New Releases from Masterworks Broadway

There’s a lot going on at Sony’s Masterworks Broadway this spring. First of all, they celebrated the first anniversary of their essential website, with its ever-expanding database of original cast albums. There were contests and festivities galore; each week found the addition of new rare photographs from the productions and recording sessions (600 in the last year alone). The site also has added 65 cast album pages and 50 artist biographies. Seth Rudetsky offers his video “deconstructions” on a regular basis while Peter Filichia’s blog is a Tuesday perennial.

Consistently throughout this past year, Sony has made good on its promise to release many of the albums that haven’t been heard since they were originally released on vinyl. Many of the classics are also being reissued, but it’s the digital debuts that have me the most excited. The three new releases are available as digital downloads from the Masterworks site or disc-on-demand presses from ArkivMusic.

First up is the 1952 studio cast of On Your Toes, the smart, sophisticated Rodgers and Hart tuner opened in 1936, just a few years before the original cast album came into vogue. The show, which made a concerted effort to integrate dance (here ballet) into the storyline and made a star out of lead hoofer Ray Bolger. George Balanchine’s dances, specifically his eleven o’clock ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” were exceptionally well-received. The 1983 revival has what is the definitive reading of the score, but this studio album makes for pleasant listening with two of musical theater’s most interesting voices of the 1950s, Jack Cassidy and Portia Nelson, undertaking most of the singing. The master himself, Goddard Lieberson, produced the album with Lehman Engel conducting. The famed “Slaughter” ballet was recorded, almost in its entirety. This studio album has more pop than the 1954 Broadway revival recording (which only takes off when Elaine Stritch sings, which included an interpolated showstopper “You Took Advantage of Me”).

Richard Rodgers presented the marvelous “Music Theater of Lincoln Center” series throughout the 1960s. At the State Theater, there would be limited run summer revivals of popular musicals, many of which featured original stars. Most of these special revivals were recorded by Columbia and RCA. Now Masterworks Broadway has released the only one that has been unavailable, The Merry Widow. The famed Franz Lehar operetta was a smash summer hit, directed by Edward Greenberg and conducted by Franz Allers. The resulting cast album is blissfully elegant, a vibrant, exceptionally well-sung recording. This was actually my first experience hearing The Merry Widow (outside Shadow of a Doubt) and my God, is it a magnificent score.

Patrice Munsel, former Met diva turned musical comedy star, sings a sumptuous Sonia (they used the Chappell edition), particularly on the famed “Vilja.” Munsel was the youngest star of the Metropolitan Opera and later transitioned into musical comedy (her roles ran the gamut: Maria in The Sound of Music to Margo Channing in Applause). Her singing is perfection and full of vibrancy. She’s given magnificent support from baritone Bob Wright. The woefully under-recorded Joan Weldon (who is simply ravishing on the original cast recording of Kean) and Frank Poretta provide thrillingly sung support. Rounding out the cast are the always reliable character actors Mischa Auer and Sig Arno

Speaking of Ms. Munsel, on June 14 Sony will be releasing another rarity: the 1955 RCA-Victor studio cast recording of Carousel. I’m of the opinion that every recording of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is worth owning, and this is no exception. It marked the first time “Geraniums in the Winder” was recorded and flows less like a studio album and more like an album from a stage production. This disc was recorded for RCA under the baton of Lehman Engel. A couple of tracks were heard on the reissue of the Music of Lincoln Center Carousel, but this marks the complete digital debut for this wonderful recording (Meanwhile I wonder who we have to see about another essential studio recording: the 1962 Command Records reading of the score with Alfred Drake, Roberta Peters and Lee Venora).

Robert Merrill makes a grand Billy Bigelow, singing with that rich, soaring operatic baritone. Munsel is heaven as Julie, though she hasn’t as much to sing here. George S. Irving brings a great deal of character to Jigger, with limited time on disc (his “What?!” in “Geraniums” is priceless). Herbert Banke soars to tenor heights as Enoch while newcomer Florence Henderson makes an exceptional Carrie. Gloria Lane’s Nettie is well sung, but lacking the magic of Christine Johnston or Claramae Turner.

