Johnny Mathis

Mathis on Broadway

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Though Johnny Mathis has recorded many individual songs from Broadway musicals over the years, the last time he devoted an entire album to them was 1960's The Rhythms and Ballads of Broadway, and the geography of the street has changed a lot since then. The Broadway of 2000 is a tourist attraction boasting a variety of kinds of musicals that were not available 40 years ago: oversized European operettas like Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera and American copycats like Jekyll & Hyde; Disney extravaganzas like The Lion King; retrospective anthology shows like Fosse; and rock musicals like Rent, along with revues of old rock & roll songs like Smokey Joe's Café. It is music from such disparate sources that Mathis combines on Mathis on Broadway, fearlessly crossing barriers of style and quality. Wisely, he gets the ringers out of the way up front. "On Broadway," despite its title, is a 1963 pop song interpolated in Smokey Joe's Café, but it comes from an era Mathis is comfortable with and it serves as an excellent introduction. "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" is a Broadway song, first heard in the 1931 edition of George White's Scandals, though its reason for being here is its inclusion in Fosse, and Mathis' playful reading is accompanied by the quartet from the show Forever Plaid. The rest of the album consists of songs actually written for and included in musicals of the '80s and '90s, and Mathis successfully smoothes over the wildly divergent styles, singing Stephen Sondheim's "Loving You" from Passion as though it were a simpler, more tuneful song than it is, using "They Live in You" from The Lion King as a exotic change of pace, lowering the key of "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables so that it no longer sounds like a vocal exercise for a castrato. One of Mathis' talents has always been an ability to incorporate many different styles into his own; for a non-rock singer who emerged in the rock era, it's been a necessity. Here, that talent serves to make the music of Frank Wildhorn, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Jonathan Larson sound like it all belongs on the same musical street, just as those composers' shows have occupied the same square mile of property in New York City. It's a sleight of hand, of course, and that may be one reason why Mathis on Broadway is so short, running only 33 minutes, which, for a new, full-priced CD, is very skimpy. Maybe Mathis just couldn't find any more songs without exploding the album's fragile concept. (Okay, it's more likely that song publishing royalties kept the tune count down.) In any case, the lesser talents among the composers -- Lloyd Webber, Wildhorn, Claude-Michel Schönberg -- owe Mathis a debt for making their music sound so good, while Sondheim can be grateful that Mathis makes him sound so accessible.

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