ON THE RECORD: Bernstein and Sondheim From the UK (Not Together)

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Bernstein and Sondheim From the UK (Not Together) WONDERFUL TOWN (EMI 7243 5 56753 2 3)
Leonard Bernstein spent eight months writing On the Town, following six months on the thematically-related Fancy Free. West Side Story was produced almost nine years after Jerry Robbins first approached Bernstein with his concept of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, and Bernstein worked on Candide, on and off, for over twenty years before getting it into its final shape. The core of the score for Wonderful Town, though, was written in three weeks (with additional numbers added during the tryout). The original songwriters were fired a month before rehearsals began, with director George Abbott sending out an emergency call to his On the Town team of Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green.

WONDERFUL TOWN (EMI 7243 5 56753 2 3)
Leonard Bernstein spent eight months writing On the Town, following six months on the thematically-related Fancy Free. West Side Story was produced almost nine years after Jerry Robbins first approached Bernstein with his concept of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, and Bernstein worked on Candide, on and off, for over twenty years before getting it into its final shape. The core of the score for Wonderful Town, though, was written in three weeks (with additional numbers added during the tryout). The original songwriters were fired a month before rehearsals began, with director George Abbott sending out an emergency call to his On the Town team of Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green.

As much as I like this show, it is relatively minor Bernstein; something which he admittedly dashed off in a hurry, for the money. The score has four highly entertaining showstoppers written-to-order for the original star Rosalind Russell, plus a fair amount of flavorful extras. The non-Roz Russell material, though, is mostly uninspired, and sits near the bottom of Bernstein's hundred-plus show tunes. Not bad, exactly; but the authors rushed through most of this material, and it shows.

The key to a successful Wonderful Town is the star performance. Russell was duly noted for her lethally sharp comic delivery. She wasn't a singer, certainly, and the authors accommodated her. (One song, "One Hundred Easy Ways," was specifically constructed so that she sang her way to the climax of each refrain, the music stopped, and she spoke the punchline.) On the 1953 original cast album and the 1958 television cast album, Roz sounds somewhat like a lovable barking seal with a mouthful of Saltines; on stage, her performance was pretty much the whole show. (Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times suggested that she run for President, because "she can dance and sing better than any President we have had, and she is also better looking.") The role was subsequently successfully played by oversize clowns like Carol Channing and Eve Arden.

Kim Criswell has created something of a career recreating star roles in studio cast recordings of old musicals, but she doesn't begin to satisfy the needs here. In "Conga," for example, she seems to be singing to the chorus boys to please leave her alone; Ms. Russell struggled defiantly to remain in control of the situation, even though she was being tossed around the stage like a lumpy sack of potatoes. To make matters worse, Criswell is paired with Audra McDonald (playing what was intended as a featured role). McDonald even makes the weak numbers sound pretty good, like "It's Love" and "A Little Bit in Love" (which she also sang on the 1996 album Leonard Bernstein's New York). The star problem is especially exaggerated when Criswell and McDonald sing duets; Audra's voice leaps out at you while Kim's just sits there. Listen to Roz Russell sing her part of "Ohio" on the original recording, opposite pretty-voiced Edie Adams; there's no question who's the star. McDonald is just as clearly in charge here, while Criswell fades away. McDonald even makes the negligible "Nice People, Nice Talk" sound like high art.

Thomas Hampson does well enough in one of Broadway's most thankless leading man roles ever. (Russell had overruled plans for her character to sing with the baritone; she wasn't going to go out there with a real singer!) Brent Barrett, cast against type as Wreck, is surprisingly fine as the college football star who can "Pass That Football" but can't quite spell his name. The rest of the cast is English, resulting in some unfortunate English accents and some worse American accents. ("Maybe yu'd bed-da go home," they sing.) Be that as it may, this new Wonderful Town -- under the baton of Simon Rattle -- is certainly the finest sounding version of the score musically. From the opening moments of the Overture, when the swinging saxophones sound like they're choking on their triplets in "Swing," Rattle has the proper take on Bernstein's sentimentally satiric look at the mid-Thirties (expertly orchestrated by Don Walker). One wonders, nevertheless, about the need for yet another recording of this score; Jay Records released a complete Wonderful Town -- on two CDs -- just last year, which also suffered from a less-than-overwhelming leading lady. Why doesn't one of these record companies who insist on turning out Bernstein album after Bernstein album sign Ms. McDonald up for a recording of the ill-starred, messy-but-bounteous 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

