With musicals, often the original cast is tough to top. But sometimes, a subsequent recording has its advantages: the benefit of hindsight leading to improvements, fresh interpretations from performers and directors, and additional material.
This is the third recording of the score to Thrill Me, including the original concept album with 11 songs sung by Adrian Bewley and Michael Patrick Walker. I've not heard that one, but I've been listening back and forth to the two others. (The 2003 cast from the Midtown Theatre Festival has 14 sung numbers and there's one more, "Afraid," on this newly issued one.) In this two-character musical exploring the complicated relationship and mindsets of the famous murderers Leopold and Loeb, it's interesting and instructive to hear the differences. Both are on the same label, Original Cast Records, and have the same two album producers, Jim Kierstead (the original producer of the show itself) and Stephen Dolginoff. Dolginoff also wrote the book, music and lyrics; he's a cast member on the newest version. Both recordings have only piano for accompaniment, but different pianists and arrangers.
The new cast cast album is a more fully theatrical experience, more involving, and has the feel of a raw nerve. Procrastinators may rejoice and those with the 2003 cast CD may be frustrated. However, the earlier version has the benefit of the talents of Matthew S. Morris and Christopher Totten, who both sing very attractively and present believable characterizations under the direction of Martin Charnin. The new version, directed by Michael Rupert, is more intense, and I can see how some would prefer something not quite as overwhelming in that way, as there is musical and dramatic pleasure to be taken either way.
For context, brief bits of dialogue work extremely well in the latest album, setting up many of the songs. It adds to the dramatic tension, which hardly ever lets up. You can feel the tautness and the omnipresent sense of danger. This is helped in great measure by the more forceful piano arrangements and playing. Eugene Gwozdz is the formidable pianist who pushes everything along remarkably with undercurrents of danger and dark psychological twists and turns. The composer shares credit for the arrangements, which is not the case on the 2003 cast album where that billing goes just to the pianist, Gabriel Kahane. One notable example of the musical improvements is the beginning of "Ransom Note" which has immediate forcefulness where it had been plain, and the singing had started pretty. Although it comes just before the final number, "Afraid" for Loeb's character is a major addition, creating needed vulnerability for this harsh, twisted man.
The performances are the key here, and they make the most of the material (which I'm not heralding as a flawless masterpiece, just very effective theater writing that doesn't take the easy way out). As the charismatic but coldly calculating Richard Loeb, Doug Kreeger is excellent throughout the recording, presenting a nuanced portrait that finds many shades of menace. He is especially successful in the solo "Roadster" where he is baiting his victim, making the most of each seductive phrase and the sounds of the words. Taking over the role of Nathan Leopold from Matt Bauer when the show extended at the York Theatre, writer Stephen Dolginoff turns in a compelling performance as actor-singer, although there are some times when I feel he is so attentive to getting his lyrics across that he is over-articulating the sounds in a way that keeps him from sounding totally natural and immersed in his character's gut emotions. It isn't a constant problem by any means. His solo, "Way Too Far" is one of his best moments, underscoring the tragedy of realizing too late he has reached the point of no return, and the musical begins to feel like a Greek tragedy.
The men's harmonies are striking and provide an oddly affecting balance to the harshness of the ugly realities that are the subject matter - murder, manipulation and deceit. The power and control one man has over the other and the unequal emotional and sexual investment they have with each other is convincing as played in their startling teamwork. Those who will find the subject matter too off-putting to consider will miss an intriguing musical that is actually very accessible. It is unsettling without any doubt, but for it not to be would be a failure. New productions for this year are already set in at least eight cities, from Buffalo to Seoul, South Korea. More information at www.thrillmethemusical.com. (Note: Just to avoid confusion, especially since the two cast albums are both New York casts on the same label, let me clarify that the album with the 2003 cast of Morris and Totten has a copyright date of 2004 and is Original Cast Records' catalogue number OC-7391. The new version from The York Theatre production with Dolginoff and Kreeger has this year as its copyright date with the catalogue number OC-6158.)
