Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Two Concept Albums

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Two Concept Albums THE CIVIL WAR (Atlantic)
In the '70s, the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice made highly effective use of "concept albums" for both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita; these pre-production recordings served to develop a following for those scores and a demand for stagings. And the subsequent stage mountings were to an extent rendered critic-proof by the popularity of those albums.

THE CIVIL WAR (Atlantic)
In the '70s, the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice made highly effective use of "concept albums" for both Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita; these pre-production recordings served to develop a following for those scores and a demand for stagings. And the subsequent stage mountings were to an extent rendered critic-proof by the popularity of those albums.

Since that time, the deployment of such recordings has been spotty. Rice (with the ABBA boys) pre-sold Chess in London thanks to a high quality concept album (which, unlike the ones he did with Lloyd Webber, featured all three stars of the stage production). But Lloyd Webber did not use them for any of his subsequent shows (there were advance singles, but no full discs), and a partially completed Miss Saigon concept album was junked. The concept album for Randy Newman's Faust garnered some publicity but didn't help the show (after La Jolla and Chicago productions) to get to Broadway. The Capeman pre-show disc was mostly sung by author Paul Simon. For the most part, the device has unfortunately become a vanity product, paid for by authors in the (usually vain) hope that someone will then produce their show.

No one at the moment uses such recordings more consistently and effectively than Frank Wildhorn. His Jekyll & Hyde had two: a single-CD, untheatrical pop rendering with Colm Wilkinson and Linda Eder, then a double-CD set closer to the preliminary stage version. The Scarlet Pimpernel's single-CD concept disc starring Eder and Chuck Wagner was, in terms of theatricality, somewhere in between. With his latest project, The Civil War -- seen in the fall at Houston's Alley Theatre, and destined for Broadway in the spring -- Wildhorn is back to the Jekyll route of two concept discs prior to a Broadway cast recording; the first -- the single-CD "The Civil War": The Nashville Sessions -- is now available, and the second, double-CD set should be along in early '99.

I've learned by now that one can't definitively judge Wildhorn scores from their initial concept albums. While I still find the Jekyll score resistible, the Broadway cast recording (and even the second concept album) make a much better case for it than the first disc. And while I now quite enjoy the Scarlet Pimpernel score as heard on the cast recording, I didn't get much from the Angel concept disc.

The Nashville Civil War -- mostly performed, as you would expect, by country artists -- makes it even more difficult to offer an in-depth evaluation of the score, as it is simply a collection of 13 songs from the show sung by country/pop stars (plus Eder, who was in the show in Houston but has since withdrawn); it's comparable to the Faust disc, and to the Whistle Down The Wind pop-star CD I recently discussed here (although the latter was not released until after the opening). But as The Civil War is not a conventional narrative musical, and something more akin to a song cycle, this CD may not be all that unrepresentative of the stage version. With lyrics by Jack Murphy, the songs here -- variously depicting soldiers, slaves, generals, wives, etc., and full of swelling climaxes -- include a number of attractive items, notably "Virginia" (performed by Gene Miller), "Regimental Drummer" (Michael English), and "The Honor of Your Name" (Trisha Yearwood). But I enjoyed Eder's "I Never Knew His Name" above the rest, probably because she's the only singer here I'm really familiar with. If these are reasonably potent pop tracks, it remains to be seen how they will play in the show's new version, with Jerry Zaks assuming direction.

One can wonder about the efficacy of Wildhorn's pop-oriented pre-show albums, and whether or not they help create positive advance buzz. Wildhorn clearly hopes that songs from them will become hits prior to the show's arrival, but, a couple of Jekyll songs notwithstanding, that does not appear to have happened to any significant extent. As these scores seem to me more palatable in their full-scale theatrical recordings, I'm not convinced that Wildhorn does himself a favor by initially exposing them in such overt pop form. Still, Wildhorn will have three musicals running on Broadway when The Civil War arrives, so he must be doing something right.

MASADA (Hed Arzi Music)
An even more lavish studio effort is the double-CD concept album Masada, which comes in a deluxe slipcase with two separate CD cases plus booklet; there's even an accompanying "making of" documentary videotape.

Set in 73 AD in Jerusalem during Roman domination, and based on accounts of a stand taken by a group of men, women, and children in defiance of Roman soldiers seeking to enslave them, Masada had its concert premiere at Los Angeles' Shubert Theater on December 15, with Davis Gaines in the role of zealot leader Eleazar that he sings on the recording.

The music, which combines the sounds of pop opera with those of religious epic movie background music, is by pop composer Shuki Levy, the libretto by TV actress and writer Shell Danielson. First released in Israel, the expensive-sounding recording also features musical theatre regulars Michelle Nicastro, Kim Strauss, Amick Byram, Christina Saffran Ashford, and Tami Tappan, accompanied by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

There are some outstanding pieces here: Gaines' opening "In A Land Such As This"; "Somewhere in the Night," for two central romantic couples and chorus; and the Act Two opening sequence "The Eyes of Compromise." It's all lush, grandiose, appropriately somber, and often attractive. It's also rather ponderous and lugubrious, and the two-hours-plus don't fly by. Gaines sounds glorious, and the other lead singers are quite fine.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com