Three from Broadway Records

I have to say I’m really excited by the high number of cast recordings that have emerged this season, from Broadway, off-Broadway and the Encores! season. If rumors of a Leap of Faith cast album are true, we’ll have recorded accounts of all Tony-nominated Best Musicals and Musical Revivals, among others. In the midst of this busy season, a brand label has emerged on the scene. Broadway Records is making its first foray into the cast recording world with three releases of note: two original Broadway cast albums and a star replacement EP. All three are beautifully produced and handsomely packaged, with color photographs. The two full cast albums contain lyrics, synopses and essays from the creators.

Bonnie & Clyde didn’t do much for me in the theatre, but it makes for a surprisingly entertaining listen. I still feel that Wildhorn’s music was the least of that show’s problems. Don Black’s lyrics remain a mixed bag, but that is buoyed by some wonderful performances especially the four principals. Laura Osnes’ performance of “How About a Dance?” is worth the price of the record. Some numbers are duds (including the act two opener “Made in America”), but for the most part the cast album makes a better case for the show than the show itself! In fact, separating the score from that terrible libretto is probably the best way to experience Bonnie & Clyde. Included is a bonus track of the cut song about Clyde’s impotency, “This Never Happened Before” (just be warned, it’s one that cannot be unheard).

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has ended its run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, but that shouldn’t stop you from hearing the third and final Finch, Nick Jonas, on this new 5 track EP. I am only familiar with Mr. Jonas from what I had seen of the Les Miserables anniversary concert, where his performance as Marius was strained with pop mannerisms and was rather uncomfortable to watch. However,  his performance as Finch on record is a far cry from that; Jonas is affable and sings delightfully. He sounds much more at ease when not trying to do that straight-tone pop thing they expect of the kids these days. The tracks include “How to Succeed,” “The Company Way” (with Rob Bartlett), “Rosemary” (with Rose Hemingway), “I Believe in You” and “Brotherhood of Man.”

“So give them Lysistrata, and I wish them lots of luck.” So Carmen Bernstein sings in Curtains. She’s not far off the mark, as far as musicalizing Aristophanes’ bawdily enterprising heroine is concerned. There was the 1961 musical The Happiest Girl in the World, which combined Offenbach’s music with Yip Harburg’s lyrics, that lasted 97 performances. Then there was the much-reviled play-with-music adaptation of the play in 1972 starring Melina Mercouri. And while it had some ardent admirers, including Ben Brantley, Lysistrata Jones wasn’t long for the Broadway stage.  I missed seeing Lyssie Jones but the early closing of the show allowed the producers to make this original cast album which will no doubt give this show a cult following post-Broadway. This adaptation involves a perpetually losing college basketball team, and the head cheerleader (the dynamite Patti Murin) withholding sex from the players until they win a game. The score (by Lewis Flinn) is rather tuneful, engaging and at times just fun (and occasionally some of librettist Douglas Carter Beane’s work shines through). Included is a bonus track of the show’s inspirational “Hold On” sung by Jennifer Holliday with the cast.

With these three marvelous releases, I look forward to hearing what Broadway Records has to offer in the future. (Crossing fingers for an EP of Victoria Clark’s Sally in Follies).

“Matilda” – Original Cast Recording

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Every so often, I encounter a new score that captures my ear and imagination, and I find I myself listening to it ad infinitum. There’s something about the way the words and music hit me that I find that I compulsively want to hear the new work again and again. The last time this happened was six years ago on the release of The Light in the Piazza. There have been other scores in the years since that I have greatly admired, but none has bowled me over quite like the original cast album of MatildaI’ve had this original cast recording for a month now, featuring the show’s original Stratford players, and have been listening to it so often that all of its 17 tracks have entered my top 25 playlist on iTunes. To be frank, I haven’t been this excited/thrilled/over-the-moon about a new musical in years, and if my ear is any indicator, Matilda is going to have a long and healthy life on stage.

