Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Something Beginning -- and Something Forgotten

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Something Beginning -- and Something Forgotten "RAGTIME": THEMES FROM THE MUSICAL (Varese Sarabande)

"RAGTIME": THEMES FROM THE MUSICAL (Varese Sarabande)

Opening Jan. 18 at the spanking new Ford Centre on 42nd Street, Ragtime is probably about as strong a musical as Broadway is likely to receive for some time. While we await the release of RCA Victor's double-CD Broadway cast recording of the complete score, there is a new disc (in stores January 27) devoted to it, or at least to Stephen Flaherty's music. It's the latest entry in Varese Sarabande's series of such discs, which have already included Chicago and a number of Stephen Sondheim scores. Most of these have featured the Terry Trotter Trio, but the Chicago and Ragtime discs feature arranger Brad Ellis' "Little Big Band" of seven musicians.

Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of such recordings, as I tend to believe that theatre music was written for the characters and situations of a show and was not really meant to be separated from the words. But because Ragtime has one of the finest scores of recent years, and one that has not yet worn out its welcome, I was interested in hearing this treatment. Some of the songs (they're not presented in show order) get fairly straightforward performances, while others get the kind of jazzy, extended arrangements that veer far from the original melody. One can't help feeling that a music-only album of Ragtime requires a sizable orchestra rather than a band; the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra performed a suite from the score last summer, and that suite will be included as a bonus on the new cast recording. Still, Ragtime is a good choice for such treatment, and Varese is putting it out at the right time.

And the disc has two special attractions, one of which may make it a must-have: It includes the first recording of "Sarah Brown Eyes," the poignant second-act duet for Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his memory of Sarah. More interestingly, it features what may stand as the only recording of "I Have A Feeling": During Toronto previews, the Harry Houdini-Evelyn Nesbit song "The Show Biz," preserved on RCA's Songs From "Ragtime", was replaced by "I Have A Feeling," but by the time the show got to L.A., the pair had neither song, just twin reprises, and the same holds true on Broadway. So unless "I Have A Feeling" is preserved on the forthcoming RCA recording, it's not likely to turn up again.


MUSICAL CHAIRS / FESTIVAL (Original Cast Records)

Just before she starts to sing "Together" in Gypsy, Rose reminds Louise and Herbie that "you gotta take the rough with the smooth." So while cast albums of the caliber of The Golden Apple are, thanks to CD reissues, once again available, we must accept the fact that others that you didn't need on LP (and that really didn't need to be recorded in the first place) will also turn up. While I would agree that any recording has value as it preserves a piece of theatre, I would also emphasize that some are a lot more valuable than others (like Promises, Promises, the original Broadway cast album of which is rumored to be coming from Rykodisc in May).

We must forever be grateful to Original Cast Records for capturing such short-lived productions as The Baker's Wife, Prettybelle, A Doll's Life, Oh, Brother!, Carmelina, Bring Back Birdie, and others, as well as for seeing to it that The Human Comedy is finally commercially available. But the label has also preserved a number of questionable pieces, and those titles are gradually appearing on CD along with the choicer items.

Musical Chairs was a ghastly little show that used the probably unworkable concept of focusing on the drama in the audience watching a play rather than that on or backstage. The show ran 15 performances at the Rialto Theatre (which qualified as a Broadway house) in May, 1980. While the authors have remained unknowns, the show's assistant director-choreographer, Susan Stroman, and one of its performers, Scott Ellis, would go on to fame, both separately and together. The recording features two replacements (how did a show that played two weeks lose two of its principals during the run?), Tom Urich instead of Ron Holgate, and Helon Blount in for Grace Keagy.

The music is simple and without distinction; the lyrics are a riot, ungrammatical and inane ("Every time I leave my mind ajar,/There you are," or "Give me some time for analysis./ I'll find their strengths and their fallacies."). And as you might expect, the first act concludes with Patti Karr leading the other female performers in "Hit The Ladies," which is about exactly what you think it's about.

Festival played a week at City Center Downstairs in May, 1979. While its writers are also unknowns to this day, there was "additional book and special material" by Bruce Vilanch; Roger Berlind and Leslie Moonves were among the producers; Wayne Bryan, now artistic director of Music Theatre of Wichita, directed; and Michael Rupert and Bill Hutton were the leading men. Based on the old French "chantefable" of Aucassin and Nicolette (what, you don't recall it?), Festival bears more than a trace of Pippin (in which Rupert took over the lead) and The Fantasticks. It's vastly better than Musical Chairs and has its catchy moments, but it's still not very interesting.

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