Sound Advice Reviews
Remastered Masterworks Broadway
"One singular sensation" indeed was A Chorus Line, that apt three-word description neatly supplied by the beginning of the lyric of "One," one of the show's memorable numbers. Its energized full-company reprise, also accompanying the bows, used to be the last track on the then-vinyl/later CD original cast album. Now there's morein the newest issue, released officially today (October 23, a new vinyl version will be released on November 6, 2015), following the original cast's dynamic and emotional performances are eight surviving demos wherein we hear composer Marvin Hamlisch playing and singing, with lyricist Ed Kleban handling vocals, too. This CD release marks the 40th anniversary of the original LP of the original cast, produced by Goddard Lieberson, a kind of "encore" task for the Columbia Records giant figure.
The many who, like me, had so very often put the stylus down on the LP's various stylish selections or let the laser do the work on the shiny silver compact disc may think we've heard every beat, note, and nuance of the original cast album. But wait til you hear it now; "the sweetness and the sorrow" in remastered glory based on the Surround Sound mix. The clarity and richness and detail will bring subtle surprises to your pricked-up ears. Whether you're one to sit still, attentively listening, or, like the show's reminiscing characters, "dance around the living room," you'll be hearing a fuller spectrum of the colors in the brilliant and characterful, multi-layered orchestrations of Billy Byers, Hershy Kay, and Jonathan Tunick, conducted by Donald Pippin, who was also the vocal arranger. It's an egregious oversight that their names never appear anywhere herethey are not even listed or discussed, let alone lauded, in the packaging which includes a 20-page booklet. Their contributions are crucial and very much the fabric and imprint of the score in its driving rhythms, complex emotional underpinnings, fleshed-out moods of bittersweet yearning and recollections as well as bold present-tense tensions.
Note that the expanded version of "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" first revealed on the 1998 CD version is again here, not the somewhat truncated LP/first CD track. So we do get Baayork Lee's rather chipper gripe about being "four foot, ten" and typecast, and the guys' recalled anxiety of easily triggered adolescent sexual arousal.
Like the story's hoped-to-be-cast chorus members whose less prominent job it would be to support the front-and-center star, but who get our attention, the remastered mix brings out the "supporting cast" of the instruments not in the forefront of the accompaniment in any passage. There's a once-"hidden" flute behind the brass ... the percussion has more individual elements ... there's a throbbing phrase of countermelody lurking in a less ghostly manner. And the long stretch of instrumental music in "The Music and the Mirror" reflects especially well on the orchestral team's commitment to the song's pleading for and needing work, reinforcing Donna McKechnie's thrilling and thoughtful depiction of Cassie's desperation and drive ("Help me return to the world of the living ... Give me the chance to come through!").
Also crisper are the individual voices in sections where many cast members are singing. In moments when there are overlapping sung lines with different sets of words, it's easier to distinguish those lyrics once more buried. So, for example, "One" is more fully appreciated for its tongue-twisting cascades of nifty vocabulary choices and in "I Hope I Get It" we get more of what there always was to get. In "What I Did for Love," as the cast joins lead singer Priscilla Lopez in unison, the vocal harmonies sound richer and thus more impactful. Of course, clarity and sharpness can make for a double-edged sword; that is, vocal shortcomings in places are brought out, too. Some members of the castnecessarily dancers first and singers second (or third, after acting chops as priority)are revealed in moments to be a touch strained or less pure in tone than might have been noticeable before. But the magic and the humanity come through loud and clear.
The bonus demos from the unearthed and fascinating work tape will be the main attraction for many. The sound quality is better than might be expected for recordings such as these, intended simply as aural memos of communication and touching base from the songwriting team to creative central figure Michael Bennett. Piano is sometimes more dominant than vocals. Hamlisch and Kleban sing with casual competence, sometimes not in the most comfortable of keys, but they are not truly performing or even fully in command yet of their recently written work. Their ebullience and delight are evident. Certainly it's a very voyeuristically worthwhile experience to, all these years later, join the fly on the wall witnessing the songs' neophyte airings.
Similarities in content to the finished (and retained) products range from the fully formed all-there complexities of "At the Ballet" and the breezy "I Can Do That" to a sketch of the score's breakout piece, "What I Did for Love." For this, Hamlisch plays and sings vowel sounds and other non-word sounds to indicate how the lyric (presumably not then ready) will sit on the melody, with a taste of the mood. Then, they were just calling it "Finale Ballad."
"Sing," the lament of an auditionee with a tin ear, is heard in a longer version than had been preserved on disc. There are more examples of frustration and references to pre-existing pieces, such as The Sound of Music's "Do Re Mi." The interaction between the songwriters is extremely charming, with the lyricist playing the musically challenged, frustrated female character and the composer especially playful and cheery with a hint of easy superiority finishing the sentences and rhymes in a high, airy voice as the husband and fellow auditionee.
Naturally, the most intriguing of all are the buried treasures of cut material. "Shoes" isthat's righta footwear-focused perspective on years whizzing by defined by a dancer having lots of shoes and always doffing one pair and donning another. It's got a lighthearted lyric of no major consequence and an especially infectious melody that's played in a brisk, bright way. "Joanne" is a brief memory tug about a youthful experience, yet another considered bit of bio for the long stretch of this musical where those trying out for the small pool of dancers are asked to talk about their early lives and what made them want to be dancers. These two cut numbers lack the emotional tang and intimacy found in material that stayed in the musical.
Quite interesting is the long bonus track titled "It's All in Here," slated as an opening number. It morphed into "I Hope I Get It" and some sections made the move. The succinctly summarizing sentiment "Who am I anyway? Am I my resumé?" is there and this self-doubt/self-questioning idea was expanded, with the same melodic phrase used for "Why am I doing this? Why keep pursuing this?" The original number had characters rattling off overlapping lines listing their credits, name-dropping famous musicals and whether the production was a national tour or something less prestigious. They also give the names of products hawked in TV commercials and rattle off special skills. This verbalization of the printed page seems to go on too long with no payoff, and there's a relentlessly repeated call, "Resumé, resumé, resumé, resumé" as (I'd guess) the papers stapled to the performer headshots are inspected or collected or rejected. It's a more easygoing and blithe attitude in this draft of an opener, interesting for hindsight, but it's easy to see how the more intense replacement with its stakes much higher and more prized.
The booklet includes some black-and-white photos and retrospective essays, plus brief comments by the female partners of the songwriters, and the longish liner notes from the 1998 CD release. Lyrics are not included. But I'm betting most of our readers know many by heart.
A Chorus Line is still deeply moving, as I was reminded by this revisit to the familiar territory of its story and the dusted-off historic demos. In the same week I wrapped myself in the recording, I attended The Cabaret Convention concert in which one half the concert program was dedicated to the music of Marvin Hamlisch, and Carol Woods sang "What I Did for Love" as the finale with specially selected recent graduates of theatre training schools in The Broadway by the Year Chorus, performing with bright eyes and bright voices. These young folks are dedicating their lives and energy to performing musical theatre and its discipline, like the dancers who inspired the iconic musical drama. Life imitates art and the new generation joins in. "Kiss today goodbye and point me toward tomorrow."