Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The New Cabaret

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: The New Cabaret CABARET: THE NEW BROADWAY CAST RECORDING (RCA VICTOR)

CABARET: THE NEW BROADWAY CAST RECORDING (RCA VICTOR)

In the last five years, Broadway has seen a number of truly outstanding musical revivals, notably Carousel, Show Boat, The King and I, and Chicago. While the Royal National Theatre/Lincoln Center Carousel still ranks for this writer as the most singularly beautiful theatrical experience of recent times, the current Cabaret is the most fully realized reinvention of them all.

Carousel was beautifully reimagined as a parable of troubled little people against a vast universe, but its text was only lightly altered. The Hal Prince/Livent Show Boat assembled a new version of the script from the many extant, but then that show has been rewritten and rethought from the 1930s on, never quite finding permanent textual form. Chicago has been widely accepted as a rethinking, but that's largely by accident: Mounted as an "Encores!" concert that adhered to the usual dicta (no sets, black attire, orchestra on stage in a band box, script trimming) of the series, the result won wild acclaim and proved strong enough to transfer directly to Broadway (and ultimately to the world). I doubt very much whether anyone involved would have thought to offer directly for Broadway and with no previous "Encores!" staging a new Chicago that looked like this one does.

But Sam Mendes' Cabaret is something else; not just a rethinking, it smashes up the original script to come up with a substantially new show. Abandoning the original concept of two worlds -- the Emcee and his numbers in limbo interrupting the realistic, old-fashioned book scenes -- the production mixes them up into a single, quick (the revival is about a half-hour shorter than the original), hallucinatory vision in which the Emcee interacts with the "real" world all night, and the various script elements are transformed into one scary, heedless floor show. The original Cabaret was perhaps my favorite musical production, yet the new one, which frees the show from its '50s/'60s conventional side, was necessary if Cabaret was to ever have the electrifying Broadway return it didn't manage in 1987 (in a half-baked if entertaining recreation of the Prince original).

It should be noted that those who saw Mendes' Donmar Warehouse Cabaret in 1993 or who know it from its TV taping have not really seen it; the New York version is at least 100 percent better, and that's due to a new design team; new co- director and choreographer Rob Marshall; a leading lady - -Natasha Richardson -- who is easily the best Sally Bowles since Judi Dench in the '68 London production and who makes the Donmar Sally (Jane Horrocks) look incompetent; a far superior supporting company (Sarah Kestleman's Donmar Schneider was the only really first-rate performance); and even a much-improved Alan Cumming, who has taken his Donmar Emcee way beyond what it originally was. Indeed, the much-acclaimed Donmar version now looks like a mere blueprint for the current staging. But the atmosphere inside the Kit Kat Klub, the brilliant set, lighting, and costume design, and above all the performances of Richardson and Cumming simply must be seen -- is there any way to fully translate this production to disc? Of late, I have spent a great deal of time in this space discussing recordings of Cabaret; an entire column preceding the opening of the revival dealt with all previous recordings, bringing the history up to the first complete version (all the stage and film songs, and starring Maria Friedman, Jonathan Pryce, Gregg Edelman, Fred Ebb, and Judi Dench as Schnieder) on TER that will soon be issued in this country by JAY. Just a couple of weeks ago I revisited the original Broadway disc in its newly remastered version from Columbia Broadway Masterworks.

There's really not much point in comparing RCA's sensational new Broadway cast recording (to be released June 30) to earlier ones, as this production reconfigures the score as much as the book. Gone are "The Telephone Song," "Meeskite," the original "Money" song, and any solo ("Why Should I Wake Up?" or its Broadway revival replacement, "Don't Go") for Cliff. Added are film songs "Maybe This Time" (here a fantasy in which Sally dreams of the kind of conventional happiness she is never likely to know), "Mein Herr" (to balance "Don't Tell Mama" as a floor-show wraparound for the new scene in Sally's dressing room), and "Money." The cut song "I Don't Care Much" was put into the last Broadway revival for Joel Grey, but here has become a substantial sequence for Cumming. Schneider has lost her half of "Married," here sung in German by a bandsinger (Michele Pawk, who doubles in the principal role of Fraulein Kost and as one of the Kit Kat girls). The end of "Perfectly Marvelous" has been dropped to cut directly to "Two Ladies" (one of whom is now a man). "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," originally a chorale for waiters and Emcee, is here the voice of a boy soprano emanating from a phonograph. And the finale is largely new. The new orchestrations by Michael Gibson are expertly tailored to the size and feel of the staging, and the members of the ensemble (along with principals Pawk and Denis O'Hare) all play instruments.

For the 67-minute cast recording, an inspired decision was made to attempt to approximate the Kit Kat Klub milieu by featuring the sounds of an audience -- laughing, whistling, applauding -- during the five first-act club numbers, the entr'acte, and "If You Could See Her." But the applause stops dead at the Emcee's "She wouldn't look Jewish at all" tag line on the latter song, and it's not there for Sally's title song which, after all, is part club number, part character song. While this recording was made in a studio, audience noise from pre-existing sources has been beautifully integrated and goes a long way toward bringing the production to life on disc.

Greatly helped by this device, Cumming comes across like gangbusters, every bit as riotous and commanding as he is in the theatre. If Mary Louise Wilson's Schneider lacks the old-world authenticity of those recorded by Lotte Lenya and Lila Kedrova, she's nonetheless excellent (and supplies a few notes those ladies might envy). Ron Rifkin's Schultz is a charming New York musical theater debut. Pawk makes strong contributions to "Married" and the first act finale, although the fine performances of John Benjamin Hickey and O'Hare make only limited appearances on disc.

One would expect that Richardson would lose the most in transition from stage to disc. Not that she can't sing -- she can, and if it's not an especially distinguished instrument, it's very suited to the role . The thrilling presence and brilliant acting skills that make Richardson utterly divine in the theatre, a dream for the part, cannot all be conveyed here. But the good news is that, if this is a performance that must be seen, it comes across on disc as riveting and stellar, and Richardson's five tracks (original Jill Haworth had only three songs) are the most gripping on the album.

The new recording is flawless, a vivid, exciting preservation of what's bound to become a landmark in the history of musical revivals. Even those like myself who already possess 10 or so other recordings of the score will love it.

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