ON THE RECORD: A Vibrant Oliver! and Evita Highlights

News   ON THE RECORD: A Vibrant Oliver! and Evita Highlights OLIVER! Decca Broadway 422 820 590
Theatregoers under the age of 40 might find it hard to believe, but there was a time when the trans-Atlantic musical theatre trade winds blew almost exclusively from Times Square to Leicester. Gilbert and Sullivan were quite popular in America in the late nineteenth century, and Leslie Stuart's 1899 musical Floradora was an enormous hit when it hit Broadway in 1900. But England, which of late has turned out international blockbusters like so many crumpets, didn't follow up on Florodora for more than 60 years. Oliver! — in London (1960), New York (1963) and its Oscar-winning screen version (1968) — captured world-wide success in a way unimaginable for British composers like Ivan Caryll or Ivor Novello or Noël Coward.

OLIVER! Decca Broadway 422 820 590
Theatregoers under the age of 40 might find it hard to believe, but there was a time when the trans-Atlantic musical theatre trade winds blew almost exclusively from Times Square to Leicester. Gilbert and Sullivan were quite popular in America in the late nineteenth century, and Leslie Stuart's 1899 musical Floradora was an enormous hit when it hit Broadway in 1900. But England, which of late has turned out international blockbusters like so many crumpets, didn't follow up on Florodora for more than 60 years. Oliver! — in London (1960), New York (1963) and its Oscar-winning screen version (1968) — captured world-wide success in a way unimaginable for British composers like Ivan Caryll or Ivor Novello or Noël Coward.

Lionel Bart, mind you, was cut from a different cloth than the distinguished gentlemen who preceded him. He was a rambunctious sort, from a family of immigrants living in the slums of East London. Bart (1930-99) wrote seven musicals between 1959 and 1969, at which point a combination of personal eccentricities and various excesses took him out of circulation. His third musical, Oliver!, put him atop the heap; so much so that the Hammerstein-less Richard Rodgers attempted a collaboration. (Rodgers and Bart made an even odder couple than Rodgers and Hart.) Bart's two final shows were dire failures, but even his weakest scores had some wonderful songs. Bart's music was warm, friendly and occasionally beautiful; his lyrics were funny, rough and typically raffish.

Decca Broadway has now released the original London cast album of Oliver! on CD for the first time in America. (This album was issued on CD in the United Kingdom about ten years ago. The new release, though, is newly mastered and contains informative new liner notes by Ken Mandelbaum.) As a New Yorker, I grew up with the Broadway cast album of Oliver!; while I have the London LP on my shelf, I only barely recall ever listening to it. Hearing it now is quite a treat, and for several reasons. The Broadway cast album [RCA Victor 4113-2-RG] is a highly professional affair, with first-rate musical direction (by newcomer Don Pippin, who picked up a Tony Award for his efforts). The London cast album is considerably less polished, but this roughness is fitting — given the nature of the material — and quite appealing.

Four of the seven principals from the West End cast repeated their roles on Broadway. Georgia Brown, as Nancy, appears to be even stronger on the 1960 album. The London production made her a star, which makes her sound just a little less vulnerable and more assured on the New York recording. Comparatively speaking, that is. Hope Jackman (Widow Corney) and Danny Sewell (Bill Sikes) made the trip, as did Barry Humphries (Sowerberry). He provides the one major bonus of this CD; his song "That's Your Funeral" was not included on the New York recording. No great loss musically, but Humphries presence — back when Dame Edna was a mere housewife with aspirations of royal superstardom — adds curiosity value to the LP. Humphries eventually graduated to the role of Fagin, although as far as I know that performance went unrecorded.

Ron Moody, the original Fagin, did not make the trip to Broadway. He re created his role for the film version, earning a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and starred opposite Patti LuPone in the show's 1984 Broadway revival (which shuttered after two dismal weeks at the Hellinger). Moody is a somewhat different Fagin than that of Clive Revill of the Broadway cast, far more Hebraic in nature; he chants, in places, in the manner of Zero Mostel doing "If I Were a Rich Man." Some say that the London portrayal was anti Semitic, but I suppose that Moody was simply playing the role as demonstrated by the composer. (Bart — née Begleiter — was a fellow whose next musical, Blitz!, had a heroine who ran a pickled herring stand.) This newly available Oliver! sounds considerably brighter than the Broadway album, which was remastered for CD back in the dark ages (i.e. the 1980's). Orchestral colors that are barely audible on the Broadway CD are now clearly discernable; the violin and oboe in "Where is Love," the flute and horn in "As Long As He Needs Me," the snare drum in "Food, Glorious Food." Listening to an unfamiliar recording of a highly familiar show can be either highly annoying or surprisingly enjoyable. This Oliver! is the latter, and happily recommended to fans of the show.

EVITA Decca Broadway 440 016 999
If Oliver! put the British musical back on the world map, Andrew Lloyd Webber single-handedly conquered the musical theatre world with a series of superhits. Evita, written with Tim Rice, wasn't Lloyd Webber's first hit or his biggest one. It is, in my opinion, his best score by far. Evita is tuneful, effective, varied and cleverly written, which is not something I've said about the rest of his work.

Evita was a major hit in both London (1978) and New York (1979), with a fair share of credit due director Harold Prince. With a run of 1,567 performances, it became Broadway's longest-running British musical since Oliver! (which ran 774 performances), and remained so until surpassed by Lloyd Webber's Cats. Lloyd Webber and Rice were only the second British songwriters to win a Tony Award, once again following Bart.

There are numerous cast albums of Evita, more than 30; different listeners have their favorites, and I've neither had the opportunity nor the desire to listen to enough of them to guide you. I've always chosen the Broadway cast album. Patti LuPone (as Evita) and Mandy Patinkin (as Che) were fascinating, onstage and on vinyl. They are highly individual actors with unique performance styles; both seemed uncannily well-suited to these roles. I've never seen either of them approach these chilling, early portrayals.

The original 100-minute, 2-CD set [MCA DIDX-197/198 (MCASD2-11007)] has been cut to 69 minutes. Inevitably, there are a few tracks that it is a shame to have lost, like "The Art of the Possible" and "Peron's Latest Flame." But one CD, in this case, is more convenient than two; and the album sounds better, understandably, with "state-of-the-art resolution and superior 24-bit digital sound." So consider me highly pleased by these two new, old albums from Decca Broadway.

—By Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com