double play: Dawn Upshaw sings Rodgers and Hart (Nonesuch 7559- 79406-2)
Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes 'Upshaw's abandon, the touch of euphoria in her delivery, makes a great song come alive' 'Ella Fitzgerald made us all aware of what Upshaw lacks: urban dirt, pain and zest for life'
Friday 28 June 1996
She starts with the kind of rarity that she and her collaborators love to spring. And you thought you knew your Rodgers and Hart. "He Was Too Good to Me" was cut from their 1930 show Simple Simon (a little like cutting "Tonight" or "Somewhere" from West Side Story) but remained a personal favourite, one of those long-lined Rodgers melodies that somehow knows it has a future. "Nobody's Heart" (their last great ballad, from By Jupiter) and "Little Girl Blue" (from Jumbo) - are set in poignant juxtaposition, the one drifting back and forth from the other. And if you've ever wondered if there might have been a moment, a specific moment, when Rodgers's melodic voice first began to take wing and soar, then consider "A Ship Without a Sail" (from Heads Up!, 1929) - what forgotten treasure that is.
But you can hear and feel Rodgers's music gain resonance through his association with Hart: from their first hit song - the brashly ingenious "Manhattan" (starting as it meant to go on with that audacious Manhattan/ Staten couplet) - to their last great ballad. They were a team, modern-day Savoyards - Rodgers's "holy" music (at least, that was Cole Porter's assessment), Hart's caustic rhymes, the sentimental and unsentimental in head-on collision. They had wit, wisdom, and countless new ways of saying "I love you" in 32 bars. Just listen to the second four-bar phrase of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" - if yearning has a signature tune, this is it. And then the middle-eight with its melodic leap of faith into the lines "grand to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone" - Upshaw's abandon, the touch of euphoria in her delivery, makes a great song come alive in such a way that even she can't match it elsewhere.
Even so, the pleasures are manifold: three Dawn Upshaws singing for their supper in that chirpy point number from The Boys from Syracuse (delicious vocal arrangement, clever multi-tracking), Fred Hersch's exquisite piano accompaniments on "I Could Write a Book" and "It Never Entered My Mind", Eric Stern's musical supervision. This isn't just another happy excursion, a diva's day off from the "serious" business of operatic and Lieder pursuits. Upshaw believes in these songs as fervently as she believes in Schubert or Schumann. Hell, in Tin Pan Alley terms, they are Schubert and Schumann. ES
When classical singers take to Broadway, the results are usually cringe- making. It still astonishes me that anyone could be seduced by Kiri te Kanawa's matronly cooing in Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty" - or is that just another depressing example of what a name will do for sales? Thankfully, Dawn Upshaw is different. The voice is pure, not grandly cultivated, and she has had this kind of music in her blood from very early on. The results are always pleasingly natural, and put her in a song that really suits her, like the wistful "He Was Too Good to Me", and you can believe she was born to it. It's the same with "Nobody's Heart Belongs to Me"; if this isn't the perfect "Little Girl Blue", she'll take a lot of finding.
Sensibly, Upshaw has stuck with the sweet, longing mood for most of this, her second Broadway disc; evidently she has realised that raunch isn't her metier, so nothing like "Jenny's Song" (from the hugely successful I Wish It So) this time. It's invariably charming and stylish and when she sings about turning Manhattan into "an isle of joy", it can be surprisingly touching - New York transformed into something like the Mahlerian "child's view of heaven". But in a number like "Sing For Your Supper" the innocence jars - whatever the bird is singing for, it certainly isn't milk and cookies.
Perhaps I shouldn't have listened to Ella Fitzgerald the day before, but she made us all the more aware of what Upshaw lacks: urban dirt, pain and zest for life. Dawn Upshaw's view of Broadway is a lot of nice things, but I'm not sure "sexy" is one of them. SJ
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