For cast album aficionados there are the many classics being released digitally as well as the new budget cardboard eco-pack editions of their bestsellers. These reissues are not remastered or upgraded aurally from previous releases, but puts the recordings back into the market. Most notably, Damn Yankees is being reissued with its original green LP cover featuring Gwen Verdon in a baseball uniform (sidebar: I have this rare LP). The show opened to good reviews, but less than ebullient business. However, the powers-that-be changed the marketing strategy by replacing wholesome Gwen with scintillating “Lola” against a fire engine red background. The rest is history.  Other titles include Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, The Secret Garden, Anything Goes (1987), Fosse, Sunday in the Park with George, And the World Goes Round and Pacific Overtures. (Unlike all other RCA Sondheim OBCRs, the latter has not been remastered and could use the sprucing up; it’s still Sondheim’s most intriguing score).

The following titles are available for digital download for the first time: Christine, First Impressions, Juno, Oh Captain, Mr. President, The Happiest Girl in the World, To Broadway with Love and Brigadoon (1957 studio cast). On June 28, The Girl in Pink Tights, Runaways, Kean and Maggie Flynn will also be released.

Walking Among My Yesterdays… "Carousel"

I was first exposed to Carousel through its 1956 film adaptation back in middle school. I was on a major Rodgers and Hammerstein kick from having seen the special Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a two hour retrospective on A&E hosted by Shirley Jones. I liked the film well enough, but truth be told I’ve only seen it once in the last ten years since I did the show at my high school. Reading the stage libretto and hearing the entire stage score and orchestrations throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, I realized that the show was darker, more substantial and ultimately more effective in its stage incarnation.
We felt inordinately proud of our production. As a cast we were very much aware of the show’s legacy and the difficulties in performing the material (especially in a high school setting). It marked the second time I ever appeared onstage in a musical. I was a sailor in the first act and Enoch Snow, Jr in the second. Even though I had really wanted to be Enoch Sr. (I sang “Geraniums in the Winder” for my audition… anyone? anyone?), I took a great deal of pride in what I did onstage in this show. It was the one and only time I completely costumed my own character, without any assistance (borrowing heavily from my father’s wardrobe).
Even after performing the show, I had never seen Carousel from an audience perspective.  I pounced on the news that there would be a concert at Carnegie Hall starring Hugh Jackman in his New York musical theater debut. The concert was months and months away, almost a year if I recall it correctly, so I kept on the lookout for ticket information. When it came time for tickets to go on sale, I set my alarm and spent about an hour on the phone getting busy signals from the Carnegie Hall box office. Eventually I got through and got the seats. The concert was June 6, 2002 and it was my first time inside the legendary venue.
The day of the concert, I got up and the skies were cloudy and threatening. As soon as I left the house, a downpour like none other started to fall and didn’t let up until the next day. Two high school friends (also in the show, one was our Nettie, the other our Heavenly Friend) went with me and we enjoyed an adventurous – if wet – day in Manhattan. I stopped at the Virgin Megastore, as per my old custom, and picked up a few cast recordings. We then dined at the TGIFridays in Times Square before we made the trek up to Carnegie Hall.

Now if we had been functioning like real adults instead of fresh-faced college kids, we would have taken the subway and/or been fully prepared for the inclement weather. But no, so we walked and walked in the rain – and in what was a first, I walked directly into the side of a moving cab. Amazingly enough, I wasn’t hurt. But oh, did we laugh.

Settling into our seats, the house was buzz with excitement. Carousel was last seen in NY in the acclaimed Tony-winning 1994 revival at Lincoln Center. The cast they had gathered together with Jackman was nothing short of exceptional. Audra McDonald, who won her first Tony as Carrie in the previous revival, was moving into the role of Julie. Lauren Ward was Carrie, Jason Danieley was Enoch, Norbert Leo Butz was Jigger, Judy Kaye played Nettie. But it didn’t stop there: Blythe Danner was Mrs. Mullin, Philip Bosco was the Starkeeper and original Billy Bigelow John Raitt made a brief appearance to introduce the concert; his entrance brought down the house with a lengthy ovation.

