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Sarah, Plain and Bland

Decca Broadway's new Sarah Brightman-Andrew Lloyd Webber compilation album will please many listeners and bore others. logo
In the interests of full disclosure, let me begin this review of Sarah Brightman: Love Changes Everything: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, Volume Two by noting that I have had a huge chip on my shoulder in regard to Brightman ever since the brouhaha over whether or not she would be allowed to star in the Broadway production of Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

If you don't recall the situation or were too young at the time to be aware of it, here it is in a nutshell: Brightman, who was married to Lloyd Webber at the time, had played Christine in the original London production of Phantom; but when plans were afoot for the show to come to Broadway, Actors' Equity Association argued that Brightman should yield her role to an American because she couldn't justifiably be considered an international star and, therefore, was not essential to the success of the production. The affair got pretty ugly before Equity caved, and I will never forget Brightman's televised comment prior to its resolution: that if she didn't get to play the role in New York, the person she would really feel sorry for would be her replacement, because that person would always know she was second choice. (I'm paraphrasing, but these are very close to her exact words.)

My reaction to this despicable remark notwithstanding, I'd like to think that I can offer a fair assessment of Decca Broadway's new Brightman-Lloyd Webber compilation -- and, indeed, the album is better than I'd expected. Whoever chose the cuts to be included here has done a commendable job of showing Brightman at her best or, to put it another way, at far from her worst. As I've noted in the past, the woman's voice sounds just fine when she's singing in her lower or middle range at moderate volume, and that's what we hear on the majority of these selections: "Probably on a Thursday" from Song and Dance, "The Perfect Year" from Sunset Boulevard, "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love, "Make Up My Heart" and "Only You" from Starlight Express (the latter a duet with Cliff Richard), "Any Dream Will Do" from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's Alright" from Jesus Christ Superstar, and the title song from Whistle Down the Wind.

Yes, the operatic cadenza at the end of the "Think of Me" from Phantom is as ridiculous as ever. But, other than that, only in the climactic stretches of the duets "Seeing is Believing" from Aspects of Love (with Michael Ball), "Too Much in Love to Care" from Sunset Boulevard (with John Barrowman), and the title song from Phantom (with Steve Harley) does Brightman's voice rise in pitch and volume to the point where it begins to sound unpleasantly fluttery. (Though the notes for the album don't tell the tale, I believe this is the version of the Phantom duet that was recorded and released as a single and a video before Lloyd Webber wrote the rest of the show.)

The one truly lamentable performance on the disc is "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from Evita, sung in Spanish -- or something like it! -- as "No Llores Por Mi, Argentina." First, Brightman's ultra-light soprano is all wrong for the song, which requires the vocal and acting range of an Elaine Paige or a Patti LuPone. On top of that, her Spanish accent might charitably be described as "studied." (If you want to hear this song sung en Español, get your hands on the 1980 recording of Evita starring Paloma San Basilio. Fabulous!)

Folks, please don't take the positive words contained in this review as an endorsement of the album. Even at its best, Brightman's voice is unexceptional, her interpretations bland. I think it's fair to say that there's no reason to believe she would have had a career if not for her alliance with Lloyd Webber. As for the songs themselves, a great many of them are third-rate when judged as musical theater numbers, however pleasant (if derivative) they may be out of context. If you're in the market for a musical theater compilation CD, you could do far better than this one, both in terms of the singer and the material.

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