Sound Advice by Joseph Molnar

Well, another year has come and gone which means it is time to take a look at the best that musical theater had to offer in the way of cast recordings. With over 35 new show recordings to chose from, it wasn't easy. As a result, there are a few that were left out that I loved just as much as the ten that I have chosen. But these are the ten that I thought were the cream of the crop and if you had only ten CDs to buy all year long, these would be the ones you should choose. So without further ado, I give you the Best Cast Albums of 1998.

1. Ragtime - OBC

Without a doubt, this CD is the show album of the year, if not the entire decade. Ragtime is brilliant from beginning to end. It has been a long time since Broadway has had a musical as thoroughly satisfying as Ragtime. This new recording has been recorded the way all musicals SHOULD be recorded. It has enough dialogue to get one through the entire story without wondering what it's all about. Then again, the book by Terrance NcNally is so completely integrated into the show that it's difficult to imagine any further editing.

For those who haven't heard, Ragtime is based on E. L. Doctorow's sprawling novel about three different groups of people: upwardly mobile middle-class whites of New Rochelle, blacks in transitional Harlem, and Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. Out of this, and maintaining the integrity of the book, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have fashioned an emotionally charged musical, very similar to the British "mega- musicals" except it is not "through-sung". Mr. Flaherty has a talent for taking different musical "types" and making them sound theatrical. Flaherty's music is grand to match the heightened emotions of the story, and he magically combines ragtime with hints of Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It has been a long time since Broadway has seen a show with as many show-stopping tunes as this one. There are far too many wonderful performances to single out any one performer or track; every one of them gets a standing ovation from me. Too often nowadays, musical theater scores are not recorded completely by record labels, but this one has been lovingly preserved by RCA Victor and we should be thankful for it.

2. Cabaret - studio (TER) / NBC (RCA Victor)

The second top CD of the year was a hard one to choose, so I chose two instead of just one. I did so because there were two terrific recordings of the same score released this year and both are top-notch.

Long before Cabaret made a triumphant return to Broadway, TER records made a complete recording of the score on two CDs. This recording preserves the score as it was first heard on opening night back in 1966 with a few extras. The main reason to purchase this recording would be its completeness. Never before have all of the songs written for Cabaret been available in one collection. This release contains the entire score, dance music and reprises included, plus the three songs written for the 1987 Broadway revival and the four tunes written for the film. But thankfully, that is not the only reason. There are the performers to recommend it as well.

Four of the performers have quite a history with this musical. The lyricist, Fred Ebb, gets to record the role of Herr Schultz. Dame Judi Dench returns to Cabaret, not in the role she created in the West End, Sally Bowles, but as Fraulein Schneider. Gregg Edelman is finally given the chance to preserve the role he portrayed in the 1987 Broadway revival of Clifford Bradshaw. In the small role of Fraulein Kost is Caroline O'Connor who appeared in the 1986 London revival as a Kit Kat girl. Added to these terrific singer/actors are the talents of Maria Friedman, who I believe will be the successor to the crown that Elaine Paige currently wears as "Queen of the West End Musical". She does a superb job in the role of Sally Bowles, although this role seems to have gotten the definitive reading from Liza Minnelli. Tony-award winning actor, Jonathan Pryce is perfectly cast as the M.C. making this one of the best-sung recordings of Cabaret ever. It is also nice to have some additional dialogue to set up some of the songs making this sound more like a cast recording than a studio recording which can sound cold and distant. Up until now, an import outside of England, this CD is due to be released by JAY records in the U.S. in February 1999.

In 1998, the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret once again became the toast of the town in a brand new production revised and directed by Sam Mendes. The new cast recording is from RCA. For this revival, Mr. Mendes wrote the book as well as edited the score. Deleted from the score are "The Telephone Song," "Meeskite," the original "Money" song, "Why Should I Wake Up?" and its 1986 Broadway revival replacement, "Don't Go". To offset this, Sally Bowles is given additional songs from the film: "Maybe This Time," "Mein Herr," and "Money." The cut song "I Don't Care Much," used in the 1986 Broadway revival and recorded for the first time on the JAY recording, is used here as well. "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" is now sung by a boy soprano instead of the waiters and Emcee. There are new orchestrations by Michael Gibson which are perfectly suited to the new production and the members of the ensemble all play instruments.

