While writing this week's column, I noticed that all three CD's had something in common. Each show was written by composers who have had success writing pop-rock music. Two are giants in the pop music world, Elton John and Paul Simon; the other, Frank Wildhorn, has written at least one major pop hit.
When The Lion King was first announced as a Broadway musical, I must admit that I was very skeptical. The first thing that popped into my head was, "OH NO! NOT CATS II! GOD SAVE US!!" This was how I felt for a long time, even after I heard they were hiring Julie Taymor to direct. I am a huge Disney fan, but this movie was never one of my favorites of their latest films. Let's just say that I was never moved by its storyline. That was until I saw a preview tape. Well, let me say I was so captivated by what I saw that I immediately ran out and purchased two tickets. Needless to say, the show lives up to the hype that is now surrounding it.
Disney, being the master of marketing that they are, recorded the CD so it would be ready for opening night. While no audio recording can fully capture what is on stage at the New Amsterdam Theater, the CD is quite enjoyable on its own. The eclectic score, which is really two scores meshed together, covers everything from rock to pop, African tribal dances to traditional Broadway songs. Almost everyone knows the Elton John/Tim Rice score by now, but that has been augmented by a couple of new tunes written just for this production. "The Morning Report" which is a Gilbert & Sullivan-style tune written for Zazu, "Chow Down", a rock song for the trio of hyenas, and "The Madness of Scar" which shows Scar going insane are the additions by John and Rice. Lebo M has supplied the rest of the score, which not only includes African tribal dances, but a few additional songs. The standouts include "He Lives in You, which is first sung by Mufasa, and then reprised by Rafiki, "Shadowland", sung by Nala, and "Endless Night" performed by the grown-up Simba. The performers themselves are also excellent. Samuel E. Wright is a powerful Mufasa and John Vickery is a conniving Scar and Jason Raize and Heather Headley as Simba and Nala both have beautiful voices. I have one small pet peeve about this recording and that is that they have decided to include "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as recorded by Lebo M on the "Rhythm of the Pridelands." In the stage show and the film, it is sung a cappella by Timon. I would have preferred they left it off and then it would have been a perfect CD, but that is quibbling. So overall, this is an almost perfect CD of a terrific show that is sure to outrun that other show about smaller felines.
Paul Simon's, The Capeman, which opens this month on Broadway amid a swirl of controversy, has just been released as a concept CD, sung mostly by its writer. The Capeman is the story of a young Puerto Rican teenager, Salvador Agron, who fell into a gang called The Vampires. While searching for a rival gang in Hell's Kitchen one August night, they came upon a group of teenagers who were not affiliated with any gang. They got into a rumble and Salvador stabbed to death 2 of these innocent bystanders. This show seems to deal with how a young man became bad and then was rehabilitated; not just the fact that he murdered two innocent people.
Paul Simon's music is a mixture of 50s doo-wop and Spanish salsa music. Since I am not a fan of either type of music, nor of Paul Simon's music, I was not too thrilled that I had to listen to this CD. Nonetheless, I must admit I was a bit intrigued. It's not that I thought Paul was a bad song writer, in fact, I think he is great, it's just that I never liked his voice. But, to my surprise, I loved this CD. I found some of its songs very exciting to listen to, such as "Born in Puerto Rico," "The Vampires," and "Quality." There are some lovely ballads as well, "Can I Forgive Him," and "Sunday Afternoon." "Quality," which switches tempos back and forth between an upbeat doo-wop rhythm and a slower ballad tempo which is quite delightful with its close-knit harmonies by the women in the chorus section of the song. Marc Anthony as the young Sal Agron, Ruben Blades as the older Sal and Enita Nazario as his mother, Esmerelda, from the original Broadway cast, make guest appearances on a couple of songs. Marc Anthony, who I am unfamiliar with, in particular, has a lovely voice. Mr. Blades and Ms. Nazario also sing quite well. I wish all three were featured more, but then I guess it would be considered the cast recording, which it is not. While there isn't a bad tune among them, I wish I could comment more on how all of this works as a theater piece, but I cannot. There is no synopsis stating how each song fits into the story. Since Mr. Simon sings almost the entire score himself, it is difficult to tell who is singing unless you have the booklet in front of you while listening. I guess since I had very little expectations for this show that is why I like it as much as I do. But now that I like the music, I have higher expectations for it as a stage show.
I knew I was stretching it here when I decided to included Christine Andreas new CD because it includes "Storybook" from The Scarlet Pimpernel, but I figured now was as good a time as any. Ms. Andreas has just released her debut CD, "Love is Good", and I must say it is long overdue. She is blessed with one of the most glorious voices ever to be heard on the Broadway stage. It is good to see her back where she belongs and she looks happy to be there as well. While I have never seen her on Broadway till now, I was always a big fan of hers through her many cast recordings such as On Your Toes, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, and The Fields of Ambrosia.
