Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Ragtime and High Society

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Ragtime and High Society RAGTIME (RCA Victor)
The double-CD Broadway cast recording of Ragtime that hits stores on April 28 runs 122 minutes; minus an eight-minute, bonus-track symphonic suite, it preserves about 114 minutes of a show whose playing time is about 155 minutes. So it's lavishly comprehensive, and, in addition to all of the songs and incidental pieces, features the complete opening and closing numbers and the full sequences built around such songs as "Journey On," "What Kind of Woman," "Gettin' Ready Rag," "New Music," "Justice," "Atlantic City," and "Look What You've Done." In fact, the recording preserves everything you could possibly ask for, yet wisely omits that which would feel really extraneous.
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RAGTIME (RCA Victor)
The double-CD Broadway cast recording of Ragtime that hits stores on April 28 runs 122 minutes; minus an eight-minute, bonus-track symphonic suite, it preserves about 114 minutes of a show whose playing time is about 155 minutes. So it's lavishly comprehensive, and, in addition to all of the songs and incidental pieces, features the complete opening and closing numbers and the full sequences built around such songs as "Journey On," "What Kind of Woman," "Gettin' Ready Rag," "New Music," "Justice," "Atlantic City," and "Look What You've Done." In fact, the recording preserves everything you could possibly ask for, yet wisely omits that which would feel really extraneous.

The new set has about twice as much material as RCA's initial Songs From "Ragtime" disc, although that one will remain of interest for "The Show Biz," a song cut during Toronto previews; earlier versions of several numbers, most notably "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square" and "He Wanted To Say"; and Camille Saviola, who created the role of Goldman (even if she has been surpassed by Judy Kaye).

When that first Ragtime disc was issued, just about everyone seemed to be impressed. Somehow, by the time the show got to New York, there was a backlash of sorts, and suffering most in many of the local reviews was the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens score. What many reviewers have taken to be "overblown anthems" is to these ears state-of-the-art Broadway opera. While Flaherty's melodies -- embracing the sounds of ragtime, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc. -- are clearly theater music, and while the show has dialogue (the recording reminds one how artful is Terrence McNally's contribution), I would deem Ragtime a top-notch contemporary opera, and its numbers fit operatic models: "Your Daddy's Son" is a full-blown aria. "Wheels of a Dream" (which on the new recording receives a particulary impassioned rendition by Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald) is very much a Puccini love duet. "New Music" is an operatic ensemble for principals and chorus. "What Kind of Woman" is opera recitative bordering on arioso, and so on.

I fail to understand why people who would never describe opera as overblown find it easy to dismiss a score like Ragtime for being similarly grand. The sprawling, wide-ranging source material of the show requires such a treatment, and, rather than overblown, Ragtime's score is rich, expansive, and emotionally heightened to match the size and scope of the story. I won't even begin to single out for praise individual numbers, as there are too many superb ones; suffice it to say that this is a major score, one of the finest of recent years. And it has here been accorded the kind of lush, full-length preservation accorded the great repertoire operas (and with an orchestra significantly augmented from that heard at the Ford Center).

It's likewise unnecessary to discuss the leads separately, as they are all glorious, and offer deeply felt performances not likely to be equaled by their successors (the A-level, excellent but nonetheless inferior Los Angeles company indicated as much). Please read the names of the 10 leads as listed on the back cover, and consider them all lauded. The bonus suite, with John Mauceri conducting 84 musicians, is very attractive, something of an extended version of the overture the show might have had in another era. And there's a good booklet essay by Marty Bell that traces the development of and changes in the score from the first demo tape to the New York opening. Even if you know the first Ragtime disc by heart, you will be playing the sensational new one repeatedly.


HIGH SOCIETY DISCS
It's not clear at this writing what label (if any) will be recording the new Broadway production of High Society, but, in addition to the Capitol film soundtrack, there have already been two High Society cast albums on CD. The first is the EMI recording of the 1987 London stage premiere, which starred Natasha Richardson (who was glorious), Stephen Rea, Trevor Eve, and Angela Richards. That version featured seven of the songs (plus a fragment of the title number) Cole Porter wrote for the Society film, dropping "Mind If I Make Love To You." (The current Broadway version retains six of the film songs and a piece of the title song, omitting "Mind If I Make Love To You" and "Now You Has Jazz.") The London production threw in such other Porter numbers as "How Do You Spell Ambassador?," "Give Him The Oo-La-La," "In The Still of the Night," "Hey, Good Lookin'," and "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love" (none of which is used in the Broadway version).

A completely different production toured England in 1996, and was recorded live by Playback at the Lyceum Theater in Sheffield. Pop veteran Jackie Trent played Tracy's mother, Tracey Childs was Tracy Lord, and Michael Howe, who has played leads in the London productions of 42nd Street and Chess, was Dexter. This production included all of the film songs, plus a few either heard in ("You've Got That Thing," "Let's Vocalize," which was cut from the film and is the basis for the Broadway title number) or cut from ("I Worship You," "Nobody's Chasing Me") the Broadway version. Other Porter ditties featured in this version: "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Let's Do It," "You Irritate Me So," "It's De-Lovely," "In The Morning, No," and "In the Still of the Night." The liner notes for this disc make the false assertion that "Nobody's Chasing Me" and "In The Morning, No" have never before been recorded.

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