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Down on (in?) MacConnachy Square

Two recordings of Brigadoon, one a classic and the other new(ish), have just appeared on CD. logo
Maybe there's something in the zeitgeist that has resulted in two recordings of the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical Brigadoon being released almost simultaneously on CD. As anyone who's reading this review probably already knows, the show is about a Scottish village that disappears into the highland mists every evening and reappears for only one day every 100 years. It's eventually explained that this miracle was granted by God at the request of the town minister, who sought to protect Brigadoon from the dark forces of the outside world. Many of us who live in locales such as Manhattan Island -- where the populace is relatively enlightened -- might wish that the same thing could happen to us in order that we might not be adversely affected by the evils of our own time, including the blatantly ignorant, hate-mongering statements and actions of certain political and religious leaders. But I digress...

The beautiful score of this romantic musical fantasy has not always been given its full due on recordings. The original Broadway cast album is severely truncated, while the soundtrack of the MGM film version of Brigadoon is marred by Gene Kelly's sorry attempt to sing the role of Tommy Albright, not to mention the dubbing of Cyd Charisse by a woman with the wrong type of voice for Fiona MacLaren and the cutting of both numbers performed on Broadway by the soubrette Meg Brockie, "The Love of My Life" and "My Mother's Wedding Day." Far more successful is a 1957 studio cast album with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy as Fiona and Tommy plus the great Susan Johnson as Meg, conducted by Lehman Engel (see review below). Even better is John McGlinn's comprehensive 1991 recording of the score with a studio cast led by Rebecca Luker, Brent Barrett, and Judy Kaye. And now we have yet another studio cast album, from JAY, which was apparently intended to be relased as one of the company's note-complete, two-CD albums of classic musicals but instead has been issued only in a one-disc highlights version.

The recording was made in July 1995 -- nearly 10 years ago! -- but is only now being issued in any shape or form. It has a lot going for it, most notably the very strong singing and acting of George Dvorsky and Janis Kelly in the romantic leads. There's also nice work from Megan Kelly as a slyly amusing Meg Brockie and from Maurice Cameron, who displays a sweet tenor and the most convincing Scottish accent I've ever heard in the role of Charlie Cameron. (That's right: "Cameron," not "Dalrymple." See below!) Sadly, the best efforts of these folks and other participants in the recording are undone by the erratic conducting of Martin Yates. The tempi that this gentleman sets for the opening choruses "Once in the Highlands" and "Brigadoon" are so slow that the singers are unable to pronounce their consonants at exactly the same time! Less disastrously but still annoyingly, "Waitin' for My Dearie" is a little too slow and "The Chase" is a little too fast. This is really a shame, since the National Symphony and the large chorus sound great as captured in splendid digital stereo sound.

A fascinating aspect of this recording is that several of the characters' names have been modified. Aside from the "Dalrymple" to "Cameron" switch noted above, the character who's called Fiona MacLaren in the show as written is here called Fiona MacKeith, while Harry Beaton is now Harry Ritchie. According to a note in the CD booklet, "A mystery regarding the show is the change in many of the Scottish surnames between the [New York and London] productions, a fact never accounted for by its creators." Are we to guess that Dalrymple, MacLaren, and Beaton turned out not to be authentic Scottish names?

Similarly, the song "Down on McConnachy Square" is here titled "Down in MacConnachy Square," presumably because someone realized that this is how Scottish people would say the phrase. Also in the JAY recording of this number, a fellow named Sandy sells "toffee" rather than "candy," since the word "candy" is not used in England or Scotland. (I believe they say "sweetie.") Though Lerner wrote the book and lyrics for several shows set in foreign lands, he didn't always take pains to hone up on the local jargon. To cite two more examples: In the My Fair Lady song "Show Me," the original line "Don't talk of June, don't talk of fall, don't talk at all" was changed for the London production to "Please don't implore, beg, or beseech; don't make a speech," presumably because no Brit would ever refer to autumn as "fall." And in "Get Me to the Church on Time" from the same show, the line "stamp me and mail me" was changed to "bond me and bail me" for London, since the English don't say "mail." (They say "post.")

