ON THE RECORD: Aida, The King, and The Consul

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Aida, The King, and The Consul ELTON JOHN AND TIM RICE'S AIDA (Rocket/Island)
As someone who had little admiration for Disney's Beauty and the Beast and who enjoyed Disney's The Lion King in spite of the oddly assembled score, well, I am not, perhaps, naturally predisposed towards Disney's forthcoming Aida. So I am somewhat surprised to report that the pre-production studio recording of selections from Aida is rather enjoyable.

ELTON JOHN AND TIM RICE'S AIDA (Rocket/Island)
As someone who had little admiration for Disney's Beauty and the Beast and who enjoyed Disney's The Lion King in spite of the oddly assembled score, well, I am not, perhaps, naturally predisposed towards Disney's forthcoming Aida. So I am somewhat surprised to report that the pre-production studio recording of selections from Aida is rather enjoyable. The music by Elton John is, for the most part, upbeat and tunefully melodic; the lyrics by Tim Rice are good-natured and often clever. Most importantly, the songwriters appear to be having fun, and that fun rubs off. How can you dislike a song in which, as the king lay dying, his followers yell out, hey, it's time to build another pyramid? True, the Messrs. John and Rice have not slavishly followed old man Verdi; but why should they? (I wonder though, if Giuseppe had his own version of the underwear song, in Italian.) Sometimes things get a bit too colloquial, like when one of the Egyptian guys sings to one of the Nubian gals that "I grew up in your home town." And some of the lyrics stray too far afield, such as "Of this and every month I'm now the flavor," in the otherwise pleasing "Enchantment Passing Through." But the songs are, over all, pretty much okay.

The album is chock-full with what appear to be all the pop stars in the galaxy, none of whom I'd recognize if I tripped over them in the elevator. Sting, Shania Twain, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner. I wouldn't know Boyz 2 Men from the Spice Girls, although there's surely a joke in there somewhere. Anyway, the most interesting track on the album, for me, was "Elaborate Lives." Looking at the credits, I found that it was sung not by one of these music industry titans but by Heather Headley, who played Aida in its initial tryout and is slated to continue in the role. Which is maybe a good omen, as they used to say in olde Egypt. Composer Elton John also sings four of the tracks, admirably so.

Unlike Disney's previous big-budget excursions into musical theatre, the Aida songs are theatrical, which is to say that they appear to fit the plot and further the action. How things will look when the show finally reaches Broadway next year is impossible to say; the original version, "Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida" was, by all reports, quite a mess when it premiered in Atlanta in October 1998. But the songs on this disc appear to be strong enough to support an entertaining show. Unlike, say, the aforementioned Lion King, which dazzles us despite its score. If the folks at Disney can come up with a suitable libretto -- one which tells the story with clarity and finesse, with the same offbeat comic sense displayed by the songwriters -- Aida might well prove a pleasant surprise.

THE KING AND I (Sony Classical)

The number of five-to-twelve year olds across the world who regularly attend classic Broadway musicals, at up to $80 dollars a pop, cannot be all too great. (Fortunate, indeed, are those who do.) Thus, there is something to be said for the idea of an animated feature version of, say, The King and I. This makes a new market for the material, and if only a small percentage of the kiddies say, "Hey, this is way cool," well, this is the musical theatre audience of tomorrow. So I thought it would behoove me to listen to the "original animated feature soundtrack" album. Which I must say sounds just a wee bit foreign to these ears.

The album does not start at the very beginning, but with the rather remarkable -- and rather long -- end title track. Next come eight generally truncated King and I songs, in hopscotched order. (The opening number "I Whistle a Happy Tune," for example, is fifth in the lineup.) We then get 11 tracks of incidental underscoring; things like "Moonshee's Mischief" and "Mango Madness," both of which turn out to be variations on that "Happy Tune." While I hate to sit here with a stopwatch, by removing the end title, the instrumentals, and the miscellanea, you're down to less than twenty minutes of actual song on this hour-long disc.

