Comparative CD Reviews
Part I

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1998-2003)

This section compares various recorded versions of popular scores. Just because I own almost every version doesn't mean you have to.

 

 

Annie Get Your Gun
You would think that once Ethel Merman had recorded a score the case would be closed, but "tain't so" when you're discussing Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. Many leading ladies recorded this show, and even Merman recorded it once too often – but that's life in the business there's no business like . . .

  • The Original Broadway Cast (MCA) was recorded in 1946 for the 78 rpm format, so some numbers are heavily abridged. Even so, the CD re-mastering shows Merman and co-star Ray Middleton to excellent advantage, and the original rendition of "Anything You Can Do" is still hard to beat.
  • The Mary Martin and John Raitt recording (Angel) is a pleasant excuse to hear these two stars, but it is even less complete than the Broadway version, giving no sense of what the show is like. A 1963 studio cast (Columbia) starring Doris Day and Robert Goulet is horrible, with both stars turning in homogenized, self-indulgent performances. Both sound so laid back that I dare you not to yawn. The casting may sound tempting, but don't go there!
  • The MGM Soundtrack has Betty Hutton belting everything at a uniformly brash level – a boring approach to an exciting score. The harder-to-find alternate takes featuring Judy Garland are infinitely more enjoyable – what a pity she was unable to finish the film. Howard Keel does his usual solid (if stolid) job as Frank in both versions.
  • The 1965 Lincoln Center Theatre Cast (RCA) has long been a personal favorite, with Merman in fine form and a fantastic supporting cast. Bruce Yarnell's glorious baritone sets him miles above any other Frank Butler on record, and his duet of "Old Fashioned Wedding" with Merman is a musical lover's must-have. (The CD includes a brief but hilarious encore.)
  • A London Records studio version (London) pits Ethel Merman against the London Symphony and a chorus. This is pointless, with "The Merm" reduced to elevator arrangements – yikes! Sadly, the latest CD re-issue of the 1946 Broadway cast includes selections from this travesty as an appendix.
  • A 1986 West End Revival Cast (First Night Records) starring Suzi Quatro is the worst on record – neither she nor the supporting cast make a decent impression.
  • The John McGlinn studio cast CD (Angel) was the first complete recorded version of the score. Kim Criswell, one of the few people alive who can match the great Merman vocally, gives a sensational performance. However, the recording has a wooden performance by opera star Thomas Hampson as Frank. Why must opera stars keep mauling Broadway scores – especially Hampson, who always sounds too self-satisfied for words? If only he would stick to Rossini and leave showtunes in more qualified hands! Ms. Criswell deserved a better co-star. McGlinn and the supporting cast are first-rate.
  • The TER two-disk studio cast preserves numbers cut from the original score plus all the material Berlin added for the Lincoln Center revival. Judy Kaye is a knockout, the most dramatically satisfying Annie Oakley on CD. When she proves that she can "hold any note longer than you," even Merman would have to admit defeat. Barry Bostwick's trademark relaxed masculinity makes him a great Frank Butler. The supporting cast is solid (you go Teri Ralston!), and John Owen Edwards does not indulge in the eccentric tempos that mar some of his other TER recordings. If you are into this show, this set is worth the investment.
  • The 1999 Broadway Revival Cast has a socko performance by the divine Bernadette Peters – "I Got Lost in His Arms" is one of her best tracks ever. However, the score is heavily edited and re-wired with tacky new orchestrations. Tom Wopat has lots of macho appeal, but how many notes in a score can you skip and still claim to be singing a role? The critics raved about the comic duets, but on the album they come across as just ok. Disappointing in many ways, this recording is a must for Peters fans.

The final Annie Get Your Gun verdict: The Lincoln Center Theatre version and TER two-disc are the best – if you have trouble choosing, treat yourself to both.


