Christmas comes bit once a year, and this is your last chance to buy compact discs in the twentieth century; so here are my favorite Broadway CDs released in 1999. Faithful readers of this column will no doubt have already bought (or decided not to buy) some of them.
The most exciting new theatre recording of the year, and the one I suppose I've listened to the most, is MYTHS AND HYMNS (Nonesuch 79530-2) (which was staged in 1998 at the Public Theatre under the title Saturn Returns: A Concert). This is a highly-personal song cycle by composer/lyricist Adam Guettel, who used to be known mostly as the promising grandson of Richard Rodgers. Guettel shares Rodgers's high theatricality, humor, and that uncanny ability to move melodies and harmonies in unexpected but inevitable directions. But their styles are quite different, and I don't suspect anyone could mistake one for the other. Based on the evidence of Myths and Hymnsand Floyd Collins, Guettel already has all the tools to conquer Broadway. There are at least five amazing songs: "Saturn Returns," "Icarus," "Hero and Leander," "Awaiting You," and "Come to Jesus." (Another two were used in Saturn Returns but haven't made it to this disc. Hopefully they'll be recorded elsewhere.) Guettel, who did not appear in the stage version, sings five selections -- he's quite a performer -- and is joined by Theresa McCarthy, Annie Golden and other Saturn Returns cast members as well as notable musical theatre folk who were no doubt glad to participate. They include Audra McDonald (who sang four Guettel songs on her 1998 album Way Back to Paradise), Mandy Patinkin, Billy Porter, and -- singing backup -- Lewis Cleale, Brian d'Arcy James, Jessica Molaskey and Kristin Chenoweth.
The most important Broadway score to be recorded last year, I'd have to say, was Jason Robert Brown's problematic PARADE (RCAVictor 09026-63378-2) -- problematic in that the show itself was hard to like, resulting in a disappointingly short run. The bankruptcy of financial backer Livent hastened Parade's demise, but it would surely still be running if more theatregoers had liked it. The rich and varied score comes off far better on CD than it did at Lincoln Center, and Brent Carver -- playing the doomed Leo Frank -- is much more sympathetic than he was on stage. Brown is clearly an important new composer, with some particularly impressive numbers like "Big News," "Real Big News," "The Factory Girls," and "Come up to My Office." Some of the musico-dramatic demands of Parade seemed too much to ask of a Broadway newcomer, although the subject matter might well have stymied other Hal Prince collaborators like Kander, Coleman, Strouse and Lloyd Webber. That being said, Parade was still the most important new Broadway score recorded last year -- the competition, I'm afraid, was negligible -- and it is a CD that bears repeated listening.
The original cast album of GYPSY (Sony Classical/Columbia Legacy SK 60848) is unquestionably one of the very best cast recordings ever, of one of the very best Broadway musicals. But the first compact disc version was released in 1986, when the remastering process of analog recordings was relatively primitive. Columbia and/or Sony has re remastered many of its CDs of classic cast albums over the years, but it wasn't until this spring that they got around to Gypsy. Modern technology has brought out orchestral tones you could only barely hear in the past; Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's score (and the orchestrations by Sid Ramin, with Red Ginzler) reach out and grab you. It is also, by far, the finest recording of an Ethel Merman performance. Expanded versions of some of the tracks are used, and some bonus material has been added which, for once, truly is a bonus: Merman running through three songs with piano accompaniment, from an early demo recording. There are plenty of recordings of George Gershwin's 1935 Broadway folk opera, but the technological advance of a process called High Performance 24/96 makes Leontyne Price's Great Scenes from Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS (BMG Classics 09026-63312-2)
the best sounding Porgy I've heard (the combination of High Performance 24/96 and Price's high performance, that is.) Price is the only bona fide star to play Bess on stage; actually, her performance in the role on Broadway in 1953 helped springboard her to stardom at the Metropolitan Opera, which in turn resulted in a multi album recording contract and this 1963 Porgy. Her Bess is fiery and commanding; she also sings Clara's "Summertime" and Serena's "My Man's Gone Now," giving us some of the best performances of these songs we are likely to hear. Other than Price's doubling up this is pretty much a cast recording, using members of the 1952-1956 international touring company (with William Warfield singing Porgy). Also present is John W. Bubbles, the vaudeville tap dancer Gershwin himself coached in the role of Sportin' Life. Bubbles charms his way through his two showstoppers, breezily approximating the written rhythms and pitches -- which is, perhaps, what Gershwin intended. I am so overly familiar with Porgy and Bess I rarely listened to it anymore -- until this extra-special disc came along.
Other 1999 reissues of possible interest: Baby (Jay CDJAY 1325); Golden Boy (Razor & Tie 7930182202-2); Promises! Promises! (RYKO RCD 10750); and The Robber Bridegroom(Original Cast OC 8813).
NEW RECORDINGS OF OLD MUSICALS
Two new recordings -- both period pieces set in the American Southwest, both originally Agnes de Mille musicals -- have come from England to supplement the existing cast albums of these shows. Oklahoma! held the "Broadway's longest running musical" crown for thirteen years. With its fame, though, came such familiarity that it has seemed impossible to imagine an inventive, new take on the show. The Royal National Theatre and producer Cameron Mackintosh set director Trevor Nunn and choreographer Susan Stroman to work on it, resulting in a rapturously received 1998 London production which -- due to thorny negotiations with Actors' Equity -- has not yet crossed the sea. The British cast album of this new OKLAHOMA! (First Night CD69) offers a bright and shiny rendition of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's musical. It doesn't include the glorious voice of the original Curley, Alfred Drake; but until someone gives the "High Performance 24/96" treatment to the primitively-recorded 1943 Decca cast album, this U.K. import takes over first position. The new Oklahoma! will at some point be issued on an American label (Relativity), but the release date has been pushed back again and again due while the show awaits a New York date. In the meantime, the First Night disc is available here as an import.
Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones's 110 IN THE SHADE (Jay CDJAY2 1282) is a less likely, and therefore highly welcome, candidate for our attention. This 1963 musicalization of N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker -- a play currently revived on Broadway -- was only a moderate hit in a day when Broadway was being overtaken by blockbusters. (The producer of 110 lost interest in exploiting the show when his next musical opened across the street ten weeks later: Hello, Dolly! ) 110 in the Shade is nevertheless one of the finest and most intelligent musicals of the 1960s, and this new recording -- starring Karen Ziemba, Ron Raines, and Richard Muenz -- is more vibrant and more complete than the original cast recording.
Those of you who know and admire 110 in the Shade are going to want to have this new recording. For those of you who don't know the score but appreciate literate, dramatic musical theatre -- well, you deserve a treat, don't you?
-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (now available from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com