One small side-section of a theatre shelf should have a couple of the all-too-few works for children’s ears that combine oral storytelling and orchestral music – Peter and the Wolf, Tuby the Tuba, The Trumpet of the Swan.
The Trumpet of the Swan? Yes, the novel for children by E. B. White, the man who dreamed up “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little”, (not to mention “Is Sex Necessary?” Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do”,) belongs on that same shelf. Why? Well, not only is it a nifty story told in a script by The Secret Garden‘s Marsha Norman, it has a jazzy symphonic setting by one of musical theatre’s finest composers/lyricists, Jason Robert Brown, who gave us Parade, Songs for a New World, The Last Five Years and 13.
After a three-year-plus wait we finally have a recording of the piece conducted by Brown himself and featuring a star studded cast of readers. I do wish I could report that the recording has as much charm and delight as did the world premiere which was given in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater back in 2008. It comes close, but one cast change makes a world of difference.
The “star part” in the piece is the narrator who, as a young boy named “Sam,” tells the story of a swan with no voice. On the recording it is John Lithgow who tells the tale. He’s just a bit too emphatic, coming off as something of a stuffed shirt of a big name actor instead of a friend relating a story for the enjoyment of a child.
This might not be as obvious to those who didn’t attend the premiere of the piece at the Kennedy Center, but those who heard the superb job that Richard Thomas did on that occasion will notice the difference. It may not have been entirely Mr. Lithgow’s fault, however. The premiere utilized a stage director – Gary Griffin to be precise. In the booklet for the recording, there is mentioned of Joe Calarco also having a hand in directing the premiere.
Whoever had the final touch as director in 2008, he managed to impose a coordinated feel for all six of the speaking parts and, of course, all six were on stage together at the same time. The recording, on the other hand, is not credited to any director and two of the voices were recorded in New York while the other four were “laid down” in California. The music was recorded at yet a third location. No wonder it comes off sounding more like the product of a committee than the charmingly coordinated performance delivered before an audience full of attentive and at times enraptured kids.
The difference isn’t fatal, however. Lithgow has his charms at times and he’s certainly accompanied by a superb supporting cast including Kathy Bates, James Naughton and Martin Short. The orchestra assembled by PS Classics’ Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin gives Brown’s music a lovely, lively rendition and the jazzy interludes are a great deal of fun.
Truth to tell, however, it is a non-speaking part that is the real starring role. It is the music that Brown has written for the trumpet which is played on the recording, as it was in the premiere concert, by Christopher Michael Venditti. At the time of the premiere, he was a masters degree student at the Juilliard School. He contributes a velvety smooth tone to the work while Brown conducts the orchestra in his supporting score. There are no songs in the piece, but certain instruments and melodies represent different characters and places as the story unfolds.
That story is of a trumpet swan born without a voice. He learns to write on a chalk tablet, but finds it worthless since the rest of the swans can’t read. His father, concerned that his son won’t be able to attract a mate without the ability to make the loud trumpeting honk of the species’ mating call, steals a trumpet for him from a music store. Once he learns to play the trumpet, he sets off to earn enough money as a musician to pay back the music store.
When Venditti’s trumpet soars, so, too, does the story.