Comparative CD Reviews
Part III

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1998-2003)

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

 


The King and I
As this is my favorite Rodgers & Hammerstein score, I have every version that has ever come my way. Most have their good points, but I use one as a coaster.

  • The Original Broadway Cast Recording (MCA) - On its initial Decca LP release, this sounded like the microphones and performers were miles apart, but the digital CD remastering cleared up that deformity. The sound is now warm and rich, and those of us who never saw Gertrude Lawrence in action can get some sense of what made her such an audience favorite. Her audible charm makes her infamous vocal shortcomings irrelevant. Yul Brynner's raw magnetism is already in place, Dorothy Sarnoff sings a rich "Something Wonderful," and Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas are excellent as the doomed young lovers. Drawbacks include the strange absence of any children – Anna sings "Whistle a Happy Tune" alone and "Getting To Know You" with an adult chorus. "Shall We Dance" is abridged; a tragic loss. This recording is of great historical value, but not the most satisfying version.

  • The Original London Cast Recording (DRG) has Herbert Lom (best remembered as the crazed police commissioner in the Pink Panther movies) giving a solid but uninspired performance as the King. Valerie Hobson is a fine Anna musically, but not compelling. The supporting cast is good, but too many things are either shortened or missing. .
  • The Soundtrack (Capitol) is a mixed bag. Many of these tracks are clearly not the one's used in the actual film, so it is more of a studio cast than a soundtrack. Marni Nixon and Deborah Kerr share the role of Anna. Judge for yourself who sings what, but Marni handles the legit bits beautifully, and Kerr is a charmer. Brynner is at his best here, but the supporting cast ranges from okay to awful. The talented Rita Moreno could not be more more miscast as Tuptim. "Shall We Dance" sounds great, with its trademark BOOM, BOOM, BOOM! There are several tracks for numbers that did not make it into the film. My advice is to skip this CD and relish the visual ravishment of the film itself.
  • The RCA Studio Cast Recording offers a poorly directed performance by Theodore Bikel as the King and some new but uneven orchestrations by the great Philip J. Lang. What makes this version collectible is Barbara Cook's radiant Anna, a role she performed to great acclaim at NY City Center. Opera stars Jeanette Scovotti, Daniel Ferro and Anita Darian provide excellent support.
  • The Lincoln Center Cast (RCA) is quite worthwhile overall. Metropolitan Opera star Rise Stevens is wonderful as Anna, and Patricia Neway (the original Mother Abbess in Sound of Music) sings the finest "Something Wonderful" on record. Lee Venora and Frank Poretta are first rate in the love duets, but Darren McGavin is only passable as the King – lots of bluff enthusiasm, nothing more. This was the first recording of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet". 
  • The 1977 Broadway Cast is one of the most vividly theatrical cast recordings ever. Brynner's finest performance as the King includes many previously unrecorded bits of dialogue, plus the heartbreaking final scene. Constance Towers is a great Anna, and the supporting cast is fabulous. Nothing I have ever heard matches Martin Vidnovic and June Angela's soaring "We Kiss In a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." It was not mere publicity when Richard Rodgers called this his favorite King & I cast. For the first time, "Shall We Dance" is recorded with all the dialogue, and I dare you not to be enchanted. The sound is excellent, the chorus & orchestra flawless, and you gotta love the kids! Easily the most satisfying King & I on CD – pity the "Small House" ballet could not be included.
  • Virginia McKenna played Anna when Brynner's tour reached London, and she recorded her solos – she does a good job, but this LP is very hard to find.
  • The Angel Studio Cast repairs a longstanding oversight by casting Julie Andrews as Anna. After imagining this performance for decades, I was not disappointed – Andrews is pure magic. What a pity she never played the role on stage or screen! The film orchestrations sound even better here than on the soundtrack thanks to conductor John Mauceri and The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra -- the "Shall We Dance" arrangment gets a definitive reading here. Ben Kingsley is good as The King, clearly having a lot of fun. Lea Salonga and Peabo Bryson are not my kind of casting for the young lovers, but they are not nearly as bad as they might have been. Marilyn Horne sings a lovely "Something Wonderful," and there are some nifty dialogue cameos. For Andrews fans, this version is a treasure.
  • The 1996 Broadway Cast (Varese Sarabande) makes minor changes in the score, but the key material is intact and deftly handled. This fresh and thoroughly engaging recording succeeds in most every department. Donna Murphy was a sumptuous Anna, and movie star Lou Diamond Phillips is that rarity, a King who can stand free of Brynner's shadow. The supporting cast is quite fine, making this a worthy addition to the R&H catalog.
  • The 1996 London Cast (Varese Sarabande) uses the same arrangements as the '96 Broadway version. Elaine Page fans will enjoy her Anna, but others may find it less than compelling. The rest of the cast is capable. Your call.
  • The 1999 Animated Soundtrack is a total disgrace and now sits in my coaster collection. Superb Broadway singers Martin Vidnovic (The King) and Christiane Noll (Anna) labor against mindless cuts and gooey orchestrations. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization must have agreed to this, and shame on them for it. Don't even take this CD for free.