It was wisely decided to recreate the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub by adding applause, laughter and whistling after and during the numbers that take place in the cabaret. Even though these sounds are canned, they are mixed in beautifully and are never intrusive. In fact, it adds to the overall theatricality of this recording and makes it one of the liveliest recordings of a musical ever. I can understand why Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson won their Tony awards. Both offer stellar performances that are absolute perfection. Neither of them are great singers, but they sure can put their songs across with great effect. Although she is surpassed by Lotte Lenya, Lila Kedrova and Judi Dench on previous recordings, the current Fraulein Schneider, Mary Louise Wilson, has a great voice and hits some pretty good notes. Ron Rifkin, another Tony winner for his role of Herr Schultz, exhibits a good singing voice and is excellent in his musical theater debut. The new recording is a perfect representation of a landmark production that will, no doubt, run for many years.

3. Chicago - OLC

Another Kander and Ebb musical, the 1997 Tony Award winning revival of Chicago, has made it onto this year's top ten list. The London production of this musical opened approximately one year after the Broadway production and starred Ute Lemper as Velma Kelly and Ruthie Henshall as Roxie Hart.

On the London cast recording, producer Thomas Z. Shepard has managed to improve upon the new Broadway recording and give us even more. He has included part of the dialogue between Mama and Velma, which breaks up "When You're Good to Mama", as performed in the show. Instead of the reprise of "I Can't Do it Alone", we have the finale of act one in which we hear of Roxie's alleged pregnancy. It is one of my favorite moments on this recording. Mr. Shepard has also reinstated Roxie's soliloquy, which precedes "Roxie", and has been cut from the new Broadway cast recording. As a result, the London recording has a richer theatrical sound, due to the expertise of Mr. Shepard.

Like that of Ann Reinking, Ruthie Henshall's portrayal of Roxie is not quite "right". From time to time, Henshall seems to play the role as a pre-pubescent school-girl who is being naughty. She tends to get carried away during the soliloquy before "Roxie", squealing like a little girl instead of acting like an aging chorine. On the plus side, Miss Henshall has a much stronger and more pleasant voice than Ann Reinking and occasionally shows some grit. Ute Lemper is the biggest surprise to me. I had always thought of Miss Lemper as a slinky, sexy chanteuse - not really a leading lady - but I was wrong. She is the main reason to buy this disc, as her performance is simply impeccable, surpassing even Bebe Neuwirth's. Miss Henshall and Miss Lemper both have lovely voices. I believe their rendition of "My Own Best Friend" is one of the best recordings of this song ever and is the highlight of the disc. While neither can replace Gwen Verdon or Chita Rivera from the original Broadway cast, both are an improvement to their counterparts on the new Broadway cast recording. Meg Johnson as Mama Morton sounds like a cross between Marcia Lewis from the new Broadway cast and Judi Connelli from the original Australian cast; Nigel Planner, Henry Goodman, and C. Shirvell as Amos Hart, Billy Flynn and Mary Sunshine, respectively, are adequate in their roles.

There is no stopping this score from shining like a jewel; it has one show-stopping tune after another. Any new recording is welcome, but this one in particular is worth having for the terrific singing from Ruthie Henshall and Ute Lemper.

4. Follies - the complete recording

Follies, the legendary musical by Stephen Sondheim, recently completed a run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in NJ. We can thank TVT records for preserving this wonderful cast performance of this legendary score.

