ON THE RECORD: Contact, Bloomer Girl and Phantom

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Contact, Bloomer Girl and Phantom CONTACT Music from the Broadway Show RCAVictor 09026 63764
What on earth, you might wonder, are we supposed to do with a CD of Contact? In case you haven't heard, the winner of the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical contains no original music, and no live music, and no singing; just a selection of previously released recordings played over loudspeakers as music-to-dance-to. Which doesn't for a moment take away from the fact that Contact was easily the Best Musical of 2000, but that's another discussion.

CONTACT Music from the Broadway Show RCAVictor 09026 63764
What on earth, you might wonder, are we supposed to do with a CD of Contact? In case you haven't heard, the winner of the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical contains no original music, and no live music, and no singing; just a selection of previously released recordings played over loudspeakers as music-to-dance-to. Which doesn't for a moment take away from the fact that Contact was easily the Best Musical of 2000, but that's another discussion. What's the point of a compilation of the recordings selected by Susan Stroman and John Weidman for their three dance plays? That's what I wondered, before listening to it. But a cast album is meant to be, first and foremost, a souvenir of the show. The CD of Contact is very much a remembrance of the evening. I don't suppose I'll ever be able to listen to "Anitra's Dance" again without seeing the formerly-repressed Karen Ziemba suddenly burst out of her chair in wild abandon, looking like Lucille Ball and Angela Lansbury rolled into one. (I guess this ruins Peer Gynt for me, forever.) Stephane Grappelli's rendition of "My Heart Stood Still" is something I'll gladly listen to again and again. Songs like "Put a Lid on It" and "Runaround Sue" are unlike anything I usually put on my CD changer, but they immediately bring to mind the Girl in the Yellow Dress and Deborah Yates and all those great dancers in the billiard parlor. And so it goes. Contact does quite well on this CD, and tell me — what would you rather listen to? Saturday Night Fever?

One new track is included. RCA was unable to clear Dean Martin's recording of "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You" (which marks a pivotal moment in the show). After searching high and low for an alternate version, somebody - Ms. Stroman, apparently - came upon the rather obvious solution of having Contact star Boyd Gaines sing it himself. So they went into a studio -- Gaines, a fine musical comedy singer; veteran record producer Jay David Saks; and conductor/arranger Doug Besterman, between gigs orchestrating Seussical and The Producers — and came up with a dynamite, big band-style rendition. Which makes this, at least partially, an original cast recording.

While this was presumably not the intention of the album, it makes me want to go back and see Contact yet again. And how many cast albums do that?

BLOOMER GIRL Decca Broadway 440-013-561
Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg's Bloomer Girl was touted as "the new Oklahoma!" when it opened its Philadelphia tryout in 1944. The show was choreographed by Agnes de Mille, whose work on the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein blockbuster radically changed the way that dance was used in musical theatre. De Mille was joined by designers Lemuel Ayers (sets) and Miles White (costumes), who had been working on a tight budget for Oklahoma! Now money was no object, resulting in some stunning stage pictures and a splendiferous display of women's fashions, circa 1862. (Half of Bloomer Girl's backing came from M-G-M, producers of Arlen and Harburg's 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.) Also on board were orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett and two of Oklahoma!'s top players, comedienne Celeste Holm and dancing comedienne Joan McCracken. Bloomer Girl was quite a hit, running a respectable 654 performances; but superhits like Oklahoma! don't come along every day.

If Oklahoma! had serious overtones, with its psychotic villain and onstage murder, Bloomer Girl dealt with suffrage, slavery, and the Civil War. Some people mistakenly imagine Bloomer Girl to be a sweet little thing about ladies in fancy dresses; this is enhanced by the title, and the cast album photograph of Celeste Holm dolled up like a porcelain doll. This is far from the case, though. The heroine is battling for women's rights and abolition, the leading man — a Southern gentleman — plots to help his slave escape, and the action builds to the Battle of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. There was also a major de Mille ballet depicting the women left behind when men go to war, which bordered on pacificism and packed quite a wallop with World War II audiences.

Arlen and Harburg fashioned a fine score, which has always sounded somewhat muted on the primitively recorded original cast album. This has now been newly remastered, as they say, and it sounds even clearer than it did on its first CD release in 1992. (Max Preeo's notes are retained, although the photos have been changed. There is now a colored photo of Ms. Holm in a green hoop-skirted dress with black and white striped trim and a parasol, in front of what looks to be a magnolia curtain.) Still, I have a hunch that this score is a lot better than it sounds on the recording. Arlen was one of the most musically adventurous Broadway composers of his day, and he had Russell Bennett on hand. This score had to have sounded striking in the theatre.

This is a job, as they say, for Rob Fisher. And wouldn't you know, City Center Encores! is presenting a concert version of Bloomer Girl later this month, from March 22-25. My guess is that it is going to be a spectacular evening, musically speaking. Not only will we hear the restored score, all cleaned up and polished; we will also get to hear the full ballet for the first time in over fifty-five years. (The only existing version I know of is a two-piano reduction that Richard Rodney Bennett recorded - wonderfully -- in 1978.)

Harburg's lyrics, too, will probably come across much better at Encores! - where they will presumably be clear as a bell — than on the CD. The comedy songs are chock-full of jokes, while the less frivolous songs are full of wonderful images. This is the show in which Harburg has his slave sing "Ever since that day/When the world was an onion/'Twas natch'ral for the spirit to soar and play/The way the Lawd'a wanted it." He also has his leading man ask, with only a bit of humbug in his heart, "What's the use o' smellin'/Watermelon/Clingin' to another fella's vine?" (The former in the show-stopping "The Eagle and Me," the latter in the ballad hit "Evelina.")

I suppose, and hope, that the Encores! version will ultimately be preserved on CD. In the meantime, though, you might want to make your way over to City Center to hear the restored Bloomer Girl.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Decca Broadway 314 543 928
"The world's most beloved, best-selling original cast album now sounds better than ever!" boasts a sticker on the newly released version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. This is, I suppose, quite true; the album has been remastered using 24 bit digital technology, and almost has to sound better. They also tell us, in bold-faced type, that this is "the album that introduced Sarah Brightman to the World!" That's their exclamation point, not mine.

What they don't tell us — in the two-sided slipcase, the two-sided jewel box tray, the 8-page liner notes, or the 56-page libretto — is just what production this is. Yes, they list the cast members of the original London production; but nowhere do they tell us that this is the London cast, or when it opened, or when it was recorded (although there is a 1987 copyright date). In fact, the sixty-odd pages worth of information tell us not a single word about the show, its production history, its creators, its performers, or anything; just a billing page and cast list, neither of which are labeled as the London production. The cover boasts that they won seven Tony Awards, which seems misleading; this album was recorded in 1986, long before the show reached Broadway. Not that any of this matters, I suppose; the three leading players, Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, and Steve Barton, recreated their roles on Broadway and who else matters?

For the record, Phantom opened October 9, 1986 at Her Majesty's Theatre. This disc was released in 1987; it was not separately tracked, curiously enough, so that you had to listen to the whole thing to find the songs you wanted to hear. (You also had to write away to get a copy of the libretto insert, which was printed in LP size.) Phantom opened on Broadway on January 26, 1988, resulting in a second version of this CD - properly tracked, and emblazoned with a little America flag on the cover. Now we have what is clearly the best of all possible versions of this same, fifteen-year-old recording.

Some readers of this column will definitely want to get this new Phantom CD. Others, no doubt, will choose to pass it by. You know who you are. For first-time buyers, this new and improved release is certainly the Phantom to get.

- Steven Suskin is the author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000" (due in April from Oxford University Press), "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