Comparative Cast CD Reviews V
by John Kenrick
This section compares various recorded versions of popular scores. Just because I own almost every version doesn't mean you have to.
No two productions of Showboat have been identical, so it is hard to say that any one recording is definitive. Still, several clearly outclass the pack.
- The 1932 revival (Brunswick/Columbia) spawned several cast singles that have been released on album and CD. Designed for radio use, these renditions are sometimes a bit one dimensional, but fascinating to hear. Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson give this collection historical interest, but the overall package offers little excitement.
- The 1936 film version (Universal) is not on audio CD, but the video preserves the marvelous performances of stage legends Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson and Charles Winninger. Irene Dunne is perfect as Magnolia (a role she played on tour), and the delightful Hattie McDaniel joins Robeson for the comic duet "I Still Suits Me." A suggestion: hook up your tape deck to the VCR and make your own soundtrack recording of this one supervised by Kern & Hammerstein, its a thoroughly entertaining historical treasure.
- The 1946 Broadway revival (Sony/Columbia) has been re-mastered for CD, but unless you have a relative in the cast this is of little interest unless you have a yen to hear Buddy Ebsen as Frank.
- The 1951 MGM soundtrack (MGM and Rhino) has been available in various releases and features some lovely performances by Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and William Warfield. However, much of the classic score is revised or cut. Different releases make a fuss over using Ava Gardner's tracks or those dubbed for her - it makes little difference, since both stink. Pretty but somewhat vapid, this version is best enjoyed on home video with its Technicolor charms on view.
- The 1966 Lincoln Center Theatre Cast (Sony/Columbia) is extremely well sung by Stephen Douglass and Barbara Cook, and William Warfield delivers possibly the best "Old Man River" ever recorded. However, the new orchestrations are overwrought, and some lyrics were clumsily re-written for the racially-charged 1960s. The special treat here is Constance Towers as Julie proving a classically trained voice can do as much justice to this tortured role as Morgan's frail approach. In particular, "Bill" is magical.
- Studio Casts: Several studio recordings were released in the 1950s and 60s. Howard Keel and Gogi Grant turned out a lifeless RCA version that drowns in goopy orchestrations, while Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel offered a respectable RCA opera cast recording (neither is on CD yet). A more promising Columbia version with John Raitt and Barbara Cook winds up sounding uninspired.
- The 1971 London Revival (Stanyan) is pretty damn awful, with ghastly new orchestrations and all sorts of ill-advised revisions. Cleo Laine's acclaimed performance as Julie sounds unimpressive here. The scary thing is that this production ran for years!
- John McGlinn's studio version (Angel) is a landmark CD one of the few showtune recordings where classical singers acquit themselves well. Teresa Stratas is a powerful Julie and Jerry Haddley a superb Ravenal. We get numerous rarities and cut numbers, including the haunting "Misery." (Cut before the 1927 opening but preserved in the original overture, that number became an emotional centerpiece for future revivals.) This set's unexpected success led to a plethora of studio cast recordings featuring opera stars in the leads.
- The Paper Mill Playhouse production was taped live in performance and broadcast on PBS. Directed by William Hammerstein, it was the first production to use material rediscovered on the McGlinn recording. No cast CD was ever released, but the production was gorgeous. Eddie Bracken is a loveable riot as Captain Andy, and the rest of the cast first rate. The sets and costumes are everything one could hope for a nifty Showboat!
- The 1995 Revival Cast (Quality) is one of the best on CD, a worthy record of a magnificent production. Robert Morse's vocally rough performance as Captain Andy can be distracting which contributed to his being replaced by the time the show made it to New York. That aside, there is plenty of wonderful singing here by Rebecca Luker, and having Elaine Stritch's Parthy sing "Why Do I Love You" to her infant grandchild created a new emotional high point. The arrangements for Susan Stroman's dance sequences are exquisite. This moving recording is hard to beat.
- The Ultimate Show Boat is a two CD set of assorted singles and radio performances. Strange as this may sound, it is not really interesting, even to a buff like me.
Final Showboat verdict: No single recording reigns supreme. Three versions are standouts the Angel is the most complete, the 1995 revival the most dramatically satisfying, and the 1936 film has several original stars at their best. Between those three, you can get a sense of what makes Showboat a masterpiece.
No one I know has ever suggested that The Sound of Music is Rodgers and Hammerstein's best score, but its popularity is phenomenal. You would have to go to the remotest place imaginable to find someone who did not recognize "Do-Re-Mi" or "My Favorite Things." My guess is you have probably heard one or more of the most popular versions, but some of the lesser-known ones are definitely worth checking out.
