Music: Our Golden Age

Deal W. Hudson
October 1, 2000

The golden age of the Broadway musical may be long past, but never has the musical been so gloriously recorded as in the present. Those who only know and treasure the familiar original cast recordings of shows like Brigadoon, Oklahoma and West Side Story have a great treat in store. Quietly, over the past decade, most of these shows have been rerecorded inversions that often match or surpass their originals.

At the top of the list stands a recent recording of The King and me with Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley. Nothing here disappoints. Julie Andrews’s singing is breathtaking: Her rendition of Hello Young Lovers is a master class in diction and characterization. Ben Kingsley actually succeeds in effacing the memories of Yul Brenner, and the conducting of John Mauceri, as in The March of the Siamese Children, reminds us that Richard Rodgers was a melodic genius. Don’t miss this one!

Next on the list is Brigadoon, conducted by John McGlinn, who has had a leading role in the revival of Broadway recordings beginning with his 1988 Show Boat on EMI. McGlinn’s recording is flawless; every role is perfectly cast and beautifully sung. Singers like Brent Barrett, Rebecca Luker, Judy Kaye, and John Mark Ainsley are not household words, but they stir you to the quick in the way Drake, MacRae, Merman, and Martin did a generation ago. Listening to Ainsley’s Come to Me, Bend to Me will leave you shaking your head that such a marvelous song was left out of the MGM movie with Gene Kelly.

Kim Criswell is the belter par excellence of our day, and she stars in the new versions of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Again, McGlinn is the conductor in both shows, and baritone Thomas Hampson is Criswell’s romantic partner. Hampson continues very successfully the tradition of classical performers crossing over to Broadway. You must hear Anything You Can Do to believe it—my daughter heard it on her way to camp and asked to hear it again when I picked her up a week later. And Criswell’s I Got Lost in His Arms should be labeled “Dangerous to play while driving in traffic!”

Next to McGlinn, the person who deserves the most applause for this recording revival is producer John Yap. In 1979, Yap founded TER Records in England (known as Jay Records in the United States) to record musicals in complete editions with their original orchestrations. A good place to start is Yap’s On the Town with Criswell and Kay but also Greg Edelman, Ethan Freeman, and Valerie Masterson. John Owen Edward, who does most of the conducting for Yap, handles Bernstein’s score with the kind of brio you would expect from the composer himself. In fact, Edward’s conducting is the star of all the Yap recordings I recommend, including Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, South Pacific, and Oliver. Great voices are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful recording—without proper pace and idiom even well-sung performances will fail to ignite.

The film version of Oliver succeeds dramatically but is musically lacking, especially in the role of Nancy. Yap’s version builds on the unrivaled Nancy of Josephine Barstow. Sample her brief reprise of Where Is Love? followed by the ensemble Who Will Buy? for an example of musical theater at its best. In West Side Story, Yap again succeeds in rivaling the virtues of the well-known film version with the fresh young voices of Paul Manuel and Tinuke Olafimihan as Tony and Maria. As in most Yap recordings, the performance is greatly enhanced by the prudent use of dialogue, which serves a musical purpose of setting the mood for each song and, in the case of West Side Story, means hearing a lot of Bern- stein’s music as underscoring.

None of the previous Guys and Dolls recordings match the complete Yap version with Edelmann, Criswell, Emily Loesser (yes, the composer’s daughter), and Tim Flavin. There is just so much good music in this show one CD can’t hold it. For example, Yap gives you the world premiere recording of the entire Havana sequence. Yap’s complete version of South Pacific features opera star Justino Diaz in the Ezio Pinza role of Emile and Paige O’Hara, better known as the voice of Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, as Nellie Forbush. Again, it is the great achievement of this recording that you don’t miss the film version or, especially, its soundtrack. You may think that two CDs are too expensive for a musical, but once you have heard the little gems like the dance number based on the Bali Hai theme, Company Street, you won’t want to go back to single-disc versions.

Given space, I would recommend many more, including some remarkable solo recordings of Broadway songs by Dawn Upshaw, Bryn Terfel, and Thomas Hampson. Artists and the recording industry have definitely discovered an audience hungry for expressive singing and good tunes. There have been some laments lately that the only musicals opening on Broadway having any success are revivals like Kiss Me, Kate and The Music Man (both reviewed in CRISIS). This new golden age of recording reminds the skeptics why some musicals fail quickly and others continue to find new audiences.

Loesser, Bernstein, Rodgers, Porter, Berlin, and Bart knew how to write memorable music and wed it to a story that neither wallowed in spectacle (Andrew Lloyd Weber) or in cynicism (Stephen Sondheim).

There is a young talent emerging on Broadway whose music is quite arresting—Adam Guettel. In a future issue of CRISIS, we will take a look at his work, especially his musical Floyd Collins, in which powerful religious themes abound.

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