ON THE RECORD: Promises, Promises — Then and Now

News   ON THE RECORD: Promises, Promises — Then and Now
We listen to the cast album of the Broadway revival of Bacharach & David's Promises, Promises, as well as the new remastering of that show's original cast recording.
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PROMISES, PROMISES [Masterworks Broadway 88697 73495]
Let us acknowledge, to begin with, that the current revival of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David-Neil Simon musical Promises, Promises opened in April to a downbeat critical reception which has been countermanded — by far — by continuingly impressive strength at the box office. A fair share of the adverse criticism has to do with changes made in the show, seemingly to support the casting of the Kristin Chenoweth, a Tony winner and TV star.

Promises, Promises was originally written with the male lead, Chuck Baxter, dominating the action. The female lead, Fran Kubelik — a role that has always received star billing, but was nevertheless clearly intended to be secondary — has now been given extra songs, taken from the Bacharach-David pop charts ("A House Is Not a Home," "I Say a Little Prayer") and shoehorned into the action.

As critics have already pointed out, Chenoweth, while apparently box office catnip, is not an exact fit for the show. Fierce and feisty and tough — and perhaps even cute and warm — are adjectives you might apply to the actress known for Broadway's Wicked, The Apple Tree and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (as well as TV's "The West Wing" and "Pushing Daisies"), but innocent and vulnerable are perhaps not her hallmarks. Fran is a heroine who will get psychosomatic hiccups if a man looks at her askance, and resort to the most desperate measures if her married lover breaks her heart because, in her own words, "like a fool I don't know when to leave."

The drama of Promises works because Fran is so very vulnerable; Chuck is impossibly nebbishy, Fran is a wreck, and thus they are destined for each other. Remove her vulnerability, and what is she doing in that dead-end relationship? And remove her extreme youth, and why is the rich-and-powerful executive Sheldrake chasing her around? The good news for the production? Audiences at large — most of whom, of course, don't know the original 1968 musical or the source material, Billy Wilder's 1960 film "The Apartment" — seem to happily accept Promises as it is, here and now at the Broadway. Which is all to the good, as I'm thrilled when any ticket buyer leaves the theatre feeling they have gotten their money's worth. Which brings us to the new cast recording of the show, just released by Masterworks Broadway. Changes in characterization? Interpolated songs? Those discussions apply to the stage, yes, but are irrelevant on the recording. We are listening to what is there, on the new CD; not what isn't there, or wasn't there, or maybe shouldn't be there, or how old the characters are, or any such nonsense. How does the thing sound?

It sounds fine. Sean Hayes, who stars at the Broadway, does a sweet job as Chuck. I wouldn't say he compares with Jerry Orbach in 1968 (or, for that matter, Jack Lemmon in "The Apartment"); but he gives a charmingly winning performance on stage which easily carries over to the CD. Ms. Chenoweth, for her part, certainly knows how to sing and act; her CD performance, without carrying the baggage of the above-mentioned issues, is understandably more satisfying. And Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations, revised and slightly reduced by the master orchestrator himself, sounds just right under the direction of Phil Reno. Yes, this CD gives us Burt Bacharach's Promises, Promises, and passes with flying colors.

But what is it that is missing? The technical term, I believe, is "oomph." This new CD just doesn't have the oomph that Promises had at the Shubert in 1968, or on the original Broadway cast album. Which comes along, right on cue.

PROMISES, PROMISES [Kritzerland KR 20015-9]
The original Broadway cast album of Promises has developed a bum reputation over the years. The LP sounded super — thanks in part to recording engineer/producer Phil Ramone — and won a Grammy Award as a result. When this album made a belated appearance on CD in 1999 (from Ryko and, later, Varese), though, it was with a new mix that was inferior to the original. And that's the Promises CD we're accustomed to. Bruce Kimmel, of Kritzerland, has seen fit to take Promises and restore it to the glory of the original cast LP. And this is where it gets a little complicated. Cast albums, in those days, were recorded and released in a breathless rush, which means there wasn't necessarily time to polish things to optimal condition. What's more, the original Promises album came not from Columbia or RCA — old hands at original cast album production — but United Artists, a pop label. The Promises album — even in the original LP version — has, for example, some glaringly noticeable pitch issues. Kimmel determined that by applying modern-day technology to the original session masters, and then remixing the whole thing, he could give us a Promises that sounded as good as the show sounded at the Shubert back in 1968.

And that's what he has done. The Kritzerland label was established around the concept of limited edition licenses of vintage cast albums (and soundtracks, too); Kimmel came up with a financial plan which makes sense along these somewhat narrow strictures. Kritzerland's Promises, Promises was released in early July in an 1,000-disc edition, containing two CDs; a straight CD remastering of Ramone's Grammy Award-winning original LP as well as a technologically enhanced and "fixed" new version. I didn't quite understand, before listening, why Kimmel bothered to include the non-enhanced disc; wouldn't it sound the same, only lesser? Seeing as how Kritzerland was issuing the two CDs at their regular one-CD price, I figured that it was academic. Having listened to the Ramone disc, I see Kimmel's point; it certainly shows how Promises was ill-served by the CD previously available.

Still, it is the second, "fixed" CD that is the prize here. Yes, it sounds better than the original LP, the old CD, and even what I suppose we should term the new Ramone CD; this is the best of the Promises. But the original Broadway cast recording, in any guise, is the best Promises; better than the new cast recording, better than the 1969 London cast recording (starring Anthony Roberts and Betty Buckley). The original Promises, Promises, starring Jerry Orbach and Jill O'Hara, has oomph, all right. And plenty of it.

Kritzerland's 1,000 pieces sold out in record time — or should we say "CD time"? — with orders continuing to pour in. So Kimmel went back to the licensors for another 1,000. This second shift does not include the Ramone version; just one CD, the "fixed" remastering (at the same standard Kritzerland price for the single disc). Which is the one you're going to want to listen to, anyway. And the one which puts the songs in the correct show order, as well as including a hidden bonus of Ms. O'Hara singing the title song. (This sounds like it comes from the original recording session, with the orchestra playing Tunick's chart in a different key.) So don't despair if you missed the two-CD version; the new single-CD release is the Promises you want.

Let us put in a word for Kritzerland as well. These limited edition releases are moderately profitable — as long as they sell out. While titles like Anya and Illya Darling have flown speedily into our hands, a few are still on the shelf. Not a good situation, as in order to get the rights to these limited runs Kimmel has to pay full royalties and licensing fees in advance. Kritzerland has still got copies of the 1968 revival of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's House of Flowers, Mitch Leigh's Cry for Us All, Carol Channing's Show Girl, and the TV soundtrack of Stephen Sondheim's "Evening Primrose." I can personally vouch for Cry for Us All, an immensely troubled but gloriously dramatic musical with Robert Weede and (especially) Joan Diener singing up a storm; and "Evening Primrose," which contains tantalizing seeds of the Sondheim of the 1970s. Under Kritzerland's financial plan, the sales of yesterday's releases fund tomorrow's. There are still quite a few Broadway LPs that we want — or perhaps need — to hear on CD. Mr. Kimmel originated the concept of reissuing out-of-print cast albums on CD long ago with Chicago, Golden Boy, A Funny Thing and others on his Bay Cities label. He remains one of the few people in the recording industry willing to go out on a financial limb to feed our hunger for out-of-print cast albums with limited audiences, so don't his efforts deserve the support of fans of such things?

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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