Matilda had its world premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company last December, directed by Matthew Warchus, (the man responsible for the smashing revival of The Norman Conquests)Dennis Kelly has written the book with Australian comedian, singer, songwriter Tim Minchin providing both music and lyrics. The choreography is by Peter Darling. The new musical opened to rave reviews at the Courtyard Theatre, where it played a sold out limited engagement, with the Daily Telegraph declaring it the best musical since Billy Elliot. I’ll take it a step further: Matilda contains the best original British score I’ve heard in ages. Now Matilda is poised to take the West End by storm, with performances starting at the Cambridge Theatre on October 25.

The focus here is on Minchin’s music and lyrics, but I must make mention that Kelly has written a superb libretto from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel. Minchin is new to writing musicals, though he has a background in theatre, but he makes an auspicious debut with his first full musical score. What’s so wondrous about this adaptation is that Mr. Minchin not only serves the book, but captures Dahl’s tone, with its mix of dark humor and understated emotion. Unlike most shows with child protagonists (most of which admittedly tend to send me straight for the insulin), Matilda never becomes cloying or irritating.

Matilda Wormwood is extraordinary, though she doesn’t realize it. She’s 5 going on 50 and in that old soul you find a young girl with more brains, compassion and maturity than most of the adults around her. Her parents (hilariously sung by Paul Kaye and Josie Walker) are self-centered pigs who find her affinity for reading repulsive. She meets a kindred spirit, the lovely Miss Honey – the only adult to recognize Matilda’s prodigious aptitude. However, at the same time Matilda encounters her arch nemesis, the evil headmistress Miss Trunchbull, a formidable bully who terrorizes everyone in her path.

The score is tuneful and memorable with inspired lyrics: character-based, witty and often quite clever. The opening number, “Miracle,” perfectly establishes the tone and adds the brilliant touch of Mrs. Wormwood learning of her pregnancy in the ninth month. “The School Song” is ingeniously structured around the 26 letters of the alphabet. “Bruce” is a rally song for the students as the Trunchbull punishes the portly Bruce Bogtrotter by forcing him to eat an entire chocolate cake. (One of my favorite rhymes: “Bruce/You’ll never again be subject to abuse/for your immense caboose/She’ll call a truce, Bruce/With every swallow you are tightening the noose”).

The Stratford cast utilized three actresses as Matilda: Adrianna Bertola, Josie Griffiths, and Kerry Ingram, all superb. All three are present on the cast album (though if I hadn’t known, I would never have realized it). “Naughty” shows us that Matilda is not going to go down without a fight, brilliantly using literary allusions to make her point. Throughout the musical, Matilda visits with the librarian (Melanie La Barrie) and is able to improvise stories off the top of her head. Each story is a chapter in Miss Honey’s life, though she doesn’t realize it toward the end. Musically, it climaxes with the haunting “I’m Here”. Toward the end of the second act, Matilda sings the touching “Quiet,” a soliloquy cued by a harsh diatribe from Trunchbull, in which she describes her mental escape from the unpleasantness around her.

Matilda’s mother is now obsessed with dance competitions instead of bingo, performing “Loud,” an over the top samba in which Mrs. Wormwood instructs Miss Honey on why it’s better to choose looks over books. During the interval, Mr. Wormwood makes an appearance to apologize for Matilda’s promotion of literacy before launching into the delightful “(All I Know I Learned from) Telly,” with a hilarious diatribe against famed British authors. (“Ian McEwan? Ah, I feel like spewin'”). The antidote to the hilariously appalling parents is Miss Honey, who gets the score’s more plaintive ballads, warmly sung by Lauren Ward. Michael Rouse has double duty as the kind obstetrician in the opening number “Miracle,” and as Mrs. Wormwood’s dance coach/partner Rudolpho.

One of Matilda‘s greatest treasures is British actor Bertie Carvel (Leo Frank in the London Parade) as Agatha Trunchbull, an inspired performance combining pure evil with searing wit. Miss Trunchbull gets two major numbers: “The Hammer” and the stunning “The Smell of Rebellion” in the second act, with a raucous fantasia where she imagines a world without children. In a brilliant stroke, Trunchbull is not only the headmistress, but also the Phys Ed teacher. Though she has the two solos, her presence is felt throughout much of the album. Carvel’s creation is quite possibly the greatest thing to happen to musical theatre villains since Dorothy Loudon played Miss Hannigan in the original Annie. I only hope that when the show makes its inevitable trip to Broadway, he comes with it.

