Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Columbia Reissues Cabaret and Camelot

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Columbia Reissues Cabaret and Camelot I've always found it curious that so many collectors I know anticipate with bated breath the issue of newly remastered versions of classic cast albums that they already have on CD, and that they have been listening to in one form or another throughout their lives. Of course, as technology advances, the latest remasterings should make the recordings sound better each time. But I ask myself: Even in remastered form, how many times am I going to listen to a cast album I've been playing for decades? And will cast albums I already have on CD really sound that much better this time around, when they were simply two-track stereo, analog recordings to begin with?
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I've always found it curious that so many collectors I know anticipate with bated breath the issue of newly remastered versions of classic cast albums that they already have on CD, and that they have been listening to in one form or another throughout their lives. Of course, as technology advances, the latest remasterings should make the recordings sound better each time. But I ask myself: Even in remastered form, how many times am I going to listen to a cast album I've been playing for decades? And will cast albums I already have on CD really sound that much better this time around, when they were simply two-track stereo, analog recordings to begin with?

Of course, I must pause to remember that there are new generations coming along all the time for whom these recordings will be brand new; how lucky they are to be experiencing them for the first time in the latest remasterings. The five titles in the first batch of the new Columbia Broadway Masterworks series from Sony Classical and Columbia/Legacy (to be released June 2) are mostly ones that, while previously available on CD, were among the early show recordings plunked down on CD without any special remastering techniques applied. And there are bonus tracks on all but one. This week I'll look at the first two titles (in alphabetical order), next week the others.


CABARET:
On February 1, I devoted this space to a Cabaret discography, linked to the release of TER's complete recording. That set will be issued here by JAY sometime in the future, and on June 30 RCA will release the new Broadway cast recording, so I need only discuss the reissue at hand, that of the original Broadway cast album. Although the 1968 London cast recording (starring Judi Dench and Lila Kedrova) offers a scintillating performance, has more material (including the Act One finale), and is a more accurate representation of the score as heard in the theatre, the Broadway set is marvelous. Joel Grey and Jack Gilford are definitive. The oft-maligned Jill Haworth sounds just dandy (she was an erratic singer; for proof, catch her two Tony Award-show renditions of the title song -- '68 and '71, I believe -- one fine, the other way off). Bert Convy is just right as her leading man. And then there's Lotte Lenya, the very embodiment of Berlin at the end of the '20s.

The slight echo heard on the original CD release is gone, and this one sounds crisper. The reissue bonus is four songs cut from the original, taken from a demo tape performed by Kander and Ebb. "I Don't Care Much," cut from the first Broadway staging, is well-known from Streisand's recording and its use in both Broadway revivals. The other three tracks are utterly fascinating: two excellent Cliff-Sally duets ("Roommates" is a lengthier and more complex piece than its replacement, "Perfectly Marvelous"), and a cheer-up led by Sally after the engagement party debacle.


CAMELOT:
Because I haven't previously discussed Camelot in this space, a short history and defense before we get to the recordings. Almost from its inception, Camelot was a victim of advance expectations and production crises. Years later, it became a victim of its revivals. Its flaws notwithstanding, the show remains a lovely embodiment of the idealism of the country at the beginning of the '60s, and the original Broadway production ranks as a peak of Broadway elegance and glamour, glorious in its design, star power, and score.

My Fair Lady was an almost impossible act to follow, and when Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe returned to Broadway for the first time since that blockbuster, they brought along their Fair Lady director, leading lady, supporting comic, set and lighting designers, choreographer, orchestrators, dance arranger, and musical director. Perhaps if they'd brought along its producer -- Lerner, Loewe and director Moss Hart chose to produce Camelot themselves -- some of the chaos that ensued almost from the moment production began might have been avoided.

The show's costume designer died during pre-production. Lerner suffered a breakdown just prior to rehearsals. The world premiere performance in Toronto ran over four hours. Lerner was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers. Hart suffered a heart attack. The songwriters fought over whether or not to bring in a replacement director, with Lerner ultimately taking charge (and a rift formed between the team that was never fully repaired). It was chiefly the team spirit of stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews that kept the show together.

The New York reviews were mixed to negative, and it surprised no one that many drew unfavorable comparisons with the still-running Fair Lady. When Hart recovered, the creative team went back to work, and significant alterations were made, including the dropping of "Then You May Take Me To The Fair" and "Fie on Goodness." The show failed to receive a Best Musical Tony nomination, but a boost from the Ed Sullivan show helped, and the production lasted over two years and paid back.

Shortly after the assassination of President Kennedy, his widow described in an interview how he had enjoyed listening to the cast album before retiring, and how he had been particularly attracted to the final lyrics about "one brief shining moment." From that moment on, the musical became a symbol of the Kennedy era and gained an emotional subtext that would inform all future productions.

The 1964 London premiere at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with Laurence Harvey as Arthur, threw out the Broadway production, enlisting a new director and design team. Richard Harris was the King in the 1967 film version, directed by Joshua Logan and featuring substantial rewrites in Lerner's screenplay, a radiant Guenevere from Vanessa Redgrave, and a preponderance of close ups.

The show has been done a disservice by a series of revivals vastly inferior to the original in design, performance, and staging, and further damaged by textual alterations. Burton returned for a limited summer 1980 run at the New York State Theatre, with Lerner reworking the text, and the character of Morgan le Fey and her music dropped. The following year, more or less the same production played the Winter Garden, with the ailing Burton replaced by the film's Harris; this production later aired on HBO, meaning that Harris's Arthur was preserved twice, and Burton's not once. The next New York return, in 1993 at the Gershwin with original Lancelot Robert Goulet as Arthur, may rank as the worst Broadway revival of the '90s. Harris toured extensively and headed up a 1992 London revival.

While Camelot is not ever likely to vanish from the world's stages, the loveliness, lavishness, and performance power of the original are unreproduceable. The show's original spirit is difficult to recapture in more cynical times, and the textual revisions made in all later productions have for the most part weakened the show. But this observer still finds Camelot enchanting, with a score of beauty and charm, a book that is alternately witty, dramatic, and touching, and a final scene as moving as any ever fashioned for a musical.

In terms of recordings beyond the one at hand, there is the film soundtrack and three British albums: EMI's Drury Lane cast album includes a great deal more material than the Broadway set, including "The Jousts," the complete final scene, and the speech in the middle of "How To Handle A Woman." JAY's CD of the London Harris revival is fairly unremarkable, although you will find Claire Moore singing "Follow Me." A studio cast LP on Music For Pleasure stars Paul Daneman, who played Arthur in both Australia and London.

Which brings us to the original Broadway album. While the Masterworks reissue features no bonus material, it places the songs in correct show order for the first time. And while that first London disc offers a fine performance -- with Harvey's dry Arthur opposite the appealing Guenevere of Elizabeth Larner -- there will never be a trio of leads to compare to Burton, Andrews, and Goulet; dreamy is the only word for them. Even on this reissue, it is still understudy Mary Sue Berry who sings "Follow Me," rather than original Nimue, Marjorie Smith.

While many vintage, '40s-to-'60s scores have in the last decade received complete or at least comprehensive recordings, there's still room for a complete Camelot. No, the leads won't equal the originals, but a fair amount of music remains unrecorded, notably Morgan le Fey's "The Persuasion" sequence.

Next week, A Chorus Line, Kiss Me, Kate, and My Fair Lady. And a final note to update last week's column: While there is an RCA Victor LP of the Trapp Family Singers performing the score of The Sound of Music, the forthcoming RCA reissue will not be that one, but instead the Trapp Family in traditional German music.

Read about the other releases in this series.

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