All Good Gifts, if Only for Yourself by Matthew Murray

    It happens to a lot of us this time of year: You receive a pile of money or gift certificates and you don't know what to spend your bounty on. If you're a theatre lover, you have three terrific, recently released options.

    TCLOOHII-Web.jpgThe Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II: When asked, most people today will say that Stephen Sondheim is the greatest musical theatre lyricist. But Sondheim wouldn't be Sondheim without the guidance and insight of Oscar Hammerstein II, who penned lyrics with as much variety as and far more sensitivity than Sondheim has typically been able to manage. True, Hammerstein much of Hammerstein's work was in the world of the operetta, so many of his compositions are buried under mountains of floridity. But so what? Talent shines through regardless, and Amy Asch's astounding compilation of Hammerstein's work from 1916 to 1959 proves this. The coffee-table book—which costs $65, runs well over 400 pages, and contains delightful photos of Hammerstein shows from every era—opens with a ditty called "Shakespeare Up-to-Date" from a Columbia University Players show called The Peace Pirates and progresses through four and a half decades of irreplaceable musical theatre history. With cut songs, fragments of lyrics, undated compositions, and of course all of his most famous writing, The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II is a remarkable and exhaustive compendium aimed squarely at the most discerning musical enthusiast—or at least those who are aware that musical theatre does not begin and end with Sondheim.

    NormLewis-Web.jpgNorm Lewis: This Is The Life!: The only bad thing about Norm Lewis's new solo disc, This Is The Life!, is that it reminds you he's currently sloshing about in Disney's The Little Mermaid. Moving effortlessly between songs glitzy ("This Is the Life," from the Strouse/Adams Golden Boy), romantic (All the Things You Are, from Hammerstein and Jerome Kern's Very Warm for May), and unconventional (Jerry Herman's "Before the Parade Passes By," from Hello, Dolly!), Lewis plies his grounded-but-elastic baritenor to superb effect and affects a quiet intimacy you might not expect if you're familiar with his supercharged stage performances in shows like Side Show and The Wild Party. Packed with thrilling high notes, moments bursting with ecstatic joy, and flawlessly rendered numbers taking in Mancini ("Moon River"), Les Reed and Gordon Mills ("It's Not Unusual"), and even Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave ("Di Provenza," from La Traviata), This Is the Life! is one of the very few must-have theatre discs of 2008.

    Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business: Okay, if you haven't read Ethan Mordden's seven-volume, decade-by-decade study of the American musical theatre, you should probably go out and read those books first. But then pick up Mordden's extravagant biography of Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario behind the Follies, Show Boat, and relationships as tumultuous as his personal finances. Mordden's way with a sentence and an anecdote won't be to everyone's taste—read Peter Filichia's column today for a number of examples of what's in store (though if you've read Mordden's other books, you already know what to expect)—but you're not likely to find anywhere else a chronicle as elaborate, as informative, or as entertaining as this one of Broadway's showman of showmen.

    Monday, December 29, 2008 at 7:32 PM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    12/30/2008: The Line of the Year

    12/29/2008: All Good Gifts, if Only for Yourself

    12/01/2008: Review: Mauritius at the Women's Theater Company in Parsippinay, New Jersey

    11/30/2008: Review: Southern Comforts at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, New Jersey

    11/27/2008: Thanks, But No Thanks

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.