The original cast album is available for digital download on iTunes or as a hard copy from the RSC website. The album contains a 28 page booklet including the lyrics. Also, when you hear the album, don’t stop listening after the finale is finished. There’s a special surprise that must be heard to be believed as it one of the most hilarious things I have ever heard on a cast album.

Three from Masterworks Broadway

The Saint of Bleecker Street, Gian Carlo Menotti’s penultimate Broadway opera, ran for only 92 performances at the Broadway Theater in 1955. However, the piece garnered enough attention to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. Set in 1954 Little Italy, the devout but sickly Annina sees visions and suffers the stigmata and neighbors flock her to her sick room thinking she can heal them. Annina, aware that her time is limited, wants only to take the veil, but is met with opposition from her atheist brother Michele, who feels that her visions are hallucinations and that the Church is exploiting her. Emotions run high, and this being Menotti, it doesn’t end well for anyone. The cast consists mostly of unknown performers, but the two leads (Gabrielle Ruggiero and David Poleri) are outstanding, offering passionate performances and some truly glorious singing. Gloria Lane (the Secretary in Menotti’s The Consul) is also briefly on hand as Michele’s ill-fated lover, Desideria. Broadway baritones John Reardon and Reid Shelton were also in the cast. This is the first digital release of this particular album, and makes a great case for re-exploration by opera companies.

Not quite so ready for re-exploration, but a fascinating curio nonetheless, is the off-Broadway production of Half-Past Wednesday, a musical adaptation of Grimm’s Rumpelstiltskin. The show, which played 2 performances in 1962 at the Orpheum Theatre, was recorded by Columbia Records. Dom DeLuise leads the cast of five as the King, with Sean Garrison as the Prince, Audre Johnston as Erelda, Robert Fitch as Grandfather and David Winters (an impish delight) as Rumpelstiltskin. The album plays less like a cast album and more like a children’s recording, the kind that used to include a companion book. Much of the dialogue is included to give the album a sense of story, which is especially unusual for Columbia albums of the era (this was produced by Clifford Snyder, not Goddard Lieberson). The songs, by Robert Corley and Nina Jones, are more notable for their clever lyrics than melodies. DeLuise and Fitch get a fun number in “Grandfathers (Ev’ry Baby’s Best Friend).” The album has been pulled from obscurity and is available for the first time since a 1966 reissue. I think it’s telling that in all three issues of the album, Half-Past Wednesday is overshadowed by the big block letters which state “THE NEW MUSICAL VERSION OF RUMPELSTILTSKIN.” It’s better than its two performance run would indicate, especially for the kids.

When most Broadway shows celebrate an anniversary, there is usually a cake and a photo op. Sometimes even a party. However, when the original production of Hair turned 3, the company celebrated the anniversary with an Episcopalian Eucharist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on May 9, 1971. (The first two anniversaries had been major celebrations in Central Park). Galt McDermot, Hair’s composer, wrote a Mass which was sung by the Cathedral choir. In place of hymns, songs from the score of Hair were interpolated into the afternoon’s service sung by current cast members. Divine Hair/Mass in F is a live recording of excerpts from the festivities, which includes a chance to hear the Dionne of future Tony-winner Delores Hall. Also among this replacement cast were Allan Nicholls and Dale Soules. It’s a unique experience, as the album includes the welcome from Reverend Canon Edward N. West (who would have made a terrific Starkeeper in Carousel), as well as The Collect, The Epistle and the Gospel (each read by a different priest, one of whom is Gerome Ragni’s brother). There’s also something highly entertaining hearing organist Jack W. Jones perform variations of “Aquarius” on the cathedral’s mammoth pipe organ. It’s not an aurally polished recording, but it presents parts of the Mass in F and songs from Hair in an unusual and fascinating setting. Reverend West provided the original liner notes, which make for a fascinating read.