Directed by Walter Bobbie, the conceit of the evening was to really showcase the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers, as well as the orchestrations of Don Walker and dance arrangements of the brilliant Trude Rittmann. Bobbie and John Weidman adapted the book for concert, similar to Encores!, only it was even more spare than anything you find at City Center. There was absolutely no scenery, and very subtle but effective costume coordination by John Lee Beatty. Leonard Slatkin directed the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the principals were assisted by the Concert Chorale of New York.

I doubt you could ask for more perfect casting, particularly in the two leads. With McDonald and Jackman, the chemistry was palpable and the famed bench scene was not only superbly sung and acted, it was also incredibly sexy. When the two kissed at the end of it, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. McDonald’s crystalline soprano was perfect for Julie, with heavenly renditions of “If I Loved You” and “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” The two leads were ably supported by the others, particularly Kaye, who was and is ideal casting as Cousin Nettie, who brought a great sense of fun to “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” and a stirring warmth to “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The evening, though, belonged to Jackman. He was more than ideal, and was probably as close to perfection as one could get for the part. At the time, he was only starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood but had previously scored raves for his portrayal of Curly in Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn’s West End reincarnation of Oklahoma!

His “Soliloquy” was so impassioned, so thrilling, it brought sporadic bursts of applause mid-song. A year and a half later he would carry The Boy From Oz in one of the great male star turns in recent memory. But his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen pales in comparison. He sang the role with gusto, and delved deeply into Billy’s psychology, giving a performance that was ready for a Broadway opening. There was talk of him starring in a second film version of the property. I don’t know if that is still in the cards, but it would be wondrous to have the star revisit the property, especially for those who weren’t lucky enough to be there that night. It was one of the greatest musical theatre performances I’ve ever seen in my life.

The finale brought the sold out house at Carnegie Hall to its feet almost instantly, in a warm ovation. That ovation increased as Mr. Raitt returned to the stage where he proceeded to embrace Jackman, in a spontaneous display of mutual admiration. Though Mr. Raitt didn’t sing a note that evening, just his mere presence made the evening that more perfect. I don’t know for certain but I believe it was one of his last public appearances in NY.

My friends and I hoped that there would be a recording of the evening, and were so generous in starting applause that we wondered if we’d be able to hear ourselves if there was one. But unfortunately, the powers that be hadn’t the foresight to consider such an enterprise. Three years later when they presented South Pacific in concert, they made it available on CD and DVD and even aired the presentation on PBS. I’d like to think this was in part to missing the boat the first time around. For as much fun as that South Pacific concert was – it wasn’t nearly as special nor as memorable as Carousel.

Numerous albums of Carousel have been made throughout the years, but there is no complete recording of the score, in its original orchestration and with all of Trude Rittman’s brilliant dance arrangements intact. Even when we performed the show, the musical directors made some splices and edits within the dance music of the score: which includes a rarely performed “Hornpipe” for the sailors in the first act, as well as the famed twelve minute ballet in the second. There have been recordings of South Pacific, The King and I and even the recent studio recording of Allegro which give us the score in its entirety. I would like to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest score might be given its due sooner rather than later.

The rain was still coming down in torrents when we left Carnegie. We had even considered stagedooring it (with mostly soccer moms in attendance, a precursor to what was to come during his Broadway runs), but we were informed by one of the stage door attendants that the cast was going to be sitting down to dinner before emerging. We decided the show had already been enough and walked through the rain all the way down to Grand Central (why none us thought about taking the subway or a taxi, I’ll never know) but we maintain great memories of that experience, and I for one couldn’t get that score of my head for days, as I nursed my inevitable cold. But dammit, it was worth it!

Random Thoughts on This and That

I’ve been looking over the upcoming season and I gotta say I’m most excited this fall for Hamlet with Jude Law as it’s my favorite Shakespeare tragedy (and I’ve never seen it live), Oleanna because I enjoy Bill Pullman, A Little Night Music because of its rumored cast and the Kennedy Center import of Ragtime. Did I fail to mention Superior Donuts? After August: Osage County, I’ll see anything Tracy Letts writes. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else that I’m forgetting about… Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to?

