ON THE RECORD: The New Music Man and Two More From Sony

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The New Music Man and Two More From Sony
THE MUSIC MAN (Q Records 92915-2)
Q Records has released the original cast album of the rambunctiously rollicking revival of The Music Man, and it is most welcome. The disc handily catches the good-natured charm of Susan Stroman's production, and makes for happy listening.

THE MUSIC MAN (Q Records 92915-2)
Q Records has released the original cast album of the rambunctiously rollicking revival of The Music Man, and it is most welcome. The disc handily catches the good-natured charm of Susan Stroman's production, and makes for happy listening.

There is a natural tendency to compare the revival to the 1957 original, but there's little practical point. Yes, Craig Bierko sounds somewhat like Bob Preston; naturally enough, given the rapid-fire spitfire nature of Harold Hill's solos. But Bierko does the role well on his own account. Rebecca Luker makes a lovely Marian-the-Librarian, sweet but not too sweet as River City's sadder-but-wiser girl. (I saw Barbara Cook on opening night, not onstage but in the audience.) "Trouble," "Goodnight, My Someone," "Marian the Librarian," with its spiffy new dance arrangement, "Till There Was You" -- all are just fine. I could do without ever hearing "Shipoopi" again, though.

The music department has done a fine job re-fitting the score to Stroman's production; while much is different, everything fits the mood. Orchestrator Doug Besterman retains Willson's pep and musicality, Stroman's dance arranger David Krane has given the choreographer exactly what she needs with style, and music director David Chase has everybody punching out their accented notes in a way that would surely bring a toothy grin to Willson's face. (Vestiges of the original orchestrations by Don Walker and vocals by Herbert Greene are still in evidence, as is natural; they get no credit whatsoever, alas.) The album is well produced by Hugh Fordin, who did a similarly fine job with this season's other big musical revival, Kiss Me, Kate (on Fordin's own label, DRG).

With a few scant exceptions, most everything in Meredith Willson's variegated score is sung by the stars, the quartet, or the chorus. The quartet is a major presence, and they do a wonderful job. They seem to be a touch more human than the Buffalo Bills, who originated the roles. Rather than using a professional barbershop quartet, this production assembled their own -- "The Hawkeye Four" -- using actors with a sense of humor. Modern-day technology allows a better blending of voices, which enhances their work (especially when they are singing opposite Luker in "Lida Rose/Will I Ever Tell You"). The powers that be have seen fit to include the curtain call music ("Finale Ultimo"), and I think that might be a bit of a mistake. The uninformed listener will hear this and wonder, why are they playing so poorly? There is a reason for this, but it is unexplained in the liner notes; rest assured that it makes sense, and works well, in the theatre. But why do they want to give away the surprise on CD? (I feel impelled to point out the glockenspiel solo by Ruth Williamson, who unlike other cast members clearly has her notes down pat.)

So this new Music Man is just dandy. And catchy, too; as I write this, my three-year-old is marching around singing her own version of "Seventy-Six Trombones." She doesn't know the melody, exactly, but the "think system" works just fine.

BYE BYE BIRDIE (Sony Classical SK 89254)
I reviewed three of the current crop of Columbia Broadway Masterworks releases in my last column. Here's a report on the other two discs.

Newcomers Charles Strouse and Lee Adams -- along with Mike Stewart and novice director Gower Champion -- came to Broadway in the spring of 1960 with Bye Bye Birdie, a refreshing sleeper hit satirizing Elvis Presley and his idolatrous fans. Birdie, with its somewhat warped sensibility, was an unexpected joy in a season when The Sound of Music was the hottest hit. Audiences -- and critics -- were thrilled to have anything entertaining in their midst; the only musicals of the past five months had been disappointing failures like Frank Loesser's Greenwillow and the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer Saratoga. (The latter has just now finally been issued on CD and will be reviewed in an upcoming column.)

I certainly wouldn't say that composer Strouse was at his best in his very first musical; he has shown flashes of better work over the years. But Birdie is, for me, his most completely satisfying score. Almost every song provided its own delightful surprise. "Put on a Happy Face," "A Lot of Livin' to Do," "Kids," "Baby, Talk to Me," and "Rosie" lead the pack. There were neat pastiches like "Honestly Sincere" and "Hymn for a Sunday Evening (Ed Sullivan)," both of which were quite hysterical on stage. Perhaps most excitingly, there were a couple of impressive concerted numbers called "The Telephone Hour" and "A Healthy, Normal American Boy," which demonstrated that Strouse & Adams were theatrical writers, not mere pop songwriters. The work of Adams is generally overlooked nowadays, but he provided some of the niftiest lyrics of the 1960s.

By the late 1950s, the original cast album was in its heyday and Columbia's Goddard Lieberson was turning out class product like magic. Stereo came into the mix in 1956 -- just in time for the fall show Bells Are Ringing (but a tad too late for that spring's My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella). While there were further technological improvements to come, the sound on the original Birdie LP was light years ahead of that on earlier shows like Finian's Rainbow and The Pajama Game. Thus, the direct transfer of Birdie released in 1988 is perfectly respectable, although 24-bit technology makes a noticeable difference. If you especially enjoy Birdie, you'll want to hear it on this new release.

SHOW BOAT (Sony Classical SK 61877)
Back in 1950, Lieberson began a series of studio cast albums of classic musicals. Twelve shows and twelve years later, Columbia finally got around to Show Boat, although Lieberson himself did not produce the recording. John Raitt and Barbara Cook head the cast, and they are in fine voice. But folks, some of the tempos are so slow that you feel that the singers (or the listeners) are about to fall asleep. You could plant some 'taters, harvest the crop, and smother them in sour cream in the time it takes to get through "Old Man River." Franz Allers -- Fritz Loewe's favorite conductor -- is in charge, and it is slow going. And what about the arrangements? A few of them are Russell Bennett's originals; many were apparently made to order for this recording. Given the "newly commissioned, in-depth liner notes" and the "complete discographical annotations" promised, it seems odd that no orchestrators -- not even Bennett -- is credited. Or maybe they are better off remaining anonymous?

You'll do far better with the 1966 Music Theater of Lincoln Center revival of Show Boat (RCA 09026-61182-2). Cook and William Warfield -- from the 1962 recording -- are joined by Stephen Douglass, Constance Towers, David Wayne and Allyn Ann McLerie. Allers, strangely enough, is on the podium once more; but he had both Russell Bennett and Dick Rodgers (who produced the 1966 version) hanging around, so this Show Boat sounds far more like it did when composer Jerome Kern was still around. Fans of Raitt and Cook might want the Sony release nevertheless, as they make an attractive pair. I can't help noticing that these reissues -- as well as other recent ones -- proudly boast that "for the first time, original song sequence of each stage show has been restored." And I can't help but wonder, why? Sequences were changed for specific reasons. Let's say a show had two romantic love ballads in a row. On the stage they might have been separated by an uproarious comedy scene, or an intermission; on the record, though, you can understand the producer choosing to avoid placing them back to back. The producers of this current crop of reissues understandably idolize Goddard Lieberson. If he chose to change the sequence of songs -- and he certainly didn't do so arbitrarily -- why undo what Goddard did?

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer Trade Books). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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