Pure Joy

The other night, a good friend and I were having a conversation about No, No Nanette and he seemed both surprised and bemused that I was just over the moon espousing the show’s virtues. Though it was two and a half years ago that I saw the show at Encores!, my memories of the Broadway ready revival are vivid and fresh. (Why oh why didn’t this one transfer?!) When asked why I like it so much, the simplest answer I could give was that “It’s pure joy from start to finish.” I’ve been giving that statement a great deal of thought. It’s one of the most honest answers I’ve ever given, but one of the most unique. That’s not to say I don’t find myself regularly having a miserable time at a musical. Far from it. But there are so few shows or productions that give that fizzy champagne/good time feeling – and are able to sustain that feeling from the beginning to end. These are the musicals where I find myself smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the overture until long after I’ve left the theatre, and mostly because of the sheer happiness I feel as a result.

Nanette is definitely one of those shows. The 1971 revisal that is. I’ve heard the original 1925 show with its original arrangements and orchestrations and I honestly feel that they somehow did it better in ’71. The experience of getting the show up and running was a bit of a nightmare, but it produced a surprise smash at the 46th Street Theatre. Folks wanted nostalgia and this show offered a wonderful slice of period flavor, with a familiar score, a simple farcical plot and tap-happy showstoppers. Ralph Burns did the orchestrations, Buster Davis did the vocal arrangements and Luther Henderson provided incidental and dance music.

I knew I was in for a treat the moment the orchestra started playing the overture with strains of “I Want to Be Happy” and I was flooded with warmth from head to toe once the twin grand pianos started playing during “Tea for Two.” My happiness didn’t let up for a long time; I was humming “I Want to Be Happy” ad nauseam, listening to the superb 1971 cast recording. The score (music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) is filled with songs that are breezy, light and evoke another era altogether. Listening to the original cast album is just as much fun as seeing the show, from that delightful overture to the finale of “I Want to Be Happy” with the entire cast strumming ukuleles.

Another one is Mame, with one of the freshest, most wondrous original cast albums ever recorded. It gets off to a sock start with those first trilling strings and winds that soar up the octave as the brass belts out the title song. Its orchestrations by Phil Lang are pitch perfect, brassy, bold and exciting. It starts the ball rolling with one gem after another. The Mame score may not be anything revolutionary, but it was musical comedy writing at its finest. Easily my favorite Jerry Herman score and I’ve enjoyed them all. Angela Lansbury shimmers in her star turn – the trumpet blast that was added for the 1998 reissue makes her entrance in gold pajamas all the more vivid. The original show made a musical theatre star of Lansbury, who took the town by storm. Each performance sparkles: Lansbury, Bea Arthur, Jane Connell, Frankie Michaels, Jerry Lanning and Charles Braswell are all wonderful and blessedly definitive. The ensemble is stunning – big voices, lots of great arrangements and an energy that just flies out from the speakers.

Then there’s the title song, a master class of musical comedy unto itself – and the leading lady doesn’t even sing a word of it! It starts slow and builds and builds through several choruses. Then the ensemble breaks into a spirited gallop, by which point the leading lady is still silent but overjoyed and moved. Just when you think it can’t get better, Lang and Pippin bring the gallop back in for the first pullback which consists of a cakewalk across the stage (props to Onna White for the choreography). But it’s not done! It modulates up a half step for the final section, a full-out fortissimo to bring it to its requisite big finish. The banjo is only measures away from needing new strings, the trumpet is blasting a high solo while the trombones descend in the bass line. All through this, the drummer is steadily beating out a simple but insistent 4/4 downbeat. It’s enough to make you stand up and cheer in your living room.

The album, superbly produced by Goddard Lieberson, captures the high spirits of those first days when the show was getting ovations like you would not believe. (SarahB has relayed the story of the title song in Philadelphia bringing the show to such a halt, theatregoers were standing on their chairs). The orchestrations are beautifully balanced and there is that light touch of reverb that made those Columbia albums the best ever recorded. You’d think they’d just recorded it in a theatre, full costume and all. I even like “That How Young I Feel,” which is the one number from the score that most dismiss (though I do wish they had recorded its jitterbug dance break). Mame is an album I would bring to a desert island without having to think twice. I’ve never seen a stage production of the show that has equaled the album, but I’m still waiting for the Broadway revival with Donna Murphy.

