Just when one despaired that Moulin Rouge was a fluke and that the movie musical was truly dead, the long awaited film version of Chicago burst on the scene, tommy-gunning all naysayers in the process. Chicago, which won three Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, has also been scorching the music charts, debuting at number four on Billboard's Top 200 list and selling over 83,000 copies in its first week of release. With at least four versions of various cast albums out there, one may wonder whether or not the soundtrack is a truly necessary addition for one's collection. The answer is a definite 'yes' as it is a perfectly delightful listening experience from start to two songs away from the finish.
First the good news: like the film itself, the soundtrack does a remarkable job of staying true to the feel of the theatrical show without ever becoming slavish to the original. While the arrangements recall the original cast album, there is a freshness to them that keeps the listener captivated.
Next, the better news: almost to a person, the cast is excellent and does a wonderful job of interpreting Kander and Ebb's cynical yet lyrical masterpiece. As Velma, Catherine Zeta-Jones shows strong musical theater chops (no big surprise, as she started her career doing musicals in Britain, such as The Pajama Game and 42nd Street), sounding surprisingly like Debbie Gravitte. Renée Zellweger may appear to be a more left-field choice, but she was Baz Luhrman's alternate choice for the lead in Moulin Rogue, after all. While not the strongest singer on the album, being more of a personality singer à la Marilyn Monroe, Zellweger uses that personality to great effect (and gives the best line reading of "Are you kidding?" from "We Both Reached for The Gun"). Queen Latifah gives a gangbuster performance of "When You're Good to Mama," and shows a remarkable affinity for the material (Effie in the movie version of Dreamgirls perhaps?). She and Zeta-Jones are dynamite in "Class," which was cut from the movie but is alive and well on CD (and in the future DVD release, I'm sure). John C. Reilly, who seems to be in every movie recently, is surprisingly strong in "Mr. Cellophane." The only let down cast-wise is minor, but somewhat surprising. Richard Gere, who won a Golden Globe for his performance as slick lawyer Billy Flynn, is no stranger to musical theater, having gotten his start in the musicals Soon and Grease in the early '70s on Broadway. However, he lacks the punch and verve of a James Naughton or Jerry Orbach, and vocally doesn't add anything to replace that deficiency.
The addition of two tracks of scoring by Danny Elfman is a bonus. The addition of two tracks that don't match the rest of the album ("Cell Block Tango / He Had It Comin'" by Queen Latifah, Lil' Kim and Macy Gray and "Love Is a Crime" by Anastacia) is an annoyance at best. A new song, "I Move On," is a worthy addition to the score and hopefully a 'best song' award contender.
The cast recording for the latest 'revisal' to hit Broadway, Flower Drum Song, has just been released by DRG Records and from the start it is obvious that this is neither the old 1958 version nor the film it inspired. The opening number, "A Hundred Million Miracles," in fact, has been turned into an eight minute prologue that illustrates Mei-Li's (Lea Salonga) journey from China to the United States after her father is arrested for protesting the Maoists. While the songlist is remarkably intact ("Other Generation" being the only song lost in the revision), placement, intent and even the characters singing the songs vary considerably, and for the most part, refreshingly.
David Chase (Music Adaptation and Direction) and Don Sebesky (Orchestrations) have done a remarkable job of freshening up the piece, largely through well thought out reorchestrations. The new book by David Henry Hwang focuses on the clash of cultural identity between old and new generations and between new immigrants and those more settled or acclimated. To help illustrate this, numbers from the 'old school' incorporate the use of traditional Asian instruments and motifs, while those from the 'new,' such as the numbers in the nightclub, utilize elements of '60s lounge ("Fan Tan Fannie"), big band ("Chop Suey") and full-out Broadway show-stopper (Sandra Allen's slinky rendition of "I Enjoy Being a Girl").
Overall, the vocalists are enjoyable. Lea Salonga sounds as lovely as ever, and her renditions of "I Am Going to Love It Here" and "Love Look Away" (rethought as a powerful belt number) alone are worth the price of the album. Sandra Allen shines as nightclub singer Linda Low and makes all the club songs sparkle. "Don't Marry Me" has been turned into a duet between Master Wang (Randall Duk Kim) and Madame Liang (Jodi Long), who do well with one of the few comic moments (outside of the club) in the show. As Ta, Jose Llana is a bit uneven, sounding wonderful on "Sunday" but less so on "You Are Beautiful."
