RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN: Overtures Decca Broadway 289 434 932
As part of the Richard Rodgers centennial celebration, Decca Broadway has reissued John Mauceri's album of Overtures from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Let us assume that most readers of this column are fairly familiar with the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the hit shows at least. Is there enough here to make this CD worth your while? Yes, I say.
The recording contains eleven tracks. Six come from the Broadway hits, three from the team's three failures. The others represent the two original musicals they wrote for the screen, large and small. The "hit" overtures we have heard before, of course. One of the six stands out, compared to its original cast recording. South Pacific sounds wonderful here; Mauceri brings out counter-melodies that were virtually inaudible. Instrumental colors are suddenly distinct; French horns are strong, flutes are vibrant, you can feel the tang of the plucked harp strings and the beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom (or whatever native drums Rodgers and orchestrator Russell Bennett chose to use for "Bali H'ai"). There's also a big bass drum sparking "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame," and some lovely violin embroidery on "A Wonderful Guy."
Oklahoma is bright, The King and I is overly sleepy, and Flower Drum Song is slightly livelier than we've heard before; Mauceri actually makes it swing a little. The Sound of Music did not have an overture; it is represented here with the Entr'acte, and it is amazingly bland. Not in the playing but in the orchestration, uncharacteristically busy to little avail. It sounds like the work of a tired old man, and it's hard to believe that Rodgers actually sat through the thing, let alone approved it. (He moved from Bennett to Ralph Burns for his next two musicals.)
The above-mentioned overtures are all the work of Bennett. The other R&H hits was Carousel. This recording uses the Don Walker version of the "Waltz." (Bennett's version was used for the Broadway opening — and the original Decca cast album — but replaced shortly thereafter, and the parts seem to have disappeared.) Yes, we've heard plenty of renditions of this piece, and good ones too; but this one is first-rate. Mauceri lets it spin excitingly out of control slightly at the end, making it sound like a carousel veering out of control — which is precisely what it should be.
Little need be said about the two non-stage overtures. State Fair has been orchestrated, and nicely, by Sid Ramin. The result is mostly lively and listenable, although things bog down with a lethargic "It Might As Well Be Spring." (Does that girl have spring fever or sleeping sickness?) Cinderella is pretty much what you'd expect it to be, nothing more and nothing less. Where this disc is of greatest importance is in the other three overtures. Two of them, Allegro (Bennett) and Me and Juliet (Walker), have never to my knowledge been recorded elsewhere. Allegro is especially intriguing, as the original cast recording is highly abridged. "A Fellow Needs a Girl" sounds especially lovely, while "What a Lovely Day for a Wedding" sounds like something meant for a football game (which was presumably the point). Those with keen ears will also hear a transition that Bennett reused the following year, in his Overture for Kiss Me, Kate. Me and Juliet is brasher than you might expect; as with Allegro, the sound on the original cast recording is muted. The overture explodes with dance rhythms, in the tango "No Other Love" and especially the Latin-flavored intro to "Keep it Gay." Mauceri makes Me and Juliet sound like a hit, which it decidedly wasn't.
Most interesting of all is the overture to Pipe Dream (Bennett). This was the ill-fated musical that was produced at the point in time when R&H were falling apart, both as a partnership and physically. While the show was the team's biggest failure, it is also one of Rodgers's most adventurous scores. The overture was severely abridged on the original cast album; Mauceri's rendition is a treat to listen to, giving us a much clearer picture of what Rodgers had in mind.
(While it is impossible to judge the work of a long-deceased conductor from some primitively-produced old recordings, I can't help but noting that the four Overtures that sound best on Mauceri's album — Allegro, South Pacific, Me and Juliet, and Pipe Dream — were all originally conducted by the same man, Salvatore dell'Isola.)
Rodgers & Hammerstein: Overtures was recorded by Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in 1991, and originally released by Philips the following year. (It was one of the earliest recordings produced by Tommy Krasker.) Oddly enough, I had totally forgotten it; I must have listened to it once or twice and filed it away somewhere. Mauceri clearly has a feel for Rodgers, which makes this disc well worth listening to.
BY JEEVES Decca Broadway 314 589 309
Poor By Jeeves has been sitting on my CD stack for months. I can't find all that much to say about it, and in the meantime it has come to Broadway and gone. This disc, labeled the "American premier recording," was recorded in connection with last winter's tryout at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. All but one of the Broadway players is present, with Heath Lamberts playing Sir Watkyn Bassett. This is the third cast album of the show to be issued, not including the original 1975 version of the show, Jeeves; somebody somewhere must have thought it was going to be a hit. The score is rather mild, and it certainly does not sound much like the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Some readers might take that as a recommendation). The composer displays a surprising affection for light hearted, tinkly tunes; one of them, "Half a Moment," is quite all right.
But Alan Ayckbourn provided the lyrics, and they make for an aimless experience. The Land Where the Good Songs Go [Harbinger HCD 1901], a collection featuring sparkling lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, was reviewed in a recent column; there seems to be no earthly reason to do a Wodehousian musical like By Jeeves unless you have a lyricist who can at least halfway approximate Wodehouse's style as a lyricist. David Zippel or Mark Waldrop, maybe; but certainly not Ayckbourn, a comic genius of a playwright but a beginner lyricist. It's a shame, because Lloyd Webber displays a most welcome sense of humor in his score. Maybe someone should e-mail him Zippel's phone number. (Which, on reflection, might be a very good idea indeed.)
NOW AND FOREVER Decca Broadway 314 589 393
Speaking of Lord Andrew, Now and Forever is "a career-spanning 5 CD boxed set celebrating the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, compiled by himself." Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Song and Dance, Starlight, Requiem, Phantom, Aspects, Joseph, Sunset, Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game, and even By Jeeves — all here, now and forever. (Isn't it a bit soon to start anthologizing By Jeeves?)
This is not merely an anthology of tracks from various cast albums you have on your shelves; there is stuff here that you have surely never heard before. Fans of Lord Andrew's work will no doubt be pleased, especially with the fifth disc of the set containing material from "the vaults." There is also a disc-full of pop versions; where else will you find Madonna, Barbra, Kiri, Petula, Donny, and Elvis cluttered together in one jewel case? As for those who are not fans of Lord Andrew's — well, you're not going to buy Now and Forever anyway, are you?
-- Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," the forthcoming "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "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.