- The Original Broadway Cast (Columbia/Sony) is a classic, with Mary Martin radiating charm as the convent novice who stumbles into love with the Von Trapp children and their father. Theodore Bikel is the most touching Captain on record, and his expert guitar playing enlivens the little known "No Way to Stop It." Patricia Neway's glorious "Climb Ev'ry Mountian" has never been topped, and Marion Marlowe and Kurt Kazner sparkle in "How Can Love Survive." The original orchestrations are a warm and intimate alternative to the lush movie soundtrack. Note: The Sony "20-bit" re-mastering is great, but not appreciably superior to the older (and less expensive) Columbia CD release.
- The Von Trapp Family Singers (RCA) could not resist re-uniting to record the score inspired by their story. The result is enchanting, done in the distinctive harmonic style that made this group famous. This is the genuine article, guaranteed to delight. It's a crime that it is not available on CD, but the rare analog LP (if you can find it) has excellent sound.
- The Original London Cast (Angel) recently made it to CD a capable but unremarkable collection of performances by Bayliss, Dann, etc. It is hard to believe that this production ran longer than the NY original.
- The Soundtrack (RCA) is one of the best-selling recordings of all time, and rightly so. No one has ever eclipsed Julie Andrews singing the title tune or "My Favorite Things." It's still a pleasure to hear her on this landmark recording, which helped many of my generation become musical lovers. Most of Julie's co-stars were dubbed, but every track is delightful. While the CD remastering is well done, the original LP package included an illustrated souvenir booklet that remains a treasured collectible. This recording is a must-have for even the most casual collector.
- The London Revival Cast (Epic) was one of the first cast recording done with digital sound. Its on CD but hard to find. Petula Clark (who made her stage debut here) does a solid job as Maria - the ending of the title tune is revised so she can fly into belt heaven, an approach that works surprisingly well. The supporting cast is mostly just okay, but collectors will enjoy hearing Robert and Elizabeth star June Bronhill set off vocal fireworks in "Climb Every Mountain."
- An Australian Cast (EMI) that has not appeared on CD features Julie Anthony in the lead. For several years, she so charmed Australian and British audiences that she was hailed as a successor to Julie Andrews. While there is only one Andrews, Miss Anthony is quite delightful and worth hearing. (Her best cast recording remains the rare but delicious London revival of Irene on LP.)
- A studio cast recording (Telarc) features an all-star opera cast. Frederica Von Stade sings (of course) flawlessly, but her dialogue sounds (of course) awkward. The rest of the cast is so-so, except for Eileen Farrell as a sensational Mother Abbess. The score and the orchestrations are taken from both the stage and film versions. This one is strictly for opera fans and those of us who are hopeless Sound of Music collectors.
- The 1998 Broadway Revival Cast (RCA) is surprisingly uneven. Rebecca Luker is superb as Maria, but with so many unemployed actors in New York, there must have been someone better than this forgettable Captain! Pity Richard Chamberlain joined the cast too late for this recording.) The children are excellent ("Do, Re, Mi" is fresh as ever), and the new arrangements attractive. The exquisite Patti Cohenour dazzles in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," but I question the wisdom of changing Mother Abbess from mezzo to soprano it's the sonic equivalent of having two Marias.
- The 1999 Australian Revival was based on the 1998 Broadway production. In much the same style, Maria, the kids and Mother Abbess are great while the Captain is only okay. Very expensive if purchased in the US.
- The 2006 London Revival (Decca Broadway) has exceptional digital sound and a strong ensemble performance. Fans of the score will enjoy this recording, but it doesn't outshine some earlier versions.
Final Sound of Music verdict: The original cast and soundtrack are still the essential versions, but the rare Von Trapp Family version is a great surprise.
The score for this Rodgers and Hammerstein is timeless as are a surprising number of its recorded casts. Sadly, there are enough clunky versions to prove that even this magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning material is not foolproof.
- The Original Broadway Cast (Sony/Columbia) is the rare stuff that lasting legends are made of. The incomparable Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza give definitive performances in every track. You can hear why Martin stood in the wings every night to relish William Tabbert's rapturous rendition of "Younger Than Springtime," and from the mystery of "Bali Hai" to the glee of "Happy Talk," Juanita Hall's Bloody Mary is still the finest on record. The original 1973 Columbia CD (with a color cover photo of the two leads) had superb sound, but ever since Sony bought the label, they have not been content to leave well enough alone. The first Sony CD release was taken from the rare glass masters a nice idea, but the sound quality was decidedly inferior and it was soon withdrawn. The 1998 "Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy" edition (with the green & yellow anchor artwork used on the original 78's) is an improvement with interesting bonus tracks, but the sound still does not outshine the first Columbia CD release. In one form or another, this classic recording is essential to any civilized home.