The King & I verdict: The 1977 Broadway cast is the most satisfying recording, but the Angel studio version rates thanks to Julie Andrews.


Kismet
Critics have hated this show for decades, but what of it? Audiences the world over have long since taken Kismet and its glorious score to their hearts. It certainly is one of the most frequently recorded Broadway scores. Based on themes by Borodin, it has proven irresistible to opera singers and conductors for half a century.

  • The Original Broadway Cast recording is sensational despite some time constraints. Alfred Drake was Broadway's top musical leading man, and his glorious Hadj remains definitive. Richard Kiley and Doretta Morrow are great in the romantic leads. As Lalume, Joan Diener milks every ounce of sexual innuendo from the lyrics, and her campy soprano gimmicks are irresistible. The sound on this recording has a warmth and immediacy that stood out on vinyl as well as it does on CD. Last but far from least, there isn't a finer orchestra on any cast album – the overture is a wow. No serious show lover's collection is complete without this one.
  • While the MGM Soundtrack is not bad, it simply can't stand up to the competition. Howard Keel (who also took Alfred Drake's role in the delightful film version of Kiss Me Kate) had a spectacular voice, but he does not give Hajj much dramatic nuance. Most of the score is intact, but the performances are never more than competent. Unless you knew someone in the cast, I can't imagine this recording being of much interest.
  • The Lincoln Center Theatre cast was headed by Drake, who gives another dazzling (if comically broader) performance as Hadj. The supporting cast is good, most notably Lee Venora's Marsinah, but the sound is not as warm as the original cast recording. And why the hell did they use a blah Borodin medley in place of the original overture?
  • The London Mantovani studio recording would probably never have been remastered for CD were it not for the presence of opera superstars Robert Merrill and Regina Resnik in the leads. Merrill tends to overact, so Resnik's bawdy and vocally stunning Lalume walks off with the recording. The supporting cast of minor opera stars is capable, but Mantovani's syrupy orchestrations make this recording more a curiosity than a necessity.
  • The Angel studio version matches movie star Gordon Macrae with Metropolitan Opera soprano Dorothy Kirsten, and the results are disappointing. Both stars had gorgeous vocal equipment but lacked the required sense of irony.
  • The Sony studio cast recording is a solid bit of work. Samuel Ramey is the best Hadj since Drake, and his powerhouse baritone thunders cheerfully through the score. Jerry Haddley is easily the best Caliph on CD – "Stranger in Paradise" and "Night of My Nights" have never sounded better. On the other hand, Dom DeLuise (whom I usually adore in anything) is miscast as the Wazir.
  • The TER studio version has its flaws, but is second only to the original cast version in its value to collectors. All the leads (mostly British opera stars) are vocally gifted, but two things set this recording ahead of the pack. First, Judy Kaye's sensuous Lalume is one of her best performances on record. Second, several fascinating numbers from Timbuktu (a black version of Kismet that ran briefly in 1975) are included – and they are gorgeous to hear. "In The Beginning Woman" (an Eartha Kitt showstopper on Broadway) works beautifully when sung by Rosemary Ashe – and a reprise of "Stranger in Paradise" proves a knockout.

