CD Review: MISIA (A New Musical on PS Classics)

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by Tony Frankel on March 23, 2016



For over half a century, record companies have given the studio treatment to long-shuttered musicals which had either no original cast album or no complete score recording. Producer Tommy Krasker has gone so far as to track down original orchestrations of musicals from the 20s and 30s so we know what audiences would have heard back then. He and other producers have rejuvenated interest in Jerome Kern (Roberta), Cole Porter (Fifty Million Frenchmen), Rodgers and Hart (Pal Joey), and the Gershwin brothers (Oh, Kay!).

It’s not just musical comedies which have seen a new life: even revues (As Thousands Cheer by Irving Berlin and Moss Hart) and variety shows (Ziegfeld Follies of 1936) found new life. The latter, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a score by Vernon Duke, was painstakingly reconstructed. “Vernon Who?” some of you may ask. The prolific composer from Russia, who changed his name from Vladimir Dukelsky to Vernon Duke at the suggestion of George Gershwin, had written classical music in Europe before immigrating to the States, but he wanted to write popular songs in the American style. (He would continue composing classically under his birth name.)

Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, aka Vernon Duke

Writer Barry Singer said that Duke “wrote music for grownups. His songs sang most majestically about ambivalence, not the uplift that Tin Pan Alley consumers overwhelmingly preferred. His probing melodies brought out wonderfully melancholic resonances in lyricists who were by nature, if only on the page, rather jolly: Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash and even Yip Harburg. As a result, these songs perhaps speak more directly to our own self-doubts and longings in 1999 than they did in a 1930s’ culture that looked to its songwriters for escape.”

Misia in the Wood by Edward Vuillard

With these well-known lyricists, Duke mostly composed tunes for revues (his first book-show for Broadway was Cabin in the Sky in 1940). Among his standards, mostly written in the 1930s, are “Autumn in New York,” “April in Paris,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” and “I Can’t Get Started” the latter made popular by trumpeter Bunny Berigan in 1937. Even with these remarkable songs under his belt, he is largely a forgotten composer as both Duke and Dukelsky. (Incidentally, he founded the Society for Forgotten Music, an organization dedicated to reviving interest in neglected classical composers and compositions. As far as I know, the society no longer exists.)

Misia by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897

Duke is an astounding composer and rightfully has legions of fans. Perhaps his lesser-known status is because he does not have — certainly compared to the likes of Rodgers, Loesser, Loewe, Porter, and Berlin – any revivable book musicals. Even the successful Cabin in the Sky, written with John Latouche of The Golden Apple and Candide fame, only ran 156 performances. The closest contemporary in tone would be Kurt Weill, who could come up with a snappy standard but also stretched the boundaries of songsmithing that created songs which defy convention and lack accessibility (these two émigrés are also the only composers to have worked with the whimsical poet Ogden Nash).

misiaHuffPostAnd you will discover just how original his work is when you hear Misia (MEE-sya), a brand new musical released by PS Classics last June. The lovely, beguiling and harmonically textured compositions by Mr. Duke were written around 1949 in Paris at a time when Duke was setting to music the texts of French lyricists. Indeed, the music you hear – orchestrated by none other than Jonathan Tunick – was composed for a French libretto accompanied by French lyrics by Francis Claude.

In 1999, Barry Singer received permission from Duke’s widow to take the unused songs and create a musical. At the suggestion of Kay Duke Ingalls, he wrote both book and lyrics for an entirely new musical about the true-life Misia Sert (1872 – 1950), the salon hostess, patron and muse of the fin de siècle Paris music and art scene. It’s a terrific idea for a chamber musical, and the music – largely due to Tunick’s imaginative pastiche of 1920s’ chamber orchestras – fits the period with a bit of elegance, a bit of Broadway, and a bit of classical. While none of the tunes stand out, the flavors do: militaristic (“Well, How Nice!”); can-can (“How I Love to Kick the Can-Can”); swooning ballad (“Agreement”); tango (“Bow Your Head”); and ballroom waltz (“Lies”).

A photo of Misia Sert by Bonnard

Of issue here, especially for non-Vernon fans, is that quite a few tunes have no substantial lasting melody (these may well work on stage, but Misia has not seen a production as of this review). Then there is the story; I read the synopsis after hearing the music, and it follows why it was difficult to follow (especially given the mostly dull dialogue peppered among the tracks) – the musical offers truncated snapshots from 1886 to 1929.

Misia_Sert_by_RenoirUnfortunately, Singer’s lyrics are no match for the music. They simply aren’t as clever or poetic as they need to be. While they are hardly groan-inducing, they can be constrained and far too simple for such avant-garde, highly artistic people. (Among others, Misia was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Vuillard and Bonnard – all characters in the show).

What we do have is a glittering and gorgeously produced album with some charming music and stunning singing from Broadway’s best, including Marin Mazzie (Misia), Eddie Korbich (Renoir), Marc Kudisch (Alfred Edwards, a tycoon), and the always amazing and distinctive Jonathan Freeman (Sergei Diaghilev). Also appearing as Misia’s third husband, Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert, is Mazzie’s real-life husband, Jason Danieley. And then there’s Tunick’s glorious orchestrations, reminiscent of his work on Sondheim’s score for Stavisky, especially in the show’s one dance number, “Washerwoman’s Ball.” Tommy Krasker has produced this with such sumptuous attention to detail that Misia bears repeat listens for Vernon fans. Newcomers to Duke should give this a chance — you may give it a shoulder-shrug at first, but with dedicated listening he’s simply one of those composers who grows on you.

Misia – A New Musical
2015 Studio Recording
Vernon Duke, music
Barry Singer, book & lyrics
18 tracks | 56:03
released June, 2015
for more info, visit PS Classics

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