The Boys From Syracuse
This is one of Rodgers and Hart's most hit-drenched scores with more genuine wit in some numbers than you will find in most complete shows today. Although the 1938 original pre-dated the existence of cast recordings and the film version used little of the score, several outstanding recordings have kept listeners "Falling in Love With Love."

  • The 1953 Sony/Columbia Studio Cast has Lehman Engel's uneven conducting and occasionally freaky orchestrations undercutting the efforts of Jack Cassidy, Portia Nelson and the hilarious Bibi Osterwald. Not bad – but not so good either.
  • The 1963 Off-Broadway Cast (on Capitol/Angel) profited from the guidance of Richard Rodgers and some gifted performers. Stuart Damon's "Dear Old Syracuse" is definitive, and there are equally grand performances by Karen Morrow (what a belter!), Danny Carroll and Julienne Marie. In particular, the female trio "Sing For Your Supper" scintillates here.
  • The 1997 Encores Concert Cast has magic to spare. Davis Gaines and Rebecca Luker head an excellent line up, with Debbie Gravitte, Sara Uriah Berry and Michael McGrath among the standouts. Rob Fisher does his usual super job with the glorious 1938 Hans Spialek orchestrations. Its a safe bet that Rodgers and Hart would have been delighted with this recording – the most complete version.

The final Boys verdict: The 1963 Off-Broadway Cast has the best individual performers, but the 1997 Encores Cast is more complete and is the strongest version overall.


Brigadoon
Lerner and Loewe's first hit has enchanted audiences the world over, and has had some excellent recordings over the years. However, that does not mean you shouldn't let one or two of them disappear into the mist for a hundred years or so . . .

  • The Original Broadway Cast on RCA Victor once suffered from poor sound quality, but the CD remastering worked wonders. It is great to hear David Brooks and Marion Bell in all their glory, soaring through "Almost Like Being In Love." The time constraints of recording for 78's forced all sorts of abbreviations, but this recording has great charm.
  • The MGM Soundtrack proves that even Gene Kelly could make a mistake. The recent CD remastering has some previously unreleased tracks and improved the sound considerably, but this recording is ultimately as disappointing as the movie itself. (Those who have not seen the show on stage will enjoy seeing the film – as a recording, it is just not up to par.)
  • The RCA Studio Cast has some fine singing from Robert Merrill, Jane Powell and Jan Peerce, but the dramatic focus is missing. Not available on CD, this LP is certainly worth a listen – especially if one or more of the leads are personal favorites.
  • The Columbia Studio Cast is not on CD yet, but it was for many years the definitive Brigadoon. Shirley Jones and her then-husband Jack Cassidy are wonderful in the leads, and Broadway character actress Susan Johnson is a riot as the bawdy Meg. Lehman Engel conducted many so-so studio recordings in the 1950s and 60s, but this is exceptional. Hey Sony/Columbia – are you listening? Get this one on CD soon!
  • The ABC TV Soundtrack has a self-indulgent performance by Robert Goulet – you would think the original Lancelot might have treated these Lerner & Loewe songs with greater care! Sally Ann Howes gets too few chances to shine, and the score suffers from some strange abridgements. This recording has not made it to CD – and if it never does, I sure as heck won't mind.
  • The 1988 London Revival Cast certainly means well, but it stumbles rather badly. Robert Meadmore's smashing good looks got him some prime London roles in the 1980s, but his lisp makes it impossible to believe him as a heterosexual. The rest of the cast is passable but unremarkable, with most everyone straining for high notes. The first digital recording of Brigadoon, this is not one for the ages . . .
  • The Angel Studio Cast is superb, with solid musical theatre veterans and well-chosen opera singers in the mix. Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker are unquestionably the finest Tommy and Fiona ever recorded, and Judy Kaye has a field day as Meg. John Mark Ainsley sets the standard for "Bonnie Jean" and "Come to Me, Bend to Me," and we finally get every bit of the score – ballets, reprises and the magical finale included. The most uniformly satisfying of conductor John McGlinn's studio recordings, this deserves a place of honor in any collection.

