ON THE RECORD: Original Cast Albums of Big Fish and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By Steven Suskin
This week's column discusses the Broadway cast album of Andrew Lippa's Big Fish, along with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill in the original production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Big Fish [Broadway]
The inside cover of the liner note booklet for Andrew Lippa's Big Fish contains a colorful two-page photo featuring a tall fellow with a red tie, standing just downstage of a large statue on a high pedestal of what seems to be a Civil War general. He is surrounded by ten or so townsfolk waving their arms and facing upstage, highlighting the man with the red tie. Downstage right is a balding fellow in a blue suit (Norbert Leo Butz); downstage left, seated on a low porch, is a young adult (Bobby Steggert). The next two pages have another photo spread, centering on a circus ringmaster in a red frock coat. He stands in the middle of a semicircle of bleachers, surrounded by 19 or so circus performers, some in colorful costumes (blues, reds, purples) and others with flamboyant mustaches. Downstage left is a not-yet-balding fellow in a beige jacket (Butz, again), watching whatever is supposedly going on.
And there, in full color, are two pictures that are better than a thousand words-worth of description of the conceptually fatal flaw of Big Fish, which stormed into the Neil Simon the first week of October and floundered before New Year's. You can go back to the opening night reviews for details, but in sum: the show — about a fellow who tells impossibly exaggerated tall tales — turned into a parade of uninvolving, full-scale production numbers. Some of them were entertaining, especially since Susan Stroman was pulling the strings against some intriguing stage pictures from designer Julian Crouch. (I did, really and truly, love what he did with the orchestra pit — and, oh, those daffodils!) But the three leading characters, during said production numbers, could only sit around and watch. The audience, meanwhile, could only sit around and wait for the leading characters to stop watching and pick up the strands of the story.
The original cast album of Big Fish, from Broadway Records, points to another problem. The score was not especially impressive in the theatre, but on CD — stripped of the production elements and the live presence of the performers — it seems even weaker. "Time Stops" (the big first act duet for Butz and Baldwin) and Butz's second act "Fight the Dragons" are effective, but the other numbers which impressed me in the theatre — "Daffodils," as well as much of what was sung by Baldwin or Steggert — don't grab me on the CD. The production numbers, for their part, remain uninteresting and/or generic. Lippa, one of the handful of "new" theatre composers who appeared circa 2000, has thus far given us two decidedly disappointing full-scale Broadway musicals, Big Fish and 2010's The Addams Family.
One has to imagine that the structural problems of Big Fish were readily apparent during the tryout in Chicago, which makes one wonder why the creators didn't get around to addressing them. The Addams Family was something of a mess in Chicago, too. In that case, they attempted major fixes during New York previews, which proved to be too little, too late. Yet another case of "Whadda ya mean we need to fix the show?" was the hard-working Butz's prior musical, Catch Me If You Can. Remember the days when people used feedback from pre-Broadway tryouts to fix musicals?
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [Masterworks Broadway]
There is only so much you can get from an original cast recording of a non-musical play, right? It's just the actors saying the lines. You might as well be listening to radio. Or so I find is the case, usually. The original cast recording of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a grand and lacerating exception.
We have seen countless Virginia Woolfs over the years; they come along like clockwork, as befits a modern-day classic, and provide high-grade fodder for dramatic actors. (The last Broadway edition, starring Amy Morton and Tracy Letts, was top grade.) But the original 1962 production, preserved on LP by Columbia Records and now released by Masterworks Broadway, can be seen as — or, rather, heard as — a revelation.
Martha and George always battle their way through Albee's three-act prizefight, yes, but with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, it is a true slugfest. These now-familiar words come across like darts and bullets; the now-familiar dramatic peaks — the "fun and games" they play, the various plot points (including the history of Martha and George's son) — come at us as if they are original thoughts, hurled like blistering weapons of attack to help the protagonists get through the long night's journey into day. As the play proceeds, you stop listening to the recording and become immersed in the death-struggle.
George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon contribute mightily as well, and one mustn't overlook that the whole has been tautened by director Alan Schneider to the point that it resembles a grand spider's web made of steel strands. But it's Albee's words and Hagen & Hill's barely-controlled violence that makes this cast recording spellbinding. Virginia Woolf, which won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album, is a knockout.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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