Comparative CD Reviews
Part II

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.

 

Carousel
As a shameless Rodgers & Hammerstein fan, I think Carousel is one of their best. With so many versions available, it is especially frustrating to report that no single recording has everything in place.

  • The Original Broadway Cast (MCA) was recorded for the 78 rpm format, so several numbers had to be abridged. But that is made up for by other factors. Just listen to John Raitt and Jan Clayton sing "If I Loved You" – one of the most sumptuous moments in cast recording history. The fine supporting cast suffers from the many cuts. There is a brief section of "Soliloquy" here that you will hear nowhere else – soon after the recording came out, R&H cut it from the score. The current CD remastering has excellent sound, making this more enjoyable than ever.
  • The Soundtrack (Capitol) is so-so, despite the film being an above average Hollywood adaptation. Gordon Macrae (last minute replacement for a disgruntled Frank Sinatra) and Shirley Jones are in fine voice, but their numbers are often abridged. Overall a good recording, but you're better off watching the handsome film.
  • The Command Studio Cast (Command/ABC) is not yet on CD (aaauuuggghhh!!!), but is so sensational that you should grab an LP copy if one comes your way. Alfred Drake and Met diva Roberta Peters are magnificent, with Jay Blackton conducting and NY City Opera stars Norman Treigle, Lee Venora and Claramae Turner in the supporting roles. Sumptuous singing! The title waltz is abridged, but that made it possible to include more of the score. Hard to find, despite extensive cuts to the score, this is one of the best Carousel recordings.
  • The ABC TV Cast (Columbia) is not on CD, but that's no loss. With a supporting cast of mostly unknowns, Robert Goulet turns in a self-indulgent performance that must have infuriated Richard Rodgers. Patricia Neway, (the original Mother Abbess in Sound of Music) turns in a superb "You'll Never Walk Alone" – this recording only shows up on my turntable occasionally thanks to her.
  • The Lincoln Center Cast (Sony CD) has John Raitt back in the lead, and sounding great on the remastered CD. Susan Watson (Carrie) and Jerry Orbach (Jigger) are on hand for some scene stealing, and Reid Shelton is a charming Mr. Snow. For decades this was the most complete LP recording of Carousel, and remains a pleasure on CD. 
  • The MCA Studio Cast (MCA) is a real treat, with the luscious Barbara Cook preserving her acclaimed performance as Julie Jordan. Samuel Ramey is that rare thing, an opera star who knows how to sing showtunes effectively – his booming bass is most pure heaven here. Sarah Brightman is a delightful Carrie, and David Rendall a musically outstanding Mr. Snow. With Paul Gemignani conducting, this is as good as a studio cast recording can be.
  • The 1993 London Cast (RCA) is quite lovely, except that lead Michael Hayden is not up to the vocal demands of Billy Bigelow. The rest of the cast is uneven.
  • The 1994 Broadway Revival Cast (Angel) of the same production has Hayden repeating his musically uneven performance, but otherwise I think the New York cast is much stronger. I love Sally Murphy's Julie, and Audra Ann McDonald is the finest Carrie I've ever seen or heard. Along with the other uncut glories of this score, the revival recordings include a sumptuous new version of the second act Pas de Deux. William David Brohn's new orchestrations are delicious.

Final Carousel verdict: Between them, the 1994 Broadway Revival Cast and Command Studio LP give you the best of everything – but the MCA studio cast is also outstanding. If Rodgers and Hammerstein are your thing, you can never have too many good recordings of Carousel.


Fiddler on the Roof
The tale of Tevye and his family has delighted audiences the world over for more than four decades, so it is no surprise that Bock and Harnick's glorious score has been recorded in all sots of versions. But buy cautiously – playing with Fiddler's, a fan can get burned.

  • The Original Broadway Cast on RCA Victor is a classic, with Zero Mostel's visceral Tevya heading the superb ensemble. Maria Karnilova is definitive as Golde, and both Burt Convy and Austin Pendleton are standouts. The excellent CD remastering includes the wedding scene's famous "bottle dance," plus Bea Arthur's hilarious "Rumor." The entire score shimmers – an essential recording in any show lover's collection.
  • The London Cast on Sony/Columbia has Topol and a capable supporting cast. Although enjoyable, this recording cannot match the original NY cast.
  • The London Studio Cast stars opera baritone Robert Merrill – pleasant, but his acting is strictly borscht belt. Molly Picon is (of course) enchanting as Golde.
  • The Columbia Studio Cast preserves Hershel Bernardi's acclaimed Tevye – an entertaining option.
  • The Soundtrack has a fine performance by Topol and a capable supporting cast. A joy on video/DVD, this film would have been stronger if they had picked up the pace a bit. There is such a thing as too much Fiddler. The stunning violin solos were recorded by Isaac Stern.
  • There are Foreign Versions in more languages than any other show score I know of. The Israeli, German and Japanese casts are all enjoyable to one degree or another. There are also versions in Swedish, Spanish. . . even one in a mixture of Italian and Yiddish. Your call.

