One of the hottest new night spots in New York is an intimate space called 54 Below, built underneath the Studio 54 theater, which was once home to some wild parties during the height of the disco era.
It’s the newest venue for a wide assortment of Broadway stars (and would-be stars) to showcase different aspects of their talents.
In just a few short months, it has hosted veterans like Patti LuPone, Ben Vereen, Linda Lavin and Leslie Uggams, and up-and-coming performances like Laura Osnes, who starred in “Bonnie & Clyde.” Most of the artists are taking chances on new kinds of programs that are giving the club an exciting buzz.
It sounds like a musical theater lover’s dream land, and now you can get a sense of what it’s like at home in two new recordings, the first in a series that Broadway Records launched with 54 Below.
The first two releases feature two Tony winners — LuPone, who won for “Evita,” and Norbert Leo Butz, who won his for “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Catch Me if You Can.” CDs by Andrea McArdle (Broadway’s original “Annie”) and Christiane Noll are due in the coming months.
I generally love live concert recordings because there’s an extra level of electricity you don’t get in a studio. You can hear the way the performer connects with the audience, the occasional impromptu asides, and the introductions or backgrounds of the chosen songs which lend a greater level of understanding. They also help you feel like you’re there live.
These two new recordings are winners in style and substance.
LuPone’s “Far Away Places” takes on an international tone as she sings about her wanderlust, leading the listener on a musical journey around the world with Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” from “The Three-penny Opera,” Cole Porter’s “Come to the Supermarket (In Old Peking),” and such songs as “Traveling Light” and “Gypsy in My Soul.”
She’s in great voice and is often hilarious in these concert settings, with a dramatic touch. LuPone knows how to find humor in whatever setbacks she faces. There’s something in her voice when she’s speaking that invites you to follow along, and her sublime singing just makes you want to travel to hear her live.
Butz may have made his name on Broadway (and off), but his album reveals a different kind of easy style that suits his voice.
His recording, “Memory & Mayhem,” features some bluesy, funky, rock-pop songs that include Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do,” Rowland Salley’s “Killing the Blues,” Jimmy Webb’s “If These Walls Could Speak” “Poison and Wine” by the Civil Wars or Kurt Elling’s “The Waking,” set to a Theodore Roethke poem.
Theater fans expecting a program of show tunes might be disappointed, but we should delight in hearing artists growing or demonstrating something we didn’t know they could or wanted to do. Otherwise, we’re no better than back-seat directors or producers who typecast performers in certain kinds of roles.
Butz brings an actor’s sensibility to each song. So there’s meaning in Roethke’s lyrics: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go.”
There is a touch of theater music, like the quirky “I Could be in Love with Someone Like You,” by Jason Robert Brown from “The Last Five Years,” where I first saw the actor. And he finds a way of working in lines from “Great Big Stuff” from “Scoundrels” into a frenetic version of “16 Tons.”
Like LuPone, he’s on a journey through life and the world, exploring what’s out there.
Here's a sample of LuPone performing at 54 Below
And here's a clip of Butz performing a song from "Catch Me if You Can" on the 2011 Tony Awards:
Coming up: I’ll be hosting a post-show HT Talkback for “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Asolo Repertory Theatre on Feb. 26. Come join the conversation. 351-8000; asolorep.org