Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sondheim in London

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sondheim in London Let's make First Night Records' release of the London cast CD of Passion the occasion for a look back at London cast recordings of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. When his first-produced show, West Side Story, took the West End by storm at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1958, Chita Rivera repeated her New York Anita, and the Broadway cast recording was released in England. So London Tony and Maria--Americans Don McKay and Marlys Watters-- were given a four-track EP, preserving only their "Maria," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," and "I Feel Pretty." While this single has long been out of print, I maintain that these songs have never been better recorded, with the orchestral playing particularly impressive.
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Let's make First Night Records' release of the London cast CD of Passion the occasion for a look back at London cast recordings of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim. When his first-produced show, West Side Story, took the West End by storm at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1958, Chita Rivera repeated her New York Anita, and the Broadway cast recording was released in England. So London Tony and Maria--Americans Don McKay and Marlys Watters-- were given a four-track EP, preserving only their "Maria," "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," and "I Feel Pretty." While this single has long been out of print, I maintain that these songs have never been better recorded, with the orchestral playing particularly impressive.

Sondheim's next, still as lyricist, was of course Gypsy, which took 14 years to make it to the West End. When it got there, it was not with previously announced Ethel Merman or Elaine Stritch but Angela Lansbury, who triumphed at the Piccadilly Theatre then brought her Rose to America. It goes without saying that none of the recorded Roses--Rosalind Russell (largely dubbed by Lisa Kirk), Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler-- that have followed original Ethel Merman's could ever be as electrifying and absolutely right (personally, I think the second best recorded Rose is that of Libby Morris on the hard-to-find Philips' 1976 South African cast LP). But no musical theater fan could pass up the opportunity to hear Lansbury tackle the part, even if a sound recording (RCA Victor CD) cannot do full justice to her Rose.

Sondheim's first full Broadway score was for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the 1963 London production was almost as successful as the Broadway original. The West End company, headed by the brilliant Frankie Howerd and featuring such other local cut-ups as Kenneth Connor and "Monsewer" Eddie Gray, substitutes for the Broadway troupe's burlesque vaudevillians the spirit of England's Crazy Gang, Goon Shows, and Carry On films, so the London cast recording (a Broadway Angel CD) may require some adjustment for American ears. But it's a spirited performance, and was the most complete recording of the score until Angel preserved the 1996 Broadway revival (which abridges "I'm Calm").

Anyone Can Whistle has made it to London only in concert form, but there's a TER studio cast recording coming soon with Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie, and John Barrowman in the leads. Sondheim's next, Do I Hear A Waltz?, has yet to make it to London. But that show was followed by Sondheim's unparalleled burst of creativity that began in 1970 with Company, which was sent to London with Larry Kert and Elaine Stritch heading up an American company. The original Broadway recording was released in England, but with Kert's recordings of Robert's songs replacing Dean Jones' tracks from the U.S. disc. Both the Jones and Kert versions have been issued on separate CDs, but Sony's new series of reissues that commences in February will include a remastered Company with the complete original recording plus the Kert takes as bonus tracks. First Night Records recorded the 1995 Donmar Warehouse revival of Company, and while the recording is good, it was supplanted by the complete videotape of the production aired early this year in England.

Follies followed Company by one year in New York, but it took 16 years to make it to London; when it did, it was in a radically revised version commissioned by producer Cameron Mackintosh that saw librettist James Goldman eliminating most of the original dialogue, and Sondheim, in addition to altering lyrics here and there, dropping four songs and adding four new ones. Sondheim was not happy with the new version, and exercised his option to allow no further productions of it; all subsequent Follies stagings, including major ones at Long Beach Civic Light Opera, Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, and Houston's Theater Under The Stars, have reverted to the original text (albeit with certain alterations--some productions now reverse the order of "Losing My Mind" and "The Story of Lucy and Jessie"), as will the production coming up in April at Paper Mill Playhouse. No matter what one thinks about the London revisions or the new songs, the London cast recording is required listening for anyone interested in Sondheim, as the new material can only be performed again in Sondheim revues or cabaret shows (I'm quite fond of the new "Loveland" and "Ah, But Underneath," although dropping "The Road You Didn't Take" is unacceptable). The London leads--Diana Rigg, Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, David Healey, Dolores Gray--sparkled, although only Rigg sounds as good on disc as she did in the theatre. First Night's London cast recording was originally a double-CD set, reissued on a single disc by eliminating the "Social Dancing" sequence (a dance-dialogue number rather than a song) that opened the second act in London. Virgin Records had announced that it would release on CD the recent BBC Radio 2 concert version of Follies that starred Donna McKechnie, Denis Quilley, Ron Moody, and McKenzie repeating her West End role, but they decided against it when the performance proved to be unworthy of full-scale release. A Little Night Music was a moderate London success in 1975, and the cast recording is available on an RCA CD. While it's a perfectly respectable account, with the exception of Diane Langton's Petra, none of the principals is quite up to the Broadway originals (Hermione Gingold repeated her Mme. Armfeldt in the West End). Far more interesting is the Tring recording of the 1995 Royal National Theatre revival, with Judi Dench's heartbreaking "Send in the Clown," the restoration of "My Husband The Pig," and the combination of the stage and screen "Glamorous Life" songs.