The final Fiddler verdict: The Original Broadway Cast is the easy winner.


Follies
Stephen Sondheim's cult classic has enjoyed several star-studded recordings. Some are clearly superior, but "faced with these Lorelei's, what man can moralize?"

  • The Original Broadway Cast (Angel/Capitol) was sensational, but time constraints forced some painful cuts ("Broadway Baby" get only one verse!) in this often thrilling recording. Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Gene Nelson and John McMartin are the stuff that theatrical legends are made of, and Yvonne DeCarlo belts the heck out of "I'm Still Here." Buffs so loved this recording that it kept the show's memory alive and led to all that followed. I can't imagine any serious showtune fan not owning this one.
  • Sondheim - A Musical Tribute preserves a gala concert that featured several original Follies stars. A knowing audience cheers sensational performances by Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, and a nifty "I'm Still Here" by Nancy Walker. The clincher is Ethel Shutta's show-stopping, full length "Broadway Baby" – justice at last! You also get a cavalcade of stars from every Sondheim show up to Night Music. For Sondheim fans, this two CD set is cheap at any price.
  • The 1985 RCA Concert Cast brought together one of the greatest all-star line ups in musical theatre history. The New York Philharmonic and an audience of wild theatre queens provide the background electricity, as Barbara Cook, George Hearn, Lee Remick and Mandy Patinkin give their all. The show-stealing cameos of Comden and Green, Elaine Stritch and Met diva Licia Albanese are too good to miss, and producer Arthur Rubin is beyond thrilling in "Beautiful Girls." One of the most exciting musical theatre events ever recorded, it is hard to resist this one.
  • The London Cast is uneven but not without its points. Daniel Massey is not up to the vocal demands of Ben, and David Healy's Buddy is often downright annoying. Julia McKenzie and Diana Rigg fare far better, and the mostly unknown supporting cast is good. This production may have been exciting on stage, but it does not come across on CD.
  • The Papermill Playhouse Cast should have transferred to Broadway, but idiotic haggling over the rights wasted a glorious production. (It was infinitely superior to the dreary revival that flopped on Broadway two years later). What a cast! This is easily the strongest and most complete recording. Donna McKechnie gives the finest vocal performance of her career, and co-stars Dee Hoty, Laurence Guittard and Tony Roberts are sensational in every track. Phyllis Newman and Lillianne Montevecchi repeat and improve on their 1985 concert performances, and Ann Miller delivers a definitive "I'm Still Here." The excellent addendum preserves numbers cut from the score or used in alternate productions. Sondheim and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick were on hand to insure that this would be a Follies for the ages.

The final Follies verdict: The Papermill Cast is the strongest and most complete recording, but the Original Broadway and 1985 Studio versions are too good to miss. And the Sondheim Tribute cast is electrifying . . . Nope. Sorry. There simply is no such thing as too many Follies. If this score is a favorite, get every version you can.


Guys and Dolls
Even this foolproof score has suffered from its share of fools, so not all recordings of Guys and Dolls are created equal. Some are divine, and some could make "a person develop a cold."

  • The Original Broadway Cast recording (MCA) had dismal sound as an analog album, but digital re-mastering brought it new life on CD. Now the classic cast comes through loud and clear, especially the definitive performances of Vivian Blaine as Adelaide and Stubby Kaye as Nicely.
  • The Goldwyn soundtrack has been available in various formats over the years, but no amount of re-mastering can make up for the hopelessly miscast leads. I adore Jean Simmons, but her "If I Were a Bell" makes me cringe. Some find a horrifying charm in Marlon Brando's purported rendition of "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" – and Sinatra fails miserably as Nathan. Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye repeat their Broadway triumphs in what is otherwise one of the worst soundtrack treatments a Broadway score ever received.
  • The 1975 Broadway revival (Motown) mauled Frank Loesser's score with updated pop arrangements. "I've Never Been In Love Before" as a disco ballad? Oy! The all-black cast includes many gifted singers (the male chorus is glorious), but they have a hard time rising above the ill-advised approach. Two fine standouts are Robert Guilliame as a rueful Nathan and Ken Page as an irresistible Nicely – his "Sit Down" is a socko gospel showstopper.
  • The National Theatre of Great Britain cast (Chrysalis) is ruined by garish new orchestrations and generally poor singing. Even the great Julia McKenzie is at less than her best as Adelaide. Some might enjoy hearing Brit movie stars Ian Charleson (Chariots of Fire) and Bob Hoskins attempt to sing.
  • The 1994 Broadway Revival (RCA Victor) recording manages to match and occasionally outshine the 1951 original. Faith Prince is a perfect Adelaide and Nathan Lane plays his namesake to perfection, but all of the leads kick major butt here. Far more complete than any previous recording, this CD preserves one of the best Broadway revivals ever.
  • The TER studio cast two disk version records every note of the score and has some fine performers, but it can't match the theatrical punch of a real cast recording. However, there is a special pleasure in hearing the delightful Emily Loesser (as Sarah) in one of her father's scores, and the ensemble includes many of the "usual suspects" that theatre buffs enjoy in studio cast recordings of the 1990s.
  • The US Touring Cast is pleasant but unremarkable. Theatre buffs may enjoy hearing Maurice Hines, but this hard to find CD is not strong enough to justify taking up still more space on a collector's overcrowded shelf.

