Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Two From London

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Two From London SONGS FROM WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (Really Useful Records/Polydor)
Elizabeth Ashley.
Elizabeth Ashley. (Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

SONGS FROM WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (Really Useful Records/Polydor)

Although Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind has been playing in the West End for almost five months, the first full-length disc available is not the original London cast recording. Instead, it features 11 of the Lloyd Webber-Jim Steinman songs performed (with the exception of a reprise of the title song sung by the show's leading lady Lottie Mayor) by pop stars. Four of these performances (Boyzone's "No Matter What"; Bonnie Tyler's "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts"; Tina Arena and Mayor's renditions of the title song) are (in different, live versions) also available on the video of the Lloyd Webber Albert Hall birthday gala.

Why a pop-star concept album at this late date? Clearly, Lloyd Webber has decided that the best way to sell a show that -- even heavily revised from its U.S. premiere production -- continues to receive only sporadic critical acclaim is to get hits from the score. And he may be on to something, as the Boyzone track hit the top of the U.K. charts, the kind of thing that never happens to a show tune in the U.S.

Lloyd Webber tried something similar for the New York debut of Starlight Express, but when that pop-cover disc appeared, there already was a London stage cast album. The Whistle release is an odd choice at this late date; one would have expected the pop version last June, and the cast recording by now. The notes state that "The original London cast album will be issued in November, 1998," but, in order to give the first disc a chance to sell, the cast album has been delayed until next year.

As usual, the composer has supplied some attractive, sometimes insistently memorable, tunes, plus a few annoyingly simple (yet still hard to forget) ones. And the artists -- including Tom Jones, Donny Osmond, Boy George, and the Everly Brothers -- are well-matched with their songs. Steinman star Meat Loaf's "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing To Waste" is particularly effective, and Mayor's title song is lovely. Two Lloyd Webber stage veterans are welcome presences: Elaine Paige's characteristically wonderful singing makes a great deal out of the thin "If Only," and Michael Ball does very well by The Man (Marcus Lovett)'s first big solo, "Unsettled Scores." On its own terms, this disc works well, but a full appraisal of the score will have to wait until the appearance of the cast album. DOCTOR DOLITTLE (First Night Records)

The overblown, dullish 1965 movie musical Doctor Dolittle was an attempt to find one more musical vehicle for Rex Harrison following his stage and film triumphs in My Fair Lady. And the songs written for the star by composer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse were very much in the mode of Harrison's Henry Higgins material. Harrison walks through the picture, one of several in the late '60s that sounded the death knell for expensive movie musicals.

Currently represented on Broadway with the lyrics for Jekyll & Hyde, Bricusse has been persistent about transferring his movie musicals to the stage. Broadway recently saw Victor/Victoria, but less successful Bricusse films like "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Scrooge" have also had stagings in England. Because it's filled with all variety of live animals, Doctor Dolittle might not have seemed a likely candidate to follow, but along came Jim Henson's animatronic creatures and an enormous and apparently successful London stage version happened, opening two days before Whistle Down The Wind.

With the notable exception of "At The Crossroads," the stage version retains the film songs (which include the Oscar-winning "Talk to the Animals") while adding two new ones. Like most Bricusse scores of this period, the style is imitation Lerner-Loewe, mediocre but with some pleasant melodies. In the title role is Phillip Schofield, a West End Joseph and a TV star in England; although some of the writing requires him to fall into Harrison's non-singing patter style, Schofield is a genuine singer and enhances the music. Sarah Jane Hassell is the bland leading lady, while Bryan Smyth takes the role of friend to both, played in the film by Anthony Newley. Smyth is only an okay singer and can't approximate Newley's wonderful vocals, which helped the score in the film. In fact, Newley, along with a running time some 25 minutes shorter, gives the soundtrack album the edge.

Some will find the cast recording a must for one track: Harrison's Fair Lady and Bricusse's Victor/Victoria, Julie Andrews, has found a way to return to the musical stage without having to show up, providing the pre recorded voice of parrot Polynesia (and thus involving herself with another Dolittle). While Polynesia appears throughout the production, she's heard in only one musical number, "Talk to the Animals," which Andrews mostly talks her way through.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com