Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: JAY's New Fair Lady

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: JAY's New Fair Lady Although the late Goddard Lieberson, responsible for producing the original Broadway cast albums of such classics as West Side Story, Gypsy, Camelot, Cabaret, and The Most Happy Fella, is widely (and deservedly) regarded as the foremost figure in his field, it's sometimes difficult to forgive some of his choices. True, he was, unlike today's cast album producers, at the mercy of LP length, so cuts were inevitable, with dance music, reprises, and entr'actes tending to fall by the wayside. But beyond that, Lieberson liked to refashion for disc what was being heard every night in the theatre; he would make numerous alterations in the score, creating new lead-ins or false endings, and almost always eschewing dialogue. For this reason, "Some People" on the Gypsy album has a fake orchestral intro (the "I Had A Dream" theme), and we're deprived of hearing Ethel Merman speak the great words ("Anybody that stays home is dead! If I die, it won't be from sittin'! It'll be from fightin' to get up and get out!") that lead into the song, and the chords that should punctuate those words.
http://images.playbill.com/photo/n/e/ne_88172.gif

Although the late Goddard Lieberson, responsible for producing the original Broadway cast albums of such classics as West Side Story, Gypsy, Camelot, Cabaret, and The Most Happy Fella, is widely (and deservedly) regarded as the foremost figure in his field, it's sometimes difficult to forgive some of his choices. True, he was, unlike today's cast album producers, at the mercy of LP length, so cuts were inevitable, with dance music, reprises, and entr'actes tending to fall by the wayside. But beyond that, Lieberson liked to refashion for disc what was being heard every night in the theatre; he would make numerous alterations in the score, creating new lead-ins or false endings, and almost always eschewing dialogue. For this reason, "Some People" on the Gypsy album has a fake orchestral intro (the "I Had A Dream" theme), and we're deprived of hearing Ethel Merman speak the great words ("Anybody that stays home is dead! If I die, it won't be from sittin'! It'll be from fightin' to get up and get out!") that lead into the song, and the chords that should punctuate those words.

Lieberson's 1956 My Fair Lady cast album is no exception, so we lose the verse of "On The Street Where You Live," get a false ending on "Without You," an altered lead-in to "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?," etc. But none of those things really matters when it comes to that original Fair Lady recording: It captures flawless performances before they could in any way deteriorate, and remains a chance to experience at its peak Broadway perfection and the kind of universally embraced hit that seems impossible to achieve anymore.

When dealing with Fair Lady cast albums, that first one so dominates the field that it's almost possible for one to go through life without possessing any others. But as stated, it's far from complete, so it has always been necessary (just as it is with The King and I, to which I devoted a recent discography) to possess multiple recordings of the score if one wants more material than was initially preserved.

The second recording is, of course, the one made three years later when original stars Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway, and Robert Coote were reunited for the equally triumphant London production at Drury Lane. Unlike the first album, it was made in stereo. Because of the nature of the show's song distribution, the only London cast member not in the Broadway version who gets to sing any significant amount of solo material is Leonard Weir, who does "On The Street Where You Live." The quality of the performance here has long been a matter of debate; for me, Harrison (who sings a lot more of the music than he had three years earlier) and Andrews are not quite as wonderful as on their first recording. The degree of excitement that surrounded the show's Broadway premiere was by then a familiar story, and the four holdovers from Broadway had played the show hundreds of times by then; the fact that on the first album you're hearing them singing just days after opening night gives the Broadway disc a special frisson absent by the time of London. Harrison is, of course, to be heard again on the film soundtrack, but then the film itself is readily available in all video formats.

Columbia's third English-language cast recording of the show was of the 1976 Broadway revival, a fine production but only a moderate success (and the only one of three Broadway revivals to get recorded). Still unavailable on CD, the recording preserves the "Embassy Waltz" and the final scene, but still not all of "Street." Christine Andreas is a lovely Eliza, Ian Richardson a wonderful Higgins (although the recording only indicates it--you needed to see him in the scenes), and George Rose somehow won a Best Musical Actor Tony for playing the decidedly supporting role of Doolittle. That's it for English-language cast recordings, as a long-running West End revival (Tony Britton, Liz Robertson) in the early '80s was also not recorded. But until the advent in recent decades of the pop opera, no musical had more foreign-language cast albums than My Fair Lady. It was highly unusual that during the show's initial wave Columbia released in the U.S. the Spanish (with the great Higgins of Manolo Fabregas, and Placido Domingo among the singers), Italian (with the exciting Eliza of Delia Scala) and Hebrew recordings; by now, there must be at least 20 foreign cast recordings of the show. Several of these, particularly the ones made in the CD era, boast fairly complete versions of the score and preserve far more than any of the English-language cast albums.

And Fair Lady has also had a very long life in the studio. While the original played, there was a cheapo LP that lingered in discount stores for years starring Eliza understudy Lola Fisher. The British discount label Music For Pleasure version (1965) features Anne Rogers, who replaced Andrews in London, and Tony Britton, star of the London revival. Britton's Eliza, Liz Robertson, got to preserve her role on a tacky 1993 Pickwick disc (opposite Denis Quilley).

Of course, the most high-profile studio Fair Lady was the 1987 London Records disc with opera's Kiri Te Kanawa and Jerry Hadley (as Freddy) joined by Jeremy Irons and John Gielgud. At 70 minutes, it was one of the more complete English-language recordings until now. But while Irons is fairly good and Gielgud is fun to hear as Pickering, is there anyone who really thinks Dame Kiri sounds like a downtrodden flowergirl? (Yes, she's better when Eliza becomes a lady, but she's still rather too grand).

Which brings us once again to a new JAY double-CD release that ranks as the first complete recording of a classic score. Its Higgins and Doolittle are distinguished actors Alec McCowen and Bob Hoskins, who played the same roles in a terrific 1974 West End "Pygmalion," directed by John Dexter and with Diana Rigg their Eliza. The veteran acting couple Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray, seen on Broadway a couple of seasons ago in An Ideal Husband, are heard as Pickering and Mrs. Higgins.

Among the rarer items preserved here: The opening music of both acts; the "Little Bit of Luck" reprise; all of the Ball music; all of "Street Where You Live," including the reprise; a traditionally cut section of "You Did It"; and the second act scene of Eliza's return to the flower market. As a bonus track, McCowen performs Higgins' very fine cut song, "Come To The Ball." Unlike the other recent JAY sets, this one includes a considerable amount of dialogue, but that's appropriate for Fair Lady.

McCowen is excellent, and sings much more of the role than one might expect. Hoskins and Henry Wickham as Freddy are fine. But opera singer Tinuke Olafimihan is an undistinguished Eliza; she makes some pretty sounds, but it's a mild, disappointing performance. The recording was made more than four years ago; had it been done later, perhaps we would have had Ruthie Henshall, or Broadway's most recent Eliza, Melissa Errico.

The Fair Lady score is so familiar and frequently recorded, and the original Broadway leads so ideal, that it's hard for any new recording to be surprising or special. But if this is not one of the more gripping entries in the series, it is as always nice to have everything in one place, and of great value as the only complete recorded point of reference for future presenters.

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