ON THE RECORD: Two by Bernstein & Two Valentine Anthologies

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Two by Bernstein & Two Valentine Anthologies
CANDIDE (First Night CD75)
Who, you might ask, really needs yet another recording of Candide? There's practically a whole shelf full of them, and now comes another from the April 1999 Royal National Theatre production. But this is the same RNT which has given us new productions (and valuable recordings) of Carousel and Oklahoma!, so I approached this new recording of Leonard Bernstein's fascinating but troubled 1956 musical with hope.

CANDIDE (First Night CD75)
Who, you might ask, really needs yet another recording of Candide? There's practically a whole shelf full of them, and now comes another from the April 1999 Royal National Theatre production. But this is the same RNT which has given us new productions (and valuable recordings) of Carousel and Oklahoma!, so I approached this new recording of Leonard Bernstein's fascinating but troubled 1956 musical with hope.

A glance at the back cover showed that they were not using Leonard Bernstein and Hershey Kay's original orchestrations, which did not bode well. As it turned out, Bruce Coughlin did a fine job reducing the score for thirteen players, basically one per instrument. (For this recording, seven strings and three brass have been added.) While the sound is much thinner than in the full-scale Candide, it retains and accentuates the instrumental solos; thus, every delicious bassoon or violin or oboe solo passage stands out all the more clearly. Mark W. Dorrell is the Music Director, and presumably deserves a good deal of credit.

Bernstein intended Candide as a comic operetta spoof in the first place, and this production -- directed and "in a new version" by John Caird -- accentuates the comic aspects of the score. This point of view extends to the cast as well. They are not up to the opera singers often heard performing this score, perhaps; but they convey the feeling of a light-hearted romp while respecting the integrity of the original. And the score never sounds stodgy, which I can't say of some of the other recordings.

The cast is led by Daniel Evans as the title character and Alex Kelly as a good-natured Cunegonde loaded with character. (It's time to stop comparing every singer of "Glitter and Be Gay" to Barbara Cook, don't you think? Kelly does well with the number -- although she's no Barbara Cook.) Most of the cast is unknown this side of the Atlantic, with the exception of Denis Quilley, who made his Broadway debut in 1961 as the hero of Irma La Douce. Quilley does a fine job on the difficult "Martin's Laughing Song (Words, Words, Words)." That also sounds like him singing the "Millions of rubles and lire and francs" section of the "Venice Gavotte"; it's impossible to tell from the liner notes, but whoever it is he's mighty good. The fellow playing the Governor (David Burt), on the other hand, gives a pleasant performance but really doesn't have the voice to sing the role.

Speaking of words, words, words, let it be said that this is perhaps the most intelligible recording of Candide I've come across. You can understand just about every lyric -- and this score is jam-packed with extra-intelligent witticisms which you never quite heard before, by the show's half-dozen lyricists (led by Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim). There are some lyrics here which are unfamiliar to me; they might be new for this production, but it's impossible to tell. In the category of hidden lyrics: my Argentine-born wife points out that "Me muero, me sale una hernia," which the dancers sing while lifting the Old Woman around the stage in "I Am Easily Assimilated," really means "I'm dying, I'm getting a hernia." That's one of the show's early lyrics written by Bernstein himself, by the way; as I said, Candide was intended as a comic operetta spoof. My one complaint about the orchestration is the credit. Mr. Coughlin did a fine job here -- one which seems ideal for future productions when a full-scale orchestra is not practical -- but the instrumental solos are clearly derived from the excellent 1956 charts by Bernstein and Hershy Kay. This happens all the time nowadays, and I don't know why producers are so anxious to erase the billing of the original orchestrators.

Those of you who have no interest in yet another Candide will probably pass this one by; but it succeeds against expectations, and is highly listenable. I still consider the original Broadway cast album unassailably the finest rendition of the score; not the finest version of the show, mind you, but by far the best for listening. This new one, though, is really pretty good.

TROUBLE IN TAHITI (Newport Classic NPD 85641)
The old M-G-M recording of Bernstein's 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti sat on my record shelf for twelve years before I finally got around to listening to it. It then took me all of five measures -- that wild clarinet riff, accompanied by a trio singing in the style of radio jingles -- to realize that this was an opera in full musical comedy style, written in Bernstein's most inventive period. I've been happily listening to Trouble in Tahiti ever since, and am pleased to find a new recording, from the 1998 production by the Manhattan School of Music.