SONDHEIM TONIGHT, Live from the Barbican Centre (Jay CDJAY2 1313)
Back in 1973, just after the opening of A Little Night Music, a charity benefit called Sondheim: A Musical Tribute was presented on the stage of the Shubert Theatre. Directed by Sondheim's long-time friend Burt Shevelove, it featured original cast members of Sondheim's ten shows (at the time), scads of fascinating, obscure material, and it was really quite something. People have been doing Sondheim charity benefits ever since, with understandably diminishing results. They all seem to get preserved on disc, too.

The newest offering is Sondheim Tonight, a 1998 benefit in aid of the Alan Jay Lerner Fund for Research into Cancer at the Royal Marsden Hospital. They start with (Guess what?) "Comedy Tonight"; they finish with (Guess what?) "Side by Side by Side." As the two-disc set unfurled, I wondered how they could possibly hold my interest with things like a symphonic version of "Next" from Pacific Overtures. As it happens, there were enough highlights to keep me listening, but I confess it was all pretty solemn until Cleo Laine's ravishing "Send in the Clowns." This was followed by the "Stavisky Suite," from Sondheim's 1974 film score. I've always felt that this little-known work -- written between Night Music and Pacific Overtures -- was something of a turning point in Sondheim's musical development. I especially like the performance here; the tempos seem far more leisurely than on the soundtrack album, and add to the moodiness of the work. Charles Prince no doubt got the job of conducting this track due to his connections -- his father used to direct Sondheim musicals -- but he does an impressive job.

Dame Edna Everage trounces in, singing (naturally) "The Ladies Who Lunch." I guess Ms. Everage is an acquired taste; this rendition of the Upper East Side hymn, at any rate, is quite funny. The effect is somewhat like singing Sondheim in the shower, only with your very own Jonathan Tunick orchestrations piped in through the vent. ("I haven't exactly rewritten it, but I've tweaked it," Everage confesses. "He [Steve, darling] loves me when I tweak.") Also of special note is Michael Ball's rendition of "Loving You" from Passion. In the context of the show, it was sung by the intense and frighteningly neurotic heroine; taken out of context, it is truly quite beautiful. (Ball played Giorgio in the London production of this musical. Sondheim fans might want to get the cast album, on First Night Records. It contains an expanded version of "No One Has Ever Loved Me" not used in the Broadway production, which greatly enhances this masterful, underappreciated score.)

The album provides "first recordings" of manufactured items like "Overture for Stephen Sondheim" and "A Salute to Stephen Sondheim." There are also two schoolday instrumentals, "A Very Short Violin Sonata" (1951) and "Variations on a Theme" (for piano, 1947), which might be described as curiosities. The all-star cast of this salute is virtually all-British, not an Angela or Bernadette in sight. Len Cariou is there, but he's Canadian; Elaine Stritch appears on videotape; and Mr. Sondheim himself phoned in his performance. (He was stuck in New York with an infected ear, "and no jokes, please, from the critics.") The evening is hosted by Ned Sherrin, who performed a similar function in the revue Side by Side by Sondheim. Sherrin tells many anecdotes, including quite a few which have nothing whatsoever to do with Sondheim. There are numerous references and allusions to English celebrities, politicians, and football (translation: soccer) which may well baffle American listeners. A jumper, incidentally, is what you and I call a sweater. A note in the back of the booklet tells us that Jay Records will soon bring us a complete Anyone Can Whistle with Maria Friedman, Julia Mackenzie and John Barrowman. The last recording of this score was rather unfortunate, so I'm sure Sondheim fans will be glad to get what promises to be a good one.

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