Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Best Of `98

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Best Of `98 As someone who used to spend a considerable amount of his spare time listening to recordings of theatre music, it's pleasing to note that doing just that is now a significant part of my professional life. But while I don't wish to complain, there is a downside to this: If it's nice that what was once an all-consuming hobby is now my job, it is a job. Which means that, in order to offer responsible reviews, I must listen to recordings of new scores and new studio albums at least twice before reporting on them; with today's CD lengths and double-CD sets, this can mean 4+ hours spent on a single title.
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Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

As someone who used to spend a considerable amount of his spare time listening to recordings of theatre music, it's pleasing to note that doing just that is now a significant part of my professional life. But while I don't wish to complain, there is a downside to this: If it's nice that what was once an all-consuming hobby is now my job, it is a job. Which means that, in order to offer responsible reviews, I must listen to recordings of new scores and new studio albums at least twice before reporting on them; with today's CD lengths and double-CD sets, this can mean 4+ hours spent on a single title.

A bigger problem is the need to listen to and report on discs that I would never bother with were I not a critic with columns devoted to theatre recordings. The field is littered with vanity albums and/or unnecessary preservations, and, if I am to cover them, I have to devote just as much time to them as I would to quality items.

Because my avocation has become my vocation, a bit of the fun has gone out of it; so much of my time must be devoted to discs I'm reviewing that I devote less time to carefree, non-professional listening. This week's column cites the best theatre recordings of 1998; for me, that means the ones I have gone back to after I've reviewed them and didn't have to. These are recordings I wanted to hear again on my "own time." I have omitted reissues and vocal recitals.

LADY IN THE DARK (JAY):
For several reasons, my favorite theatre disc of the year. I am endlessly fascinated by this show, both its Moss Hart book and Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin score. This recording -- the cast album of the 1997 Royal National Theatre production -- is the first complete preservation of the score and the first full-length cast album. It features marvelous conducting and orchestral playing, and just the right selection of material (the dream sequences, the flashback, a couple of orchestral pieces). As I noted when I first reviewed this recording, leading lady Maria Friedman (currently playing Roxie in the London Chicago) is an intense performer who takes some getting used to; having listened to this disc repeatedly, I think I might actually miss Friedman's sometimes over-the top readings if another Lady disc were to appear. But that's not likely to happen, so this is an indispensable recording of a major work of musical theatre.

ST. LOUIS WOMAN (Mercury):
The cast album of Encores!' 1998 concert mounting of this glorious failure of a show finally allows us to hear all of the scintillating Harold Arlen Johnny Mercer songs, and in a top-notch performance. The Ralph Burns orchestrations created for the event are wonderful, as is Rob Fisher's conducting. This St. Louis Woman is one to play again and again. CABARET (RCA Victor/TER-JAY):
While the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Cabaret was one of the finest revivals of the decade, it stood to lose a great deal on disc: An integral part of the production was the atmosphere created by the intimate cabaret surroundings; the performances of Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson were intensely visual and had more to do with acting than great singing; and the staging of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall was brilliant. RCA's cast album is a triumph, one of the finest Broadway discs of recent years. It was an inspired notion to blend pre-taped audience reaction with the studio performances to convey the live feel of the production. The leads, particularly Cumming, come through beautifully. And this is one of those cast albums that's a must even if you have the '60s Broadway and London albums, as it features a substantially altered tunestack.

Cabaret makes it to the list twice this year, as TER released its double-CD set, featuring the complete score of the original version plus the film and '87 Broadway revival additions. Now that the original score is regularly pulled apart in revival, this is an important document, and also a very enjoyable performance, with the pungent Maria Friedman as Sally, the show's lyricist Fred Ebb as Schultz, and Dame Judi Dench (London's original Sally Bowles) as Fraulein Schneider. In February, this complete Cabaret will be issued domestically by JAY.

RAGTIME (RCA Victor):
Yes, I am aware that this score has its detractors; in fact, many of my colleagues consider it a collection of overblown anthems. To which I can only say, nonsense: This is a stirring, richly rewarding score, the kind that one doesn't tire of even after numerous hearings. And while RCA's preliminary cast recording, "Songs From Ragtime" was a superb disc, the label's double-CD Broadway cast album is magnificent. Yes, it's missing some bits of the score, and does recycle two tracks from the first recording. But the amount of material preserved is generous, the sound is wonderful, and the peerless leads are captured in sumptuous form.

FOLLIES (TVT):
More surprising in its existence than any of the above, TVT's cast recording of last spring's Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies could easily not have happened; there are three other Follies cast recordings, and this production did not get beyond Millburn, New Jersey. But we should all be glad that it did, as it goes above and beyond the call of duty, preserving not only the full original score for the first time on disc, but a half-hour of interesting cut material.

No question, the cast on the sadly abridged 1971 original Broadway recording will never be touched. And the TVT set could have been more theatrical; it often sounds like a studio set, perhaps because permission to preserve dialogue was denied. But the performance satisfies, and the amount of material featured makes it essential.

CHICAGO (RCA Victor):
Because of Ute Lemper's recording contracts, it took some time for the smash hit London revival of Chicago to make it to disc, and the result is delightful. No new Chicago recording will ever mean that you can afford to be without the original one with Verdon, Rivera, Orbach, McCarty, Martin, and O'Haughey. But the London set features probably the best-sung Roxie (Ruthie Henshall) and Velma (Lemper) on disc, and if Henry Goodman's Billy Flynn needed to be seen, it's still fun on the album.

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (Atlantic):
I disliked this show when I reviewed it in November, 1997, not even finding much to admire in the Frank Wildhorn-Nan Knighton score. But the Atlantic cast album shows it off to advantage, and while I don't mean to aver that this is a distinguished score, I find it enjoyably hokey, good, old-fashioned, silly fun. Leads Douglas Sills, Christine Andreas, and Terrence Mann (who sing almost the entire score) are formidable, and this is simply one of those "guilty pleasure" discs that I've put on more than the cast albums of any number of highly praised pieces.
There is currently an outcry in some quarters for a second Pimpernel cast recording, featuring the new leads and revised musical program; while I can't say it's a must, I'll happily sign the petition.

TRIUMPH OF LOVE (JAY):
A year ago at this time, the short-lived Triumph of Love was about to depart Broadway unrecorded; JAY came to the rescue, getting the show in the studio six months after it closed and giving it a flawless preservation. One of those scores that, weak numbers and all, is more enjoyable on disc than in the theatre, Triumph makes a pleasant cast album, and also has Betty Buckley in superlative form.

A NEW BRAIN (RCA Victor):
Another score I liked more than many of my colleagues, the cast album for A New Brain is filled with enjoyable things. William Finn's idiosyncratic score is sharp and tuneful, and the cast is a glittering bunch. Brain didn't have great success at Lincoln Center last summer, but the recording could inspire further productions.

If those are my top ten keepers, there are a few others I'd like to note. While I have eschewed recitals, Audra McDonald's first solo disc, Way Back To Paradise (Nonesuch), is singularly striking for its refusal to cater to the popular and the obvious, and for this radiant performer's incomparable singing. Original Cast Records finally issued the original Broadway cast recording of Galt MacDermot's 1983 The Human Comedy, and I would place it higher on the list if it hadn't been recorded almost 15 years ago. I would also have liked to include the excellent Broadway cast album of The Capeman (Dreamworks), but while it was sent to Tony voters last May, it still awaits commercial release. Let's hope it appears soon, as Paul Simon's score (particularly the first half) deserves another hearing.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com