Follies tells the story of a reunion of the Weismann Follies Girls for the last time -- the theater they used to play in is being torn down. Two couples, former Follies girls and their husbands, face up to the ghosts of their pasts so they may get on with their lives. The original Broadway cast recording is unbeatable when it comes to the performances of the four leads, but unfortunately, the score was eviscerated so it could fit on one LP. This time, the entire score was recorded, and then some: a decision was made to record the cut material as well. For the first time on one recording you get to hear all of Phyllis' Follies-sequence songs: "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (my favorite), "Ah, But Underneath" and "Uptown/Downtown" (cut in Boston). Dee Hoty does all these to perfection. Donna McKechnie as Sally, and Laurence Guittard as Ben Stone perform "Pleasant Little Kingdom," "All Things Bright and Beautiful" and "Who Could Be Blue?/Little White House." Ann Miller (Carlotta) gets to sink her teeth into "Can That Boy Fox-Trot!" as well as the song that replaced it, "I'm Still Here." Tony Roberts (Buddy) sings "That Old Piano Roll", and Vahan Khanzadian and Peter Davenport perform "Bring on the Girls", the original show's opening number.

Returning to the roles they performed in the concert are Liliane Montevecchi as Solange, and Phyllis Newman as Stella. Both have improved for this production. In the small role of Hattie is Kaye Ballard, who gets to sing "Broadway Baby" and it's a treat. All four leads do respectably well with the material, most notably Donna McKechnie who makes a touching Sally, and Laurence Guittard who sings flawlessly though lacking an edge. Tony Roberts is good, but not spectacular and Dee Hoty is convincing as Phyllis.

As conducted by the show's original orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, one can now hear every little detail in the orchestrations. For any Follies fan, this new CD is a must have. While none can replace the original Broadway cast recording, it is a nice supplement and highly recommended.

5. Children of Eden - OC

When Children of Eden first premiered in London in 1991 it was not a success, despite the top-notch creative team of Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and John Caird (book). Children of Eden tells the Biblical stories of Creation and Noah's Ark. After numerous revisions, the latest version opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey late 1997 and RCA Victor has taken great care to record this score. It is available as a 2 disc set (98 minutes) or a single disc of highlights (73 minutes). "Lost in the Wilderness" and "World Without You" are barely recognizable from the OLC. "Let There Be" has additional music and lyrics and "The Hardest Part of Love", which used to be a solo for Noah, is now a duet for Father and Noah. The song "Civilized Society" is cut entirely from the show and with good reason. For the new recording, there is connective material that wasn't on the OLC and, of course, there are several new songs.

I have been a fan of Children of Eden since its release way back in April 1991, so it is burned into my brain from repeated listenings. As a result, it took me a while to get used to the new orchestrations, cast, and songs, but, once I got past that, I liked what I heard. The score is eclectic, containing many different types of music and has a feeling of innocence to it. While I like the new cast, the original is slightly better, especially since it featured such performers as Ken Page, Shezwae Powell, Martin Smith and Frances Ruffelle. They are replaced on the new recording by William Solo, Stephanie Mills, Adrian Zmed and Kelli Rabke, who more than hold their own.

The only actor from the new disc to surpass the original is Stephanie Mills, who gives the disc a bit of star power. It is certainly a joy to hear her return to musical theater, performing her first role in over 20 years. Mills is certainly one of the main reasons to buy this disc - she absolutely blew me away on her big solos, "Spark of Creation", "Children of Eden" and "Ain't It Good." While not a perfect show, many joys are to be had from Children of Eden, and I couldn't recommend it more.

6. Lady in the Dark - OLC

Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's 1941 landmark musical, Lady in the Dark received a full-scale revival at the Royal National Theater in 1997 and went on to win the Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Musical. Headed by Maria Friedman as Liza Elliott, the production lasted for four months in repertory. Thanks to the ingenuity of John Yap at JAY records, we have the first full-length recording of this score featuring this cast. New orchestrations were used for the production run, but the original ones were reinstated for the recording.

We should all be thankful that this recording exists since there has never been a recording to feature the entire score. Lady in the Dark is more of a play with music rather than a musical as its music is used in four segments that represent Liza's dreams. It has remained a fascinating piece throughout the years despite the fact that it never had a full cast recording. The closest we ever got was the 1963 studio recording featuring Rise Stevens, but her Liza was less than satisfactory. Without a doubt, the best Liza on record is the original Gertrude Lawrence who is followed closely by Ann Sothern who starred in an edited TV version. Maria Friedman's interpretation takes some getting used to since she is using an American accent that doesn't quite come across. She uses a mix of head voice and belt that sometimes make her sound too assertive and less than sophisticated. She is not exactly the kind of star the role requires but overall she does an admirable job and is quite enjoyable.