Pacific Overtures premiered on Broadway in 1976 but didn't make it to London until 1987 (the same year Follies got there), and then only in a limited run of performances at the English National Opera. TER preserved the complete performance on two CDs, and that set preserves a great deal of material not to be found on RCA's original Broadway cast recording as well as the changes made in the material for the (unrecorded) 1984 off-Broadway revival. But some will find the British accents and rather grand manner off-putting compared to the crisper Broadway performance.

The revue Side By Side By Sondheim premiered in London, and the double-CD RCA cast recording is the London cast album, even though the same performers--Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, David Kernan--opened the show on Broadway. Sweeney Todd has the oddest London recording history of any Sondheim musical, as neither the unsuccessful but excellent 1980 Drury Lane production (with Hal Prince reproducing his Broadway staging and with Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock in the leads) nor the wildly acclaimed 1993 Royal National Theatre revival (Julia McKenzie opposite Alun Armstrong then Quilley) was commercially recorded, although the latter production was broadcast on BBC Radio 2.

Merrily We Roll Along has never had a full-scale, professional London mounting, but the nearby Leicester Haymarket production, with Maria Friedman, Michael Cantwell, Evan Pappas, and Louise Gold in the leads, is available on a JAY Records double-CD recording. The performance is not as exciting as that on the original Broadway recording, but the Leicester set is one of two (the other is the York Theater recording on Varese Sarabande) that preserves the revised version. Merrily may find its way to the Royal National Theatre soon.

Sunday in the Park With George received a 1990 RNT mounting with Philip Quast (Australia's Les Miz Javert on stage and in the 10th anniversary concert) and Maria Friedman in the leads; generally well-received, it went unrecorded. London's Into The Woods, with Julia McKenzie as The Witch and direction by Titanic's Richard Jones, got rave reviews but did not find an audience; RCA Victor recorded it, and if the singing is in general not as good as that on the Broadway disc, it's an interesting performance, and includes "Our Little World," the song Sondheim wrote for The Witch and Rapunzel for the London production. Sondheim's next, Assassins, won acclaim when Sam Mendes directed it at London's Donmar Warehouse, but it too went unrecorded, a shame as the production added to the New York score "Something Just Broke," a moving song now included in all productions.

Which brings us to Passion. The London production opened in March, 1996, eked out a run of six months mostly on the draw of leading man Michael Ball, then folded without getting recorded (surprising, considering Ball's status as a TV and recording star). Most of the original London cast was reassembled in June, 1997 for concert performances at the Golder's Green Hippodrome, and First Night Records made a live recording of the event; the disc runs almost 20 minutes longer than Angel's Broadway cast album, but that may not be particularly significant, as the complete Broadway production can be heard--and seen--on a commercially available videotape.

But the London Passion recording must nonetheless be heard. What with her Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, her Leicester Merrily Mary, her TER studio Night Music Petra, and her forthcoming Fay Apple on TER's studio Anyone Can Whistle, it is clear that Maria Friedman has succeeded Julia McKenzie as London's foremost female Sondheim diva. Friedman won a Best Musical Actress Olivier Award for her Passion Fosca, and on disc she's tremendous, more like Glenn Close's Norma Desmond than Donna Murphy's Broadway Fosca. Intense, more pitiful than harsh, and using a great deal of head voice where Murphy emphasized chest tones, Friedman makes it clear that Murphy was not the only possible Fosca or the last word on the role.

Ball sings gloriously throughout. Of particular note to Sondheim collectors is a section ("No One Has Ever Loved Me") sung by Jere Shea in early New York previews that was mostly eliminated in favor of a shorter, quieter version, but is restored in full here to give Ball a major outburst (of which he takes full advantage). Helen Hobson's Clara is lighter and younger-sounding than Marin Mazzie's but is equally effective.

Perhaps next month's premiere production of Sondheim's first musical, Saturday Night, at London's intimate Bridewell Theater will be the occasion for the next Sondheim London cast recording.

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