These are the kind of things I turn to when I want a score that will make me feel happier. Joy at its simplest is a hard emotion to evoke without causing cavities or a diabetic coma. There are many, many shows that try to force that joy on the audience and those usually seem mechanical and fall flat. The joy I speak of isn’t something tangible. You can’t quite put the finger on it, but there is that quality that makes it stand out from the rest (not unlike star presence). It’s easier to charm, provoke or even get a laugh, than it is to evoke the feeling of pure, unadulterated happiness and elation. There are performances on other albums that give me joy, even if the score doesn’t, or a song here or there. But it’s incredibly hard for a show from first note to last to do it.

These are two of mine, but I know that there are others. What I’d like to know is: what scores bring you joy?

“Song of Norway” – The 1959 Revival Cast Recording

The unabashedly old-fashioned, nostalgic operetta Song of Norway opened on Broadway in 1944 a year and half after Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the American musical with Oklahoma! The show was the brainchild of Edwin Lester who first produced it at his Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. Song of Norway told the fictionalized life story of composer Edvard Grieg, with Robert Wright and George Forrest adapting the long dead composers’ themes into songs. With direction by Charles K. Freeman and choreography from George Balachine, the show was a smash running 860 performances. It would become the first American musical to open in London after the Second World War and became a staple in stock and local productions. There is also the notorious 1970 film version starring Florence Henderson. I’ve never had the privilege, but I am curious because I’m told it’s even worse than I could imagine.

I’ve only recently encountered the score. The original Decca cast album didn’t hold my attention very much, it was recorded for 78s and the only thing that stood out to me was Kitty Carlisle (who was filling in for floperetta queen Irra Petina – in her only hit, who couldn’t be on the Decca album due to her contract with Columbia). I also listened to the complete 1989 studio cast album, which was actually chore to sit through. I have to confess – as someone who does enjoy legit singing and operetta –  I just don’t care for the show. Overall it’s rather dull, treacly and uninteresting (and in reality, Grieg’s life was rather mundane). Lester, Wright & Forrest re-teamed for Kismet in 1953, which while that one’s not a particularly strong show it’s infinitely far more fun and entertaining. The  music is lovely, but we owe that more to Grieg than Wright & Forrest. I’d rather see a revival of Anya than Song of Norway.

There was one recording of the score that escaped me until now: the 1959 Jones Beach Marine Theatre revival cast recording. It sounds a bit obscure, but it turns out that this was the first one in stereo (and is even a revival of a revival cast album). Of course, I never knew that any of the Jones Beach musicals were ever recorded. The theatre there used to be a popular location for summer revivals of musicals turned into extravaganzas by producer and musical director Guy Lombardo. The outdoor venue is famed for its location on the water – the stage was built in Zachs Bay. This album is the latest rarity from Masterworks Broadway and it features John Reardon, William Olvis, Helena Scott and in the Irra Pettina role, Brenda Lewis, who sung the title role on the recently released Regina. Sig Arno recreates his original Broadway role of Count Peppi La Loup. The orchestra is conducted by Lehman Engel, with Stan Freeman (composer for I Had a Ball and Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen) on piano for the climactic concerto.

The plot is as follows: Grieg, his best friend and sweetheart trill gaily through Scandinavia while the composer dreams of creating great Norwegian music. Enter Italian diva who charms Grieg and whisks him off to Italy for the high life. However, the composer finds himself unfulfilled and on learning of his friend’s death returns to Norway and his true love, culminating in the composition of his incredibly famous Piano Concerto in A Minor. Gag me with a spoon.

While I can’t say much to recommend the show itself, I will readily confess it’s never sounded better to me than it does here. I could listen to Reardon’s exceptional baritone all day long; he’s also on the 1960 studio album of On the Town as well as the original Broadway cast of Do Re Mi. Lewis is recent discovery, thanks to the aforementioned Regina. The singer first appeared in its original Broadway production as Birdie (and if you can track down the piano-only recording of “Lionnet” it’ll be worth your while) then moved into the title role for NYCO. In Norway, she’s a lot of fun as the diva, livening things up with a spirited rendition of “Now.” Helena Scott has a lovely lyric soprano, and sparkles in “Hill of Dreams” and the show’s big hit “Strange Music” (which still strikes me as a bizarre song title). Arno revels in the lively act two opener “Bon Vivant.” If there’s a recording of the show to be heard, this is the one. All in all, it makes for a pleasant listen, but it’s also one of the rare times I hope a new release doesn’t inspire a revival.