This CD is mostly comprised of original love songs, some standards and a couple of show tunes. She starts the set off with a lushly orchestrated "Fly Me to the Moon." Joel Higgins makes a guest appearance on two of the songs, "Cover Me," which he wrote, and a medley from South Pacific. The latter is given an unusual arrangement in which both songs, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger Than Springtime," are sung in counterpoint by the end of the song. He also wrote the beautiful song, "Harry's Dreams." There is also a very exciting arrangement of "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever). I, for one, am very happy that she decided to record "Storybook" from her current show because she does not sing the entire song by herself in the show, as I assume the cast album for Pimpernel will reflect this. For me, it is the highlight of the CD as she sings it magnificently. "All My Tomorrows," written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, which I am unfamiliar with, is also one of the highlights. The CD has an overall very romantic feel to it and most of the songs are about good love, hence the title, "Love is Good." She ends the set with a sparsely arranged "And So it Goes," that starts out a cappella, adds a piano, and then reverts back to a cappella. It is the perfect ending to the perfect CD. This whole affair has been produced beautifully by Martin Silvestri, who also co-wrote a few of the tunes. His arrangements perfectly compliment Ms. Andreas lovely soprano voice with her pronounced vibrato. May this be the first of many CD's from Christine Andreas, a name you will never forget once you hear her voice.
Soundbytes: Let me introduce this new section to my column. In this section, I will be reviewing CD singles and single cuts from CD's that are connected to musical theater in a unique way.
Celine Dion's latest CD, "Let's Talk About Love" features a tune from the forthcoming stage version of Saturday Night Fever. It was written by the Bees Gees, who are augmenting their original score with a few new tunes. It is a pleasant pop tune with a nice melody, but it is hard to tell how it will work in a musical. The lyrics need a little work to make the song actually take off. It is hard to tell what the song is actually about. Like "Heathcliff," and "Jekyll & Hyde" this song has too much of a pop sound to it to have any real dramatic pull, but I will refrain from passing final judgement on it until a full cast album is released.
The Pet Shop Boys have recently released in the states their dance version of "Somewhere" from West Side Story that was previously only available overseas. They have once again worked their magic on yet another dance version of a show tune. They have previously made dance versions of "Losing My Mind" from Follies and "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" from The Threepenny Opera. "Somewhere" owes more to their dance version of "Always on My Mind" than it does to the previously mentioned tunes. It is quick paced and a lot of fun, never touching on tackiness, but always sounding very grand, even featuring a full orchestra. It starts slow and builds to a swift tempo and then reverts back at the end.
Harajuku, a band from Germany, who has made their name doing dance versions of show tunes, mostly from the British mega-musicals, has released a CD-5 single of Jekyll & Hyde's "This is the Moment." It is a typical techno dance tune just like their others with no variation whatsoever. It is arranged exactly like everything else that they have done. Singing the lead vocals is Harajuku regular Stephanie O'Hara, who has a bit of an accent and sings like she is singing a grand opera tune, which fits the over the top arrangement. This arrangement, complete with back up singers, borders on camp, just like most of the stage musical. I truly believe that this band takes it lyrics and melody directly off the original recordings as opposed to using the original sheet music. I say this because I always find one or 2 lyrical mistakes on their recordings. Also included is a pop version of "Someone Like You" that is given a down tempo dance arrangement that is quite nice.
Get out your platform shoes, gold chains, white 3-piece suits, mirrored balls and get ready to boogie! This next CD-5 single features 4 tunes from the London stage musical, Prisoner Cell Block H, the musical. This musical is a send-up of the Australian cult series on ITV, which is set in a women's prison, and has gained a huge cult following. The CD starts out with a 70s style disco tune called "I Feel Like I Wanna Boogie" which wouldn't be out of place in a 70s discotheque. Included are two genuinely nice ballads. Both tunes, "I Never Told Him I Love Him" and "Why Not Me?", sound as if they wouldn't be out of place in the musical Dreamgirls. The last tune "Give Me a Man?" has a honky tonk country feel to it with some truly bizarre lyrics, "I'm not asking for much, just a feel of a crotch and some buns I can lovingly bite?" I swear to God, I did not make that up. To round out the CD is a dance mix of "I Feel Like I Wanna Boogie." Even though most of these tunes are campy, they are quite catchy and sung exquisitely by Simone Dee, who belts them out to the rafters. This CD must be heard to be believed, I was truly stunned while I was listening to it.
Well, that's all for this week. Join me in two weeks when I will be taking
a look at some more of the latest cast albums, Side Show, The Last
Session and 1776. Till then, happy listening!