Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sing Thee Nowell -- Yearround Pleasure

New York Polyphony's release "Sing Thee Nowell" is a little unusual. Despite its name, this is a release I'll be enjoying throughout the year.

The ensemble's carefully chosen program includes many songs of the season, but few that have been done to death. Even the more familiar carols are heard in new and innovative arrangements.

The disc opens with Andrew Smith's arrangement of "Veni Emmanuel," which highlights the medieval origins of the tune.

From there, the group moves easily through renaissance works from composers such as Verdelot, Victoria, and Clemens "non Papa." They also perform with equal ease contemporary works by composers such Andrew Smith, John Scott, and Michael McGlynn.

A high point of the recording is "Five Carols" by Richard Rodney Bennett. The beautiful and complex harmonies of these carols seem tailor-made for the clear tone and seamless blend of New York Polyphony's ensemble sound.

Most of the works are in Latin, which is why I'll be enjoying this disc all year. Since the seasonal messages of the text are lost on me, I can just listen to the beauty of the performances -- even in the middle of summer.

This album is available in SACD format. If you appreciate vocal artistry, I recommend you purchasing it in this format. The added detail draws you into the ensemble, and you can hear just how good each of these singers are.

Sing The Nowell
New York Polyphony

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dick Tracy and the End of Annie - 2

Mike Curtis and Joe Staton finished up an extended sequence in Dick Tracy that was (in my opinion) something of a tour de force.

In addition to providing an unusual case for Dick Tracy, it also wrapped up loose ends from another legacy strip, while honoring the tradition of that strip in an innovative way.

For the full background, be sure to read part 1.

The masters of foreshadowing

Curtis and Staton extensively foreshadowed the appearance of Annie. In mid-June of 2013, Punjab, the Asp and Daddy Warbucks made cameos in Dick Tracy.

March, 2014. Staton and Curtis set the stage.

In the Vera Alldid story line, (see The Comical Dick Tracy) various newspapers show the comic strip logo for Annie, as well.

That Little Orphan Annie logo from March, 2014, is there for a reason.

The Plot Thickens

The story arc starts with Dick Tracy being enlisted by Warbucks to find Annie. The Butcher of the Balkans has been followed to Tracy's city -- but Annie isn't with him.

Ever the model capitalist, Warbucks "hires" Tracy.
Tracy, Ketchem and the rest of the cast dig into the case.

When worlds collide - June 8, 2014

While the major characters have a serious discussion, Hank Ketchem
and the Asp riff on the old novelty tune "You Can't Go Back to
Constantinople ('cause it now is Istanbul).

Sparkle Plenty receives a fan letter from Annie -- seemingly mailed in 1942! Eventually Tracy figures out that Annie's letter contains a clue as to her location and, as it turns out, her predicament as well.

Inside the "time bubble"

She's being held on Thunder Island, where residents have been brainwashed. They believe they are living in Simmons Corners, and that the year is 1944. It's actually a plot by arms dealer Axel. The purpose is to convince a scientist that he can win the war with his explosive -- which Axel will sell on the black market.

Annie happened to stumble into the plot, and is now another prisoner. Tracy follows the lead and he, too, comes under the spell of the mind control.

Note that the nurse is drawn "Annie style" without pupils. Welcome to
Simmons Corners.
Mind control that is administered through an evening radio program. Just as everyone rushed home to tune into the adventures of Annie in the 1940's (and were "brainwashed" into buying Ovaltine), Axel ensures everyone tunes into the Betty Belinda program to be subliminally hypnotized.

The story has number of deft touches. Axel was a major villain in the Harold Gray's original strip. He appeared in two sequences spanning 1939 and 1940. So using him in a plot that's seemingly set in the 1940's is just another homage to the rich heritage of Annie's mythos.

When Ketchem and company figure out where Tracy is (and what the situation is), they fly a B-17 over as a signal. The B-17 is Harvard red -- a signature color for Hotshot Charlie, a supporting character from Terry and Pirates' war years. Hotshot Charlie's made a cameo in Dick Tracy before, making his off-screen appearance doubly effective.

Hotshot Charlie flies over Simmons Corner. Note how Staton adopts
the style of original "Terry and the Pirates" artist Milton Caniff
for this sequence.
And of course, in the end, Annie is reunited with Daddy Warbucks, Punjab, and the Asp. Four years after cancellation, Slampyak's story finally reaches an end, albeit not in quite the way he envisioned it.

The official explanation, October 9, 2014
Thanks to Mike Curtis and Joe Staton for doing what the Tribune Syndicate failed to do -- bring an 86-year-old strip to a dignified conclusion.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dick Tracy and the End of Annie - 1

Mike Curtis and Joe Staton finished up an extended sequence in Dick Tracy that was (in my opinion) something of a tour de force.

In addition to providing an unusual case for Dick Tracy, it also wrapped up loose ends from another legacy strip, while honoring the tradition of that strip in an innovative way.

This post (part 1) I'll lay down the foundation for the sequence. In part 2, I'll show how Curtis and Staton used those elements to tell an unusual story.

A brief history of Little Orphan Annie

Harold Gray began Little Orphan Annie in 1924, and continued it through his death in 1968. Although the strip was continued, it was in something of a creative free fall. Artists and writers came and went, and circulation continued to decline. (click on images to enlarge)

Harold Gray's Annie, from 1936

After the success of the musical Annie (both on Broadway and in Hollywood), the strip, which had been reduced to reprinting sequences from the 1930's was resurrected. Leonard Star (Mary Perkins, On Stage) took over the strip and continued until 2000. (click on images to enlarge)

Leonard Starr's take on Annie

Noted artist Allan Kupperberg took over, and in 2004 handed off to talented artist and writer Ted Slampyak. Kupperberg and Slampyak updated Annie, letting her wear jeans and t-shirts rather than the anachronistic (but iconic) red dress.

The final Annie strip by Ted Slampyak, 2010

Unfortunately, readers wanted the musical Annie, and in 2010, Tribune Media Services abruptly cancelled the strip. Annie was in the hands of the "Butcher of the Balkans" and although Oliver Warbucks was searching frantically for her, she and the Butcher disappeared into the wilds of Guatamala. The End -- for now.

Annie's radio program featured a secret message
at the end of each episode. Buy Ovaltine, send in
the vouchers, and you could get a secret decoder
ring (and be a member of the secret society).

Little Orphan Annie on radio

Little Orphan Annie debuted on radio in 1930 as a 15-minute serial, and continued through 1942. The program settled into a format that differed from the comic strip, where Annie and Sandy were often wandering alone, in a picaresque narrative.

The radio program had Annie living in Simmon's Corner, a small, rural community in Tucker county, the ward of Ma  and Pa Silo. The Silos took care of Annie while Daddy Warbucks was off doing big projects. Of course, it didn't mean that life on the farm was dull for Annie! She crossed paths with gansters, Nazi spies, and other villians that all seemed to converge on Simmons Corners.

The modern world of Slampyak's "Annie" and the radio world of Simmons Corner would be brought together in "Dick Tracy" in a brilliant fashion. As you'll see in part two.

A worthy opponent

The villain of the Dick Tracy sequence comes from the golden age of Annie. Axel first ran across Annie in 1939, and at the time just seemed like another crook. But when he returned in 1940, he was a cold-blooded arms merchant with more than a passing resemblance to Hitler. He was eventually captured and deported.

Axel harangues his followers in 1940. 64 years later, his attitude hadn't
changed a bit.