Cabaret [Masterworks Broadway]
Listen to Sally Bowles singing "Don't Tell Mama" on the original 1968 London cast album of John Kander & Fred Ebb's Cabaret. The voice is heavy, blowsy, and somewhat erratic; this is clearly not a singer at work. She misses notes, the voice cracks, and you can hear her grunt and squeak as she begs the listener to "do a girl a great big favor" (and not tell Mama). Yet she nails it; here is Sally Bowles, present in a manner that she is certainly not on the original Broadway cast album. It is impossible and foolhardy to judge a performance from a mere three songs on a 45-year-old recording, but one can imagine that this particular Sally Bowles was the center of Cabaret in a manner that wasn't the case with any of the performers I've seen in the role. (That is, the standard stage version; not the film or the Sam Mendes production, both of which gave Sally different things to do.)
Here, Sally sizzles. I suppose it's easy to say that if you happened to be at the Palace (London) in 1968, you'd have loudly proclaimed "this girl is gonna be a star!" Perhaps so. Even though she wasn't much of a singer. But oh, how Judi Dench acts her way through the title song at the end. Her back against the wall, defiant against the world, this Sally fights for survival. She tells the story of her roommate — sordid Elsie in Chelsea — but it is clearly her own; "when I go" — she croaks, voice braying — "I'm going like Elsie." It's not singing, it's acting. And that's what makes a strong musical theatre performance: not the way you produce the sounds, but what's behind them.
For a variety of reasons, it is difficult for subsequent cast albums — be they foreign productions or revivals — to live up to the originals. The initial albums have authenticity; the actors, conductor, and core musicians are performing material that was created with their participation. What's more, the songwriters are typically in the studio, making sure that everything sounds the way that they insist it sound (which is typically not the case on subsequent albums). The orchestrator is there, too, checking on things and providing altered charts where necessary for the recording session. Cuts, abridgements, new intros and endings, accommodations for bits of dialogue needed to help the lyrics make sense without the book.
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