The final Brigadoon verdict: the Angel Studio Cast is the CD champ – but the 1960s Columbia Studio Cast on LP has much to treasure.


Cabaret
A searing drama masquerading as a musical comedy, this Kander and Ebb masterpiece has been knocking audiences for a loop ever since its debut in 1966. There are many fine recordings, but some give you particularly good reasons to "come hear the music play."

  • The Original Broadway Cast (Columbia/Sony) is a must-have recording. Joel Grey justifiably rode to stardom as the leering MC, and Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford are irresistible as the older couple. Bert Convy sounds almost too good as Cliff, and Jill Hayworth sounds just tawdry enough as Sally. The latest CD release includes fascinating and fun composer demos of several cut songs. This one frequently finds its way onto my listening roster and is always a joy. 
  • The Original London Cast (CBS Records) boasts no less than Judi Dench as Sally Bowles, and her musical uncertainty adds to a dramatically powerful performance. Zorba's Lila Kedrova is an eccentric Frau Schneider, and Barry Dennen only an ok MC. Some may enjoy hearing Kevin Colson as Cliff, but the overall impact does not beat the NY cast. I have not seen this one on CD, but it will probably make its way there eventually.
  • The Soundtrack makes extensive cuts in the score, but adds "Money" and "Maybe This Time" as delicious compensation. Grey is flawless as the MC, and Liza Minnelli's breakthrough performance as Sally brought her a well-deserved Oscar. She's really too good a singer, but its impossible to resist her definitive renderings of "Mein Herr" and the title song. An engrossing film, and a recording most fans will enjoy.
  • Other versions: A London cast version with Alan Weeks as the MC did not impress me. What a pity Joel Grey's Broadway revival was not recorded, especially the show-stealing performances of Werner Klemperer and Regina Resnik as Schultz and Schneider.
  • The 1987 NY Revival (based on the Donmar Warehouse Production) took a fresh and satisfying look at Kander and Ebb's score. Alan Cumming is simply sensational as the MC and Natasha Richardson scores a knockout as Sally. The presence of an "audience" for the cabaret numbers is very effective, and the sound quality remarkable throughout. Intensely theatrical and one of the best cast CD's of the 1990s, a tremendous personal favorite.
  • The London Studio Cast on Jay is the first attempt to preserve the full score, including material written for the film and various revivals. Jonathan Pryce is a suitably smarmy (if less than inspired) MC, and lyricist Fred Ebb is an endearing Herr Schultz. The special feature is Judi Dench as Frau Schneider – love that lady! With Gregg Edelman And Maria Friedman turning in solid performances as Cliff and Sally, this is one of Jay's better efforts.

The final Cabaret verdict: The NY Original and Revival casts win out, but lots of gems among the "also rans" make this a tough call.


Camelot
Critics have always carped that this Lerner and Loewe charmer was not another My Fair Lady – as if any show could be? Camelot's wit and melody have enjoyed lasting popularity, leading to several successful revivals. However, Lerner continued to revise the show until his final years, so no two recordings are exactly alike.

