ON THE RECORD: Kelli O'Hara's "Always," and an Obscure Carousel Recording

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Kelli O'Hara's "Always," and an Obscure Carousel Recording We listen to Kelli O'Hara's new recording, "Always," a first-time reissue of the 1955 Carousel, plus four digital cast album re-releases.

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Always: Kelli O'Hara [Ghostlight 8-3334]
Kelli O'Hara has been performing all over town this past season; nightclubs, concerts, staged concert versions, and more. She has also released her second solo CD, "Always," as in Irving Berlin's "I'll be loving you, always." O'Hara always gives us good performances, it seems, even when she was forced to endure five month's-worth of Frank Wildhorn's Dracula at the Belasco. (As a reward, she got to move right into Light in the Piazza — which, under the circumstances, was quite a reward indeed.)

The new CD continues O'Hara's winning streak, offering a variety of songs in attractive performances. Something prevents me from being enthusiastic, alas. Some of the tracks I can happily listen to repeatedly — "What More Do I Need?" "How Glory Goes," "Finishing the Hat," "This Nearly Was Mine"; others, not. You would think that O'Hara and "He Loves Me" — a distaff version of the title tune from the Bock & Harnick musical — would make a delicious mix, but it doesn't.

Three of the four relatively new selections are less than inviting; the exception is "Another Life" from Jason Robert Brown's upcoming musicalization of The Bridges of Madison County, which sounds very nice indeed. One of these items is something called "They Don't Let You in the Opera (If You're a Country Star)," in which Ms. O'Hara clowns, trills, and gives birth. Not literally, but close enough. This piece of special material is by Dan Lipton (music director and co-producer of the CD) and David Rossmer. O'Hara performed this at the Cafe Carlyle in 2009, at which point I found it quite amusing. Maybe you have to see it live; maybe it doesn't hold up to repeated hearings; maybe it simply doesn't translate to CD. All I can say is, I needn't hear it again.

I have always found O'Hara to be so professional and together and prepared that it is surprising and disconcerting to find a missed lyric in her otherwise lovely rendition of "Something Wonderful." Errors do happen, of course, and a wrong word is often barely noticeable. Here, though, it comes so early and so prominently as to pretty much ruin the sense of the lyric. ("He will not always say/what you would have him say/but now and then he'll do/something wonderful.") Anyone can make a mistake, yeah; but didn't anyone ever listen to the playback??? Too bad, because this would otherwise be a suitably wonderful recording of the song.

Carousel [MasterworksBroadway] While we are speaking of "Something Wonderful," we might naturally segue to the 1955 recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel. Most of these items from the vaults have been reissued time and again over the years. This is one that I must have listened to once, sometime, but quickly forgot. RCA and their successor companies seem to have forgotten it too, until now. While it doesn't supplant the other recorded Carousels — none of which are perfect, alas — it is surprisingly interesting.

Maybe not quite so surprising. Lehman Engel, who had a good sense for this sort of thing, is on the podium. (Why Engel was at RCA with a full Carousel during the same period when he was doing Columbia studio recordings with Goddard Lieberson is a mystery. Perhaps because RCA asked, and Columbia didn't?) We should keep in mind that this was not dusting off a classic; Carousel was still a recent musical, from 1945. It's as if Paul Gemignani gave us a studio cast album of The Producers, and let's hope not.

The 1956 motion picture version of Carousel was just then imminent, which perhaps entered into the decision to make the recording. And mind you, it was to be somewhat fuller than in 1945, when the songs had to be cut down to fit on 12-inch 78s. That is to say, phonograph records in those days were released on the thick 78 RPM platters; usually 10 inches, but in the case of cast recordings, 12. This allowed less than five minutes per side. (John Raitt's rendition of Billy Bigelow's seven-and-a-half-minute "Soliloquy" was not cut, fortunately; they actually split it over two sides.)

Engel and RCA enlisted two major opera singers for the leading roles, Robert Merrill and Patrice Munsel. This is both the distinction and the problem with the recording in question. Merrill can certainly sing the role, yes; but does he sound like a ne'er-do-well braggart carnival barker? Not quite. Munsel does better as Julie Jordan, the millworker who can't tell the warp from the woof (as Mr. Hammerstein puts it). The opera stars do not make an ideal couple, Carousel-wise; but they do give us a listenable version.

The supporting players are a mixed bunch. The Carrie is none other than Florence Henderson, who at the time was playing the title role in Fanny (an Engel musical). It seems like she'd be perfect, but Henderson doesn't seem comfortable in the comedy role; she's considerably better on the Fanny cast album. Playing opposite her is someone named Herbert Banke, who is otherwise unknown to me and not overly impressive. The Nettie of the occasion is Gloria Lane, who had played the consular secretary in Menotti's 1950 The Consul (for which conductor Engel won his first Tony Award). And if you're looking for a surprise, you'll find it in the Jigger of — who else? — George Irving. Here billed without the middle initial "S.", but this seems to be the same George Irving.

This digital release of the long-missing Carousel from MasterworksBroadway has come in tandem with a quartet of other reissues, all from the Columbia catalogue. These have been previously released on CD, some recently so. Many readers surely have at least one of them, but I suspect that few have them all.

Mr. President is Irving Berlin's final score, and one of his weakest; if you thought Irving couldn't write a bad song, listen to the Belly Dancer's song, or "The Washington Twist," or "I've Got to Be Around" or more. These are made up for by three items: "The Secret Service" (which "makes me nervous"); "The First Lady"; and the actress playing the First Lady, Nanette Fabray. To Broadway with Love was a World's Fair extravaganza which at least — or should I say at most? — has four original songs by Bock and Harnick. One of them, a lopsided waltz called "Popsicles in Paris," is goofily nifty. Considerably better is Yip Harburg's The Happiest Girl in the World. This is nothing less than a broad musical comedy rendition of Lysistrata set to tunes by Offenbach. The music is — no thanks to Harburg and Jay Gorney — sparklingly fine, the lyrics are a deft and dexterous delight, and the whole thing is a lark. High art, no; successful theatre, no; but I must listen to the thing six or so times a year, when I want some nimble fun. ("The trouble with a virgin is: she's always on the verge," indeed.)

The best of the group is the 1957 studio cast recording of Brigadoon. John McGlinn gave us a full recording of this 1947 Lerner & Loewe score in 1991, featuring Rebecca Luker and Brent Barrett, and it is altogether lovely. But I prefer the 1957 recording in some ways, starting with the presence of Susan Johnson as the milkmaid Meg. The remarkable Ms. Johnson — whose Broadway career lasted a mere 14 years, ending in 1961 with a severe traffic accident, but people are still talking about her — started her career in the chorus of the original Broadway production and moved up to take over the role. When she sings those songs — "The Love of My Life," "My Mother's Wedding Day," and even her verse selling milk and cream in "Down on MacConnachy Square" — they have been sung for good, forever. Shirley Jones makes a totally lovely Fiona, singing the love songs with her husband Jack Cassidy (who is perhaps a bit out-of-place on the Highlands).

The finest element, though, is the music. This was a 1957 recording from Goddard Lieberson and Columbia, which had already started to earn millions from its participation in Lerner & Loewe's 1956 smash My Fair Lady. My guess is that this recording was specifically intended as a gift to Mr. Loewe, as something of a replacement for the primitively recorded 1947 cast album. Loewe was one of those composers who knew precisely how his music was supposed to sound, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was standing around the studio supervising Mr. Engel and his merry band. Which just might be why this meticulous Brigadoon outweighs the original and the numerous recordings of the score.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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