Comparative Cast CD Reviews VI
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.
The original 1975 production of Chicago was packed with all-time greats: Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach all on one stage, with Tony Walton's innovative set, Bob Fosse's incomparable choreography, and a brilliant Kander & Ebb score. It should have been a super hit, but opening in the same season as A Chorus Line denied Chicago the credit it deserved.
- The superb original cast recording did a lot to keep the memory of the show alive, and small wonder. Chita's finger-snapping rendition of "All That Jazz" is one of the defining moments in the Kander & Ebb catalog, and the whole score is a favorite with musical theatre buffs.
- The trademark finger snapping is gone but the Broadway revival cast CD is packed with great moments of its own. By the time Bebe Neuwirth and company finish their sizzling take on the opening number, you know you're in for a grand time. On the downside, Ann Reinking sounds far too much like Gwen Verdon (which was true even when she first took over the role in 1976), and the spirited D. Sabella is no vocal match for the original Mary Sunshine. Once you get past those quibbles, this recording offers a solid stream of delights. This is a far more complete presentation of the score, conducted to perfection by Rob Fisher. "The Cell Block Tango" has more than a full minute of restored music and dialogue, and the new "merry murderesses" do a wonderful job. The original Ralph Burns orchestrations flourish thanks to digital technology, and the singers all sound as nasty and luscious as can be. Marcia Lewis delivers Matron Mama Morton with a fabulous wallop, and the one and only Joel Grey is definitive as the comic non-entity Amos. James Naughton is a sly Billy Flynn that endless high note at the end of "We Both Reached For The Gun" sounds thrilling, but must have been a bitch! Bebe Neuwirth gives the best performance of her illustrious Broadway career as Thelma. This is the kind of excitement that Broadway productions should exude but so rarely do. Much of the credit goes to director Walter Bobbie, who did so much for this and other vintage musicals when he worked on the City Center Encores series. So, the new Chicago Broadway Cast CD has enough "Razzle Dazzle" to stand beside the original 1995 cast. How many shows get two legendary cast recordings?
- Well, make that three! The London Cast Recording (RCA) is equally delightful, with Ruthie Henshall and Ute Lemper in the leads. If you've been wondering why Ms. Henshall has been winning so many raves on both sides of the Atlantic, her socko performance here will explain it all she is easily the best Roxie on record. German pop singer Lemper is perfect as the cynical Velma. Henry Goodman is wonderful as Billy Flynn, and the supporting cast is uniformly strong. Some extra bits of dialogue here and there add to the fun. If you are hooked on this score, you will want this version in your collection.
- The 2002 original soundtrack is well done, but some of the performances seem less exciting without this wonderful film's "razzle dazzle" visual elements. Queen Latifa proved a natural for musical comedy as Mamma Morton -- we'll have to hope her future career includes more of the same.
Final verdict: Both Broadway cast recordings are essential items in any serious showtune collection the others are pleasant options.
With plush melodies by Sigmund Romberg and poetic lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, this score tempted operatically gifted casts into recording studios for several decades. The wildly romantic tale of the masked Red Shadow's desert romance with the beautiful Margot can easily veer into camp, but one can't help hoping that we get new hearing in the near future.
- The Original London Cast recorded highlights of the score in 1927, decades before any Broadway cast recordings were attempted. West End stars Edith Day and Harry Welchman may not have the biggest voices or best techniques, but we can get some sense of the performance style that prevailed when romantic operettas were all the rage. We also get a chance to hear the rarely recorded comedy tune "It." There have been a few CD releases of this set the best remastering to date can be heard on the British label Pearl.
- The 1945 Studio Cast boasts Broadway veteran Wilbur Evans at his best as the Red Shadow, but Kitty Carlisle sounds surprisingly under-rehearsed as Margot. This has been released on more than one CD edition, all decently remastered.
- The First Angel Studio Cast is very hard to find, but well worth it, with British stars Edmund Hockridge and June Bronhill in the leads. Overall, this is one of the strongest and most complete versions on record. This fine recording has not made it to CD yet pity!
- The Second Angel Studio Cast has enjoyable performances by Gordon MacRae and Dorothy Kirsten, but syrupy new orchestrations and a feeble supporting cast make this a disappointing entry into a crowded field.
- The 1958 RCA Studio Cast stars opera favorite Giorgio Tozzi, who sings up a storm as the Red Shadow. Pop soprano Kathy Barr is no great shakes, but Broadway's Peter Palmer sounds just fine as Captain Paul. A major minus are the "sparkling modern" orchestrations by conductor Lehman Engel they do the score no favors.
