ON THE RECORD: Superstar, Riverdance & Reissues

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Superstar, Riverdance & Reissues JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (Really Useful 314 533 735-2)
Jesus Christ Superstar sprang to life as an enormously successful concept album in 1970. It came to the Broadway stage in 1971, in a fantastical production conceived by Tom O'Horgan (then represented by Hair and Lenny). A second, and quite different, production opened in London in 1972. There was also a motion picture version, in 1973.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (Really Useful 314 533 735-2)
Jesus Christ Superstar sprang to life as an enormously successful concept album in 1970. It came to the Broadway stage in 1971, in a fantastical production conceived by Tom O'Horgan (then represented by Hair and Lenny). A second, and quite different, production opened in London in 1972. There was also a motion picture version, in 1973.

Original Superstar producer Robert Stigwood -- currently represented on Broadway with Saturday Night Fever -- had a long term option on the production rights. That period having finally elapsed, Andrew Lloyd Webber and his "Really Useful Superstar Company Inc." have mounted their own Superstar, which opened on Broadway on April 16, 2000. Director Gale Edwards previously staged the piece in London in 1996 and for a UK tour in 1998; Ms. Edwards also directed the London Whistle Down the Wind, a tour of Aspects of Love, and the Broadway bound Australian hit The Boy from Oz.

This new two-disc Superstar CD appears to be a studio cast album; there is no mention of production details, theatre, director, producer, stage credits, or date of recording. (There is a 1996 copyright date, however.) Most of the principals appeared in the 1996 production at London's Lyceum Theatre, including Steve Balsamo as Jesus, Zubin Varla as Judas, and Joanna Ampil as Mary. The new New York Jesus, Glen Carter, sings the role of Simon Zealotes, while King Herod is sung by Alice Cooper.

The original orchestrations were rooted in the rock style of the late sixties. Lloyd Webber -- who has learned a thing or two about theatre in the interim -- has redone his original charts, giving them a somewhat more theatrical sound. The best of the tracks, "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" (which began life as a pop song called "Kansas Morning"), are well performed by Ampil.

My exposure to Superstar is somewhat limited, as these things go. I have seen the show twice -- the original production and the new revival - and listened to the score perhaps thrice in between. Back in 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (which is now a church), I was initially struck by the sweetness of the same two songs, "Everything's Alright" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Sitting recently at the Ford Center, my reaction to the score was the same. Listening to this CD, though, I find Lloyd Webber's work considerably more pleasing than previously, with half a dozen or so interesting songs. This new recording -- albeit apparently four years old -- is presumably the way Lloyd Webber wishes his Superstar to sound. (Lloyd Webber, Rice, and Nigel Wright produced the album.) I myself found it distinctly more enjoyable than what is presently lost in a blur of overamplification at the Ford Center.

*

RIVERDANCE ON BROADWAY (Decca Broadway 012 157 824-2)
Riverdance on Broadway is pretty much what you might expect it to be. Labeling a musical variety revue with the words "on Broadway" doesn't, in itself, make it a Broadway musical. Riverdance remains Riverdance, although the show contains new material -- including songs written specifically for Tsidii Le Loka and the Amanzi Singers. While the liner notes feature color stills of the Broadway cast, this recording doesn't much gibe with what I saw at the Gershwin Theatre. For example, top-billed stars Pat Roddy, Eileen Martin, and Maria Pages are not represented; but then, they don't sing. The taps on certain tracks are performed by Michael Flatley, the small print tells us; Flatley left Riverdance in 1995, after a mere fifteen weeks. Are these tracks retreads from the first Riverdance album? Or were they recorded back then but never released? Or did Flatley come into the recording studio this year to record them, which doesn't seem all too likely? I suppose that true Riverdance aficionados can instantly identify Flatley from Roddy, in the same way that you or I might be able to tell the difference between a recording of the feet of Fred Astaire from those of Gregory Hines. The tracks with Flatley appear to be the only ones that record the sound of clogging feet; maybe it was just too expensive to bring all those Riverdance dancers into the studio. At any event, Roddy -- who is exceptionally good at what he does, at the Gershwin -- is not represented; Flatley's clogs are heard in his place, while other important numbers by Roddy (and Martin) are not included on the album. Nor does it include the "Harlem Rap Dancing" section of the evening, which I assume was created solely for the Broadway production of Riverdance.

Vocalists Brian Kennedy -- whom we are told has triple platinum and quadruple platinum albums coming out of his ears -- sings most (but not all) of what he sings in New York, as does Ms. Le Loka (formerly of The Lion King). Le Loka and the Amanzi singers provide the most interesting tracks on the disc -- to me, anyway -- with the best being "I Will Set You Free." The liner notes carefully list every instrumentalist on every track, and very few of them match the players at the Gershwin. (The girl fiddler in Riverdance on Broadway -- the show, not the CD -- is named Athena Tergis, and she gives quite an amazing performance, flitting all over the stage like the rest of them but simultaneously playing the fiddle, which has its own body mic.) Riverdance on Broadway, then, is not a cast album of the Broadway show. Rather, it appears to be a studio album recorded in Dublin, with some of the New York singers flown in for the sessions.

Not that this matters. Fans of Riverdance and Bill Whelan's first Grammy Award-winning Riverdance CD -- which is not triple platinum or quadruple platinum but just simple old plain everyday platinum -- will surely want to get this new one, and the rather amazing Riverdance marketing machine will no doubt effortlessly move hundreds of thousands of units. But I certainly wouldn't describe the CD Riverdance on Broadway as the cast album, in fact, of Riverdance on Broadway.

*

And on the way. . . .

This spring's clutch of Broadway show reissues is about to begin. Preliminary copies of the five offerings from Columbia Broadway Masterworks have appeared, in advance of their May 30 release date. I generally wait to get the finished discs before writing the review, in order to properly comment on the "newly commissioned liner notes, rare archival photography, and complete discographical annotations" promised in the press releases. However, I couldn't refrain from putting on The Pajama Game (Sony Classical SK 089253) -- and it's most welcome, it sounds just super. A previously unreleased track from the 1954 sessions, the "Sleep Tite" company jingle, has been added; so have one -- or two -- cut songs. John Raitt sings the first, called "The World Around Us." The other is listed on the label but was not included on the disc I received; hence, I think I'll wait for the finished product to comment further. -- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer).