Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: From the St. Louis Racetrack to the L.A. Earthquake

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: From the St. Louis Racetrack to the L.A. Earthquake ST. LOUIS WOMAN (Mercury)

ST. LOUIS WOMAN (Mercury)

It can be argued that any recording of a new show score -- no matter how rotten that score may be -- has value, simply because it preserves that score. Things get more debatable in the field of new recordings of older scores: In recent years, we have had any number of such discs that could qualify as not deeply necessary. Whether revival cast recordings or sets created in the studio, these discs may be pleasant listening, and almost invariably preserve significant amounts of material not previously available on earlier recordings of the score. Yet they in no way make a dent in one's affections for those earlier recordings, and tend to remain on the shelf. I could name names here, but won't, as discs I find superfluous may very well be among your favorites. But I'm sure everyone reading this could, if pressed, point to a number of '90s revival cast and studio recordings that fit the category.

And then there are those occasional very necessary recordings. We had one earlier this year when JAY released the first full-length cast album of the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin Lady in the Dark, and now we have another. The 1946 show St. Louis Woman is one of those famously troubled productions where nothing went right: Lena Horne withdrew as star; there were NAACP protests; one of the librettists died just prior to rehearsals; the director and choreographer were replaced, etc. The show lasted less than four months on Broadway, and its book -- a melodrama focusing on the members of a black racetrack community at the turn of the century -- renders the show unworthy of a full-scale stage revival.

But the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer score is filled with great songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," "I Had Myself a True Love," "Ridin' on the Moon," and "Legalize My Name." And the Broadway production left a brief (29 minutes) but glorious cast recording (a Broadway Angel CD), with wonderfully vivid performances by Ruby Hill, Pearl Bailey, Harold Nicholas, and June Hawkins.

So strong does the score sound there that it was inevitable the show would be tried again. Attempts in the late '50s include "Blues-Opera," an orchestral suite adding other Arlen songs and recorded by Columbia, and "Free and Easy," briefly staged in Europe. In the '80s, new attempts were made to produce and record the show, the chief drawback being the loss of the original orchestrations. At last, a major restoration was done for the 15th production of City Center's Encores! last May; St. Louis Woman was to date the only title in the series unproduced in any form (concert, regional, stock, TV) in the U.S. since its original Broadway production. With new orchestrations by Ralph Burns and dance arrangements by Luther Henderson, the result proved to be one of the best of the Encores!. But a cast recording might not have happened had the leading lady not been Vanessa L. Williams, whose label, Mercury, promotes all aspects of her career. In addition to her successful pop discs, Mercury took the daring step of releasing a second cast album of Kiss of the Spider Woman during her acclaimed Broadway run, and they have now seen to it that her five-performance star turn in St. Louis Woman is also preserved. To produce the recording, Hugh Fordin, who produced the cast discs of other Encores! concerts for his DRG label, was brought in, with the production's restorer and musical director, Rob Fisher, the associate producer.

On disc, Williams sounds as smooth, classy, and glamorous as she looked at City Center. But she's far from the whole show here (and actually appears in less than half the tracks). Yvette Cason does wonders with songs ("A Woman's Prerogative," "Legalize My Name") one had thought belonged solely to Bailey. As Li'l Augie (whose music was the biggest victim of the '46 disc's brief playing time), Stanley Wayne Mathis (lead hyena in last year's The Lion King, Broadway bound this season in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown) is a charmer and strong singer. Helen Goldsby makes pretty sounds in her character's three terrific songs (including the cut "I Wonder What Became of Me") but could do more with the words, and there are important contributions by Chuck Cooper (Tony winner for The Life) and Victor Trent Cook.

More than twice as long as the original recording (which should still be investigated), this new St. Louis Woman is as good a theatre recording as the year has produced.

I WAS LOOKING AT THE CEILING AND THEN I SAW THE SKY (Nonesuch)

Inspired by the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky is an opera with libretto by June Jordan and music by John Adams, composer of such high-profile contemporary works as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. First seen in California in 1995, Ceiling has since played New York, Montreal, and Paris among other cities.

The piece follows seven characters whose stories intertwine at the time of the quake; Adams' score bears traces of gospel, rock, r&b, and Broadway, but, like his other operas, features much repetition of musical and rhythmic figures. There's a promising opening title number, a nice trio for the three ladies, and some other intriguing pieces, but in general this is the kind of thing that, upon conclusion, will make you run to put on a Jerry Herman cast album.

The Nonesuch recording offers 15 of the opera's 22 numbers. What makes this studio disc pertinent to this column is its performers, all Broadway singers: Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Richard Muenz, Angela Teek (the title role opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell in the 1990 Broadway revival of Oh, Kay!, and a member of the original Broadway Ragtime ensemble), Michael McElroy (Violet, Rent), Darius De Haas (Rent, Children of Eden, and Nonesuch's forthcoming Myths & Hymns, the Adam Guettel song cycle that was called Saturn Returns at the Public Theater), and Welly Yang (Miss Saigon).

McDonald and Mazzie tend to make anything they sing sound good, and the others are fine. You may wonder from time to time how they all remember what comes next in the melodic line.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com