ON THE RECORD: Lloyd Webber & Rice's Superstar and Skinner's Paris ’90

News   ON THE RECORD: Lloyd Webber & Rice's Superstar and Skinner's Paris ’90 A look at the recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Paris ’90.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Andrew Lloyd Webber

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR [Decca Broadway 440 067 734]
I confess that I have never gotten much out of Jesus Christ Superstar. I did not bother to listen to the concept album that swept the country in 1969; as a dutiful theatregoer, though, I was compelled to visit the Mark Hellinger when the show opened there in October 1971. What I found was a visually arresting extravaganza that was excessively noisy, to the point that the sound itself — to these teenaged ears — was physically uncomfortable. There was an impressive performance from Ben Vereen; some remarkable scenic moves, from designer Robin Wagner; but otherwise little of interest.

I listened to the resulting original cast album once or twice, and no more. I saw the show when absolutely necessary: the clunky touring revival that visited the Longacre in 1977; the clunky touring revival that visited the Paramount (at Madison Square Garden) in 1995; the overblown revival that visited the Ford Center in 2000. That, as far as I was concerned, was more than enough Superstar for me.

The Superstar concept album was so very successful in America upon its release that unauthorized concert versions swept the country. This spurred Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and their manager Robert Stigwood to turn the piece into a Broadway musical; Broadway, rather than London, because the album was far more popular stateside.

There is some justification for considering Superstar a Broadway musical, of sorts; it was initially presented on Broadway, with an American director and American designers and American actors. Nobody has ever called The Cabaret Girl, Primrose, Evergreen, Nymph Errant, Here Goes the Bride, Love from Judy, Bar Mitzvah Boy, I and Albert, or Children of Eden American musicals; this despite scores by Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, Arthur Schwartz, Hugh Martin, Jule Styne, Charles Strouse, and Stephen Schwartz. These shows, all of which opened on the far side of the Atlantic, were clearly British musicals. So why shouldn't Superstar be American?

The original production was shaped, certainly, by its American director. Frank Corsaro was canned early on, with wunderkind Tom O'Horgan stepping in. O'Horgan had followed the same course on Hair, coming in as a late replacement and turning an unusual-if-uneven work into the must-see hit of the day. In the interim, O'Horgan had directed the Lenny Bruce biographical play Lenny, upon which he lavished an outsized and outlandishly effective production. When Superstar was suddenly searching for a new director, who better to tap than Tom? Especially since he had ably demonstrated his ability to bring young and non-traditional patrons into theatre seats, at full price. Yes, you can say that O'Horgan "tricked up" Superstar, as he had Hair. But the results, in both cases, were highly commercial. Lloyd Webber seems to have disapproved of O'Horgan's theatrical concept; when Superstar went to London in 1972, it was reconceived — without O'Horgan — and was even more wildly successful. Superstar is still produced around the world — there is a national tour playing as I write this — but O'Horgan's staging is long-vanished. Nevertheless, O'Horgan's Broadway Superstar launched the piece — and Lloyd Webber & Rice.

Decca Broadway now brings us, for the first time on CD, the original cast album of the original Jesus Christ Superstar. And I must report that I find it surprisingly listenable. Listenable in that it is tuneful, and sweet. And it doesn't even sound too loud (although this might just be my thumb on the volume control). Ben Vereen remains outstanding, while the gentle "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" are liltingly tuneful. Mention too should be made of the informative and entertaining liner note essay. Reading through it, I thought — what wonderful writing this is! When I got to the last page, I discovered that it was — no surprise here — by Peter Filichia.

This is an abbreviated version of the score, presenting 44 minutes excerpted from a full evening of theatre. You can easily get more Superstar, on the recording from the recent revival for example. But I found that album hard to listen to, and have already relegated it to the never-to-be-replayed bin. Decca's newly issued original Broadway cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar is, somewhat to my surprise, enjoyable.

PARIS '90[DRG 19034]
Cornelia Otis Skinner's fifty-year-old Paris '90 is one of the few original cast albums that I never got around to listening to. A one-woman show with songs, from a long-forgotten monologist with no musical theatre experience, sounded chancy to me. Since the album was hard-to find, anyway, I never bothered to seek it out.

Skinner (1901-1979) was born with a silver makeup brush in her hand. Her father, Otis Skinner (1858-1942), was one of the great actors of the generation between Edwin Booth and John Barrymore. Skinner was most famous for his charismatic role of Hajj in Kismet — the play, not the musical — and was a constant presence on Broadway from 1879 through 1933.

Cornelia made her Broadway debut in 1921 in her father's production of Blood and Sand (which the following year served as a screen vehicle for Rudolph Valentino). While at Bryn Mawr, Cornelia started to compile short character sketches that were "humorous, pathetic, tender and satirical." Her father, who had for many years toured with his own (large) company, liked the idea of an actor-manager with a payroll of one; he convinced her to put together her first program of monologues, which she did in 1925. Cornelia continued to play her monologue programs for more than 30 years on Broadway, the road, and in England; she also appeared as a conventional actress, and wrote more than a dozen books.

Otis Skinner was quite a Francophile; he spent much of his free time in France, and sent his daughter to study at the Comedie Française. (She was named an Officer of the Academie Francaise in 1954.) As a child, Cornelia's father regaled her with tales of Paris in the so-called Gay Nineties, as well as stories of Toulouse-Lautrec (whom he knew). Lautrec and the period became immensely popular in the States after World War II, compelling Cornelia to prepare a program about Paris in the nineties. The show opened at the Booth in March 1952, for a limited engagement of 87 performances.

Paris '90 was divided into three sections, showing inhabitants of the Right Bank, where we meet a 'lady of fashion'; the Left Bank, where we visit a laundress and a pair of spinster 'Boston school-teachers'; and Montmartre, where Skinner brings several characters from Lautrec's posters to life. From the evidence presented on this first-time-on-CD Paris '90, Skinner was quite good. I kept thinking of Lily Tomlin — or what Lily Tomlin might have been in a more decorous time, where humor was constrained and political-sexual satire was unknown. Skinner, at least on this non-visual recording, was able to effortlessly switch from character to character in mid-speech. Her Lautrecian characters — the café singer-composer Yvette Guilbert, the prostitute known as Deaf Bertha — are especially vibrant and earthy.

I have always appreciated the work of Kay Swift, who long ago wrote two exceptional show tunes, "Can't We Be Friends" (1929) and "Can This Be Love" (1930). A third Swift tune, the catchy title song from the 1930 musical Fine and Dandy, is familiar to just about anyone who ever saw a professional magic act. Swift soon thereafter left her lyricist husband for George Gershwin, and pretty much withdrew from the world of music following Gershwin's death in 1937. What she was doing back on Broadway with Paris '90 I can't imagine; but there she was, with an evening of (mostly) atmospheric incidental music plus a few suitably French-sounding songs. The surprise of the recording, for me, is the sound of the music. Paris '90 was certainly not a full scale Broadway musical, but nobody told that to Robert Russell Bennett. He provides a lively sound in an Offenbach vein, with 11 pieces (six strings, trumpet, clarinet, flute, percussion and piano). Bennett, a celebrated orchestrator who would have much preferred earning his living as a composer, took unaccustomed pride in his charts for this show — which in itself is a recommendation, isn't it?

All of this makes Paris '90 considerably more interesting than one might have thought. It's not for everyone — I don't suppose Superstar fans would like it, for starters — but Skinner and her monologues and Swift and Bennett won me over.

—Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.