The new release is available as a digital download from Masterworks Broadway or Amazon, and in CD-R format from ArkivMusic.

At Large Elsewhere: Fighting Clean

A few weeks back, Peter Filichia wrote a column called “Fighting Clean,” in which he talked about how he went note for note with a boom-box squatter on his front stoop. The guy came and sat with his radio blasting, so Peter fought fire with The Sound of Music motion picture soundtrack. I immediately related; I did something similar back when I was in college. I love a shout-out and I got a brief one in his August Leftovers column, which contains other similar anecdotes. Here was mine in its entirety:

It was fall 2003 and I was a junior in New Paltz. I was never one for partying, so I usually stayed in on weekends while the rest went out. During the second weekend of this semester I came down with a terrible sinus infection, and a nasty one at that. I could hardly breathe, my head was pounding and was shaking. I lived suite style in the dorms. My roommates were all out getting drunk. I was in bed highly medicated and trying to get some much needed rest. Unfortunately, I was in a corner room, so the wall next to my bed was shared with another suite area entirely (no one we bothered getting to know). Well sir, the neighbors come in around 3:30AM (bars closed at 4) and proceeded to blast their music as loud as possible. I couldn’t even tell you what it was, but it was loud, dissonant and rather angry. (and did I mention loud…?)

Anyway, I was lying there sick and growing increasingly frustrated. When I’d had enough, I started pounding on the wall. They either couldn’t hear me or were ignoring me. My calls to the RAs and night watch crew were unanswered. I couldn’t get through to anyone. So I took it into my own hands. I pulled myself out of bed, brought myself to my desk and very casually flipped through my CD collection. I then set up my computer speakers facing the wall, popped on the original Broadway cast recording of “Evita” and played “A New Argentina” at the loudest volume possible. Within ten minutes not only had the music stopped, they left. I turned everything off, medicated and got back into bed with a smile and slept until I felt human again.

A few weeks later, they pulled the same stunt. I was home by myself again, but healthy. Again, couldn’t get through. So I grabbed my phone, put on my shoes and stormed over to their suite door. I pounded; they opened up the door and with as much authority and attitude I could muster, said “We’ve been getting complaints…” They cut off the music, apologized and I gave them one last disappointed dad glare before heading back to my room. Never had a problem again.

“Promises, Promises” – Original London Cast Recording

Just when it seemed as though there wouldn’t be anything more to say about Promises, Promises cast albums, Bruce Kimmel went ahead and released the long unavailable original London cast album on CD. Kimmel’s label, Kritzerland, recently made a splash with the 2 disc limited edition of the original Broadway album a couple months ago, which was so popular a second single disc edition was pressed. Sony Masterworks released a revival cast album which has been selling well. But for die hard fans, this is one of those rare cast albums that’s been long awaited. I, for one, lived with an mp3 rip of a good quality LP for the last couple of years and was one of those folks crying out for a CD.  The good news is that it’s been entirely worth the wait, the bad news is the limited pressing of 1,000 CDs has sold out (they did in a flash!)

Producers didn’t waste much time in bringing Promises, Promises to London. It opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1969, running a respectable 560 performances. Tony Roberts was Chuck Baxter. He does a decent job, if he’s not nearly as distinctive as Jerry Orbach. Betty Buckley and she sings the hell out of the score as Fran, easily the best sung on record. Her “Knowing When to Leave” is definitive, particularly the way she crescendos from head voice pianissimo to full out belt on the last line. Jack Kruschen, who played the doctor in The Apartment reprised his role in this production. Donna McKechnie flew to London to recreate the showstopping “Turkey Lurkey Time” for six weeks, but apparently this album was recorded after she left. (Her name is credited on the album cover, but inside the credit goes to Alix Kirsta).

