One of the endless discussions among high school performers is “What are the best schools for “musical theatre” (or “theater” depending on denominational differences). That question will never be answered. However, we might know what academic institution has one of the best musical theatre recording collections in the country…JMU!
In addition to thousands and thousands of online tracks at Music Online and Naxos, JMU has almost 800 individual show recordings recordings on LP or CD. Yes, some institutions might have more recordings, but I don’t think there is any academic institution that offers a broader repertoire. JMU has been fortunate in having a donor in Washington D.C. who has sent hundreds and hundreds of unique cast recording cd’s. In many instances, JMU Music Library is the only library in the world to have a cast recording of a show. In many other instances, JMU is the only academic library in the world to have a recording of a particular show.
Take for instance Das Barbecü (You might not find it yet as it has not been cataloged). It is Seattle composer Scott Warrender’s and Jim Luigs’ retelling of Wagner’s Ring set in Texas, with big Dolly Parton-“esque” wigs, and twangy music. Originally written to be a companion piece to Seattle Opera’s annual Ring Cycle, it is a hootin’ good time in the style of the 1980’s TV show, Dallas. The only full show recording in WorldCat (the Worldwide Catalog, duh) is at JMU–and it’s the original cast recording. I’m from Texas and I adore Wagner, so I had listen to it. The more you know of the Ring, the better it is. But even someone who knows nothing about the opera will find this musical sendup absolutely hilarious.
What is there to say about The Last Starfighter, The Musical? Well one thing is that only students of JMU and Oakland University can hear the original cast recording of the full show (according to WorldCat). In early 2004, Playbill published the story that this musical was in development. Within days, thousands of pickups of the story appeared on the net–including Fox News, and SciFi.com.
Based on the 1984 movie of the same name, this musical is unique in its subject matter and is one of the few musicals with the line “and then he’d burp and fart”. There are some electronic sounds, an alien chorus, teenage love story, mentions of alien abduction and uh…sexual experiments in the spaceship, and a great spring break story all told at a trailer park. Sounds like a prime candidate for an adventurous high school tired of the same old shows (actually sounds like my high school days–or the ones I can remember)
Another surprisingly little gem that only JMU Music Library owns is When Midnight Strikes, developed and first performed in London. Set on New Years Eve, it offers “a remarkably accurate sense of the brittle gaiety of a New Year party, with all the tensions so often seething beneath the surface. ” (from the liner notes) The music and the lyrics are quite good, in my opinion and the reviews online seem to confirm that.
JMU alone, owns the original 2007 recording of Frank, The Musical, a modern retelling of the story of St. Francis of Assisi; and JMU and Boston Conservatory are the only libraries that own Every Little Vow, a musical that follows three different couples with three very different paths to the alter and beyond.
These are just a few of the unique items from the Music Library collection. If you want to find more, here are some links to help you browse the musical theatre recordings.
Recorded in 1973 and released in 1977 on the Tomato label, Live at the Old Quarter testifies to the stark beauty and playful mastery of Townes Van Zandt’s songwriting while shedding a bit of light on the personality of one of the most enigmatic characters to ever pick a folk tune or drawl a country-blues song. Taped on the last night of a five night run at the Old Quarter, a tiny folk club in downtown Houston that often saw the likes of Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, and other Texas country greats singing to the sixty or so people that would pack it to the gills, this record is an intimate document of Townes at his performing and writing peak. Sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, Live at the Old Quarter presents an oft-misunderstood artist laying it all down, bare-boned in execution but rich with feeling and a steady craftsmanship that offers a window into the very soul of the singer.
Townes Van Zandt is often heralded as one of the greatest songwriters to have worked with the acoustic melting pot of folk, blues, and country that gained popularity in the late sixties and is yet to disappear. While his popularity waxed and waned during his lifetime, since his early death on New Year’s Day, 1997 interest in Townes’ music has steadily risen and his position in the pantheon of American songwriters is mythical, though tragic. Born to wealth, Van Zandt was subject to insulin shock therapy in the mid sixties by his family in an attempt to curb his manic depression and dramatic mood swings. Left with an incomplete memory and deep psychological scars, Townes’ life would be plagued by drug abuse, alcoholism, and constant wandering. Even with all of these factors working against him, Townes wrote incredible songs. Claiming to have been turned towards serious songwriting by Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” and a huge fan of Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, Townes’ songs are folk tunes tinged with the music of the regions he was born into, Texas and Colorado respectively, that range from blues numbers to rambling, stream of conscious folk songs and traditional country balladry.
While Townes’ abilities as a songwriter were generally unmatched, he never saw much success financially in his lifetime and worked in relative obscurity. While his substance abuse and mental instability surely played a factor in his level of exposure, one can’t overlook the fact that Townes wasn’t a stellar performer in the popular sense. Never one to put on fronts or to create characters, he was the epitome of the songwriter’s songwriter, straightforward and real to the end, which put him in direct odds with the landscape of popular music at the time. Townes’ personality, in life and music, was a little too close to the ground and the bone to make a big noise at the time, but those who have been touched by his music have heard the natural sincerity and universal struggle in his songs for which his simplistic delivery is the perfect canvas.
That said, one may still wonder about the quality of a live record released by an artist not particularly known for his live shows. All doubts are certainly answered as soon as the record begins and we realize the Townes Van Zandt heard on Live at the Old Quarter is at his threadbare best and the intimate setting allows for the listener to get inside of the songs in ways often blocked by the crash of drums and blaring guitars. Townes the poet is on display here, humor back to back with deep expression of emotion turned by the skilled hand of a master. Telling jokes and doing a few playfully lighthearted numbers (“Fraternity Blues”, Talkin’ Thunderbird Blues) you can tell Townes is having a good time. And the humor plays an important role in a set that is mostly filled with songs that seek deeper truths about life, relationships, and the strange world that was often too much for Townes the man but addressed directly by Townes the writer and singer. Love, conflict, fear, and happiness are all here, celebrated and sought in songs like the haunting “Lungs”, “Loretta”, “To Live is to Fly”, and the heartfelt yearning of “If I Needed You”. Along with some story-songs in that old country tradition (“Pancho and Lefty” “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” “Tecumseh Valley”) are a handful of covers, including Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer”, Lightnin Hopkins’ “Chauffeur’s Blues” and the traditional “Cocaine Blues”, which speak to the soul of the artist almost as if he’d written them himself, as a well chosen cover always should. Townes’ playing is steady while deceptively complex and his guitar rings clear and true. Even his voice, soon to be worn ragged by booze and smoke, is in fine form with a soulful timbre that cracks just enough when he stretches his range, driving the emotion home all the more. Live at the Old Quarter is almost like a master class in the Texas folk-country scene given in the most appropriate classroom: a hushed and tightly packed barroom with the “cigarette machine and pool table upstairs”.
One of the greatest Townes Van Zandt quotes comes from some long forgotten interview recorded on a crackling tape recorder and featured in the heart-wrenching documentary Be Here To Love Me, in which the singer claims:
“I don’t envision a long life for myself. Like, I think my life will run out before my work does, y’know? I’ve designed it that way.”
Words that ring sadly true, it’s this kind of mentality we hear on Live. A man who puts it on the line for his craft, his art, and is grateful for all appreciation he garners, all the ears turned to listen, no matter how few, because for Townes, like the first song on the third side of Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, it is all For The Sake of the Song.
Album highlights: “Tecumseh Valley” “Lungs” “Rex’s Blues” many more…
Live at the Old Quarter Houston, Texas by Townes Van Zandt is currently on order at the JMU Music Library. Look for it soon!
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