When it comes to Broadway cast albums I almost always have a tendency for the original Broadway cast; they are usually definitive, including those made in the aural ice age of the 78 rpm platters or the dawn of the LP in the 1940s. Stereo came into play in 1956, Goddard Lieberson at Columbia was the champion of the original cast recording.
As the art form of the American musical has evolved, the technology with which music is recorded – and played on – has changed precipitously. Time constraints, technological limitations are no longer an issue. When there is money for an album, there is now room for dialogue, bonus material and occasionally a DVD companion. The problem is in the market – the original cast album has gone from one of the most lucrative areas of the music industry in the 1950s and 60s to a niche market. Pirating makes matters even worse. However, the producers take an extra special care in making sure the album released is the best it can be.
That said, I tend to prefer the contemporary recordings of new musicals as opposed to revivals. Perhaps its my ear lacking adjustment or just my personal preference, but in spite of all the great technological advancements, many of the older shows being re-recorded tend to lack the energy that makes the show work in the theatre, or the original cast album come to life in your room. So many of the new revivals sound as though they were recorded in a small studio, whereas the originals contain palpable theatre performance preserved for the ages. Revivals such as South Pacific, Gypsy and Hair were stunners onstage, but their respective albums fail to capture the magic. However, there are many older recordings that do capture that magic, in particular those Columbia albums of the 50s and 60s.
So while I vary my listening – I can have up to as many as 10 recordings of a particular score (and I do make it a point to listen to each to listen for variations in performance, orchestration, relevance, etc) I do find myself preferring to go back to the originals. However, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Finian’s Rainbow is one of those exceptions. I’ve never particularly cared for the 1947 original cast album released by Columbia (it was their second theatre recording; the first was the previous year’s revival of Show Boat). It preserves David Wayne’s Tony-winning performance as Og, but I’m perpetually bothered by the mannerisms of star Ella Logan. I don’t know if she found it charming, or was trying (in vain) to mask her Scottish accent, but her consonant heavy crooning gets on my nerves. A 1960 revival album is better, but lacks star power with the exception of contralto Carol Brice’s rendition of “Necessity.” Then there’s the film adaptation, a bloated anachronism from 1968 that fizzles on impact. A 2004 off-Broadway revival at the Irish Rep also received a delightful recording, but that featured that production’s spare 2 piano reduction.
It was the recent Encores! and Broadway revival that really introduced me to the many joys of its classic whimsy. This dated, “unrevivable” mix of satire and fantasy was suddenly back in fashion, a resounding production that led to its latest cast album, a stunning effort from PS Classics. The new disc is one of the most complete recordings of the score, featuring the glorious original orchestration under the baton of musical director Rob Berman. Everything sparkles from the first notes of “Glocca Mora” in the overture to its bittersweet finale. The overture is presented in its entirety, as well as the entr’acte. Recorded here for the first time is the second act “Dance of the Golden Crock” with its haunting harmonica accompaniment provided by Guy Davis. It’s noteworthy to hear “If This Isn’t Love” in its entirety, dance break and all. It was a showstopper in the theatre, and remains so on disc.
I’ve already exhausted many superlatives on this musical production, which should still be running. Despite some reservations with the book, the ebullient cast and creative team created one of the most beguiling revivals of the year, with stellar performances and the perfect mix of satire and sentiment. I expected the show to receive good notices, but I didn’t anticipate that its old fashioned charm would bring it the best notices of any show to open this season (to date).
Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson sparkle. She is entrancing from her first note in “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” Nothing will ever erase the memory of hearing her sing this song for the first time, in the most bewitching deliveries of the ballad I’ve heard. Every element of her performance is captured here: her flirtatiousness, her feistiness and her unique charm. Jackson’s performance comes across better on disc than it did in the theatre. If Woody seemed a bit stiff onstage, his baritenor is perfect for crooning the period score. The chemistry between the two of them here is palpable (particularly on the standard “Old Devil Moon”).
Jim Norton supplies his gruff but lovable Finian, getting to do more singing than most prior actors in the role. Christopher Fitzgerald chews it up as the impish leprechaun Og, who score major points with the eleven o’clocker “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Terri White’s “Necessity” would bring down the house in the St. James, Carnegie Hall or Giants’ Stadium. Her contralto reverberates like thunder on the horizon – and rightly stopped the show at every performance. Chuck Cooper leads the second quartet “The Begat” with charm and gusto.
For those who are still lamenting its premature closing, much like myself, the recording recalls many fond memories. Those who missed it will get a feel for the treasure they missed. The resulting product is in my estimation the definitive cast recording of Finian’s Rainbow and one that I plan on revisiting time and again.