CD Review: Death of a Salesman / Rashomon

Back in his days with Bay Cities and Fynsworth Alley, Bruce Kimmel produced albums that no one else would touch, many of which probably didn’t sell worth a damn. Two of my favorites include the complete spoken word album of Michael Frayn’s superb Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen and the notorious 1982 musical flop, A Doll’s Life, with a glorious score by Larry Grossman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Lately, Kimmel has once again made his mark over at his new label, Kritzerland. Whether releasing film scores long desired on CD (Bernard Herrmann’s Twisted Nerve/The Bride Wore Black) or television specials that no one ever thought would see the light of day (Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose) or have long been forgotten (Herrmann’s A Christmas Carol/A Child Is Born), Kimmel continues to surprise and delight. Kritzerland’s latest offering is a pairing of rare scores for the Broadway stage by two superb film music composers.

The CD begins with Laurence Rosenthal’s Japanese-flavored incidental music for the 1959 production of Rashomon, qwhich starred the very non-Asian then-husband-and-wife-team of Claire Bloom and Rod Steiger. Rashomon began life as two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa before being famously adapted into the Oscar-winning classic by Akira Kurosawa in 1950. Fay and Michael Kanin adapted Rashomon for the stage, using many elements from the Kurosawa film that were not present in the short stories.

Rosenthal is best known for such noted film scores as A Raisin In The Sun, The Miracle Worker, and three films by Rashomon director Peter Glenville: Hotel Paradiso, The Comedians, and the classic, Becket. As to be expected, Rosenthal’s music for Rashomon is heavy on percussion and flute, and incorporates exotic instruments such as a Javanese gamelan and Burmese gongs and cymbals. Oddly enough, the score was released on LP at the time, back in the day when there was an audience for recordings of the original production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Richard Burton’s Hamlet.

The piece de resistance of the CD is Alex North’s incidental music from the original landmark production of Arthur Miller’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman.

Written for a small chamber ensemble, North’s music begins with the haunting flute solo for Lee J. Cobb’s Willy Loman. Sleazy jazz slinks its way past the more somber moments. Under North’s skilled hands, the music sounds like much more than a collection of a few disparate instruments. Miller’s tragic story is filtered through North’s unique contemporary musical sensibilities, and the music conveys all the emotions inherent in the story: joy, sadness, heartbreak, and pain.

With Kimmel’s caveat on the Kritzerland website about the archival nature of the tracks, I was expecting something difficult to listen to from a sonic standpoint. The tracks obviously show their age, which is part of the charm of the recording, but they’re remarkably clean after 60 years. Attention must be paid to the brilliant engineering work.

As I let North’s music wash over me, I can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in the Morosco Theatre (long since demolished for the awful Marriot Marquis) listening to Arthur Miller’s glorious words for the first time and having this wonderful music as a backdrop.

I still hold out hope that someone will locate the original film score tracks. (Perhaps Robert Townson at Varese Sarabande?) Until then, between Elmer Bernstein’s rerecording for his classic Film Music Collection and this wonderful release, I’m one happy North fan.

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