Comparative Cast CD Reviews IV
by John Kenrick
This section compares various recorded versions of popular scores. Just because I own every version doesn't mean you have to.
Critics often complain about this show's sentimentality, saying it is not faithful to the Cervantes novel. Audiences have ignored that bunk and responded to La Mancha with affection. There have been many recordings, some brilliant and some . . . well . . . read on.
- The Original Broadway Cast Recording (originally on Kapp, then Decca, now MCA) is spectacular, with timeless performances by Richard Kiley as Quixote, Joan Deiner as Aldonza, and dear Irving Jacobson as Sancho. The Leigh-Darrion score glows, and the supporting cast is magnificent -- musically superb while maintaining the raw spirit that reminds you of the harsh world shared by Cervantes and his characters. This recording had major sound flaws on analog LP, but the current CD remastering is sumptuous. To top this recording is an impossible dream.
- The London Cast is not available on CD, but its two LP set has long been prized by collectors. We get both score and dialogue, almost complete. Keith Mitchell is excellent in the lead, Joan Deiner repeats her superlative Aldonza, and the supporting cast is strong. This hard to find recording shows up in used record bins occasionally if you love La Mancha, grab this one.
- The French Cast is extremely enjoyable. Legendary Jaques Brel sizzles, and is quite moving, even if (like me) you don't understand French. With the inevitable Joan Diener as Aldonza, this recording (now on CD) is definitely worth hearing. (Note: Ms. Deiner was married to La Mancha director Albert Marre, so the show became something of a family project wherever he staged it, she played the lead. She even returned to the role briefly but brilliantly during the final weeks of the Marre-directed 1992 Broadway revival, still wowing audiences after a quarter century.)
- The Soundtrack is an abomination. "Oh false knight! Discourteous!" Peter O'Toole, Sophia Loren and James Coco are three of my favorite actors, but they should each have been whipped for what they did here. This isn't just a question of bad singing this cast brays. There is no excuse for this film or this recording. Don't even think about wasting your money!
- The Jim Nabors Studio Cast (Columbia) is a mixed all-star product. Nabors (TV's "Gomer Pyle") sang a La Mancha medley in his nightclub act, but sounds pretty lame here. Metropolitan Opera diva Marilyn Horn is an impressive Aldonza, Jack Gilford a cuddly Sancho, the great tenor Richard Tucker is super as the Padre, and Madeline Kahn is the scheming niece. Not currently on CD, this is an interesting but unsatisfying oddity.
- The Angel Studio Cast is a sad disaster. Why do opera stars think they have a right to desecrate Broadway's best scores? Do Broadway stars butcher Tosca and Traviata? Placido Domingo is one of the greatest voices of his time, but sounds silly here. All the top-caliber stars on this recording are miscast, and even the conducting stinks. I so loathed this CD that I tossed it in the trash something I almost never do. Do yourself a favor and leave this one untouched.
- A new live European cast recording was released in 1999. I have not had the chance to get it, but the snippets I heard in New York's Footlight Records were impressive. I'll fill in details if I can get my hands on a copy. Ditto for a BBC concert version starring Ron Raines and Kim Criswell.
- The 2002 Revival Cast has a powerhouse performance by Brian Stokes Mitchell, who's glorious baritone has never sounded better. The supporting cast is very good, with Ernie Sabella outstanding as Sancho, but one misses the raw edge that characterized early productions. Pity they decided to cut the wonderful overture from there on in, the original orchestrations are wisely left in place.
Final Man of La Mancha verdict: The Original Broadway Cast is essential, with the hard to find London Cast LP a super back-up. All copies of the film and its soundtrack should be burned to prevent contamination of the innocent.
The Music Man
What a wonderful, timeless and appealing score! Meredith Willson's material is so solid that (wonder of wonders) every recording of it that I have encountered is entertaining.