Stephen Edward Moore is excellent as Randy Curtis and James Dreyfus, who tackles Danny Kaye's role, is not really a singer but does well enough. The sound, conducting, and orchestral playing are all superlative and make this recording all the more enjoyable. This recording has taken too long to happen and it is a joy to hear it without any cuts. It's a must-have and you will want to play it over and over again.

7. St. Louis Woman - 1998 NY cast

The 1946 show St. Louis Woman by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer is one of those musicals that features a famous score but hasn't had much of a life on stage. Featuring songs such as "Come Rain or Come Shine," and " Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home," St. Louis Woman finally received a full cast recording featuring the 1998 City Center Encores! Series cast. This recording probably wouldn't have happened if it weren't for the presence of its star, Vanessa L. Williams, whose record label, Mercury Records, seems to be supporting all of Miss Williams' ventures into musical theater. It took the risk of recording her Broadway debut in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a show in which she was a replacement cast member.

This is one of those shows that cried out for a new recording despite a splendid cast recording with wonderful performances by Ruby Hill, Pearl Bailey, Harold Nicholas, and June Hawkins. One of the reasons a production hasn't been attempted since the Broadway debut is the loss of the original orchestrations. Thanks to City Center's Encores! Series, a major restoration was undertaken and new orchestrations were written by Luther Henderson and Ralph Burns. Although she only has a few songs to sing, Vanessa L. Williams gives a star turn in the role of Della Green. She sounds as smooth and classy as she is beautiful. She is given strong support by Stanley Wayne Mathis as Li'l Augie who is a powerful singer and Yvette Cason who manages to make two songs originally performed by Pearl Bailey, "Legalize My Name" and "It's a Woman's Prerogative," completely her own. Chuck Cooper is perfect on his big number "Li'l Augie is a Natural Man" and Helen Goldsby sings beautifully but could emote more. As conducted by Rob Fisher, the Coffee Club Orchestra, which has been featured on all the Encores! cast recordings along with Mr. Fisher, sounds better than ever.

8. The Night of the Hunter - studio cast

The only recording from an unproduced musical to make it onto this year's list is Night of the Hunter based on the classic novel and film about a murderous preacher and some denizens of depression-era West Virginia. With music by Claibe Richardson and lyrics by Stephen Cole, Night of the Hunter boasts quite an impressive and interesting score, one that I listen to repeatedly. Mr. Richardson has written a score that is melodic and rich and Mr. Cole's lyrics are excellent and make the story easy to follow even without seeing a production. I was most impressed with the "Wedding Night" which is a self-contained scene in which the widow prepares for her wedding night to the preacher who then refuses her. Some of the other outstanding numbers are "The Lord Will Provide" for the preacher, "Lookin' Ahead" for the widow and the hymn-like "The River Jesus."

A superb company of actors was assembled for this recording. Headed by TV soap actor Ron Raines, who is perfectly evil as the preacher with his rich, booming baritone, the cast includes, always terrific Sally Mayes; Broadway veteran Dorothy Loudon, who is once again surrounded by orphans (but this time she loves them); Marcia (Chicago) Lewis; and Jonathan Freeman. Orchestrations are supplied by Donald Johnston who helps give this score a true theatrical feel and makes the whole recording sound more like a cast album than concept recordings normally do. This is an exceptional recording that introduces a score that will no doubt have a life on stages all over the world. I, for one, look forward its Broadway debut which will no doubt be sometime in the near future.

9. Triumph of Love - OBC

Triumph of Love (JAY records) is the musical version of the play Le Triomphe de l'amour, by Marivaux, with music by Jeffrey Stock, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and book by James Magruder. It's the story of Princess Leonide who tries to win the one she loves, and ends up conquering her enemies with the power of love. Despite a short run on Broadway last season, it seems to have developed a cult following - mostly due to the presence of Betty Buckley in the cast.

