Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: TVT's Paper Mill Pair: Follies & Oz

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: TVT's Paper Mill Pair: Follies & Oz FOLLIES (TVT)
The cast of The Exact Center of the Universe.
The cast of The Exact Center of the Universe. (Photo by Photo by Steve & Anita Shevett)

FOLLIES (TVT)

Scheduled for release on Oct. 20, TVT's double-CD recording of last spring's Paper Mill Playhouse production of Follies may be the most eagerly awaited show album of the fall. While it has a great deal to offer, it would be a required purchase if only to hear Dee Hoty do all three songs -- "Uptown, Downtown" (Boston); "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (Broadway); "Ah, But Underneath" (London/Paper Mill) -- written by Stephen Sondheim for Phyllis' Follies-sequence spot. All three numbers are terrific (I now favor the third, but I leave it up to you). The recording preserves them complete --dance music and chanting intact-- and it's fascinating to note the sizable similarities and differences.

Hoty shines in all three, but it's the chance to hear them together, along with the enormous amount of other cut material, that makes this an extraordinary recording. You'll hear Ann Miller doing "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" (the main choruses, not the complete number that Yvonne De Carlo performed in Boston). Tony Roberts performs Buddy's "That Old Piano Roll." There are the cut duets for Ben (Laurence Guittard) and Sally (Donna McKechnie), the intense "Pleasant Little Kingdom" and the operatic "All Things Bright and Beautiful." "Bring on the Girls" for Young and Old Roscoe, and the gorgeous "Who Could Be Blue?" for one of the young ghost couples, are major pluses. Almost all of these numbers have been recorded and performed elsewhere, but having them all in one place - mostly orchestrated, and performed by the singers who in the production played the roles for whom they were written -- renders this set an invaluable document.

On April 12, I offered in this space a lengthy analysis of all previous recordings of this magnificent score. Rather than repeat myself, I will refer you to the icon in the left-hand margin that bears my name, where the piece "Follies"on Disc can still be found. Suffice it to say that the leads on the new recording don't replace the original Broadway quintet, but then no group ever will. Cut up and abridged as it is, that first recording remains essential. And the London album features three songs ("Country House," "Make The Most of Your Music," and a new "Loveland") not included on the new set.

For Follies fans, all three previous cast albums remain musts. But the company on the new recording is strong, the conducting by Jonathan Tunick idiomatic and authoritative. Hoty is a very impressive Phyllis, McKechnie a sweetly touching Sally. Roberts' Buddy misses some of the role's wistfulness, but is good. Guittard's well-sung Ben lacks bite, but comes to life in the cut material. If Miller sounds more wobbly than she did live, she's still pretty special. Kaye Ballard's "Broadway Baby" is grand. Of the two holdovers from the 1985 Lincoln Center recording, Liliane Montevecchi is better here, while Phyllis Newman is rustier but nice. Note too that the new set offers the first recording of "Bolero d'Amour" (abridged at Paper Mill, complete on disc) and the full dance music for "Who's That Woman" and "Lucy and Jessie." And the music of the opening sequence has been neatly put together without the dialogue that interrupts it.

My only complaint: Concentrating on music and avoiding most dialogue, the recording could have been a bit more theatrical. While the Ben-Sally exchange during "Don't Look At Me" is there, one misses the dialogue of the ghosts that punctuates "In Buddy's Eyes" and "The Road You Didn't Take." And avoiding spoken lines means Eddie Bracken's Dimitri Weismann is not on the recording at all.

When this album was made -- during the two days following the May 31 closing -- the production was viewed as a triumph apparently set for Broadway this season; now, it's a lovely souvenir. I have not yet seen the liner notes, cover, or booklet art (Hilary Knight is providing a new logo plus drawings of the characters). But even without the trimmings, this is a tremendously entertaining recording, and everyone will have to get it.

*

THE WIZARD OF OZ (TVT)

On a number of occasions, I have expressed my belief in the futility of taking perfect, or at least dreamy, movie musicals and attempting to put them on stage, without the glorious stars and production values that made them classics in the first place. Broadway has seen any number of such attempts (Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Meet Me In St. Louis, Gigi, High Society ) come and go, although these stage versions inevitably have a life in the stock and amateur fields.

The 1939 movie musical The Wizard of Oz is exactly the kind of film so good as to render inferior any attempt to transfer it to the stage. But it's also the kind of beloved family property bound to be staged. Theatrical versions of the film were available for production for decades, but it was not until the Royal Shakespeare Company did a major mounting in 1987 -- with the script adapted by John Kane, orchestrations by Larry Wilcox, and dance arrangements by Peter Howard -- that such stagings were taken seriously.

The RSC version, which produced an excellent TER/London Records cast recording with its '88-'89 revival company, has become the standard stage text; in 1993, Paper Mill Playhouse was among the U.S. theatres to take it up. Looking for a spring perennial to go with its A Christmas Carol holiday musical, Madison Square Garden invited the Paper Mill team to restage its production for them; that version premiered in 1997, with Roseanne as the Wicked Witch of the West. Following a tour, the production returned to the Garden in the spring of '98 with Mickey Rooney as the Wizard and Eartha Kitt as the Wicked Witch.

The production was then sent out on a post-New York tour, and the TVT cast recording was made last June in Toronto. On the perfectly pleasant but not deeply necessary new album, the stars don't have a lot to sing: "The Jitterbug" -- cut from the film, restored for the RSC, and omitted in the first MSG mounting -- was put back for Kitt, which gives her about two minutes of music. Rooney sings for seconds in the "Merry Old Land of Oz" number. To beef up their disc presence, the two veterans are heard throughout in dialogue, but the classic Arlen-Harburg score is largely in the capable hands of Jessica Grove (Dorothy), Ken Page (Lion), Lara Teeter (Scarecrow), Dirk Lumbard (Tin Man), and Judith McCauley (Glinda).

With the film readily available on video these days, Oz albums are less necessary than they once were. And the RSC recording boasts a more stylish and sophisticated performance. But it doesn't have any name stars, and Kitt here is a hoot.

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