Because of Martin Yates's poor conducting, JAY's Brigadoon is not essential to your cast album collection, but another just-released CD of the score should definitely find its way into your home. This is the Shirley Jones-Jack Cassidy-Susan Johnson-Lehman Engel recording previously mentioned, recorded and first released by Columbia but now issued on compact disc for the first time by DRG. (Lord love 'em!) It's odd that this album was out of print for so long, as it is without doubt one of the two best recordings of the score. (The other is the McGlinn effort.) Jones produces such golden soprano tones that the somewhat pinched sound of her highest notes is forgivable, and Cassidy's vibrato-laden baritone will probably please more listeners than it will discomfort. Johnson has the most exciting alto belt of any Meg Brockie on record, and Frank Porretta sounds so terrific as Charlie that you likely won't mind his voice being a little heavier than the Irish-tenorish sound that's usually heard in this role.

Engel conducts the studio cast and orchestra splendiferously, so it's really unfortunate that the recording is monophonic. I have no explanation for this. It had always seemed clear that, in making its cast albums, Columbia permanently switched over from mono to stereo in the fall of 1956; thus, My Fair Lady, which opened in March of that year, is in mono while Candide, which opened in December, is in full stereo. This Brigadoon was recorded in July 1957, so your guess is as good as mine as to why it's in mono. Did Columbia think the project not worthy of stereo because it was a studio cast rather than a Broadway cast album? Or perhaps the sessions were taped in stereo but those tapes were lost? Whatever the reason, the fact that the recording is monaural is a big disappointment; Brigadoon has gorgeous orchestrations by Ted Royal, and it's a pity not to hear them with the increased clarity and presence of stereo.

In closing, let me reluctantly say a few words about Brigadoon itself. My colleague Peter Filichia has previously pointed out flaws in the musical's penultimate scene, wherein Tommy has returned to New York and meets up with his fiancée in a bar. During his conversation with her, his mind keeps drifting off to songs that he heard in Brigadoon, and this spurs him to return to the site of the village; the problem is that some of the songs he "remembers" were sung when he was not present, so he couldn't have heard them in the first place. While I acknowledged this misstep on Lerner's part, it never bothered me too much because I thought it could quite easily be fixed by changing the songs that Tommy recalls during the New York scene. But in listening to the two recordings of Brigadoon reviewed here and various others over the past couple of weeks, I've discovered a far more serious flaw in the show.

In many of Brigadoon's scenes, the characters simply do not speak and conduct themselves as people would if they knew that their village had begun to vanish for 100 years every night. According to the minister's pact with God, none of the villagers can ever leave Brigadoon, and the chances of any visitor from the outside world choosing to remain there are astronomically slim because he would have to decide within the space of a single day that he loves one of the townspeople unreservedly enough to effectively journey hundreds of years back in time. Under the circumstances, it's impossible to believe that the lyrical love song "Waitin' for My Dearie" is an accurate reflection of what Fiona's true state of mind would be, considering that her romantic options are less than zero. We can assume that Brigadoon is a very small village, so if the girl hasn't already found a local laddie to love, it ain't gonna happen -- and, because of "the miracle," the odds of some fellow from the future "walking o'er the horizon" to meet her and deciding to stay with her forever are so poor that it's nonsensical for Fiona to dream of such an occurrence. (Yes, I realize that Brigadoon is a fantasy, but even a show written in that style should follow its own internal logic. That's not the case here.)

All of this, plus the local-jargon-and-names mistakes noted further above, brings home the point that the often brilliant Alan Jay Lerner could just as often be a very sloppy craftsman. I've frequently bemoaned the general quality of modern-day musicals as compared to the shows of the Golden Age, but it's good for us all to remember that even the greatest composers, lyricists, and librettists sometimes produced material that is -- gasp! -- inferior in some respects to the best shows of far more recent vintage.

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