- The 1957 Original Broadway Cast on Capitol/Angel is one of the most beloved cast recordings ever, a must-have in any showtune lover's collection. Robert Preston's charismatic performance as Harold Hill was a key factor, and what a joy it is to hear Barbara Cook in the greatest role of her career. Her soaring soprano is a taste of paradise, and the Angel remastering uncovers added dimensions in her sound. The Buffalo Bills provide classic barbershop harmony, and the irrepressible Pert Kelton's squeaky voice sets you smiling the second you hear her. Eddie Hodges caused quite a stir as the original lisping Winthrop, managing real charm in a role which most boy actors cloy to death. First-rate in every department!
- The London Cast (Stanyan/Laserlight) is delightful, with Van Johnson giving a vibrant performance in the lead. Patricia Lambert is wonderful as Marion, and the rest of the British cast handles the all-American score deftly. The weak link is Denis Waterman, the first in a long line of Winthrops who sound as if they need a good smack. Otherwise, anyone who loves this score will enjoy this fine recording the CD release on Laserlight Digital is missing several numbers, but is worth the discount price.
- The Soundtrack of the Warner Brothers film is one of the few times Hollywood did a Broadway musical full justice. Robert Preston is even better here, a Harold Hill for the ages. Broadway purists criticized Warner's for casting Shirley Jones, but she was superb as Marion. The Buffalo Bills and Pert Kelton repeat their stage roles, and young Ron Howard is an appealing Winthrop. Hermoine Gingold is heard in only "Pick a Little" ("BALZAC!"), but her Mrs. Shinn is a highlight of the film which is great fun on home video/DVD. Marion's "My White Knight" is replaced by the pleasant but inferior "Being in Love" seems Willson was a tad uncomfortable taking credit for a song his friend Frank Loesser contributed to. Nicely remastered for CD.
- The Cincinnati Pops handle Willson's score with spirited affection, but this CD is primarily a showcase for digital technology. The orchestra is sensational, and the cast good. Music Man junkies like myself will find some fun here, but general listeners may want to reserve their dollars for other versions.
- Lost in Boston III on Varese Sarabande includes "You Don't Have to Kiss Me Goodnight," a delightful number for Tommy and Zaneeta. Sal Viviano and Lynette Perry have so much fun ("Ye gods!") with this catchy song that you wonder why it was ever cut from the show. If you don't know the "Lost in Boston" series, it is a musical buff's treasure trove well worth investigating.
- The 2000 Broadway Cast is one of the best cast albums of the last few decades. The first time I played it, I found myself wiping away tears of joy while a silly smile stretched from ear to ear. The new orchestrations are perfect and the cast is delicious. Craig Bierko invokes echoes of Preston's mellifluous style, but still makes Harold Hill his own. Rebecca Luker gives the finest performance of her career as Marion her "My White Knight" and "Till There Was You" are magnificent. Director Susan Stroman used four singing actors instead of a traditional barbershop group, resulting in a much wittier (if less idiomatically correct) quartet. Winthrop is no great shakes, but why carp? Glorious on stage, this cast (and this CD) reminded me why I fell in love with Broadway musicals.
- The TV/Disney Cast is a major disappointment. Matthew Broderick gives a dry, uninflected performance, as if he were marking time at a rehearsal. The glorious Kristen Chenoweth must muffle her vocal talents to accommodate lowered keys. Ensemble numbers are okay, but this recording offers little to please Music Man fans.
The final Music Man verdict: In the end, the versions I listen to most are the 1957 and 2000 Broadway recordings. If you held a gun to my head and demanded I choose one . . . I'd be a dead musical theatre buff.
Many myself included think this is the greatest Broadway musical ever. No show has as much charm, style, melody and sheer genius. Since Columbia Records was a major investor in the show, there were numerous recordings, almost always on the Columbia label. Each has its points of interest.
