Zipping about merrily on stage or screen with his hyperactive comic antics and bouncy songs, the eager-to-please stage persona and mobile face with trademark bulging eyes, entertainer Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) was one of the all-time giants of old-time show biz. A glib and gleeful vaudevillian to his toes, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was one of those scrappy kids who grew up around the crowded downtown New York City streets and tenements, with those determined big eyes lighting up when he saw the bright bulbs of Manhattan's Great White Way and lesser lights. Like other rags-to-riches Broadway journeys, his tale was told in a film biography that liberally mixed fiction with the telescoped facts, although he did provide the singing voice for the actor mouthing his trademark songs.
Cantor's saga has been the subject of books, including memoirs by himself and his youngest of five daughters, Janet. Her son, the New York City-based pop/musical theatre singer-songwriter Brian Gari, has also consistently helped kindle the flame and nurtured the legacy. Long simmering on his back burner of projects has been a bio-musical about his grandpa. He's been thinking outside the jukebox concept--instead of incorporating the Cantor classics like "Makin' Whoopee" and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," he'd have the story told with a fully original score. It hasn't gotten much beyond dreams, delays, and demo discs (a few numbers have been previously included on albums). That's why this belated issue is titled The Unproduced Eddie Cantor Musical. But hearing it makes me think the release should produce the better-late-than-never results it (still) deserves: a staging. While some expansion, deepening, and tweaking would be in order, and perhaps more pastiche and polish, there's evocative and especially infectious stuff here.
Gari's sweet side comes through in his affectionate portrayal of the life and times of his kinfolk, in both writing and performance. His plaintive voice is effective. Other performers also take turns in the spotlight. It must be remembered that these are mostly old demos, not intended to be the equivalent of a planned-out studio cast album representing a final version of a full score. Characterization and "performance mode" are sometimes more sketchy or just suggested. Some tracks have a tentative, tip-toeing feel, but the potential is more than hinted at.
Things begin modestly. Be patient. To me, the earliest pieces are the least impressively crafted items, though their collective asset is setting the stage and mood appropriately for a sentimental and tender base. Unapologetically earnest in laying out struggle and sacrifice, the impending birth of our future icon is announced as "Someone Else to Think Of," sung with a cloud of cautioned wariness by Marti Deters as the mother. As both parents died before Eddie was two years old, his single grandmother nobly abandoned her old life in the old country to raise him, shown in Yvonne Roome's somber singing. Her sole assignment begins before those deaths in "Esther's Song," with a mix of matriarchy and maybe martyrdom ("I was wealthy and I had success/ But I'll get used to surviving on less").
Soon the spunk kick in as Gari starts to parade the young Eddie's brash and bright bursts of confidence. Strutting his precocious stuff, the character voiced by Gari captures the eager-beaver drooling desire of "I Wanna Drink with the Older Guys" and the braggadocio of "I Can Be Trusted" when he tries to make ends meet with a meat-delivery job, but samples too many salamis.
Eddie's future wife Ida is idealized in two selections redolent with charm and endearingly antique grace. As in Funny Girl, the musical about Fanny Brice, who, like Cantor, was featured in editions of the famous Ziegfeld Follies, there's a number invoking the name of one certain street in their shared lower East side neighborhood. Gari, in a solo, is at his gentlemanly love-struck best extolling Ida as "The Belle of Henry Street." Cast to perfection as Ida for the lovers' duet of "Eddie, the Parlor Door Is Open," creamy-voiced cabaret royalty KT Sullivan captures the essence of period flavor.
Two heartfelt tear-jerkers (the good kind) balance the pain of missing departed loved ones with the hint of a metaphysical sense that they are not truly gone. These are handled with dignity rather than mawkishness in "In Your Dreams No One Is Missing" and "What Makes You Think She Didn't See You?" when Cantor is consoled by a star colleague, Will Rogers (who, of course, has had his own life enacted in a Broadway musical, one more reason Cantor seems overdue for the same). Don Ciccone handles both selections with unencumbered sincerity and a bonus track of the latter features sturdy-voiced Tom Lucca in a live performance from 2015.
As a longtime Cantor fan, I am especially delighted by Gari's writing and performance of "It's Harder to Hit a Moving Target," where he really hits the mark in bringing us the stage personality we remember. Taking the stage at a place called Miner's, our hero--still in his teens--gets a shot at being on the bill and it's like he's being shot out of a cannon. It's daffy and fleet, turning his grandfather's joking "explanation" for his staging style of hyperkinetic skipping and dashing about into a song. And throughout this giddy romp, he crystallizes the legend's deliciously silly sensibility and channels his timbre and vocal stylings.
The mix of razzle dazzle (more of that would be good), turn-of-the-century nostalgia, and heart-on-sleeve sentiment strongly suggests a versatile, balanced score that could be beefed up to raise the bar. I'd love to hear it fleshed out with an orchestra that would bring more colors than the writer's basic keyboard work and some miscellaneous instrument work by frequent Gari colleague Jeff Olmsted. When our main character revisits his old stomping grounds and reflects on how the old New York sights and sites are disappearing for real or just from his memory in "There Goes the Neighborhood," we hear both the writer/performer and his ancestor's longing with the words "Pushcarts and street fights/ Hangin' on street lights/ Gone without sayin' goodbye" and we choke back a tear, too, sensing audiences somehow missing or missing out on living through a time few knew: "It's true it's the past/ But you want it to last/ If it's yours." And I think, through this album, we're made ready to bring back Eddie.
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