The current revival of Man of La Mancha does not venture far from previous incarnations, which is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, there was not much in it needing to be fixed. The orchestrations, which have largely been retained in this version, are remarkably powerful and sensual with their use of Spanish-flavored guitar and shifting time signatures. The songs by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion have aged well, for the most part, and remain an appealing mixture of folksy simplicity and lusty bravura. On the other hand, there's not much to recommend this recording over the original cast album, which featured a near perfect cast.
Brian Stokes Mitchell was born to play the part of Cervantes/Don Quixote with his powerful bass baritone and larger than life manner, and overall he gives a powerful rendition of the part. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the tavern wench Aldonza, whom Don Quixote mistakes for the Lady Dulcinea, is less successful. While she has considerable musical theater experience and is a fine actress (indeed, the final death sequence between her and Mitchell is enough to reduce me to tears), she never sounds comfortable with the wide-ranging, time signature switching, lusty songs she has to sing and her voice is too thin to do them justice (one wonders how Donna Murphy would do in the part).
While the disc makes for an enjoyable listen and has made me intrigued to see it on stage, it is hard to recommend it over any of the multitude of other La Mancha discs out there.
Just when music teachers thought it was safe to go back to the classroom, here comes the musical that is the bane of their existence: The Music Man, the show that gives a Peter Pan approach to musical education. While the world has not exactly been clamoring for another film version of Meredith Willson's hit show (the 1962 movie version being one of the strongest stage-to-film adaptations ever made), Disney has nonetheless chosen The Music Man to join the ranks of their made-for-TV musical films.
Judging from the CD, the new TV version (seen on ABC on February 16th) will be true to the stage version, keeping all of the songs relatively intact. The new orchestrations by Martin Erskine are a bit bigger and more 'Hollywood' than we have been used to (especially since we have been hearing the show played in gyms and community theaters for decades) but are lush and enjoyable.
Each of the leads have large shoes to fill, and it will remain to be seen how well they have done so. Matthew Broderick (The Producers, How to Succeed ...) has the biggest challenge, as he is replacing the incomparable Robert Preston as the smooth talking charmer Harold Hill. On disc, Broderick lacks the spark and charisma of Preston, but one gets the feeling that his portrayal might be more effective visually, as it is through boyish charm à la How to Succeed or Ferris Bueller that he can work his way into the hearts (and wallets) of the folks in Iowa.
As Marian the Librarian, Kristin Chenoweth has somewhat smaller shoes to wear (merely Barbara Cook, Shirley Jones and Rebecca Luker), but she does so with considerable ease. Her interpretation of the pragmatic and forthright Marian Paroo is more self-knowing than previous ones, which is rather refreshing. Her versatile vocal abilities tackle the demands of the part with aplomb, particularly with the wistful "Goodnight, My Someone" and "Till There Was You," as well as the comedy of "Piano Lesson" and "My White Knight." Of the supporting roles, Debra Monk (Marian's mother, Mrs. Paroo) is the only one who gets to shine on disc, and does so with gusto on "Piano Lesson."
It has finally happened: the album that has graced many a Chelsea tea party and has been on the top of every showqueen's wish list has finally been released on CD. You've heard rumors about it. You've searched various mp3 sites to find any trace of it. Well, now you can own it: The Ethel Merman Disco Album.
To call this album a camp classic is the understatement of the century. Recorded in 1979, when anything and everything was being redone as disco ("The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" anyone?), the album features eight of the Merm's signature tunes laid down with a funky disco beat (in fact, the same beat starts off most of the numbers, making it a touch too déjà vu at times). You haven't lived until you have heard "Some People" or "Alexander's Ragtime Band" performed in full disco glory. The album has been cleaned up and sounds wonderful and is a hoot and a half to listen to. Love it or loathe it, it's a must-have recording, even if it's only so you can pull it out at parties to give people a good 'what were they thinking???' moment. As an added bonus, an extra track, "They Say It's Wonderful," has been discovered.