Final Guys and Dolls verdict: The 1994 Broadway revival cast is the clear favorite, but the Original 1950 cast has some performances too delicious to miss – if you really like the show, get both.


Gypsy
Few shows have received as many worthwhile recordings as Gypsy, but that doesn't mean there aren't some clunkers to stay away from:

  • The Original Broadway Cast (Sony/Columbia) has Ethel Merman in the greatest role of her career. Her "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and shouts of "this time FOR ME!" are sacred musical theatre moments, making this recording a must-have. Jack Klugman is a game (if unmusical) Herbie, and the rest of the supporting cast struggles to shine beside the ultimate Mama Rose. Stephen Sondheim made his recording debut uttering the line "You ain't getting eighty-eight cents outta me, Rose!" (He covered for an actor who did not make the recording session.) The most recent CD release includes Merman in several fascinating demos. No respectable collection is complete without this one!
  • Rosalind Russell's singing was partially dubbed for the movie soundtrack by Broadway's Lisa Kirk – a fact she vehemently denied to the day she died. The film is highly entertaining, but these performances do not stand up without the visuals. This is a weak Gypsy, and its release on CD only made it a mixed bag with clearer sound. Dear Roz should have skipped playing "Mama" and stuck to being an "Auntie." A mediocre British studio recording featuring Kay Medford in the lead has not made it to CD, but that is no loss.
  • The London Cast (RCA) is so good it makes you wonder why it took over a decade for this classic to reach the West End. Angela Lansbury is totally different from Merman but totally wonderful, more accessible yet still someone you ultimately want to smack. This recording is about the star, with a supporting mostly unremarkable ensemble. Zan Charisse is the exception with a smashing "Let Me Entertain You" strip sequence. If you love Lansbury, this is required listening.
  • The 1990 Broadway Revival (Elektra Nonesuch) is a treat. While Tyne Daly can't out-belt Merman, she can out-act damn near every other Mama Rose imaginable, making the character a fascinating multi-layered monster. You'll hate Mama like never before, but you're sure to love Tyne. The supporting cast includes Jonathan Hadary's endearing Herbie, Tim Lambert's joyous Tulsa, and the funniest trio of strippers ever. Christa Moore turns in a superb performance in the title role, and Eric Stern conducts a definitive version of the much-loved overture. 
  • The TV soundtrack (Atlantic) captures Bette Midler in a sensational performance – her "Rose's Turn" is a knockout! Some may find her occasional rock/pop vocal mannerisms jarring, but that's all part of putting her stamp on the role. A suggestion: this production is better appreciated on DVD/video than on CD. Vocally, the supporting cast ranges from okay (Cynthia Gibb) to well-intentioned (Peter Riegert), but on screen they are all fun to watch.
  • The 2003 Broadway Revival (Angel) has lots of great dialogue and incidental music thrown in. The digital sound is dazzling throughout – a superb job. A strong supporting cast is ultimately overshadowed by Bernadette Peters' problematic performance as Mamma Rose. Vulnerable, funny and seductive, Peters has superb moments but audibly strains in "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and the climactic "Rose's Turn." In all fairness, Peters hits notes here she didn't bother attempting the night I saw her on stage, but it is disquieting to hear her forcing key notes. We should be reacting to the character, and instead wind up feeling for the actress – ouch. Overall, this is more enjoyable here than on stage, where a dreary physical production detracted from the overall impact of a fine cast and glorious material.
  • The 2008 Broadway Revival (Time Life) is one of the most exciting, thoroughly satisfying cast recordings of all time, period!  Patti Lupone is electrifying as Rose, and Laura Benanti provides the most powerful performance of the title role on record -- this is a very different show with equally powerful talents in these two roles.  This CD includes an addendum of cut numbers performed with brio, and the special two disc edition includes extra incidental music and dialogue -- all gravy to an already savory feast.  

The final Gypsy verdict: Get the Original Broadway Cast to savor Merman's legendary performance, then immerse yourself in the 2008 Revival recording for everything else.

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