Like the Kritzerland release of the OBC, the London album has also been placed in show order. It was produced similarly to the first, but offers an entirely different listening experience. The inherent idiosyncrasies make this London recording required listening. The pit singers are much clearer, especially in the overture. But the thing that really struck me, and it was probably the remix that helped me realize this, was the percussion. I have no idea who the drummer was, but his or her work really just pops on the album, especially in “Turkey Lurkey Time.”

One of my main quibbles with both the original Broadway and London albums is that “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing” doesn’t have its dance break or big finish, both recordings repeat the refrain as they fade out. As a sort of consolation, Mr. Kimmel has included the song from the Italian cast album in its entirety as a bonus after the title song. Kimmel once again supplies the liner notes which covers much of the same area as the Broadway Promises, but gives a concise history of the London run.

As I said, the CD is sold out (though you may still be able to snag a copy on Footlight Records) so if you’ve missed out, I hope you’ve got a friend who’ll be nice and let you borrow their copy. You’ll definitely want to give this one a spin.

“Regina” – The 1958 NYCO Cast Recording

Long considered a Holy Grail recording by musical theatre enthusiasts, the 1958 NYCO cast album of Marc Blitzstein‘s Regina has been released by Masterworks Broadway for the first time since its LP release. An opera based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949, running  a mere 56 performances. While other Broadway operas, such as Street Scene and The Consul received original cast albums (even if they were highlights), Regina didn’t get recorded for nine years. (Though there is a piano only recording of certain musical numbers recorded after the original closed).

The Little Foxes, one of Hellman’s most famous plays, is a melodramatic study of an avaricious, desperate Southern aristocracy in decline. Tallulah Bankhead played the role of Regina Hubbard Giddens, who finds herself at odds with her brothers and husband, the result of patriarchal societal mores. She fights the gender oppression as best she can, doing what she must to get what she wants but at a considerable cost. Due to its extreme characters and heightened emotions (to say nothing of its malicious cynicism), it’s ideal for operatic consideration. (I won’t go into the plot details here. You’d have more fun seeing the film or a local production than reading a synopsis).

The opera was culled from obscurity by the City Opera in 1958 which made some alterations from the Broadway production. Blitzstein envisioned a three act opera utilizing musical idioms prevalent to the American South at the turn of the 20th century. On Broadway, he was forced to edit the piece to two acts and Hellman was very stringent regarding the dramatic structure. For NYCO, the opera was returned to its three act form, but there were some more revisions and the excision of an onstage Dixie band. The show was first performed in 1953, and revived in 1958 when Columbia stepped in to record. It may not be the complete opera, but it’s a lively 2 disc recording from the first notes of its prologue to its unbelievably breathtaking finale.

Brenda Lewis, who played Birdie in the original Broadway production, graduates to the role of Regina and sings the role with a dramatic intensity worthy of her predecessors in the play. She is especially memorable with the insistent “The Best Thing of All.” Her performance builds to a fever pitch as she does battle with her dying husband with “Do You Wish We Had Wed Years Ago?” and all but explodes with the climactic high C during the “Gallop” as she ominously tells him “I’ll be waiting.”  Regina is fascinating: she’s conniving, ruthless, steely, determined and flirtatious all in one fell swoop. Lewis is nothing short of extraordinary.

And then there’s Birdie, the fading southern belle who receives malicious abuse from her unloving husband and son while dreaming of her childhood. The role is a show stealer, and is pretty much the audience favorite. Patricia Collinge, who originated the role in the original production preserved her performance in the classic 1941 William Wyler screen adaptation, presents a characterization of such startling realism and honesty, that she all but steals the film from star Bette Davis and was Oscar nominated. Here in Regina, the part also walks away with the best of the score, most especially her confessional aria in the third act “Lionnet…Lionnet.” This showstopper sets to music one of the most famous monologues from the play, where Birdie admits her alcoholism to her beloved niece. She also admits that her husband married her for her family’s estate and that she hates her own son. It’s a glorious piece of dramatic writing, and soprano Elizabeth Carron is glorious.

