Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: A King and Some Presidents

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: A King and Some Presidents The Disney/Buena Vista CD of the concert version of King David, recorded live during the sixth and seventh performances of last May's nine-show run at the New Amsterdam Theatre, preserves just over half of the piece (74 of 144 minutes). This is not an entirely bad thing, as there was a considerable amount of repetition in Alan Menken's score, and, given the unfavorable reviews the concert received, it might have been difficult to market a double-CD set.

The Disney/Buena Vista CD of the concert version of King David, recorded live during the sixth and seventh performances of last May's nine-show run at the New Amsterdam Theatre, preserves just over half of the piece (74 of 144 minutes). This is not an entirely bad thing, as there was a considerable amount of repetition in Alan Menken's score, and, given the unfavorable reviews the concert received, it might have been difficult to market a double-CD set.

The words of this all-sung oratorio/pop opera are by Tim Rice, but King David is unlikely to achieve the popularity of the lyricist's other biblical operas, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph... What gives those works an edge is that, in addition to memorable music, they have an attitude, a point of view; David is straightforward and serious, and that approach is a less entertaining one, particularly when attempting to cram in a great deal of ponderous biblical narrative. Then too, while Rice's David lyrics contain traces of his customary anachronistic, contemporary/pop references, the solemnity of the piece doesn't allow for very much of that, and Rice is less interesting when he's not tongue-in-cheek or ironic.

Because it is sometimes silly, overblown, and bombastic, David is an easy piece to pick on. But I still find that there's too much compelling music for an easy dismissal, and that even some of the more resistable tracks (i.e. "Goliath of Gath") are saved by the sudden surge of a powerful melodic line. It's an uneven score with enough strong melody to make it worth hearing; only those who hate pop operas should find nothing to enjoy (and even they may like the choral toe-tapper "Saul Has Slain His Thousands").

Marcus Lovett does well in the vocally punishing title role, and there is good work from Martin Vidnovic, Alice Ripley, and Stephen Bogardus. And then there's Judy Kuhn; on disc, she has just one big solo--"Never Again," the score's most detachable song--and a few lines elsewhere, but her plaintive singing is in a class by itself.


The elaborate King David concerts had a set by Tony Walton, who 21 years ago removed his name as designer during the calamitous tryout of the Alan Jay Lerner-Leonard Bernstein disaster 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 1600 remains one of the more legendary musical flops--please see my book Not Since "Carrie" for details on the show's tortuous history and rapid demise--the legend made all the more intense by the fact that the show went unrecorded.

For all of the many problems of this episodic piece about the White House and a number of its inhabitants, the score was, from inception to final Broadway mishmash, largely magnificent, making it inevitable that the show would not vanish entirely. Six songs from the score have found their way onto various discs (Ben Bagley's Revisited series, John McGlinn's Broadway Showstoppers, recitals by Sarah Brightman and Bruce Hubbard), but this July the score received its first full-length recording in the form of the BBC Radio 3 broadcast of A White House Cantata, a 90-minute sequence of 1600 songs presented at London's Barbican Center. While this was by no means a documentation of all of the numbers written for the show at its various stages--that would last in the vicinity of three hours- most of the principal songs were heard (notable exceptions were "American Dreaming," "The Nation That Wasn't There," and the last-minute-desperation Broadway opening number, "Rehearse"; a notable restoration was the searing Lud-Seena duet "This Time," cut prior to Broadway). Bernstein's son Alexander read brief narration that allowed the audience to match the songs wth the administrations, but no attempt was made at dramatic coherence; this was simply a suite of numbers.

The concert was not well received by critics, and listening to a tape of the broadcast, it's not difficult to see why. While the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano offered a lush reading and there was some lovely singing, the event was sabotaged by crucial casting decisions. Opera singer Dietrich Henshall (spelling uncertain) sang all the Presidents, and while he was vocally impressive, he has a pronounced accent, and his complete inability to get the words out was disastrous. Only marginally better was Nancy Gustafson as the First Ladies, and she destroyed the second-act showpiece "Duet For One: The First Lady of the Land" with her poor diction and failure to differentiate between the song's two characters (Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes). In the complex, lengthy "Monroviad" for James and Eliza Monroe, the leads rendered the pointed, tricky lyrics virtually unintelligble. Jacqueline Mura (spelling uncertain) was a fair Seena, but the only strong principal was Thomas Young as Lud, delivering a beautiful "Seena" in which the words could be heard.

Bernstein's 1600 music is so glorious that a fair amount of White House Cantata could be enjoyed purely on a musical level. But whatever the show's book problems, Lerner's lyrics are pretty dazzling, so a performance like this one won't do. 1600 still cries out for a recording, but not with this cast; indeed, vastly preferable to this performance are the numerous live tapes made during the show's Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York runs, especially the Broadway sound system recording (with the incomparable First Ladies of Patricia Routledge and the superb Lud of the late Gilbert Price). The White House Cantata is worth hearing to experience the music grandly played, but it's a missed opportunity.

For the record, A White House Cantata included the following songs: Part I: Prelude; "On Ten Square Miles By The Potomac River"; "If I Was A Dove"; "Welcome Home, Miz Adams"; "Take Care of This House"; "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March"; "Seena"; "Sonatina (The British)"; "Lud's Wedding (I Love My Wife)"; "Monroviad/ The Mark of a Man"; "This Time"; "We Must Have A Ball."

Part II: "Welcome Home, Miz Johnson"; "Bright and Black"; "Duet For One: The First Lady of the Land"; "The Money Lovin' Minstrel Show" (4 song sequence); "To Make Us Proud."

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com