles’ catalogue hasn’t been particularly well-served on CD, other than by numerous compilations. Sundazed reissued a small handful of the original albums almost twenty years ago as straight reissues with no bonus tracks; Ace has improved on these editions with a copiously-annotated series of two-on-one CDs containing bonuses where possible, and utilizing stereo mixes where they exist. Ace’s four-volume series now has collected the entire eight-album Scepter output of The Shirelles.

Whether you’ve seen the musical and are looking to find your favorite songs on CD, or you’re a longtime fan of the group hoping to fill some gaps in your collection, have we got a musical tour for you! Hit the jump to begin with 1960’s Tonight’s The Night. We’ll go through 1967’s Spontaneous Combustion and then take a detour to all of the key anthologies and rarities discs! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

April 11, 2011 at 13:45

Back Tracks: Nirvana

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Seventeen years ago today, Generation X lost an icon when Kurt Cobain, the talented, troubled frontman for Nirvana, took his own life in his Seattle home. Nirvana were three albums into their career, but had already redefined music for an entire cachet of disaffected youth. The genre that came to be known as grunge music, based on frequently alternating dynamics, heavy distortion and angst-filled lyrics, was forged largely under the songwriting tactics of Cobain, who very reluctantly accepted (and consequently struggled under) his mantle as the voice of a generation.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the band’s major-label debut, Nevermind, which spawned the iconic single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and, famously, became the album that dislodged Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard charts (a landmark that’s come to signal the defining moment of the grunge movement). This author finds it inconceivable that the powers-that-be at Geffen/UMe wouldn’t be thinking of reissuing the album for the two-decade mark (especially with the exact anniversary falling in November, just in time for the box set frenzy associated with the fourth quarter) – but in the meantime, let’s honor one of rock’s fallen icons with a Back Tracks devoted to the music of Nirvana. It’s a journey that takes us from a burgeoning indie label to a thriving major, through a few challenging records, and peaks not only after Cobain died but with a protracted legal battle that held off catalogue action for a considerable length of time.

We discuss all the pretty songs of Nirvana after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

April 5, 2011 at 22:29

Back Tracks: The Police

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On this day in 1978, A&M Records signed a bunch of blonde guys masquerading as punk rockers to their label. That doesn’t sound like a blueprint for success, but those guys – vocalist-bassist Gordon Sumner (better known as Sting), guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland – were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, then one of the most lamented and celebrated after their messy breakup (and inevitable reunion).

The Police were like few others, blending pop, rock, New Wave and worldbeat genres together before U2 ever thought to, and turning out some of the most radio-friendly earworms of all time. They achieved all their success in a ridiculously short time – from 1977 to 1986, give or take a reunion tour a few years ago – and remain a staple of pop/rock music the world over. In honor of that historic signing, today’s Back Tracks takes us through the release history of the band, including every compilation and video release you can stand. The catalogue’s been remastered twice – once in 1995 and once in 2003, just as the group celebrated its 25th anniversary and an induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – but there are still a few goodies to be found here and there beyond the studio albums.

We’ll be watching you after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

March 22, 2011 at 16:13

Back Tracks: Aerosmith, Part II – The Geffen Years and Beyond

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Way back in January we did a Back Tracks feature on Aerosmith’s Columbia discography, just as Steven Tyler was beginning to crazy it up on American Idol. However, since then Tyler has become a solid asset for Idol fans, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the end of the show’s current season didn’t dovetail into some sort of Aerosmith resurgence.

With that in mind, let’s take a look from where we left the band in the last Back Tracks special. 1982’s Rock in a Hard Place saw original guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford gone (Whitford appeared on one track), Tyler almost irreparably strung out and the music taking a nosedive. Nonetheless, the group continued to tour, and had something toward success when, in 1984, Perry and Hamilton reunited with the band. A resultant tour, Back in the Saddle, was a moderate success tempered by the fact that the band hadn’t released a new album in several years, and the band were still battling their substance-based demons.

Things were only looking so good for the band. But they’d about to reach a second plateau of success that most bands can only dream of.

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Written by Mike Duquette

March 1, 2011 at 17:31

Presidents’ Day Special Feature: Stan Freberg, “The United States of America”

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Here’s one for Watson: “This actor, comedian, voice artist, singer, songwriter and advertising guru coined the name ‘Grammy’ for the annual awards bestowed by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).” The correct answer? “Who is Stan Freberg?” To list Freberg’s credits in the fields of cinema, radio, television, animation and music would take up the entirety of this column, but readers unfamiliar with those accomplishments are advised to stop reading now, order a copy of Rhino’s multi-disc box set Tip of the Freberg, and then return here. For anyone with a funny bone ready to be tickled will take delight in “Green Chri$tma$,” “John and Marsha,” and Freberg’s indelibly hysterical versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” But you might be asking yourself, “What the heck does Stan Freberg have to do with Presidents’ Day?”

