Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Beast, Drat!, Sunset, etc.


14 Sep 1997

Beauty and the Beast is the only American musical to approach the international success of the major pop operas of the '80s (Rent and Jekyll & Hyde could be the next to do likewise). Of course, Beauty's world-wide stage success is at least partially due to the fact that it's a stage version of a Disney film that was internationally beloved. In terms of recordings, there have already been cast albums of the Broadway, Australian, Viennese, and Japanese productions; recently released is the London cast album, the third stage recording in English.

Beauty and the Beast is the only American musical to approach the international success of the major pop operas of the '80s (Rent and Jekyll & Hyde could be the next to do likewise). Of course, Beauty's world-wide stage success is at least partially due to the fact that it's a stage version of a Disney film that was internationally beloved. In terms of recordings, there have already been cast albums of the Broadway, Australian, Viennese, and Japanese productions; recently released is the London cast album, the third stage recording in English.

Beauty and the Beast has rapidly become the biggest musical hit in London in a very long time, not surprising considering that London's musical fare has of late run to the likes of Always, The Fix, The Goodbye Girl, and Martin Guerre (the latter a masterpiece compared to the other three). All five of the Beauty stage recordings are on Disney Records and feature the same 23 tracks. The London set offers a very spirited performance of this very nice score, and reflects the lyric changes made for the Los Angeles production that were subsequently put into all other stage Beauty's (these alterations were first preserved on the Australian disc).

The London leads are new to me: Alasdair Harvey's Beast is perhaps not a match for those of original Terrence Mann or Vienna's Ethan Freeman, but he's not far behind. Susan Egan remains the finest Belle on disc, but London's Julie-Alanah Brighten is quite good. Burke Moses's Gaston is considered so indispensable that, after creating the role on Broadway, he was sent to open the L.A. and London productions, and here gets to preserve the role again three years after his first recorded Gaston; Moses still sounds definitive.

The supporting company includes several popular West End veterans. Mrs. Potts is Mary Millar, the original Phantom Madame Giry, whose career extends back to '60s shows like Ann Veronica. Derek Griffiths, who was a howl in '70s shows like The Black Mikado, is Lumiere, and Barry James, seen in such London productions as Les Miz and Grand Hotel, is Cogsworth. All in all, it's easy to see why Beauty has taken London by storm.



Take it from one who saw it, Drat! The Cat!, which ran a week at the Martin Beck in 1965, was a very funny (if very silly) show. It was full of inventive Joe Layton staging, and its leads, Lesley Ann Warren and Elliott Gould, gave performances so wonderful that one could only assume that one would be seeing them in show after show. That was not to be, however, and Warren's unfortunate Broadway appearance in this season's Dream was her first since Drat!.

Drat! also had one of the better non-commercially recorded theatre scores of its period, although Streisand followers were familiar with two of the show's songs--"He Touched Me" and "I Like Him"--from her recordings of them. But the score as performed by the original cast wasn't entirely lost: Some merciful stage manager or other backstage staffer saw fit to record through the theatre's sound system an in-performance tape of the songs. That tape was transferred to LP by a label known as Blue Pear that throughout the '80s released on disc any number of live tapes (Lolita, My Love, Zenda, A Joyful Noise, The Body Beautiful) and private recordings to which they had no commercial rights (and somehow got away with it). The Drat! tape was, happily, a fairly clear-sounding one, and the LP transfer (logo cover and all) made it clear that the score was every bit as amusing and delightful as one had remembered it, and that Warren and Gould were really something in Drat.

In a refreshing change from its series of cast albums and compilations, the ever-enterprising Bruce Kimmel and Varese Sarabande have now issued the first commercial recording of Drat! The Cat, a 66-minute studio set featuring first-class theatre talent (none of whom appeared in the Broadway production) and the original orchestrations. The recording lacks one ballet sequence heard on the live disc, but has much more dialogue, a reprise of "Wild and Reckless," and the beginning of every song (on the live tape, many of the numbers begin a line or two in owing to a delay in tape pick-up on those old reel-to-reel machines). And as one would expect, the lyrics are easier to decipher on the new recording.

