May 14, 2011

Listening to yesteryear today…

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment at 8:55 pm by dinaheng

Everything old becomes new again, especially if you’ve never heard it before.

Two new albums have put a delightful twist on classic subjects this month, making the material fresh for today’s audiences, yet honoring the timeless for those who have heard the  tale or sounds before.

I never got to see “Wonderland,” a Broadway musical that turned Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” into a contemporary tale about a woman’s search for self. The show is scheduled to close this weekend after a month-long run and mostly unfavorable reviews.  But I love the soundtrack, and the musical book it was written for.

“We used Lewis Carroll’s story as the template, but instead of a little girl, we used a modern woman coming to grips with all the things she’s facing in her life, being a single mom and struggling to have a career,” explains Jack Murphy, who wrote the book with Gregory Boyd and penned the lyrics to Frank Wildhorn’s music.

“Alice is an author of children’s books who’s having a tough time getting published; has relationship problems with her husband, who’s caught in the economic downturn, and wonders if she has enough time for her daughter, her husband and her writing.”

In the musical, Alice is played by Janet Dacal, an actress of Cuban descent who Murphy says is “not your usual, blonde, blue-eyed Alice.” In this Alice’s journey, our heroine learns from all the characters she meets that she has to find out who she is, and let life unfold.

A moving score with uplifting lyrics make the soundtrack a story in itself worth hearing. The musical is a life-affirming reminder to appreciate every minute of life, for time is fleeting and we must seize every opportunity to grow and be happy on the journey we’re on.

For as Murphy’s lyrics note,

“We move too fast

We miss so much

We seldom see

All the miracles in front of us:

A warm embrace…

A human touch…

And so it goes… I race around

Search high and low for the truth

I used to know

When there was magic to be found

‘Cause finding Wonderland

Is taking time to see

The child within who’s always been there

Smiling back at me.”

Fans of the multiple Grammy-winning jazz legend Benny Carter will smile at a new album by Deborah Pearl, who has put lyrics to some of Carter’s wonderful melodies in “Souvenir Of You… New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics.”

For those who don’t know his name, Carter’s arrangements were recorded by the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and other greats, and helped to set the course of big band jazz. The jazz performer, whose achievements spanned eight decades, was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by President Bill Clinton before his death a few years later.

Pearl, who sings a tribute to Carter’s life through her lyrics, has a very personal connection to the jazz performer and his widow, Hilma.

“I’m a Barnard College graduate, and so is Hilma, though many years apart,” says Pearl, also a screenwriter and playwright. “When I moved out to Los Angeles, I met her through the Barnard Club and became close. The two of them became like surrogate parents to me.”

The amazing love story of Carter and his wife Hilma inspired another song titled “Wonderland” (Isle of Love) on Pearl’s album. The couple met at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1939 where Benny Carter and His Band were playing. It was love at first sight, but interracial relationships were illegal at the time, and both married others.

Carter became one of the first African Americans to compose music for the Hollywood studios, and it was 30 years later that the Caucasian woman who had never forgotten him read about a Carter concert at Carnegie Hall. Hilma wrote a letter to a reviewer, asking him to pass along her regards to the famous musician.

Carter got the letter, and immediately called her, inviting her to the 1975 concert he was conducting at Carnegie Hall. Five years later, they married.

Pearl sings two of the songs on the album to original Carter tracks — “Happy Feet” (At the Savoy) and “Anniversary Dance.”

“In those two instances, I was going to sing the songs in the same key the band was doing them in, so we got permission to use his tracks,” Pearl says. “It gives me chills, hearing him play ‘Anniversary Dance’ as I sing it. He wrote it maybe 30 years prior. I tried to take what he was feeling and put it into words for everyone else today.”

A lot of the songs have to do with the timelessness of emotion.

“Love is a great topic for song lyrics, and lot of this is about the loss, gain, and the tenacity of love,” Pearl says. “Benny was such a centered, calm, interesting man, well into his 90s… and I miss him all the time.”

With this album, Carter’s work and life will continue to be appreciated and reach new audiences.

For more information on “Wonderland,” check out http://www.masterworksbroadway.com.

For more information on “Souvenir of You,” check out http://www.deborahpearl.com.

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