ON THE RECORD: A Complete Cabaret With Judi Dench, and Audra McDonald's "Build a Bridge"

This week's column addresses the reissue of the complete British studio recording of Cabaret and Audra McDonald's newest release, "Build a Bridge."

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CABARET [Jay CDJAY2 1311]
It would seem, without too much reflection, that the original Broadway cast album of the 1966 Hal Prince-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical Cabaret need no replacement. The orchestral playing is generally superb, Joel Grey is unsurpassable in the role of the M.C. that was built around him, and the presence of Lotte Lenya alone gives the album an authenticity that needn't be questioned. Why even bother with a British studio production, recorded in 1997 and now remixed, remastered and rereleased?

Well, I'll tell you. Start with Judi Dench, who did not forge her career in the Berlin cabarets of the late 1920s but gives us a Fraulein Schneider that is every bit as powerful as Lenya's. Dench is a fine dramatic actress, as you might have noticed; she is also at home on the musical stage. Neither is the absence of Grey harmful, not with Jonathan Pryce artfully handling the role. Gregg Edelman sings Cliff, the somewhat confused American-in-Berlin; he played the role in the 1987 Broadway revival, giving one of his most ingratiating performances in a somewhat unconvincingly written role. Herr Schultz is played by none other than Ebb himself. This is not gimmick casting, mind you; if you've ever heard any of the Kander-Ebb demo recordings (like the two tracks included on the Tenth Anniversary CD of Chicago, reviewed in our last column) or the original cast album of Woman of the Year (on which he sings the role of the animated feline Katz), you know that Ebb is a perfect performer of his work. Further, in 1997 he could well have been typecast in the role.

That's four reasons right there. The fifth is Maria Friedman, who sings the role of Sally Bowles. Jill Haworth, who originated the role, was roundly thought to be the hole in the middle of the Broadway production of Cabaret. (For our purposes, we speak only of the original stage version of the show, not the considerably altered Fosse or Mendes versions.) Listen to what happens when Friedman gets hold of the songs: Her voice and her presence makes Sally Bowles the star of the show. Suddenly, and finally, this aspect of Cabaret makes perfect sense.

This two-CD studio Cabaret is part of the Jay's Master Works series, which gives us all the music (including scene changes and exit music) left off standard-length cast albums. In this case, the major find is the expanded version of the "Telephone Song." This was a notably exciting production number in all aspects, which more or less placed then-novice choreographer Ron Field on the Broadway front line. (Kander has praised dance arranger David Baker for "taking elements of what I'd written and turning them upside down, making brilliant variations on them.") The full number is even more exciting than the abridged version on the 1966 album. The other major difference is in the Finale, which interrupts an eerie reprise of "Wilkommen" with brief exchanges of dialogue. On the original cast album, it was understandably decided to replace the dialogue with the characters singing along with the underscoring. The version with dialogue is far more powerful, given that the listener to the complete Cabaret is presumably familiar with the plot. Some of the recordings in this series have been known to proceed at tempos that seem wrong to American listeners. This is not the case with Cabaret, which stands out as being pretty much impeccable musically. John Owen Edwards leads the National Symphony Orchestra, and the results couldn't be better. (A slight exception comes in the passages of the opening and entr'acte intended to be played by the so-called "stage band," which don't have the raffishness heard on the 1966 album.) Otherwise, the orchestra sounds brighter and clearer than on the original album; this recording brings out the piano, the guitar-banjo part and those jungle tom-toms which accentuate the brilliance of the original Cabaret orchestrations. These were by the veteran by Don Walker – in his thirty-second year on Broadway — with Artie Beck (who also worked on the Kander-Walker Flora, the Red Menace) and Jim Tyler (of The Happy Time).

AUDRA McDONALD: BUILD A BRIDGE [Nonesuch 79862]
Audra McDonald, as always, makes it look easy. Her fourth studio album from Nonesuch, "Build a Bridge," runs the gamut from pop to lullaby to comedy to Broadway art song, with not a misstep along the way. This collection has been described as a grab bag of songs Audra wanted to sing; if she wants to sing these songs, that's good enough for me.

Among the beauties are several selections she sang on her recent Live from Lincoln Center PBS telecast. Let us single out "Cradle and All," an exquisite song about parenting by Jessica Molaskey and Ricky Ian Gordon; "I Wanna Get Married," a tongue-in-cheek, "Leave It to Beaver"-ish ditty from Nellie McKay; "My Stupid Mouth," a song about dating by John Mayer; "Wonderful You," by Jane Kelly Williams; two by Laura Nyro; and Joe Raposo's Kermit song, "Bein' Green."

Adam Guettel, whose songs Ms. McDonald continually turns to, is represented with "Build a Bridge," which gives this album its title. This is an intriguing song, similar in style and dissonance to the composer's Myths and Hymns period. McDonald also gives us a very much out-of-context "Dividing Day" (from The Light in the Piazza), which is a highlight. Just Audra and pianist Fred Hersch, here, and the song is stunning in its immediacy.

As usual with the Audra CDs, music — under the direction of Ted Sperling (who also co-produced the album) — and musicians sound wonderful. Thirty-plus musicians and individual arrangers for the songs are listed, but no orchestration credits I can find. That won't bother anyone, though (except perhaps the orchestrators in question). Chalk up "Build a Bridge" as another fine collection from Ms. McDonald.

(Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Look for archived On the Record columns in the menu of features on the Playbill.com homepage. Suskin can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.)