Jason Graae sings Bob beautifully and is just right. Susan Egan sings Alice charmingly, but is perhaps too wholesome and nice for the role; she lacks Warren's maniacal, rather scary edge--Alice is not a sweetheart--and as a result, while she's appealing and vocally flawless, she's not a riot, as Warren was throughout. Drat! mostly belongs to Bob and Alice, but there are fetching contributions here from Jonathan Freeman, Greg Jbara, Lee Wilkof, and Graae's fellow L.A. Ragtime players Judy Kaye and Robert Nichols. The role of Alice's mother was created by Jane Connell, who brought to bear on it the full extent of her trick soprano and her customarily delirious humor; it's taken here by Elaine Stritch, who really can't sing it, but who is in my book always welcome.

My reservations about Egan notwithstanding, the score remains choice, and this is an ambitious, highly enjoyable, and admirably executed disc. We can only hope that it will be the first of many to preserve unrecorded scores in their entirety; if 1600 Pensylvania Avenue and Carrie may be untouchable at this time, I'd love to hear The Vamp, Billion Dollar Baby, Sherry!, and many others.

Also from Varese Sarabande is Michelle Nicastro's fourth solo recital for the label, On My Own: Contemporary Songs From Broadway. It's a nice program; along with the expected numbers from Phantom, Chess, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Song and Dance, Rent, and Jekyll & Hyde, there is the laudable inclusion of the fine "Dancing All The Time" from Big and "Second Chance" from Steel Pier. Nicastro was Eponine in the L.A. Les Miz, and here gets to preserve her big number, the title track.

Nicastro, whose other stage appearances include Merlin on Broadway and an L.A. revival of A Little Night Music (with Lois Nettleton, Glynis Johns, John McMartin, Marcia Mitzman, Jeff McCarthy, and Kathleen Rowe McAllen), is a fine singer. But hers is essentially a youthful, sunny, rather cute and girlish sound, and it's less suited to some of the more dramatic numbers here.

Varese has taken to including "hidden" tracks at the end of some of its recent recordings. The one on the Drat! disc is fairly indescribable, but Nicastro's is worth hanging on for: "Disneyland" from Smile.

Those still experiencing Sunset Boulevard withdrawal will be happy to know that there is a new CD from Polydor/Really Useful Records of three songs--"With One Look," "As If We Never Said Goodbye," and a solo version of "The Perfect Year"--sung by Daniela Ziegler, who in February followed Helen Schneider's Norma in the German production at the Rhein-Main Theater in Niedernhausen. With the closings of the London, Broadway, Vancouver, and Melbourne Sunsets, along with the halting of the U.S. national tour, the German production became the only one in the world; Ziegler, who has been seen in Germany as Evita, Desiree Armfeldt, and Phyllis Rogers Stone (the latter in the Berlin "Follies" that also featured Eartha Kitt repeating her London role of Carlotta, and the Kessler Twins making "Who's That Woman?" into a sister act), is in the theatre an unconventional-looking but extremely touching Norma. On the CD, she displays an attractive mix of head and chest tones, has exemplary diction, and finds the character skillfully.

Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Diahann Carroll, and Schneider were the Normas who opened their own productions and therefore got comprehensive recordings of either one or two discs; Betty Buckley, Petula Clark, and Ziegler are the replacement Normas accorded CD singles, while another replacement, Elaine Paige, recorded three Sunset songs on her own recital, Encores. Australia's Debra Byrne did likewise (her album is called New Ways to Dream), but as she opened her own production, she ranks as the Norma most cheated out of a full cast disc. The U.S. national tour had a promotional CD featuring Linda Balgord in the two Norma arias and Ron Bohmer in the title song, but it was never sold commercially.

Speaking of promotional CD singles of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, I've also received one of discovery David Burnham singing two songs--"Any Dream Will Do" and "Close Every Door"--that he performs as the new star of Livent's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Canada. Burnham, who is acknowledged to have the finest physique yet displayed in this revival version (sorry, Jason Donovan, Michael Damian, Donny Osmond, Sam Harris, Andreas Bieber, etc.), sounds good, too.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com