- The Original 1956 Broadway Cast (Sony/Columbia) is legendary, and with good reason. Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Robert Coote and Stanley Holloway are definitive in the leads, and John Michael King sings "On the Street Where You Live" beautifully. This exquisitely remastered CD is a keystone in any cast recording collection. There is a "24 Karat Gold" edition that you could waste money on, giving you a few extra features in the booklet stick to the regular CD release. The score itself is all the solid gold anyone could ask for.
- The London Cast (Sony/Columbia) reunites Harrison, Andrews, Coote and Holloway with the added nuances that came from a year of living in their roles. The acoustics were echo ridden on LP, but remastering has improved that considerably. The supporting roles are (surprisingly) not as well handled here as on the Broadway disc, but the overall effect is still delightful.
- The Soundtrack (Sony/Columbia) has major highs and lows. On the plus side, it has Harrison and Holloway giving their best recorded performances, and the remastering sounds sumptuous. The negative is the division of Liza's songs between Audrey Hepburn and the wondrous Marni Nixon. On screen, Hepburn is so enchanting that one does not mind on CD, the results sound uneasy. Jeremy Brett was a gorgeous Freddy, but although he possessed a good singing voice, he too was dubbed. Overall, the film is far better seen than just heard..
- Foreign Language Casts were legion, and Columbia recorded several, opening up an international audience for cast albums. I have heard the Spanish, French, German, Swedish and Italian versions, and it is fascinating to find how each language handles the phonetics lesson idioms. For example, the Spanish cast translates "The Rain in Spain" as "El Rio Que Hay in Madrid," while the Germans sing "Est Grunt so Grun." Some of these have made it to CD the German version got a particularly good remastering on Phillips. If MFL is a favorite, you will probably have fun with the language of your choice.
- The RCA Studio Cast has some superb singing by Jane Powell and Jan Peerce, but the great Robert Merrill is miscast as Higgins. Not on CD, but opera buffs (and my fellow Jane Powell fans) will find moments to savor on this LP.
- The 1976 NY Revival on Broadway Masterworks CD was rightly acclaimed. Ian Richardson and Christine Andreas took fresh and enchanting approaches as the leads, with Robert Coote winning new raves as Pickering. George Rose won a Best Actor Tony as Doolittle you'll hear why here. Jerry Lanning (best remembered as the older Patrick in Mame) sings a definitive "On the Street Where You Live" he stopped the show each of the four times I saw it. Harrison brought a second revival to Broadway just a few years after this, but it was so lifeless that it (thankfully!) never made a recording.
- The 1987 Concert Cast on London CD is an uneasy blend of opera and theatre talents. I normally love Jeremy Irons in any role, but he is too blustery as Higgins, and the divine Kiri Te Kanawa is not convincing in Liza's flower girl numbers from "I Could Have Danced All Night" onward, she is more at home. Jerry Hadley is a delightful Freddy, but the great John Gielgud is hopelessly miscast as Pickering and Warren Mitchell's Doolittle is forgettable. John Mauceri and the London Symphony are superb throughout, as is the full digital sound. Overall, this recording is a disappointment odds are you won't mind skipping this one.
- The Jay Studio Cast is the most complete MFL recorded so far, but such a worthy project deserved a more qualified cast. Alec McGowan is a fine Higgins, and Bob Hoskins has fun as Doolittle, but the rest of the line-up ranges from passable to blah. Why have a Liza who cannot begin the handle the cockney, and why a thoroughly unremarkable Freddy? At these prices, don't.
- The London Revival Cast has much to enjoy. Jonathan Pryce is effective as Higgins, and the ensemble numbers are a delight. Martine McCutcheon is fine as flower girl Liza, but does not have the vocal power to do justice to the "lady" numbers. Excellent new orchestrations by William David Brohn add to the fun, as does Dennis Waterman's boisterous Doolittle.
The final My Fair Lady verdict: The original Broadway cast is the essential version, but those seeking a fresh perspective may appreciate the 1976 revival.