Trouble in Tahiti is a two-character opera in seven scenes, with a backup trio commenting upon the action like a Greek chorus of radio singers. Sam and Dinah have a desperately unhappy marriage. (The piece was drawn from relationship of the composer's parents.) The neurotic Dinah accuses Sam of adultery. The egotistical Sam refuses to attend Junior's school play because he has to compete in his club's handball championship. (When child Leonard played Grieg's Piano Concerto with the school orchestra, Sam Bernstein didn't bother to show up at the concert.) Dinah gets wrapped up in her own fantasies, borrowed from a bad Hollywood musical called "Trouble in Tahiti," and misses the school play as well. In the end, the pair try to reconcile, with Sam inviting Dinah out to the movies -- to see "Trouble in Tahiti" again.

Recognizable Bernstein touches abound. The opening number is highly syncopated, with changing tempos. The word "suburbia," which sparks the opening number, is set to the title phrase of "New York, New York." The final notes of the opera foreshadow the musical ending of West Side Story, and some of the musical phrases resurface in Mass.

Trouble in Tahiti was first performed at a 1952 arts festival at Brandeis University which Bernstein assembled. (Also debuting was Marc Blitzstein's adaptation of Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, which went on to become a long-running off-Broadway hit. Bernstein dedicated Tahiti to Blitzstein; as an inside joke, he also wrote Lina Abarbanel -- the pre-World War One musical comedy star who was Blitzstein's former mother-in-law -- into the nonsense lyric of the opening number.) Tahiti was performed on live television later in 1952, and came to Broadway in 1955. (It was on a program with dancer Paul Draper and a Tennessee Williams one-act, under the overall title All in One. It played 49 performances at the Playhouse, with Alice Ghostley and John Tyers singing the leads.) In 1983, Bernstein attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to expand the forty-three minute piece into a full evening, pairing it with a sequel under the title A Quiet Place.

Elizabeth Shammash and Samuel Hepler do well with their demanding roles, and conductor Glen Barton Cortese has a good feel for Bernstein. I find Trouble in Tahiti one of the most satisfying of the composer's works. He wrote the lyrics as well as the music, and did an altogether admirable job. Forget the word "opera"; Bernstein fans who are unfamiliar with Trouble in Tahiti are in for a delightful surprise.

Just in time for Valentine's Day -- at least, that's what the press releases say -- come two anthology albums of Broadway love songs.

Broadway in Love (RCA Victor 09026-63645) is another compilation from BMG. As previously, they have been sure to include a few choice items that you might not already have. Leading these are Audra McDonald's previously unreleased rendition of the old standard "You Were Meant for Me." This is not technically from a show -- it was used in the film The Object of My Affection -- but Ms. McDonald's presence makes it legit (and amends for the inclusion of a love song sung by Charles Nelson Reilly, "It Only Takes a Moment"). New tracks by McDonald seem to turn up every couple of weeks, not to mention her new solo album, which I'll review in my next column. Is there some magical McDonald backlog somewhere? Other songs you might not know, but should, include William Finn's "Sailing" from A New Brain and Jason Robert Brown's "I'd Give it All for You" from Songs for a New World. And, for that matter, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's "She Wasn't You" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. There is also a very good "Not a Day Goes By" by Bernadette Peters, from one of those Sondheim anthology albums.

More surprising, certainly, is Broadway's Greatest Love Songs (Decca Broadway 314 541 096-2). Do you know all those great old Decca cast albums originally released on 78s which, after countless remastering, we all gave up on as being technologically outdated? This new disc starts off with Alfred Drake (and Joan Roberts, singing "People Will Say We're in Love"), John Raitt (and Jan Clayton, singing "If I Loved You"), and Ethel Merman (and Ray Middleton, singing "They Say It's Wonderful"), and they all sound pristine and clear as a bell. Gertrude Lawrence's "Hello, Young Lovers" is also included; after all these years of hearing about this great musical comedy star's famously unreliable voice, we can finally get some idea of what she really sounded like. Universal has bought the MCA labels (including the Decca and M-G-M catalogues), and I understand that they plan to start reissuing their classic cast albums. If these selections are any indication of their current-day sound engineering, then we have something exciting to look forward to. The disc itself is limited by Decca's downfall in the mid-50s; the 60s are represented by "Love Makes the World Go 'Round" and an especially clean remastering of the title song from She Loves Me. Choices for the last three decades are spotty, though, except for Bernadette Peters' "Time Heals Everything" (also sounding much better than in previous releases). Otherwise we get an assortment of songs from the Lloyd Webber/Boublil & Schonberg musicals and even Victor/Victoria, which seems way out of place on an album called Broadway's Greatest Love Songs. But the magical rebirth of the tracks from the early Decca albums makes this album especially welcome -- and indicates that Universal Classics is planning to take Broadway seriously.

-- 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

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