Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Four From JAY

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Four From JAY BUGSY MALONE (JAY)
Movie musicals don't come much weirder than Alan Parker's 1976 concoction Bugsy Malone, a gangster tale set in the speakeasy period, enacted entirely by children (among them Jodie Foster and Scott Baio). Set to a catchy score by Paul Williams, it's certainly different, sort of fascinating, but also a bit curious and creepy.

BUGSY MALONE (JAY)
Movie musicals don't come much weirder than Alan Parker's 1976 concoction Bugsy Malone, a gangster tale set in the speakeasy period, enacted entirely by children (among them Jodie Foster and Scott Baio). Set to a catchy score by Paul Williams, it's certainly different, sort of fascinating, but also a bit curious and creepy.

A British film that was more popular in its native land than it was in the U.S., Bugsy Malone was transferred to the stage in a fairly sizable production at London's Her Majesty's Theater in 1983, and, as in the film, the casts (two rotated, with Catherine Zeta Jones a part of one of them) of children lip-synched to the voices of others. London saw a wholly new staging when the National Youth Music Theater mounted it at the Queen's Theater last November, and the results were much happier: A couple of new songs were added to the score, and, more importantly, the property was a natural for the company of talented 10-to-16-year-olds, who could actually sing. NYMT is sponsored by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, and co-director of the new Bugsy was Russell Labey, co-author and director of the "other" Whistle Down The Wind musical (also a NYMT production).

While the 1983 West End Bugsy left only a single, JAY has given the latest one full-length preservation, and the disc is very appealing. If there's still no particularly good reason why this story is being performed by children, the songs are pleasant and the performance here is surprisingly strong--- these kids are talented.


THOMAS AND THE KING (JAY)
The story of Thomas Becket and Henry II made for a successful stage play and film, but it flopped as the musical Thomas and the King, which didn't last long at London's Her Majesty's in 1975. But it bore a couple of interesting credits: The book was by Edward Anhalt, who had written the Becket screenplay. And the music was by celebrated film composer John Williams. Six years after the show closed, a recording was made with three of the original leads ---James Smilie, Dilys Hamlett, Caroline Villiers-- but with Lewis Fiander (I and Albert, Noel and Gertie, and John Adams in the London 1776) in place of Richard Johnson's Becket.

Thomas and the King was along the lines of a number of stiff, ponderous West End book musical failures of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, a style that, with the takeover of the pop opera, pretty much vanished. The genre made a brief reappearance with the recent Always, but that show at least had some handsome music; if Thomas has a few passable tunes, the score is for the most part dismal. On the evidence here, Williams' gift is for background scores, rather than for foreground ones.


LILIANE MONTEVECCHI: ON THE BOULEVARD (JAY)
Liliane Montevecchi's stage work has included two Nines (original Broadway and London concert), two versions of Follies (Lincoln Center and Paper Mill), Grand Hotel, and the Chichester revival of Divorce Me, Darling!; every one of those performances has been preserved on disc. Her second Follies recording is due soon from TVT, but we now have a disc of the solo show she first offered at New York's Kaufman Theater in 1988, conceived and staged by her Nine/Grand Hotel director Tommy Tune. She has since taken the act around the world; the JAY recording was made last year before a live audience at Clinton Studios in New York.

Montevecchi's program is heavy on theatre material, including (in addition to her trademark "Folies Bergere") "Sweet Beginning," "Irma La Douce," "I Don't Want To Know," "You Don't Know Paree," and "I Love Paris." There's also Sondheim's "I Never Do Anything Twice," and it's not every cabaret program that features "New-Fangled Tango" from Happy Hunting.

A good deal of chat is included, and, even without the glamorous visuals, Montevecchi's personality comes across. Fans of her aggressive charm and unique vocal stylings will enjoy.


LISTEN TO THE WIND (JAY)
Composer Vivian Ellis wrote delightful scores for such West End shows as Mr. Cinders (1929), Bless The Bride (1947), and The Water Gypsies (1954). His holiday musical Listen To The Wind (for which he wrote both music and lyrics) was first performed in 1954 at the Oxford Playhouse, with Maggie Smith among the company. The following year, it had a Christmas run at London's Arts Theatre. Both productions were directed by none other than Sir Peter Hall (whose subsequent musicals would include the flops Via Galactica and Jean Seberg). Wind was revived at London's King's Head Theatre (where the hit West End '80s resuscitation of Mr. Cinders began) in December, 1996, opening just after Ellis died at the age of 92. JAY's cast album of that production is the score's first full recording.

I like Wind's tinkly, tuneful score, but I would hesitate to recommend the disc unless one has a fondness for this sort of cute, clever, and very British thing. Clearly a children's show, and accompanied only by piano, it will be best appreciated by those who have enjoyed other Ellis pieces or the similarly charming but twee work of Julian Slade (Salad Days, Follow That Girl, Free As Air). To give you an idea, I'll just mention that Wind's song titles include "I'm A Naughty Gale Bird," "Bread and Butter Song," "Timothy's Under The Table," and "Whistle Down The Chimney."

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