In 1961, Freberg released his most ambitious project yet. Released on Capitol Records and featuring the participation of his merry troupe of voice talents including June Foray and Paul Frees, The United States of America Vol. 1: The Early Years gave musical voice to George Washington (Freberg) and Thomas Jefferson (Byron Kane), while Vol. 2: The Middle Years, released some 35 years later on the Rhino label, added James Madison (Lorenzo Music, otherwise known as the voice of Carlton the Doorman and Garfield!), Abraham Lincoln (Freberg again!) and Ulysses S. Grant (David Ogden Stiers) to Freberg’s presidential lexicon. For Vol. 2, Jesse White, Peter Leeds, and Foray all returned to the voice cast alongside “newcomers” John Goodman, Sherman Hemsley, Tyne Daly and Harry Shearer.

Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America has been described by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen as either the best comedy album in history, or the best history album in comedy. Which is it? Hit the jump and you decide as we celebrate Presidents’ Day here at The Second Disc! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

February 21, 2011 at 13:32

Posted in Features, Reissues, Stan Freberg

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Back Tracks: Buffalo Springfield Reunion Special

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“Used to play in a rock ‘n roll band, but they broke up. We were young and we were wild, it ate us up,” lamented Neil Young in the song “Buffalo Springfield Again” from his 2000 album Silver and Gold. “I’d like to see those guys again, and give it a shot. Maybe now we can show the world what we’ve got. But I’d just like to play for the fun we had.” Some 11 years later, Young’s wish may be coming true. On February 10, Rolling Stone carried a headline for which fans had waited years: “Exclusive: Buffalo Springfield Plans to Reunite for Fall Tour.” Encouraged by the success of a one-off reunion at last year’s Bridge School Benefit, it appears likely that Neil Young (who picked up his first Grammy as a musician last night), Stephen Stills and Richie Furay will once again appear as Buffalo Springfield. The group (consisting of that trio, plus Bruce Palmer on bass and Dewey Martin on drums, now both deceased) formed in 1966 and was history before the end of 1968, after only three LPs had been recorded. Yet the band managed to blaze a trail that broadened the sound of rock. And thanks to a “trade” that would have made George Steinbrenner proud, the band served as a launching pad for three superstar careers. Welcome to today’s Back Tracks, spotlighting the incendiary and influential folk-rock of Buffalo Springfield!

Most stories, alas, end with a hearse. But the legend of Buffalo Springfield begins with one. As the story goes, Stills and Furay were caught in Los Angeles traffic (some things never change!) when they noticed the 1953 black Pontiac hearse belonging to Stills’ old friend Neil Young, former member with Bruce Palmer of Motown’s Mynah Byrds. The fact is, Young had been unsuccessfully attempting to find Stills since relocating to California. After an illegal U-turn and much excitement, the seeds of Buffalo Springfield were planted, with Dewey Martin soon joining the newly-united Stills, Young, Furay and Palmer. Whether the traffic sighting is truth or mere apocrypha, Buffalo Springfield was born. The band made its debut at the famed Troubadour on April 11, 1966, and its debut LP arrived that December, a 12-track set produced on Atco by Charles Greene and Brian Stone. Hit the jump for a full exploration of each release in Buffalo Springfield’s small but potent catalogue! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

February 14, 2011 at 11:41

Back Tracks: Aerosmith Part I – The Columbia Years

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Aerosmith isn’t dead, but it may as well be. Frontman Steven Tyler was preposterous in his first televised appearance as a judge on American Idol (though there was some very funny writing about the whole ordeal), and if you’re like me, you wish Tyler had stepped away from such ridiculous duties and went on to perform with what many have called America’s greatest rock and roll band – even if it sounded more like their recent, pop-oriented rock instead of their bluesy, pre-metal days.

To celebrate Tyler, guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford, bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer, we’re taking a trip down memory lane through the music of Aerosmith. They’re not a band bursting with vault tracks, though they’ve had their share of remasters, box sets and compilations, as you’ll soon see over the next few days. Walk this way toward our first part of the Aerosmith journey, which covers their first stint on Columbia Records. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

January 20, 2011 at 16:48

Back Tracks: Queen, Part II

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We continue our coverage of Queen’s previous reissues – in anticipation of the band’s forthcoming remasters on new U.K. home Island Records – with a look at Queen during most of the ’80s, where they went increasingly pop-friendly before returning to their rock roots in the 1990s, losing their iconic frontman and becoming anthologized in nearly a dozen or so compilations.

The show must go on, after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

January 18, 2011 at 18:23

Back Tracks: Queen, Part I

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This week’s remaster and reissue of Queen’s first two greatest hits LPs in the U.K. (on new home Island Records) is the start of what promises to be a massive reissue campaign for the band’s 40th anniversary. The band’s first five LPs are slated to be expanded and released in March, with additional batches to follow through 2011.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Queen catalogue has been rolled out on CD. While British audiences got straight CD transfers throughout the late ’80s, Americans got slight expanded versions when the catalogue rights transfered to Disney’s Hollywood Records in the U.S. in 1991. Those versions often featured a bonus remix or two, often newly commissioned for the program. There was also a confusing wave of compilations in the years after lead singer Freddie Mercury died in 1991.

In honor of Queen’s 40th anniversary and with these new reissues fast approaching, these next two installments of Back Tracks will take you through each major Queen LP and compilation released on each side of the Atlantic since 1973. This includes reissues, reconfigurations and even some audiophile editions.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Find out after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Mike Duquette

January 13, 2011 at 12:20