The two main roles -- what is left of them, anyway -- are both well sung, by Martin Vidnovic as the King, and Christiane Noll as Mrs. Anna. (Miranda Richardson does Mrs. A's speaking voice). Vidnovic, you may recall, was a particularly strong-voiced Lun Tha on the cast recording of the 1977 Yul Brynner revival. Speaking of Lun Tha, he is nowhere to be found; the slave girl Tuptim now gets hooked up with Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, who doesn't become king when the king dies because this king doesn't die. But we needn't go into that, need we?

And then we have the end title, with Barbra Streisand of all people singing an amalgamation of "I Have Dreamed," "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "Something Wonderful." (The latter two have been cut from the story.) Now I know Barbra Streisand is the greatest star and I suppose if she wants to sing in your movie you damn well better let her; but this five minute opus (which first appeared on her 1985 "Broadway Album") is what Oscar Hammerstein might well have called "a puzzlement." "I Have Dreamed" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" are sung together, as in combined. ("I have dreamed/Every word you whisper/We speak in a whisper/When you're close/Close to me/Afraid to be heard.") Ms. Streisand is not merely singing a duet with herself; she's singing two duets with herself. Mr. Rodgers once wrote a song called "I Like to Recognize the Tune," and one wonders what he would make of it. There are twelve orchestrators listed in all, though in key places, such as "The March of the Siamese Children," we can discern underneath it all the forgotten (and uncredited) Robert Russell Bennett. And there are enough wind chimes (you know, those atmospheric, bell-like tinkles) on this album to send a man in a balloon around the world in only nineteen days. (The cartoon King traverses his kingdom in a balloon, in a scene I don't remember ever seeing Yul Brynner do.)

But one must not overlook the fact this film brings Broadway to a new and vast market. As for instance, you can now buy a Kralahome beanie baby like doll for seven bucks. Or, for $12 splurge on a three-pack of pink and white (as peaches and cream) Tuptim underpants. (I would guess that these are intended for little girls, but don't ask, don't tell.) If people will buy this stuff -- and I'd have to guess someone will, or else the Brothers Warner wouldn't give them ground floor window space across the street from Tiffany's -- well, in that case one would guess the soundtrack should sell tolerably well, spreading the sound of R & H music across the pre teen world. Although what the tots will make of the "employ-ay"/ "employ-ee" joke is beyond me.

THE CONSUL (Chandos)

What show won the 1950 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best musical, between South Pacific and Guys and Dolls? And while we're on the subject, what is the only Broadway production ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music? The answer to both questions, as you'll no doubt infer from the headline above, is Gian-Carlo Menotti's long forgotten cold war opera The Consul.

There was a brief flurry of important Broadway operas at mid-century, the others being Weill's Street Scene, Blitzstein's Regina, and Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. The Consul was by far the most successful, receiving an impassioned set of reviews and running nine months -- longer than the other three combined. It is also, I might add, the least listener-friendly of the four. A good deal of its impact in the theatre is atmospheric; the characters are, figuratively, suffocating, and in Menotti's spinetingling staging (he directed the premiere as well as the 1998 Spoleto production in this recording) the audience feels suffocated as well. The opera's Broadway success can be attributed, in part, to its extreme topicality: It tells of a woman, the wife of an at-large freedom fighter who has escaped from the Secret Police, who tries to get an exit visa from an invisible and faceless consul. America, in the midst of McCarthy mania, had just recently clamped down its borders to immigrants seeking asylum. "Must we all die," she asks, "because there are too many of us?"

Susan Bullock does not seem as strong as the original Magda, Patricia Neway (who is better known along Broadway for introducing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in The Sound of Music). Neway sounded like a strong woman on the verge of (and past the verge of) desperation; Bullock sounds like, well, a (good) opera singer. The original also featured Marie Powers, who gave such a chilling performance as Menotti's The Medium (1947). But you're not likely to find The Consul's highly obscure 1950 Decca original cast album; I stumbled upon a used copy in Toronto in 1985, which is rather remarkably the only copy I've ever seen anywhere.

In sum, The Consul is an historically and artistically significant piece of musical theatre. This two-disc recording takes a bit of work to get into and is certainly not for everyone. Listeners interested in serious musical theatre, though, might well want to make The Consul's acquaintance.

-- Steven Suskin is the author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com