Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Lion King, Capeman

Special Features   Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Lion King, Capeman
No question about it, Broadway has changed, and so have the sounds of its musicals. Traditional Broadway scores --say the kind written of late by Maltby and Shire for Big or Kander and Ebb for Steel Pier-- are rare these days.

No question about it, Broadway has changed, and so have the sounds of its musicals. Traditional Broadway scores --say the kind written of late by Maltby and Shire for Big or Kander and Ebb for Steel Pier-- are rare these days.

The '80s was the decade of the pop opera, but the last couple of seasons have added to the mix post-modern if traditional shows with a richly operatic feel (Titanic, Ragtime), shows with overt pop-chart material (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel), and an opera putting the sounds of recent rock/pop music to genuinely theatrical use (Rent). The two new recordings at hand represent even more radical departures from standard musical theatre fare.

Considering that the new Broadway musical The Lion King is likely to run at least ten years, the people at Disney could have taken their time about releasing the cast album. But they set a laudable precedent with Beauty and the Beast, which had its cast recording available at the Palace Theatre as of the first New York preview, and they have continued the tradition with The Lion King, which was available in New York on opening night, and around the country 12 days later.

As The Lion King already appears likely to claim the title of biggest musical hit of the '90s, it's also probable that its cast album will be one of the biggest sellers in its category. But because Julie Taymor's staging and costume and mask/puppet designs make the show a visual feast, The Lion King is not the easiest show to capture on disc. When the CD arrived, I feared that the score would not hold up without the visuals, but it does; indeed, it's not until one listens to the score apart from its theatrical trappings that one fully appreciates the sophistication of the musical forces that have here convened. A team of crack orchestrators and arrangers have artfully integrated what is in effect two scores: a fairly conventional one by Elton John and Tim Rice consisting of the five original film songs plus three additional show numbers, and another one of authentic African songs and chants and various background pieces, the work of South African Lebo M (who also appears in the show), Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Hans Zimmer, and Taymor herself. The more old-fashioned numbers have been Africanized wherever possible, and the non-traditional songs have been given a theatrical feel, so while Taymor's work has been everywhere lauded, some words of praise should go to the show's many musical people, who have pulled off a tricky task.

Because of what they have accomplished, one doesn't mind that the score ranges from stirring things like "Circle of Life," "They Live in You," and "Shadowland" and enjoyable ones like "I Just Can't Wait To Be King" and "Endless Night," to less effective items ("The Madness of King Scar," "Chow Down"). An extremely heterogeneous and somewhat uneven collection of songs has been fashioned into a score that not only serves Taymor's purposes beautifully in the theatre, but also works on disc.

If one includes the hyenas (and I suppose one must), The Lion King has 13 leads, and they all come across well on the recording, with special mention going to Heather Headley, Jason Raize, Samuel E. Wright, and Scott Irby- Ranniar, the latter one of the most talented young performers I've ever seen in a musical. It's safe to say that many who won't get to experience The Lion King in all of its splendor until it makes its way to their cities or countries will still find much to enjoy on this cast album.

The first recording of the new musical The Capeman, beginning previews at the Marquis Theatre this week, presents three problems. Paul Simon's score, heavy on Latin rhythms, '50s pop, and doo-wop, is considerably farther away from traditional theatre music than The Lion King, and may not be immediately accessible to some show music fans. The CD released on November 18 features the show's composer and co-lyricist, pop great Paul Simon, singing 11 of the 13 excerpts from a longer score, with the show's leads (Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario) heard on three tracks; while the lyrics (co-authored by Derek Walcott) printed in the enclosed booklet indicate which characters are singing at any particular moment, it's often difficult to grasp how these songs will fit into a theatre piece or work on stage when one is hearing them mostly sung by Simon.

The third problem is a personal one: My knowledge of contemporary, post- Beatles pop music (as opposed to what would be placed in the female/male vocalist pop category) is extremely limited, not to say non-existent. I have little familiarity with Simon's work since his days singing with Art Garfunkel almost three decades ago, so I cannot tell you how the Capeman score fits into his recent oeuvre, or what other pop influences the new piece may bear.

Indeed, unless this Simon-heavy CD is misleading, this couldn't be less like a conventional theatre score. That said, Songs From "The Capeman" contains much that is intriguing and indicates that something potentially exciting, something that could attract a new audience to musicals, could be on its way if the show's creative team can make it work in the theatre. Even to one for whom this kind of sound and writing is alien, there are strong and distinctive numbers here, including "Adios Hermanos" (in which 16-year-old Sal Agron faces sentencing for his murder of two other teenagers); "Born in Puerto Rico" (grown Salvador looking back on the past, young Sal living it); "Time Is An Ocean" (the two Sals together, performed here by Blades and Anthony); and "Sunday Afternoon" (Sal's mother --Nazario-- in a poignant reflection on life while her son is incarcerated). And there are two upbeat numbers that the Everly Brothers could have recorded at the time of Agron's headline-making crime.

So even if it's possible that The Capeman's score may not replace in my affections those of such other current shows as Ragtime, Titanic, or even the non-traditional Rent, the CD makes me eager to see the show.

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