Keith and Rusty McNeil
Keith and Rusty McNeil

KEENE, N.H.

American Religious Songs -- Some time ago, I wrote about a wonderful team named Keith and Rusty McNeil who created and recorded an eight-part set of CDs that trace the development of the American song from Colonial times to the then-present. Each of the 350 selections was preceded by spoken narration; and the entire enterprise had great educational value as well as being pure entertainment.

Now the team, with many supporting singers, has hit gold again in their California home with their three-CD set titled "American Religious Songs with historical narration." Here we have 137 examples, divided into 1492-1800, 1800-1860, 1860-1890, and after 1890. They are very careful to include non-Christian selections, including even a beautiful "Muslim Call to Prayer" and "The Ghost Dance Song" of a short-lived Indian religion that tried to live in peace with the white man and to keep away from his liquor.

Not every song is necessarily a hymn of praise. "The Quaker's Courtship" makes fun of that sect, while several songs have secular lyrics set to familiar religious tunes. Among the latter are "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" (a variant of "Revive us again"), "The Whisky Shops Must Go" and at least one other that borrows the melody of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Among the most beautiful of the lot is "It's a gift to be simple," which exemplifies in every way the essence of Shaker life. "Chester," sung during the American Revolution, is an example of adapting a Biblical passage to fit political needs. There are many sledgehammer selections that make no attempt at subtlety, one being Arthur Sullivan's "Onward, Christian Soldiers," familiar more through Salvation Army renditions than from church services (although it is now part of the Catholic hymnal).

The program opens with "Oh, What a Beautiful City" and ends with "Amazing Grace." Between these two, the variety is dazzling. And I must point out that the soloists' voices are just right for this sort of music, with only one song that proves too lyrical for the soloist. The choral work is quite well done too.

There is no point in my piling up examples. This is simply a set not to be missed, and every church group (at least) should want a copy to get some insight into what they are singing and the story behind each selection.

Note 1: Rusty McNeil passed away after this album was completed. I dedicate these reviews, if I may, to her memory.

Note 2: The e-mail address for WEM is www.wemrecords@mcneilmusic.com.

The Typists -- Decades ago, I saw a one-act play on television called "The Typists" by Murray Schisgal, that had been a hit off-Broadway. The plot, if it can pass for a plot, concerns a young man named Paul (Eli Wallach) who gets a job as a typist in a tiny office under the supervision of Sylvia (Anne Jackson) and a boss who never appears. This dramatic gem has been preserved on DVD, included by Kultur in its fabulous Broadway Theatre Archive collection.

His job is to type onto postcards the names of every person in the phone book. As she is still on the A's, he starts with the B's. They talk about themselves. They have confessions directed at the audience. As this single day goes by, they age, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they quit, they return, they eat their lunches, she gets up to the W's. They have no idea what is printed on the backs of the postcards but find out with only a minute left to the business day. What they learn is the final irony to the proceedings.

If Hamlet could be bounded in a nutshell and still count himself king of infinite space, why can't two ordinary people experience time in a relativistic way? Married in real life, Wallach and Jackson have all the "chemistry" it needs to make this quasi-fantasy almost believable. Their aging is not just a matter of makeup but of superb acting.

Sixty minutes is just right for the two to bring it off before the cameras. This production was filmed for television in 1971, but the picture and sound are perfectly acceptable. Yes, I would say that this Kultur DVD is a Grabbit!

And the Best of All Happy New Years to you all!

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.