Musicals as Opera
David Hurst reviews new recordings of two great operatic musicals: Sweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella.
Both Stephen Sondheim and the late Frank Loesser have several breathtaking, groundbreaking works to their credit, but it could be argued that Sweeney Todd and The Most Happy Fella are, respectively, the crowning achievements of these great composer-lyricists. The original cast recordings of Sweeney and Fella have reigned for years as colossal milestones and, for many fans, the possibility that either score would be recorded again in its entirety seemed slim to nonexistent. But, against all odds, new recordings of these operatic musicals have recently been released--and it's a joy to report that both are excellent additions to the composers' discographies.
The concert recording of Sondheim's 1979 triumph Sweeney Todd by the New York Philharmonic under Andrew Litton deserves a place of high honor alongside the original Broadway cast album (which, as you all know, stars Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury as the "demon barber" as Mrs. Lovett, the woman who turns his occupation into a culinary enterprise.) Recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall in May, the Philharmonic's Sweeney sounds glorious. George Hearn (a last-minute replacement for opera star Bryn Terfel) and Patti LuPone deliver tour de force performances that are dramatically gripping and vocally magnificent; Hearn sings with great fervor and strength, while LuPone is both deliciously funny and heartbreaking in her most challenging vocal assignment since Evita. She sings brilliantly, and it's thrilling to hear her negotiate the ascending musical line of "The Worst Pies In London" (to the words "Mind you, I can't hardly blame them" and "No denyin', times is hard, sir") in full chest voice.
The rest of the cast, an assemblage of stars from the worlds of opera and musical theater, is equally superb. Davis Gaines as Anthony (by now, clearly, the definitive performer of this role!), Audra McDonald as the Beggar Woman, Paul Plishka as Judge Turpin, John Aler as The Beadle, Heidi Grant Murphy as Johanna, Neil Patrick Harris as Tobias, and Stanford Olsen as Pirelli are all so outstanding that it's difficult to know where to begin handing out accolades. Murphy's Johanna is truly divine; as her soprano rides on top of the "Kiss Me" quartet in Act I, the heavens open up and the angels weep. Harris mesmerizes with his beautiful tenor, all but obliterating memories of his days as Doogie Howser, M.D. Plishka, Aler, and Olsen all use their operatic voices perfectly in the service of Sondheim's challenging score. And McDonald throws herself into the role of the crazed Beggar Woman with alarming ferocity.
Of special note is the gorgeous, comprehensive, Grammy-worthy booklet accompanying this two-CD recording; color photographs from the performances are stunning, and the notes, interviews, biographies, and libretto are thoughtfully and smartly prepared. All in all, this souvenir of the Philharmonic's Sweeney Todd is essential for lovers of the musical theater. Be warned, however, that this is a limited-edition release, and there's no telling when or if another order will be placed. Shop early, or kick yourself later!
In 1956, The Most Happy Fella--based on Sidney Howard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play They Knew What They Wanted--was the first Broadway musical to be recorded virtually complete with the original dream cast of Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan (soon to be Mrs. Loesser), Susan Johnson, Shorty Long, Mona Paulee, and Art Lund. It remains definitive; but, since stereophonic sound was still in its infancy at the time, the show was recorded in mono. JAY/TER Original Masterworks' new version--with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Owen Edwards and a star-studded cast including the late opera star Louis Quilico, Emily Loesser, Karen Ziemba, Don Stephenson, Nancy Shade, and Richard Muenz--gives us Don Walker's original orchestrations in fabulous digital stereo, and the results are exciting to say the least.
Spanning three CDs, the recording has restored several cuts that were made for the 1956 album, most significantly the "label scene" between Cleo and Herman. Also included is the show's exit music and six (6) bonus tracks of material cut prior to Happy Fella's opening. Now it's easy to understand why the role of Marie, Tony's sister, seems so small and two-dimensional in the final performing version of the show; as it turns out, a huge percentage of the role was excised. The JAY album also features Jo Sullivan Loesser singing the song that her husband had originally written in place of "Somebody, Somewhere." Titled "Wanting To Be Wanted," and newly orchestrated by Larry Moore, the song is as astonishing as the performance. It's fascinating from both a historical and musical perspective.
Nearing the end of his operatic career at the time of this recording, Louis Quilico gives an impassioned if uneven performance as Tony Esposito, the Napa Valley vintner who falls for the beautiful, much younger "Rosabella," sung here with great assuredness and feeling by the composer's daughter, Emily. Though Quilico has moments of vocal roughness, he throws himself headlong into the role, and his duets with Loesser are among the album's highlights. Karen Ziemba and Don Stephenson are delightfully comical as Cleo and Herman, while Richard Muenz sings the role of Joey with bravado and warmth. As Marie, Nancy Shade has the distinct privilege of recording such cut material as "Nobody's Gonna Love You Like I Love You" and "Eyes Like A Stranger" for the first time, and her rich, dramatic voice is ideally suited for the job.