Triumph of Love features a charming but uneven score with several pleasant tunes. I found it a bit odd that two musical numbers were included that were not written by Mr. Stock. "Mr. Right" and "Have a Little Faith" were written by Van Dyke Parks and Michael Kosarin, respectively, and sound out of place here. One other unnecessary number is "Henchmen are Forgotten." Outside of these incongruities, the score zips by quickly and is very enjoyable. As one would hope, Betty Buckley (as Hesione) is featured on eight of the CDs 19 tracks: the musical's opening number "This Day of Days," "You May Call Me Phocion" with Susan Egan (Princess Leonide), "The Tree" with F. Murray Abraham (who portrays Miss Buckley's brother), and a few others. As a bonus, we are treated to a song that was cut from the musical during previews: "If I Cannot Love", sung by Miss Buckley.

As usual, Miss Buckley is in top form in each of her numbers and even manages to drown out, on occasion, a few of her co-stars. I found it humorous listening to F. Murray Abraham and Christopher Sieber trying to keep up with Miss Buckley in "Love Won't Take No For an Answer." Miss Buckley is the driving force behind most of these songs. As for her co-stars, I have always had trouble warming up to Susan Egan's often nasally singing and I still do, but she sings winningly and is perfectly cast as the Princess who tried to win Agis' love. F. Murray Abraham makes a valiant effort at singing and is quite good except when up against the titanic lungpower of Miss Buckley. Christopher Sieber, Nancy Opel, Roger Bart and Kevin Chamberlin all add strong support to this cast.

Miss Birkenhead's lyrics are perfect and fit brilliantly with the music and Mr. Stock is a better composer than I had assumed he would be given the scathing reviews his music received when the show opened on Broadway. This is an excellent cast album with little bits of carefully chosen dialogue and a terrific booklet with full color pictures and complete lyrics.

10. The Scarlet Pimpernel - OBC

The one guilty pleasure on my list this year is the original Broadway cast recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel . Since I had doubted it would ever make it to any stage, let alone Broadway, I must say I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when I first heard the original Broadway cast recording of The Scarlet Pimpernel. An improvement over the original concept recording, Frank Wildhorn has sharpened and refined what was good, though there are still a few flaws. One flaw is Chauvelin's second solo in the first act, "Where's the Girl?" It sounds as if the sound engineer accidentally turned on a radio switched to Lite-FM. Others are Marguerite's "Vivez" which resembles "Storybook" too much, and "You are My Home" which has too much of a pop feel to it. At least Mr. Wildhorn's romantic music is more suited to this story of love and betrayal than it is to Jekyll & Hyde. Nan Knighton's lyrics are sharper and clearer than on the concept recording as well. Unlike Mr. Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, you feel instantly transported back in time to 18th century Europe from the very first note of the thrilling overture. With the exception of a few numbers, the score is much more consistent in style and overall tone.

Douglas Sills makes an auspicious debut as a leading man, showing off a strong tenor that seems much more suited to the role than Chuck Wagner's baritone. He does exceptional work, especially on "Into the Fire," "They Seek Him Here" and "She was There." It is also nice to have Broadway veterans Christine Andreas and Terrence Mann back on Broadway and in the same musical. They are perfectly cast as Marguerite and Chauvelin, who are former lovers. Both are at the top of their form. Christine Andreas possesses one of the finest soprano voices to ever grace a Broadway stage and it has been far too long since her last engagement. Not only that, she is a consummate actress as well and it shows through on her many solos. Andreas also gets to sing the better tunes in the show: "When I Look at You," "Only Love" and "Storybook." Terrence Mann, as always, turns in a solid performance, bringing to mind the role he created on Broadway of Inspector Javert. Unfortunately he is stuck with the worst music in the show ("Where's the Girl?" and "Falcon in the Dive") but his strong acting ability helps elevate this material. At least he gets to sing in the terrific act one finale "The Riddle" with his co-stars. Overall, the performances by the 3 leads could not be topped, even though the score is a bit uneven. Without a doubt, this is my favorite recording of a Frank Wildhorn score to date.

That's all for this week. Join me in two weeks when I will be taking a look at the latest reissues from Columbia Masterworks. 'Til then, happy listening!

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