ON THE RECORD: Luhrmann's Bohème and Wolfe's Harlem

News   ON THE RECORD: Luhrmann's Bohème and Wolfe's Harlem A look at the cast recordings of Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème on Broadway and George C. Wolfe's Harlem Song

Baz Luhrmann's LA BOHEME ON BROADWAY [DreamWorks 0044-50408]
Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème is the most thrilling new musical on Broadway in years. La Bohème isn't a musical, exactly, being a full blown grand opera in Italian. Nor is it new, being based on a production of Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera that Luhrmann devised for Opera Australia in 1990. Luhrmann's Broadway Bohème is stunningly theatrical, though, and that's good enough for me.

Opera on Broadway is no novelty, mind you. There have been dozens of 'em over the years. Broadway operas, yes, like Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Weill's Street Scene and Blitzstein's Regina. But "real" operas, too; four, alone, from Gian-Carlo Menotti — including The Medium and the Pulitzer-winning The Consul and The Saint of Bleecker Street — not to mention Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts.

Broadway has never seen a new, foreign-language opera, but Broadway productions of foreign-language operas are nothing new. There was once a fellow named Fortune Gallo, who was so convinced that there was a place for opera on Broadway that he built himself a theatre and called it Gallo's Opera House. Gallo opened with La Bohème on November 7, 1927, at the tail end of Broadway's biggest building boom. The boom soon went bust, and so did Gallo. He wasn't alone; producers Flo Ziegfeld, John Cort, Earl Carroll and Arthur Hammerstein all lost the theatres bearing their names.

La Bohème turned out to be the only opera Gallo managed to produce at his theatre. The house has swung back and forth between legit, nightclub, and radio for 75 years, with only one hit show — its current tenant, the revival of Cabaret. La Bohème returned to Broadway in 1944 and again in 1948, both as part of opera rep seasons produced by Gallo and his San Carlo Opera Company. If Baz Luhrmann's 2002 La Bohème is Broadway's fourth, it is safe to say that it is unlike any other.

DreamWorks has brought us a cast recording — officially titled "The Original Cast Recording of Baz Luhrmann's production of Puccini's La Bohème on Broadway" — that is every bit as admirable as the stage production. It is somewhat unusual, though, as cast albums go. The score has been cut down to highlights, the better to fit on one disc; anyone who wants to hear the whole score will have to buy one of the hundreds of Bohèmes otherwise available. The cast album naturally uses the reduced stage orchestration by Nicholas Kitsopoulos, which works marvelously in the theatre. But this reduced 28-player version has been enhanced to 62 for the recording, so what we get is an enhanced version of a reduced version of what they had in the first place. Due to vocal demands, Luhrmann's production has ten singers performing the four main roles. (Todd Duncan and Anne Brown sang eight performances a week of Porgy and Bess in 1935, and again for the 1942 Broadway revival — without amplification, mind you — and both made it into their nineties.) It makes plenty of sense for the producers to have chosen to include all ten leads on the CD; otherwise you'd have some pretty grumpy opera singers, I suppose. But it understandably works against the continuity of characterization on the recording. Imagine a cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun with three songs each from Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Dolores Gray, the stars of the original Broadway, road and London companies.

They all sing pretty well, mind you. (No, not Ethel and Mary and Dolores; the Bohème leads!) Not having seen all three casts, I shall not comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the group. Ekaterina Solvyeva, the cover girl with the bright red lips, sings the third act.

I will say that I'm mighty glad that Jessica Comeau gets to sing "Quando M'en Vo'," better known in these parts as "Musetta's Waltz." This is an all-time great song, mind you, in a league with the best show tunes that Kern or Gershwin or Lloyd Webber ever wrote. Comeau is absolutely smashing; "When I walk down the street, all eyes are on me" goes the lyric; you should see what happens when she walks downstage at the Broadway. (There is a two page photo of her in the liner notes, captioned "her name is Musetta" but not specifying which of the actresses alternating in the role of Musetta is in the picture.) I suppose Comeau will go back to the opera world after Bohème, and I don't know how she sounds in English; but she has got it, musical comedy-wise. Did someone say Gwen Verdon?

The CD is handsomely packaged, with an eye-catching booklet (co-designed by Catherine Martin, the set and costume designer). Lyrics are included, accompanied by what appear to be the English-language supertitles used in the theatre. This allows non-Italian speaking listeners to follow the story. Oddly enough, they give us translations for only ten of the songs; you'll have to guess at the meaning of the other seven. Even so, this CD serves as a suitable souvenir of a stunning theatrical event.

George C. Wolfe's HARLEM SONG [Columbia CK 86886]
Listeners approaching George C. Wolfe's Harlem Song might well expect a Harlem-influenced Broadway revue along the lines of Ain't Misbehavin', Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar and Black and Blue. (These entertainments hark back to the breakthrough success of Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along, the 1921 revue that made everybody "just wild about Harry.")

Such expectations, it turns out, are misplaced. The defining words in the title George C. Wolfe's Harlem Song are neither Harlem nor Song. George C. Wolfe is what you get, the Wolfe of Jelly's Last Jam and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. This is all to the good. Harlem Song incorporates a substantial amount of authentic (although far from overexposed) Harlem songs; Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Billy Strayhorn, Count Basie and Langston Hughes are on hand, as well as less well-known old timers like James P. Johnson, Jimmie Lunceford and Clarence Williams.

But new songs play an important part in shaping this Harlem Song. Wolfe himself contributed the lyrics, apparently whenever he wanted to make a dramatic point. Working with composers Zane Mark and Daryl Waters, the new songs fit right in with the old while providing jolts of electricity.

Mark and Waters, who performed similar chores on Bring in 'Da Noise, are the heroes of Harlem Song (at least in its CD version). They are jointly credited for "original music, arrangements and music supervision," and the music is dynamite. (Mr. Mark served as conductor and keyboard player as well.) B.J. Crosby and Queen Esther have the best material, and they are both quite something in their solo spots. The rest of the cast and the band are impressive, making for enjoyable listening.

As was the case with last season's Elaine Stritch At Liberty and Topdog/Underdog, a gold star goes to the unseen but ever-present George Wolfe.

—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.