Covering the rainbow
Many years ago, songs from stage and screen musicals were eagerly devoured by recording artists looking for quality material, were heard on the airwaves all day long and were whistled by people in the street. These days, this isn’t as true as it once was, though showtunes pop up in all sorts of unlikely places, perhaps most frequently as the background music for television adverts. Cover versions of these songs tend to be restricted to ‘theatre people’ on theatre or cabaret albums, or to folk like Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé, since a lot of the jazz, swing and easy listening standard repertoire has its origins on the musical stage.
Last year, an unusual album of showtune covers was released, in order to raise money for children’s hospices in the UK. This was organised by Anneka Rice, as part of a special edition of Challenge Anneka, a name which will only mean anything to Brits of around my age or older. In the space of a few days, Anneka badgered, hectored and emotionally blackmailed (probably – I didn’t see the special, so this is pure speculation) a diverse bunch of producers, artists and so on into recording this album, which went on general sale with £2 from every purchase going to the worthy cause of the Association of Children’s Hospices (though why only £2?). The album is called ‘Over the Rainbow’, subtitled ‘Showtunes in aid of the Association of Children’s Hospices’. It’s a most intriguing thing.
The album opens with the title number, one which everyone (surely?) knows, as interpreted by Duncan James on vocals, Myleene Klass on piano and, to add that special something, a children’s choir. I am a firm believer that this old song from The Wizard of Oz works best when sung simply, allowing the melody and the lyrics to do their work. Sadly, this isn’t one of those occasions – the vocalist goes in for the swoops and twiddles that tend to annoy me, though I do like his voice, and the children’s choir just pushes the whole thing over into too-sweet-to-be-true territory, where the song becomes mildly disturbing. Not, however, as disturbing as McFly interpreting ‘You’re the One that I Want’, one of the not-remotely-1959 interpolations to the film version of Grease. Not McFly and somebody else, just McFly, splitting the duet between the various members. It’s highly bizarre, not least because you can hear the Busted/McFly sort of sound very clearly. It’s as though you’re listening to an iPod shuffle which has gone insane. Instead of playing your songs in a random order, it has taken them and reassigned them to random artists. I normally quite like McFly in their own way, and I normally like it when someone interprets a song in a fresh way, but it really doesn’t work for me.
After this, thankfully, things become significantly less disturbing. The matching of artists and songs still seems random on paper, but they mostly work. Bonnie Tyler gives a nicely vulnerable rendition of ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, Cerys Matthews does a wonderful job on ‘Secret Love’, obviously completely unlike the Doris Day original, Gavin Creel trips effortlessly through ‘Young at Heart’ and Jermaine Jackson duets with Jocelyn Brown to cover ‘The Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing. I’m not taken with Michael Bolton on ‘Theme from New York, New York‘. I know he’s doing it as if it’s from one of the recent stage biomusical thingummies of the Rat Pack, but his interpretation doesn’t thrill me and I really, really don’t like the alterations that Frank Sinatra made to Fred Ebb’s original lyric (listen to the original by Liza Minnelli, then tell me how the phrase “A number one” improves the song). Anyway…
After the rather frightening ensemble effort on the first track, I steeled myself before two of the other numbers on the album. The first was Oliver!‘s ‘Consider Yourself’, covered by Richard Fleeshman (I had to look him up – apparently, he was on Coronation Street) and the London cast of Avenue Q. In character. Readers who are familiar with both Avenue Q and ‘Consider Yourself’ will realise that this is likely to be an intriguing track, and it certainly isn’t quite how you normally expect the song to be, but it’s a lot of fun, largely because those involved seem to be enjoying themselves. The final track features Chickenshed and its co-founder Jo Collins singing a song called ‘Talk Though Me’ from The King’s Web. Chickenshed is a London theatre group for children of all backgrounds and abilities and is a quite amazing organisation. The song is a perfect song for them and it’s a beautiful final track for the album.
I may be disturbed by some of the album’s choices, and it may initially seem as though children’s choirs send me screaming, but this track I like. It is more the case that I refuse to subscribe to the philosophy that because something is done by children, or done by Christians (such a strange idiosyncrasy of middle-class churchgoers), or done for charity, we should hold it to lower standards or worse still make it automatically ‘great!’ If people perform badly at a charity concert, the fact that they’re raising money for a good cause doesn’t make their singing or acting any better and there’s no reason to listen to Andrea Bocelli and say “oh, he’s very good for a blind man”, which I have actually heard people say. He’s either good or bad, surely? Bad children’s choirs make me want to scream. Unnecessary children’s choirs are possibly worse (as the choir for ‘Over the Rainbow’ isn’t actually bad, in fact it’s rather good, just in the wrong place, I feel). But a good, appropriate children’s choir is good.
Rant over, what do I think of the album overall? Well, I’ll listen to it again, though McFly’s track will be skipped from now on. If I lost it and chose to re-purchase through iTunes or similar, I’d be picky about the tracks and eight, possibly nine, out of the thirteen songs would make it into my library. Perhaps it’s an album of showtunes for people who don’t really like showtunes? I don’t know. It’s interesting, a proportion of the cost goes to a good cause, and a proportion of the tracks are good (rather than just ‘good for a charity release’). Thank you, Anneka, and thank you, generous people who gave their time to record this album. Even McFly, who I’m sure won’t mind that I skip them.