ON THE RECORD: Sweeney Todd Live and The Witches of Eastwick

News   ON THE RECORD: Sweeney Todd Live and The Witches of Eastwick SWEENEY TODD Live at the New York Philharmonic (New York Philharmonic Special Editions NYP 2001/2002)

SWEENEY TODD Live at the New York Philharmonic (New York Philharmonic Special Editions NYP 2001/2002)

The New York Philharmonic has released last May's concert version of Sweeney Todd, only the second complete English-language recording of the show. Sweeney is, arguably, the finest score of the last thirty years, so fans of the show and the composer and serious musical theatre might well rush to add it to their collection.

I'm left in a bit of a predicament, though. This album is highly impressive, and there are some sections that surpass the original. But if someone who never heard Sweeney Todd — imagine that! — came to me and asked which disc to buy, I suppose I'd have to stick with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury on the 1979 original cast album (RCA 3379-2-RC). Don't take this as a mixed report on this new album, please, as it's highly recommended. But I suppose that after I've had my fill of the new Sweeney, I'll revert to the old as my Sweeney of choice.

George Hearn sings Sweeney, and he is one of the major strengths of this new album. He has played many hundreds of performances in the role, having replaced Cariou on Broadway, headed the tour, and starred in the video version of the show (opposite Lansbury). Patti LuPone has a harder task; Mrs. Lovett is a monster of a role, with some treacherous comedy numbers. Lansbury had six weeks of rehearsals and three dozen performances-worth of audience reaction before entering the recording studio. Give LuPone that luxury, and she'd no doubt know precisely what she wanted to do, moment by moment, through the long role. With limited rehearsal time and no previews before they brought in the recording equipment - well, LuPone does a wonderful (and wonderfully funny) job. Does it measure up to Angela's recorded performance? Is it fair to even make the comparison?

Davis Gaines and Neil Patrick Harris, as Anthony and Toby, performed their roles in previous concert versions; both are as strong as their predecessors. Paul Plishka, as Judge Turpin, is nowhere near as creepy as Edmund Lyndeck was. But Lyndeck was a stage actor who lived with his role for many months; how can an opera singer - even an accomplished one like Plishka - hope to compete? The incomparable Audra McDonald sings the Beggar Woman, which in itself is sure to sell come copies. Andrew Litton conducts Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations (with greatly expanded string sections), and Mr. Litton clearly knows what he's doing. So does Tommy Krasker, who produced the album. I notice that André Bishop is credited in small type as "consulting producer." His presence might help explain the high quality of the production.

The 1979 disc was exceptionally well-recorded for its time, but today's technology allows far greater clarity than before. Thus, the Philharmonic set in some way enhances the Sweeney experience. This despite the fact that it is a live recording, with an audience predisposed to whoop and holler for their favorites. Sondheim packed joke upon joke upon joke in his lyrics, for the delectation of repeat listeners; it's easier to pick up previously unheard delights - like those coriander and reticule rhymes - on the RCA set, without the built-in laugh track.

Where this newfound clarity is especially welcome is in the group vocals. One of Sondheim's many strengths - one often overlooked - is his brilliant multi-part writing. Other shows have vocal arrangements; Sondheim weaves tapestries of melody which miraculously complement each other, often with character-specific lyrics. "Kiss Me," for example; or the quartet version of "Johanna"; or the phenomenal second act opening "God, That's Good!", with Sweeney, Lovett, and Tobias going their separate ways against the full chorus. These - and several other numbers - are infinitely more effective here, simply because you can distinctly hear the notes and comprehend the words. The male trio version of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," late in the first act, sounds especially good. So does the luscious "Pretty Women."

The disc is lavishly packaged with liner notes, comments, photos, and libretto. Included is an essay by the composer, who, in complementing the Philharmonic, tells us that "I meant Sweeney Todd to be a small and scary evening about the need for revenge (as in fact it was in Declan Donnellan's wonderful 1993 production for the Royal National Theatre in London)." I'm glad to see him single out this production; it is the most memorable Sweeney Todd in my experience. Crammed into the National's 300-seat Cottesloe Theatre - just across the Thames from Fleet Street — you felt like you were sitting on a bench in Julia McKenzie's kitchen. When she went looking for "fresh supplies," you weren't absolutely sure that she wasn't going to snatch you right out of your seat. And when Alun Armstrong lifted his razors high - well, there was blood in the air.

At any rate, this new Philharmonic Sweeney is very much recommended. But the primary recording of the score, for me, has to remain the 1979 version.

THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK (First Night CAST CD79)

Cameron Mackintosh has returned to musical comedy with The Witches of Eastwick, and the original cast recording is a charmer. "Old fashioned," some people have called the score, using the term (varyingly) as a positive or negative trait. I would instead call it "traditional," and there's nothing wrong with that. Think of the high spots of musicals like Baby, Damn Yankees, and Sweet Charity, lovingly combined into a tuneful and delightful whole. The Eastwick score is strong on comedy material, though somewhat weaker on ballads, but all in all it is lots of fun. (This being a CD review, I am not addressing the show itself. Besides, I have not seen it.)

Composer Dana P. Rowe and lyricist/librettist John Dempsey were previously represented by The Fix, which was also produced in London with Mackintosh's involvement. They seem quite adept at musical comedy, demonstrating an offbeat but ingratiating (and somewhat warped) sense of humor. Dempsey's lyric are nimble-wittedly adept, while Rowe's music is good natured and often rollicking. William David Brohn's orchestrations sound just right, in perfect Broadway style.

Eastwick is blessed with three leading ladies. Joanna Riding was the fine Julie in the Royal National Theatre production of Carousel, and Maria Friedman sang Fosca in the London production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion. (The CD of this production, also on First Night Records, is more complete than the Broadway cast album and highly recommended). The third of the "witches" is America's own Lucie Arnaz, who makes a stronger showing here — on the CD, at least — than I remember from her musical appearances in the 1970s. Each of the women has her own solo spot and makes the most of it. Ian McShane, as the devilish leading man, is harder to judge. He was so roundly trounced by many reviewers that you have to wonder about his performance. He sounds all right on the recording, at least. Strong support is offered by comedic villainess Rosemary Ashe, gamely singing away while simultaneously "wretching" cherry pits and an entire candle. (That's what it says in the liner notes.)

The Witches of Eastwick opened in May at Theatre Royal Drury Lane and has just announced a transfer to the Prince of Wales. Will Mackintosh bring it to Broadway? Possibly so. In the meantime, you might want to get the cast album. This is one of those CDs that makes you want to actually go and see the show.

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) 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. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com