Final Kismet verdict: The original cast recording is essential to any cast album collection. If you want more, the TER 2-disc is the most comprehensive and lots of fun.


Kiss Me Kate
Cole Porter's masterpiece, this score has received its richly deserved share of recordings over the years. Well, one or two are thoroughly undeserved – or as Porter might say, "Too Darn Not!"

  • The Original Broadway Cast on Sony/Columbia is a treasure, with Alfred Drake and Patricia Morrison socko in the leads and Lisa Kirk unbeatable as Lois. I doubt anyone will ever top Drake's "Where is the Life" or Morrison's "So In Love." These performances are still wondrously alive after half a century. The entire cast is super, but it is tragic that "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" was so severely edited. One of the best cast recordings of all time – for buffs, ownership is NOT optional.
  • The Reunited Original Broadway Cast (Broadway Angel) was recorded by Capitol a few years after the original to take advantage of that new invention, stereo. Same leads, but not nearly as vital, and the sound quality does not noticeably improve on the monaural original. Still fun, but the first version is far superior.
  • The MGM Soundtrack shows that even Hollywood could get these things right now and then. Everyone in the cast actually sings, so none of the usual dubbing – resulting in a lively and enjoyable version. Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson were at their peak, and Ann Miller is a hoot as Lois. The film is wonderfully enjoyable, and a special treat if you can catch it in its rarely-seen original 3D format. It is fascinating to hear the lyrics that got "cleaned up" – and even more fun to hear which ones slipped by the censors.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company Cast (First Night) An RSC version of this show sounds like an intriguing idea – after all, this show is based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew – but the results are just plain awful. Paul Jones and Nichola McAuliffe are execrable in the leads, and no one in the supporting cast has the slightest idea how to handle musical comedy. All copies of this one ought to be burned, as a warning to other presumptuous Royal Shakespeareans.
  • The 1990 Angel Studio Cast is proof that Thomas Hampson should be shot. Who ever told this pompous ass he had any business singing showtunes? He's brilliant in grand opera but ruins every Broadway score he records – so enough already! Josephine Barstow is not much better as Lilli, but at least she has some sense of the right style. The real fun here comes from a delicious supporting cast. Kim Criswell is possibly the best Lois on record, George Dvorsky is a charming Bill, and the dependable David Garrison and Robert Nichols have a ball with the first-ever uncut recording of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." John McGlinn conducts ably. If you don't mind the price tag for this two CD set, you can just skip the lead tracks and enjoy the featured jewels.
  • The 1999 Broadway Revival Cast was justifiably acclaimed, but this CD captures both the best and worst of this production. On the down side, the new Don Sebesky orchestrations are sometimes garish, and Amy Spanger's Lois doesn't sound nearly as good as it looked on stage. While Brian Stokes Mitchell may not be totally comfortable with the killer high notes, he is great fun to hear, and Marin Mazzie is exquisite as Lillie. Michael Berresse is the best Bill ever recorded, and the supporting cast is super throughout. Special kudos to Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren for their definitive "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" – one of the funniest moments Broadway had seen in far too many a season.
  • The 2003 London Revival was closely based on the NY revival, and issued no CD -- but did turn out a handsomely produced live DVD performance with excellent sound. Brent Barrett and Rachel York sing the heck out of the leads, Nancy Anderson is a knockout as Lois, and Michael Berresse repeats his acclaimed performance as Bill. The sometimes hyper-kinetic staging can be a visual distraction, but its great to have a time capsule memento of this incarnation.

The final Kiss Me Kate verdict: The Original Cast is easily the best, but most fans will want the 1999 NY Revival version too.

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