Looking for something cheery and light-hearted? The CD from Sepia with the score of The Buccaneer and numerous non-Buccaneer bonus tracks may well be your cup of (very) sweet English tea. Going back more than 50 years, the fluff in this flashback is the kind of thing that makes some grin and tap their toes while others roll their eyes and shrug. I find myself doing a bit of each.
The bounciest and most brazenly comedic of the lot is The Buccaneer, which gets full-length treatment in a cast recording (first time on CD) representing not its original 1953 cast but a remounting in 1955 with six new songs. We can't compare this to the first cast, as that version went unrecorded. One key cast member was in both versions: Sally Bazely as a comical secretary. An adult actor, Kenneth Williams, has the central character of a precocious/irritating (choose one) 12-year-old boy who tries to keep a beloved British boys' comic book from being bought up by a crass American publisher who wants to turn it into a horror magazine. The name of the comic gives the musical its name, too. In the course of events, romance sparks and fizzles, all with a wink. The plot appears to be as thin as the paper the comic is printed on, but it provides an excuse to let the characters sing a slew of peppy tunes. There's some sarcasm, but not a lot of bite, with an off-handed attitude about relationships. These characters are not dewy-eyed, but neither are they mean-spirited. As far as the singing goes, we're talking about character voices going for brash comic effect rather than beauty of tone or bravura belting. The most charming numbers tend to be the duets about the non-idealized couplings: "Unromantic Us," "Just Pals," and my favorite, "Behind the Times." Sandy Wilson is the composer-lyricist and his big hit from the same period, The Boy Friend, is also represented following some sprightly piano versions of the undeniably catchy Buccaneer ditties.
Although The Boy Friend is not even billed on the cover, seven quite abbreviated selections (less than six minutes grand total!) from that stronger score are a plus. Again, it's not the original cast that's heard. The company is from a 1957 production in South Africa. It's a rush job, but enjoyable. The voices aren't distinctive and don't sound especially youthful, but nevertheless it's welcome.
The CD is rounded out with a small taste of two other musicals. What they have in common is a performer, Patricia Burke. She is the only one heard in the three tunes from 1943's The Lisbon Story, a score by Harold Purcell and Harry Parr Davies. These selections are formal and sentimental, ardent and stoic, in the operetta mold. Just four songs from the short-lived Romance in Candlelight were recorded and here they are. Three have music and words solely credited to Sam Coslow, whereas the gooey, sentimental title number (where Patricia Burke is joined by Roger Dann and a chorus) has lyrics additionally credited to Emile Littler and Eric Maschwitz. More satisfying are two numbers featuring the lovely singer who would become a veteran of musicals, Sally Ann Howes. An energetic fellow named Jacques Pils, who is kind of in a twinkle-in-the-eye Maurice Chevalier mode, shares a lively one here and has his own "Oo-La-La, Boom-Boom-Boom" (you can probably guess the tone from the title). Thanks to Sepia for adding these items to their impressive catalogue of London-based theater history. Although brief, it's a nice touch to have some new comments in the booklet by Sandy Wilson all these years later (he'll be 82 next month).
Richard Harris starring in Camelot. It may sound familiar. No wonder: this is a remastered version of an album that's been around, and Harris had a history with the musical. He starred as King Arthur in the 1967 film version and repeated the role on Broadway, with a different cast in London and on tour in the 1980s. Along the way, it was also taped for TV broadcast. This recording comes from 1982 with a London cast and has been on other labels, including a version with a cover emblazoned with those dreaded words that make real collectors shudder: "selected highlights." (There were 12 tracks; this is a generous 19-track CD with the playing time of one hour.) Song-wise, what makes this version (there have been many) valuable to collectors? The inclusion of Lancelot's "Madrigal" in French and English, and the company number "The Jousts" detailing who did what to whom in a do-or-die battle. Noticeably absent, however, is "Then You May Take Me to the Fair."