I’m watching the the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! as I type. For those who don’t know, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein smash was shot twice, once in CinemaScope (an anamorphic lensed widescreen system using an aspect ratio of 2.55:1) and in the brand new Todd-AO, a large format 70mm system developed by Mike Todd. Todd-AO used a wide-angled lens, and a deeply curved screen which was meant to rival the expensive and impractical three camera Cinerama. Todd-AO didn’t require anamorphic image compression and displayed a spherical aspect ratio of 2.20:1.

Each scene was shot twice in each process which means there are two versions of the film available. The most notable difference between the two are the opening credits, but there are also differences in line readings and camera angles. When it originally opened in 1955, the Todd-AO format played the major roadshow engagements in NY and other major markets. The traditional CinemaScope version played other theatres throughout the country. The CinemaScope version made the initial video releases, but was supplanted by the restoration of the Todd-AO print, which was marked with superior sound and image quality. In 2005, 20th Century Fox released a 2-disc special edition containing both versions, though for some reason the Todd-AO transfer doesn’t improve on the 1999 release, except in making it 16:9 friendly. There’s a comprehensive website called the American Widescreen Museum which goes into explicit detail on the history and technological details of these different processes that are for the most part no longer used in filmmaking.

This video of Gloria Grahame singing “I Cain’t Say No” gives you an idea of the different versions:

The following year, Carousel was shot twice in CinemaScope and a process called CinemaScope 55 in an attempt to combat Paramount’s VistaVision process. The new CinemaScope process was an experimentation with 55 mm film that was heralded in both Carousel and The King and I. The idea of shooting Carousel twice is what led Frank Sinatra to quit the project, since he didn’t like the idea of shooting two films for the price of one. Ironically enough, they abandoned the 35mm shoot during filming. CinemaScope 55 was actually never really used: both R&H films were shot in 55mm stock and had their prints reduced onto regular 35mm, since it was more feasible than requiring movie houses to accommodate the unusual film size. From what I understand, the 55mm prints were never even used.

I’m still unable to get The Norman Conquests out of my head. So I decided to watch Table Manners from the 1977 BBC adaptation. It’s an entirely different animal from the recent revival, but it is still quite extraordinary. The television version stars Tony-Award winner Tom Conti as Norman. After Stephen Mangan it is seriously difficult to imagine any other actor in the part and unfortunately Mr. Conti’s performance suffers (The problem here is he’s not nearly as likable in the breakfast scene, in fact he’s downright irritating). David Trougham is a bit too stiff for Tom. However, Richard Briers makes for a game Reg, while Fiona Walker scores as Ruth. Penelope Keith won the bulk of the praise and a BAFTA award for her turn as Sarah (deservedly so – she was the only original London cast member to reprise her role onscreen). It was particular fun discovering that Jessica Hynes’ fellow Shaun of the Dead actor Penelope Wilton played the same role here in the TV adaptation (and quite well). Will be getting around to Living Together and Round and Round the Garden before long.

Sadly, this is out of print on DVD in the UK and has only been released on VHS in the US. BBC America, get on it! However you can get a sampling of it on youtube. Here are the first ten minutes of Table Manners:

There are two weeks left for you to catch Mary Stuart. If you haven’t had the opportunity, run don’t walk to the Broadhurst. Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are giving titanic performances as Mary and Elizabeth I, respectively. It’s worth the price of admission for the first scene of the second act alone, which depicts the fictional meeting between the two monarchs. The two leading ladies are breathtaking and deserve to be seen, again and again and again. Plus, there’s a fantastic discount code for the rest of the run. This one is not to be missed.

I’m off to Long Island for the weekend. A friend is getting married in Centereach (sadly no East Hampton this trip) and the honor of my presence has been requested, so I will resume my blog perch on Sunday evening. I’ll be thinking of my friends spending some quality time with those titans at the Broadhurst tomorrow while enjoying marital libations.