- The Second RCA Studio Cast is a mediocre affair, with tenor Mario Lanza miscast in the lead, and a so-so Judith Raskin as Margot. Heavy orchestrations only add to the droopiness.
- The Reader's Digest Studio Cast is only one side of an LP, but solid performances by Metropolitan Opera stars Anna Moffo and William Fredricks make this worth having and hearing.
- The Columbia Studio Cast is one of the best and most complete versions. Nelson Eddy gives one of his best recorded performances, and Broadway starlet Doretta Morrow is a fine Margot. It's a shame this has not been released on CD.
- The Philips Studio Cast features John Hanson, who starred in a successful London revival of this show in 1957. It is an energetic, straightforward performance of five numbers, with an assist by soprano Patricia Michael. Not worth going out of your way for, but worth listening to if a copy of the LP comes your way.
Final verdict: Hockridge & Bronhill on Angel or Eddy & Morrow on Columbia lead the pack which means that there is no top-notch version of The Desert Song available on CD as of this writing.
The Merry Widow
Franz Lehar's masterpiece is one of the most frequently recorded theatrical scores, with more versions than one could hope to cover comprehensively in the space available here. Here are just some of the dozens of versions recorded over the last century.
- The 1944 Studio Cast has Kitty Carlisle and Wilbur Evans in the leads a fun performance, limited by the old 78 RPM format it was created for. There have been several CD remasterings of this set, all decently presented.
- A London Studio Recording features ravishing soprano June Bronhill in the title role. Well cast, this is one of the best English language Widows ever made.
- The 1953 Angel Studio Cast is one of the greatest treasures in the annals of recorded sound. Elizabeth Schwarzkopf is enchanting as the Widow, and the uniformly strong supporting cast (including young tenor Nicolai Gedda) preserves Lehar's full score, as well as the dialogue, in a giddy, romantic and irresistible performance. In the original German, it gives us a sense of the romantic punch this operetta can pack. Angel reunited most of the same team a few years later for a fine Stereo remake, but it is not quite as much fun and does not really sound much better than the remastered mono version does on CD.
- The Columbia Studio Cast is one a solid recording of the 1907 Adrian Ross translation. Lehman Engel is the dependable (if uninspired) conductor of an all-American cast, headed with style by Dorothy Kirsten and Robert Rounseville. The English is clear and the forgotten wit of this translation still works. This enjoyable recording was released on CD in 2003.
- The 1964 Lincoln Center Cast has its virtues, most particularly the charming Patrice Munsel and Bob Wright in the leads. But the new Forman Brown translation takes many needless departures from the original German text, trying to reshape the show as a modern musical. There is a new but unremarkable overture. Not yet on CD but that's no great loss.
- La Veuve Joyeuse, the popular French translation, has been available on CD in a 1968 EMI/Angel version. The singing ranges from okay to poor -- not nearly as enjoyable as one might expect.
- The Merry Widow Ballet is John Lanchberry's reshaping of the Lehar score as a vehicle for Margot Fonteyn. Much acclaimed in the mid-1970s, it may please dedicated fans of the score but be forewarned that the order of the numbers and the final plot resolution are somewhat rearranged.
- The 1978 London Studio Cast offers Joan Sutherland's glorious voice (and infamous diction), as well as a show-stealing cameo by Regina Resnik as the lead Grizette. Richard Bonynge's conducting is far superior to his unimaginative translation of the libretto. Special strongpoint a wonderful new overture that has since been used by many productions.
- The 1980 Angel Studio Cast has Hermann Prey as an incandescent Danilo, but the rest of the cast including Edda Moser in the title role is pedestrian.
- The NY City Opera Cast is pure magic, with Beverly Sills as the Widow, Alan Titus as Danilo, and a sensational English translation by Sheldon Harnick. What a crime that this is only a one-album set, and that it has not been available on CD for over a decade. If you can find this in any format, grab it!
- The Vienna Volksopera Cast recorded a live performance that was released on CD in the 1990s it is fun to hear what the "home team" does with Lehar's score. The inclusion (uncredited) of Offenbach's "Can-Can" is surprising.
- The London Concert Cast offers a stellar cast singing the original German score while actor Dirk Bogarde reads hilarious English narration by playwright Tom Stoppard. Lucia Popp is fine in the lead, but baritone Thomas Hampson's hammy acting as Danilo is a major liability.
Final verdict: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's 1953 monophonic Angel version is the best complete recording, with Beverly Sills's on the same label offering the best English language version.