Although the little booklet opts for color photos rather than any liner notes at all, the JAY label's dedicated head, John Yap, has told me he did some fine-tuning and fixing for this version. The words "remixed and remastered" appear only on the disc itself, and the original producer Norman Newell is still credited along with his assistant, Gil King (conveniently royal name for this project) and their engineers, improvements can be noted by those of us who have heard this before. As in the remastered version of a London cast of Show Boat from the same decade, the orchestral sound stands out as a major pleasure here: crispness, separation of instrumental sections and clarity. The entr'acte is especially rewarding, with "How to Handle a Woman" coming in for a deluxe strings-and-horns treatment and "The Lusty Month of May" likewise with a brief but charming pizzicato portion.
Alas, despite the classy and rich orchestrations, with musical director Gerry Allison honoring Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner's classic score, the cast's performances are somewhat disappointing. Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenevere require passion and some emotional turmoil, but are quite reserved: Robert Meadmore sounds bland in "If Ever I Would Leave You" and Fiona Fullerton comes off as only slightly dismayed in her two laments about their affair. In fact, she sounds not much older or different than she does as the title character in the film musical Alice's Adventures in Wonderland ten years earlier, singing in an airy voice. Both are somewhat better in other numbers. Contrastingly, Michael Howe as Mordred has real oomph and the required spice. Richard Harris is generally a fine Arthur, but his performance here is marred by some screaming of lines in both songs and spoken sections - this is really hard on the ears and the nerves (especially if you listen with headphones!). But besides that (and it's a big "but"), his characterization has many satisfying moments and textures, especially in his making the king vulnerable and thoughtful. You can feel his love for the material and for the king. He certainly anchors the recording, along with the orchestra: Both are regal indeed.
UNDER THE RADAR
To end this look at non-original cast recordings, a look at a recently released karaoke album of ...
For a well-known hit Broadway musical with a terrific score, there's not much variety in the extant Funny Girl recordings. Surprising? There's never been a Broadway revival. The original Broadway, London and movie casts all starred Barbra Streisand who became so identified with the show that other productions and recordings are rare, and we have her on the original cast album and movie soundtrack. The still-marvelous Mimi Hines, the Broadway replacement, recorded a few of the songs on her two solo albums made at the time, now put together on one CD. The London standby/replacement Lisa Shane recorded four of the songs (available on a compilation of British casts). On long-out-of-print LPs, there are a few things: a studio cast on the British label Music For Pleasure, a couple of odd budget label things with a handful of songs, and a fun recording of the songs by Diana Ross and the Supremes of all people. I've always wished for a new CD of the score, holding out hope we'd get it this year, in the centenary of its composer, Jule Styne. I'm still waiting, but meanwhile there's a karaoke version with some charms.
This Stage Stars set has most of the score (14 cuts) with a vocal and instrumental version of each. Frustratingly, their lead (Dara Seitzman as Fanny Brice) is the most disappointing, especially in the major numbers where she sounds too brash. Miles Phillips, a New York cabaret performer (a finalist for this year's Nightlife Awards and recently in one of the Broadway By The Year concerts), makes a charming leading man as Nick Arnstein. Since the Broadway and film Arnsteins weren't strong singers, Miles is a breath of fresh air in the two duets (where his co-star fares better; their "I Want to Be Seen with You" is breezy and sweet). Doing triple duty as keyboard player, musical director and singing the role of Eddie (featured in four numbers), Jason Wynn is a solid performer with a winning presence. The instrumental backing tracks can be fun to listen to, whether it's one with a more prominent melody line or one to enjoy more to note the cute musical figures and punctuations in the arrangements. Of course, they're based on the originals, so creativity is not the mission. This is a far cry from a real alternative cast recording, but I thought other fans of the Funny Girl score might want to know about this ... and maybe sing along, too.
A final thought: When you've virtually memorized a favorite CD, it can also just be nice to have an alternative version, especially when there are original ideas after the original cast.
Casting aside the cast albums for now, it's a long intermission 'til next week.