Theater News

Broadway (and Off-Broadway) Originals

Michael Portantiere reviews CD issues of original cast recordings spanning six decades, from Oklahoma! to Saturday Night to two (2) versions of The Wild Party.

Party On
Just a few months ago, two separate stage musicals based on Joseph Moncure March’s jazz-era poem The Wild Party were produced in New York–one Off-Broadway, the other on. While they received mixed to negative reviews and closed quickly, each of these shows had its share of vocal supporters–though, interestingly, no one I know of seems to have liked them both. Now that CDs of the Wild Parties have been released, the debate is sure to continue.

I didn’t care for the Public Theater’s go at The Wild Party (music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, book

by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe) when I first saw it on Broadway, but the score really began to grow on me after some time spent listening to Decca’s original cast recording. And I appreciated the production itself a great deal more when I saw it a second time, in the final week of its brief run. It took me a while to figure out why my first experience was so negative, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that many of LaChiusa’s lyrics were unintelligible in performance–a problem of both diction and sound amplification. Also, though LaChiusa’s music is quite melodic (despite what you may have heard or read to the contrary), it’s complex to the point where repeated listening is required to fully appreciate it.

Though Mandy Patinkin’s shameless hamming on the disc is as much of a trial as it was in the theater (when he decided to show up), the contributions of Eartha Kitt, Tonya Pinkins, Jane Summerhays, Norm Lewis, Marc Kudisch, and other principal cast members are laudable. And let’s please give a special nod to Toni Collette, whose dynamic, riveting, fearless performance as Queenie should have earned her a Tony Award. (Heather Headley is just fine in Aida, but Collette’s Queenie was really something special).

If the cast album of the LaChiusa-Wolfe Wild Party is sure to gain new fans for the show, RCA’s recording of the version with book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa not only confirms but deepens my reservations

about that show as experienced at the Manhattan Theater Club. I had hoped that Lippa’s score would be more enjoyable when divorced from the trite, off-putting stage direction of Gabriel Barre, but it must be said that the songs themselves are uncomfortably derivative. If a musical theater composer is going to set the phrase “Now you know” (as Lippa does here in the show’s opening number), he should avoid making it sound just like Stephen Sondheim’s setting of the same phrase in his song of that title from Merrily We Roll Along. Also, given that the action of The Wild Party takes place in 1929, why would a composer craft for the show an ensemble number (“Make Me Happy”) that totally recalls Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”? (This is only one of several overtly anachronistic songs in the score). On the basis of his work here and for the recent Broadway revisal of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Lippa seems to be an innately talented artist who has not yet found his own voice.

As for the cast: Brian d’Arcy James’ beautifully sung, truly scary performance as Burrs is a standout. Julia Murney is very good as Queenie, but ultimately lacks the drop-dead charisma necessary for the role; and Taye Diggs’ voice sounds alarmingly worn in his “Poor Child” ballad. You’ll have a better time listening to Alix Korey’s hilarious performance of “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.”

I can’t leave these parties without noting the amazing similarity of the two shows’ opening numbers, both titled “Queenie Was a Blonde” (and both with lyrics taken, at least in part, directly from the March poem). The actual melodies of the songs are different, but the note values, the rhythm of the accompaniments, and the arrangements are so close to each other that it’s downright spooky. If you don’t believe me, give a listen.


Saturday Night with Strings Attached

Though Jonathan Tunick is correctly considered a modern master of musical theater orchestrations, his work for the Second Stage Theatre’s mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s Saturday Night struck me as oddly thin. But, for the new Nonesuch cast recording of that production, the orchestra and the orchestrations have been augmented. (Lots of strings–praise the Lord!) With the strong vocals of Lauren Ward, Andrea Burns, Christopher Fitzgerald, Clarke Thorell, and the always-terrific David Campbell presented against such a lush backdrop, this disc is a winner.

A youthful work that remained unproduced for decades, Saturday Night could probably have withstood some further tweaking for the Second Stage production; it’s a thoroughly delightful piece until the middle of the second act, when its tone and its point of view become rather confused. Some of the score is actually more enjoyable out of context, and that makes the CD an essential purchase on the part of Sondheim aficionados.


What Price Glory?
Are Decca Broadway’s latest reissues of the glorious original Broadway cast albums of Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, Guys & Dolls, and The Fantasticks worth the premium price that’s being charged for them? (Unless you stumble upon a sale, you’ll have to pay $17.99 or more for each CD at Virgin or Tower or HMV). One certainly won’t find better transfers of these vintage recordings, though the three Rodgers and Hammerstein shows don’t sound appreciably better than they did in their most recent compact disc editions. And the packaging is fairly lavish, with cardboard slipcases to enclose the plastic jewel boxes.

On the other hand, I continue to bemoan the lack of color photographs of these shows in the CD booklets. Such photos do survive in many cases–and where else can we reasonably expect them to be reproduced? A (faded) color publicity shot of Pat Rooney, Sr., Robert Alda, and Isabel Bigley in Guys and Dolls is included in the booklet for Decca’s re-release of that album, but it only serves to whet one’s appetite. Please, sirs, I want some more!