- The London Cast was only partially recorded. A few selections can be heard on the hard to find Box Office Recordings remastering of Noel Coward's Pacific 1860 a historically fascinating recording, but the sound quality is ghastly. Martin is Nellie, with the gifted Wilbur Evans making a resonant Emile. The inclusion of some dialogue makes this interesting one hopes better digital technology will get a crack at these tracks.
- The Soundtrack (RCA Victor) is as mixed up as the film it represents. Mitzi Gaynor is charming as Nellie but decidedly insubstantial. At a time when capable singing actors were plentiful, it was ridiculous that all the other leads had to be dubbed. Rossano Brazzi lip-synched to some fine vocals provided by opera star Giorgio Tozzi, and Juanita Hall was pointlessly dubbed by London's Bloody Mary. Fun to watch in its letterbox format, the film suffers from ugly color filtering. As for this recording, you can skip it with confidence.
- The 1967 Lincoln Center Cast (Columbia) took decades to make it to CD, but was well worth the wait! This excellent and more complete alternative to the Original Bway Cast features Giorgio Tozzi as a superb Emile, and Florence Henderson giving one of the best performances of her career as Nellie. Irene Byatt's Bloody Mary and Justin McDonough's Lt. Cable are thoroughly satisfying, as are the ensemble numbers. This production was overseen by Rodgers, so it is small wonder everything turned out so well. A real pleasure.
- The 1986 Columbia Studio Cast was the first digital version, but it is not just misguided it's an abortion. Opera stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras are painfully miscast in the leads, and jazz diva Sarah Vaughan self-indulgently massacres Bloody Mary's material. The only truly theatrical performance comes from Mandy Patinkin, who keeps his self-tortured angst to a surprising minimum in Lt. Cable's numbers. Released with much ballyhoo, this recording sold far too many copies to unsuspecting fans. Do not waste one penny on this pretentious trash.
- The 1988 London Revival Cast is hard to find, but there is much to enjoy on this lively CD. Many previously unrecorded reprises are here, and the luscious original orchestrations are intact. Gemma Craven and Emile Belcourt give warm, sensitive performances in the leads. Bertice Reading's enjoyable Bloody Mary is almost basso profundo and a tad cartoonish, while Andrew Wadsworth's Lt. Cable is somewhat blah. The chorus numbers burst with energy, and the all-digital sound quality is excellent. R&H fans are sure to enjoy most of this one.
- The Jay Studio Cast is not necessarily worth the investment. Broadway's Paige O'Hara has a blast as Nellie, but opera star Justino Diaz is wooden as Emile and the talented Sean McDermott is surprisingly weak as Lt. Cable. The American release of this set boasts Flower Drum Song's Pat Suzuki as Bloody Mary a fascinating performance by an R&H alumni. Conductor J.O. Edwards sometimes uses eccentric tempi, as he regrettably does in much of the Jay series. The ensemble is good, and we do get every bit of music in the score, including the underscoring for various dialogue scenes. How annoying that Ron Raines (one of the most thrilling Emiles ever) is relegated to a non-singing role. Frankly, I could have done better things with the money I spent on this one spare yourself.
- The 2001 London Revival Cast got its share of rave reviews, but damned if I can tell why from this recording. Compared to what has gone before, this Royal National Theatre version is a waste.
- The 2001 TV Soundtrack boasts some fine singing by Glenn Close as Nellie, but the rest of the cast is beyond ghastly. Even crooner Harry Connick Jr.'s "Younger Than Springtime" is a downright embarrassment. All copies of this mephitic CD should be smashed and force fed to the people responsible for this abomination.
- The 2005 Carnegie Hall Cast gave New York a walloping reminder of what a masterpiece South Pacific really is. Dated? Not hardly! McEntire is a natural choice for the Arkanas-born Army nurse Nellie, and Brian Stokes Mitchell is simply perfect as Emile -- his "This Nearly Was Mine" is a highlight. Lillas White shimmers as Bloody Mary, Jason Danieley is a refreshing delight as Lt. Cable, and the ensemble soars. Add the wonderful conducting of Paul Gemignani and you have a show tune lover's dream come true.
- The 2008 Lincoln Center Revival Cast took New York by storm, and this superb recording makes it clear why. Kelli O'Hara and Paul Szot are the first to evoke anything like the chemistry of Martin and Pinza. The crystal clear digital sound helps the outstanding orchestra rate as a third costar -- overall a very satisfying recording.
The Final South Pacific verdict: The Original Broadway Cast is still the essential version, with the 2008 revival and 2005 Carnegie Hall recordings rating as exceptionally strong follow-ups. For those devoted to this classic score, the 1967 Lincoln Center and 1988 London revival recordings also rate a listen.