IMAGINE BEING asked to put together a show that's a "tribute to America, its people, its creative and performing arts." You'd want to include at least one serious piece by an American classical composer, of course. Some Broadway show tunes, too. Also jazz, blues, gospel and spirituals. A bit of comedy, perhaps. Country music and, yes, even a dash of rock 'n' roll.
"The Inaugural Album," one of three new records with strong Washington connections, has all this and a lot more. Recorded at a Kennedy Center gala concert this past Jan. 19, the night before Jimmy Carter took his oath of office, this 90-minute-plus, two-recorded set features performances by some of the most prominent names in American entertainment - brought together in an effort to capture the "New Spirit" of the Carter era and to give a broad overview of American popular culture, music and theater division.
It is a recording with an unusual, even unprecedented premise, and Columbia Records intends to promote it with some unorthodox marketing techniques. Current plans call for "The Inaugural Album" (Columbia AL 34706/7) to be sold, at $40 a copy, exclusively by mail order: Ads will be placed in several prestigious magazines and newspapers across the country, and profits from the sale of the album will be donated to the National Endowment for the Arts.
In return for their investment, purchasers of "The Inaugural Album" will receive a simple yet attractive cloth-bound package containing a 40-page commenmorative booklet and a pair of records somewhat uneven in content. In general, the strictly musical numbers here fare better than the comedy skits or the spoken bits; although actor Jack Nicholson, one of several hosts imported from Hollywood, at one point speaks of the "irreverence" of the comedy routines, the truth is that there's more zing in the performances by the singers, both classical and pop.
The musical selections range from Beverly Sills singing "Una Voce Poco Fa" - from Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" - and Linda Ronstadt rocking her way through "When Will I Be Loved" to Aretha Franklin's soulful interpretation of three classic Duke Elington tunes and Loretta Lynn's twangy rendition of her own "Coal Miner's Daughter." Despite their vast differences of style, these performances do have a common denominator: the excellence of each woman in her respective field, amply demonstrated here.
But it is pop singer-songwriter Paul Simon's spare, moving rendition of "American Tune" tht perhaps best exemplifies what host Paul Newman cited as the purpose of the inaugural gala: to capture the "beautiful new spirit in the country." After explaining that he wrote "American Tune" during "some of the bleakest and most turbulent times" in the nation's history, Simon dedicates his performance to Carter "in the hope that perhaps a time of righteousness and dignity may now be upon us."
Running a close second is the medley of spirituals sung by the Howard University Choir and Brother John Sellers as accompaniment for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Essentially a reworking of three traditional and very familiar standards - "sinner Man," "The Day Is Past and Gone" and "Rock-a My Soul" - this rolicking, inspirational 8 1/2-minute gospel interlude embodies those qualities of hopefulness, faith and endurance in the face of adversity that we like to think of as being quintessentially American.
In comparison, the handful of comedy routines that occupy all 26 minutes of the album's second side seem flat and, in the case of Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, labored. Although the late Freddie Prinze, who committed suicide nine days after the inaugural gala, contributes a devastatingly accurate impression of Muhammad Ali, the best that Mike Nichols and Elaine May, reunited for only the second time in 17 years, can do is a tedious sketch about "the first Jewish President" and his nagging mother. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate it.
One show that can be enjoyed from a distance, however, is "Annie," the musical that proved to be a smashing success at the Kennedy Center before going on to become a hit on Broadway. The original cast album of "Annie" is now available, recorded in one day at the same studio used for "My Fair Lady," one of the best-selling cast albums of all time and it has an appeal that should be immediately obvious even to those who haven't seen the show on stage.
Even aside from the story line, which is explained in a thorough and liberally illustrated set of liner notes, "Annie" (Columbia PS 34712) is a bright, charming and optimistic musical romp. That's apparent even from the jaunty "Overture" that opens the album, but it becomes especially clear when Annie (Andrea McArdle) leads the other residents of New York orphanage in singing "It's the Hard-Knock Life," the number in which the untrained but fresh voices of the kids are most winning.
One song in particular seems destined to become an instant standard: "Tommorrow," sung first by Annie as a solo and later, in an amusing reprise, by Annie, Oliver Warbucks and FDR and his Cabinet. Composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin have here written a wistful yet hopeful balled that manages to encapsulate the feeling and spirit of the whole show; no matter that later they partially undo this with "N.Y.C.," a boastful, glaring example of that peculiar provincialism to which New Yorkers are prone.
Though the success of "Annie" may have been predictable, that of "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God," the other big hit musical of this year's Broadway season, was not. When the play first opened at Ford's Theater here, says producer Frankie Hewitt, there were a lot of complaints about the long and awkward title - complaints that seem to have disappeared now that the show has been nominated for four Tony awards and a cast album (ABC AB-1004) released.
Based on the Book of Matthews, "Your Arms Too Short" is Jesus Christ without the Superstar. A straighforward, gospel-flavored retelling of the life and crucifixion of Christ, it is a jubilant, foot-stomping celebration of faith, employing some enormously tallented singers and infectious and spirited songs. It is also, believe it or not, incredibly funky, with singer William Hardy Jr. and the pit band rhythm section leading the cast through 45 minutes of music that has all the fervor of Sunday morning at a Baptist church on the West Side of Chicago.
Particularly impressive are "Something Is Wrong in Jerusalem," a swaying, syncopated showcase for singer Salome Bey, and the mocking, calypolike "Come on Down," which features Vinnette Carroll, who conceived and directed the show, and lyricist-composer Alex Bradford. The cast opens and ends the record by promising listeners "We're Gonna Have a Good Time," and at no time do they deliver anything but that; ABC Records has chosen wisely for its first "original cast recording" ever.