The supporting cast is superb. Loren Driscoll sings the role of Birdie’s disagreeable son Leo (and would go onto sing “One Kind Word” in Blitzstein’s Juno the following year). Joshua Hecht’s bass makes an imperious impression as Regina’s husband Horace. George S. Irving and Emile Renan are excellent as the two conniving and deceitful brothers. Carol Brice (The Grass Harp) lends her supple contralto to the expanded role of Addie, the family’s housekeeper, while I would have much preferred Broadway original William Warfield singing the role of Cal. Helen Strine, as Regina and Ben’s daughter Zan, sings the recitative with a youthfulness that disappears during her one major number.

I’ve heard the score before, on a 1992 recording from the Scottish opera. Most interestingly, I didn’t care for the piece at all. But with this recording, it’s like hearing the work for the first time. The opera comes alive in a way the restored version does not (the only things I really remember from that one is the end of the “Gallop” and Birdie’s aria. Hearing it on this NYCO album leads me to wonder – isn’t it about time we had the chance to see Regina in NY again? If there’s a case to be made for another production at NYCO (or anyone else who might consider it), it’s this riveting cast album. The album is available as a digital download or CD-R via ArkivMusic.

“Promises, Promises” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

When I received the new Broadway cast recording of Promises, Promises from Sony Masterworks last week, I have to confess I didn’t have high expectations. The reviews for the show were far from raves, and had been led to believe the show was a huge bomb. Much to my surprise, the cast album for this production is quite enjoyable. In fact it is one of the more spirited cast albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the revival so I cannot comment on the quality of the production as it plays onstage, but am aware of instances where the cast album can make a production sound better on disc than it played in the theatre.

From start to finish there is much to enjoy. Sean Hayes isn’t as distinctive as either Jerry Orbach or Tony Roberts and while his vibrato is a bit on the reedy side, he is certainly up for the inherent challenge and gives a welcome comic turn. He especially shines in “She Likes Basketball” and the title song. Kristin Chenoweth is somewhat more problematic as Fran. First off – interpolating Bacharach’s pop hits “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” make absolutely no sense for her character to be singing. Period. Chenoweth is famed for that seemingly endless coloratura range, and her voice doesn’t translate as well to belt/mix like other sopranos. Also, making “A House is Not a Home” an emotional focal center of the production shows genuine mistrust of the material by the creative team, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Tony-winner Katie Finneran gives it her all as drunken Marge and she makes an interesting impression on “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful,” which has a fantastic dance break. Dick Latessa does well in his duet “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You.” On the other hand, “Turkey Lurkey Time” is a complete dud. You’d be better off with the original Broadway cast recording or that glorious youtube clip. Tony Goldwyn has very little to do on record as the cad boss who leads Fran on, singing “Wanting Things” and duetting with Hayes on “It’s Our Little Secret,” which features its verse on record for the first time).

The sound is crisp, there is extra music as well as the show’s finale with the famed last line  and really makes the rideouts of the songs just really hit home (it’s also easier to hear the pit singers here, too). The set is also blessed with ample liner notes, complete with the lyrics but lacking a thorough plot synopsis. Oh, and naturally there are plenty of photographs from the production.

Another thing about the score and show Promises, Promises. It’s based on the 1960 film The Apartment, but composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and librettist Neil Simon created a contemporary musical in 1968 and the music is so much of that era that it genuinely strikes me as odd that the show has been pushed back to 1962. The syncopations, the rhythms and orchestrations are all evocative of the late 60s and it ‘s absurd to try and make it otherwise. The nature of the decade was so turbulent that 1962 is a million light years removed from 1968. It makes absolutely no sense to do that, especially if it’s to capitalize on Mad Men (which is referenced in advertising for the show. Mad Men the Musical is about the last thing I would ever care to see).

So it’s not the perfect reading of the show, but it’s still quite an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The real surprise about this particular album is the way it’s recorded. I’ve felt that a lot of recent revival albums have failed to capture the vibrancy of the onstage experience (Patti’s Gypsy and South Pacific come readily to mind) or the energy of earlier counterparts. This album, warts and all, pops from the overture to finish. Almost everything about this recording is alive and quite engaging (with the exceptions noted above); so much so that though I was wary of seeing the actual show, I’m now quite interesting in going. What can I say? The power of the cast album compels me.