Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chorus Line, Kiss Me, Kate, Fair Lady Re-released

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Chorus Line, Kiss Me, Kate, Fair Lady Re-released A CHORUS LINE
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A CHORUS LINE

Considering that A Chorus Line is the second longest-running musical in Broadway history, it's interesting that there's only one English-language cast recording of it. While there was a complete BBC Radio 2 broadcast a year or so ago (with Donna McKechnie in her original role, David Soul, Caroline O'Connor, and some textual updating), the only other Chorus Line recordings are in such foreign languages as German, Italian, and Japanese. Because the show is, what with all that underscoring, almost wall-to-wall music (with the major exception of Paul's monologue), a complete recording would still be in order.

The original recording is missing a good deal of music, including "And..." and "The Tap Combination," while altering some things ("Nothing" comes in the middle of "Hello, Twelve" in the theatre), and trimming others. But the good news is that the new Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissue expands "Hello, Twelve" by almost three minutes from its original LP version, adding sections for Connie, Judy, and Greg.

Cuts notwithstanding, this remains one of the most vital, vivid cast recordings of its era, with a company that was never vocally matched by subsequent casts. The only aspect of A Chorus Line that wasn't fully appreciated in 1975 was its Marvin Hamlisch-Ed Kleban score, so right for the subject matter, so theatrical, and with a sound all its own. It should now be recognized as the major achievement it is, and this is the place to hear it at its hottest.


KISS ME, KATE

I've always found Kiss Me, Kate the most overrated title in the top echelon of celebrated Broadway musical classics. Study the script and note that, while the exchanges between former husband and wife Lilli Vanessi and Fred Graham couldn't be sharper, the show is vaguely conceived, its comedy far- fetched, its emotional reality shaky. The Cole Porter songs are uniformly divine, but also pose troublesome questions if one stops to think about them: If the play-within-a-play is indeed a non-updated musical version of The Taming of the Shrew (it's never very clear whether or not it's that or a revival of the play itself, with the songs there simply because Kiss Me, Kate is a musical), how appropriate are the references in the lyrics to L.B. Mayer and Lassie?

That these problems are real ones is the chief reason why the show has never had a Broadway revival, and why, when one was announced a few years back, it was cancelled owing to a dispute about book rewrites. While Kate has had three London returns (including an enjoyable RSC/West End production in 1987), I suspect that book alterations are in order if a proprosed Broadway revival (Dee Hoty is the latest name to surface for Lilli) is actually to happen. In fact, the most satisfying version of the show may just be the 1958 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production, with Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison recreating their roles, much of the score retained, but the script whittled down to 90 minutes including commercials.

On disc, however, the problems tend to vanish and Kate becomes a pleasure. The show has had a substantial recording history beyond its 1948 original Broadway cast album. In 1959, original leads Drake, Morison, Lisa Kirk, and Harold Lang reunited to make a studio cast disc in stereo, available on a Broadway Angel CD. The 1951 London cast recording, with the always grand Bill Johnson opposite Morison and Julie Wilson, got to record ten sides, those recordings later a part of the EMI/World Records double-LP set Cole Porter in London. The 1987 London revival (with Paul Jones, Tim Flavin, and a riotous, Olivier Award-winning star turn from its Lilli, Nichola McAuliffe) left a First Night Records cast album that is less fun than the production was in the theatre.

There are two major contemporary studio sets, both complete, double-CD recordings running almost two hours. The EMI/John McGlinn version has the more stellar company -- opera's Thomas Hampson and Josephine Barstow, along with Kim Criswell, George Dvorsky, Damon Evans, David Garrison, and Davis Gaines -- but JAY's (opera's Thomas Allen and Diana Montague, joined by Graham Bickley and Diane Langton) is somewhat more stylish. Of less significance are earlier studio sets on Music For Pleasure (very abbreviated, but with a terrific Lilli from Patricia Routledge) and RCA (Gogi Grant, Anne Jeffreys, and Howard Keel, the latter also to be heard on the film soundtrack).

All sets of Kate leads pale by comparison with the originals: I doubt that Drake or Morison will ever be equaled, and Kirk and Lang are likewise perfect. And while that Capitol/Angel stereo reunion is nice, the performances on the Columbia disc are crisper all around. Even with all the additional material on those complete sets, this remains THE Kate recording. The reissue includes as a bonus the overture from a Lehman Engel collection; what has always been billed as the overture on this recording is actually the shorter entr'acte. Unlike the previous CD issue, the original cover art has been reproduced; even better is the use on the new disc of the old, green Columbia LP label.


MY FAIR LADY

On March 29 in this space, I discussed the many My Fair Lady albums in conjunction with the release of JAY's first complete recording. The Columbia reissue is the 1959 recording made nine months into the London run, allowing the quartet of original Broadway cast leads to re-record their roles, taking advantage of both the show's phenomenal success and stereophonic sound, introduced shortly after Columbia's wildly successsful Broadway album.

In the almost three years between recordings, some of the pristine, youthful bloom of Julie Andrews' voice has gone, and she has already adapted that mannerism of talking rather than singing the beginning of many lines (she's still pretty glorious, however). Rex Harrison sings a great deal more than he did on the first album and sounds more musically confident. Perhaps a bit tired of playing the role, he also offers a new reading on just about every line; he's neither better nor worse than on the '56 recording, just different. The other repeaters, Stanley Holloway and Robert Coote, don't seem to have changed at all, while Leonard Weir's Freddy, the only significant new performance, is not as strong as John Michael King's. Notice that between '56 and '59, "Show Me" has acquired a couple of new lyric lines.

The first recording conveys the perfection and the monumental excitement surrounding the show's opening in a way that this one does not. But the London disc is a fascinating and rare opportunity to hear an alternate version of two or three extremely famous musical theatre performances (the above- mentioned Kate studio re-do is not quite the same thing, as it was not related to a production). The bonus track is the Embassy Waltz (too lovely to have been left off the first Broadway and London discs), taken from Percy Faith's orchestral treatment. That number can also be heard on Columbia's cast recording of the 1976 Broadway revival (Ian Richardson-Christine Andreas- George Rose); wonder if they'll ever get around to reissuing that one on CD.


Scheduled for the fall is the next batch of Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissues, to include (subject to change) Annie, Company (with Larry Kert bonus tracks), The Sound of Music, South Pacific, On The Town, and West Side Story.

Read about the other releases in this series.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com