  • The Original Broadway Cast on Columbia/Sony is splendiferous. How could anyone match a combination like Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet? Each gives a definitive performance in number after number. Roddy MacDowell is perfect as Mordred, and the ensemble numbers are first rate. Several minor numbers were left out due to time constraints, and "Before I Gaze at You Again" got a new lyric soon after the recording was made – the printed score and script (and most later recordings) have the improved version. President John F. Kennedy often listened to this recording, a fact that led to his administration being called "Camelot." For most musical theatre lovers, this is one of the all-time greats.
  • The STET Original London Cast has not made it to CD, but it has a lot to offer. Laurence Harvey is a powerful Arthur, and Elizabeth Larner's lush soprano is a pleasure to hear. Barry Kent is okay as Lancelot, but no one has ever quite matched Goulet's recording. The ensemble number "The Jousts" is included here, and the supporting cast is generally good. If this comes your way, it makes for satisfying listening.
  • The Soundtrack has its fans, but those of us who love the show consider the movie to be pure bilge. None of the leads had any business singing, and – silly me! – I think singing matters in a musical. Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero couldn't find a key in a Medeco factory. It is hard to believe that Lerner approved of the way the score is mauled here, but he was the film's producer and had full creative control. The only satisfying cut is a choral version of the title tune. Redgrave and Nero had a steamy affair during the filming, which added some steam to their on screen performances – it does nothing for this dreary recording.
  • The 1982 London Cast on Varese Sarabande has Richard Harris, still eccentric but doing a generally better job than in the film – his "Resolution" speech is quite thrilling. This recording preserves Lerner's final revisions, resetting most of the story as a flashback passing through Arthur's mind on the morning before his fateful battle with Mordred. Fiona Fullerton is a so-so Guenevere, and Robert Meadmore (see Brigadoon above) as Lancelot has a lisp you could drive a truck through. The main attractions are Michael Howe's dynamic Mordred, the best recorded performance of "The Joust," and exciting revised versions of "Fie on Goodness" and "Guenevere." These tracks will delight Camelot addicts – lesser mortals will probably find this recording's weaknesses more than outweigh its attractions.

The final Camelot verdict: the Original Broadway Cast is the hands-down winner, with the 1982 London Cast covering some numbers left off the earlier recording.


Candide
Like the Governor says, "Ah, poor Candide!" It has never been the same show twice! Unable to accept the show's initial failure, composer Leonard Bernstein continued to fiddle with his gorgeous score for decades. The result is a remarkably uneven crop of cast recordings.

  • The Original Broadway Cast (Sony/Columbia) is a musical stunner, with Barbara Cook, Max Adrian and Robert Rounseville turning in sensational performances. This was the first Broadway cast album to become a cult classic, a favorite with buffs despite the show's brief run. Regretfully, the limits of 1950s album length limited them to highlights of the opera-length score. Cook's "Glitter and Be Gay" is still a musical lover's idea of heaven.
  • The 1974 Broadway revival (Masterworks Broadway) Director Hal Prince took a wacky circus-like approach that stressed the comedy in Candide and turned a onetime flop into a long-running hit. If the singing is less than operatic, the comedy thrives, thanks to the charms of such pros as Lewis J. Stadlen as the narrator and Mark Baker in the title role). The full revised libretto is heard, adding to the fun. Beautifully remastered, this is a winning 2-CD set.
  • Bernstein and Prince made up for everything with the 1985 New York City Opera version (New World). The music is given its full due, resulting in easily the best complete Candide on record. Erie Mills is a stunning Cunegonde, and her "Glitter and Be Gay" is pure magic. Bernstein took active part in the production and the recording. Most of the same cast appeared in a performance taped live for PBS Great Performances – a delight, if you can find it.
  • The Scottish Opera cast (TER) is superb but limited to highlights – both Nicholas Grace as Pangloss and Mary Hill Smith as Cunegonde turn in delightful performances in another recording supervised by Bernstein.
  • Months before his death, Bernstein conducted a wildly self-indulgent all-star concert version. Many of the numbers suffer from eccentric tempos – and who would have had the nerve to tell Bernstein he was ruining his own score? Aside from some enjoyable star turns (opera star Christa Ludwig is a hoot as The Old Woman!), this recording is best overlooked.
  • The 1997 Broadway revival (Quality) was pretty much a carbon copy of the NYCO opera house version, right down to the Hal Prince staging and physical production. This recording benefits from musical comedy trouper Jim Dale, but overall it is a so-so alternative to the NYCO recording.

The final Candide verdict: The 1985 NYCO cast is the musical winner here, with the 1974 Broadway revival cast a disarming alternative. That said, the incomplete but luscious original 1956 recording is a perennial collector's favorite. One version of Candide is simply not enough! 

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