Masterworks Broadway continues to impress with its dedication to the musical theatre genre. Recent months have seen the appearance of an extraordinarily stimulating range of albums, ranging from the first official CD release of Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett’s legendary concert at Lincoln Center to a brand new recording of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s seminal Evita, based on the current Broadway revival. Reissues of forgotten recordings that were previously unavailable in the CD era and new recordings of other important new artists (Ramin Karimloo) and productions (End of the Rainbow) complete a stunning line-up. And even if not everything’s to each listener’s personal taste, that’s because the label is clearly working hard to try to offer something for everyone.
The first CD and digital release of Liza Minnelli’s “Live at the Winter Garden” concert is a real landmark. Remastered from the original master engineered by Phil Ramone, the recording marks a turning point in Minnelli’s career. Though she had been overshadowed by her parents (Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli), this month-long concert series at the Winter Garden Theater in January 1974 completely sold out within 36 hours and showed that the twenty-seven-year-old performer had truly come of age. A live album based on the concerts was released in April of the same year, but it had to be abruptly withdrawn because it contained performances from Cabaret; the contract for the latter film had stipulated that Minnelli couldn’t re-record the songs so soon and compete with the soundtrack, so the concert album never got the recognition it deserved. The show was directed by Bob Fosse – director of the film Cabaret, too, of course – and Kander and Ebb wrote some new material for the concert. The extra-special line-up was completed by the musical direction of Marvin Hamlisch, who would soon become a true Broadway legend after the premiere of A Chorus Line the following year.
This release of the concert also contains three tracks that weren’t included on the original release: “You and I”, “It Had to be You” and “My Shining Hour” – three gorgeous songs that demonstrate Minnelli’s ability with a lyric. The sound of this reissue is wonderfully vibrant, and one can sense the excitement felt by the audience at experiencing the performer’s raw talent in person, after her previous landmark appearance in the film of Cabaret (1973). Other highlights of the concert include a powerful but intimate rendition of “More Than You Know” and the poignant “Quiet Thing”. Overall, the album is a more than worthy addition to the “Legends of Broadway” series.
Another welcome release is the double-CD set of Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett’s special concerts at Carnegie Hall (1962) and Lincoln Center (1971). For me, the earlier one is far superior, and it has long been a favourite of mine, but I’ve never heard it sound this good. Before having become TV and movie stars, Andrews and Burnett were vibrant Broadway figures, and the Carnegie Hall album captures them in superb voice and spirits. Andrews, in particular, has never sounded better than in this selection of numbers, most of which are in a comic vein. I’ve always particularly loved the “History of Musical Comedy” medley, which takes in snippets of scores of songs from musicals before leading to a lovely performance of the “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” duet from West Side Story. For me, the Lincoln Center concert doesn’t quite have the same magic, and the attempt to get through 46 songs in a thirteen-minute medley of songs from the ‘60s is less successful than the previous medley, but it’s still lots of fun and this set is well worth acquiring.
By the side of Minnelli, Andrews and Burnett, it’s perhaps inevitable that new albums from more recent performers Ramin Karimloo and Kristin Chenoweth seem more generic. Karimloo is probably best known for starring in the twenty-fifth-anniversary performances of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2011, which were relayed live to millions of viewers around the world. I was there and was certainly impressed by Karimloo’s rich vocal ability, which I also enjoyed in the short-lived sequel to Phantom, Love Never Dies. This album does document this ability, but frankly I think it’s a shame he chose to turn his back on show music for the most part, and even the Phantom’s two songs – “Music of the Night” and “’Til I Hear You Sing” – are heard in bland, whitewashed pop versions. Karimloo sings marvellously, but I’d much rather hear him challenge himself in the genre for which he is known, before moving on to new avenues. The same problem goes, in my opinion, for Chenoweth’s new album. Here’s one of the most able musical theatre singers of our time, but she’s recorded an album of thirteen country music tracks. I’m such a fan of hers that it’s impossible to dislike it, but the results are just too flavourless considering the performer’s incredible ability in legit repertoire (her “Let Yourself Go” album is much more exciting). It’s salutary that these two performers who have always excelled in a particular sphere have tried to take on music for which they’re less obviously suited or known.
First amongst the cast albums here is the new Broadway cast album of Evita – the first complete English-language recording since the original Broadway cast album of 1979. This show is arguably the finest of the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber collaboration, and for me certainly represents a peak in late-twentieth-century musicals. Rice’s depiction of Eva Peron is utterly compelling as is complemented by one of Lloyd Webber’s finest scores. However, having grown up with the original London cast album with Elaine Paige, I find it practically impossible for another recording to match up to it, especially as far as Paige’s searing, thrilling characterisation goes. Elena Roger presents an interestingly alternative take on the title part, and her Latin flavour is obviously well suited to the character. There’s a welcome vulnerability and sense of otherness about her performance, too, but for me her singing is a mixed pleasure, often seeming strained, with a tremulous vibrato, intonation problems or obvious breaks in the voice. That said, I think she does better here than on the 2006 London cast album, but her “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” just doesn’t match up to Paige’s (or Patti LuPone’s on the Broadway album, for that matter). Michael Cerveris (Peron) and Ricky Martin (Che – a particularly attractive “High Flying, Adored”) offer up fine support, however, and the album as a whole seems to be a fine representation of the production.
I saw End of the Rainbow while it was still playing in the West End, but this depiction of the final days of Judy Garland honestly didn’t do much for me. Nobody expects a play about Garland to be excessively flattering or hagiographic, but the show’s perspective seemed excessively negative. The show also suffered because it’s inevitably impossible to replace such a widely-recorded and –filmed movie star. We all know what the magic of Garland sounded and felt like, so even with this play’s specific focus on her decline, and in spite of Tracie Bennett’s obvious investment in the role, I found it difficult to buy into the experience. On the plus side, though, Bennett performs in a lively and committed way, and this album is beautifully produced by Chris Egan and Gareth Valentine. We’re treated to twelve tracks here, including extra songs not heard in the play. Fans of the play will be delighted to have the chance to relive Bennett’s portrayal of one of the last century’s genuine stars, and even for those of us who were less convinced this is still a highly entertaining album of songs like “Smile”, “Get Happy” and “I Could Go on Singing”.
Another laudable aspect of Masterworks Broadway’s operation is the reissue of previously-available CDs, such as the legendary Follies in Concert double album, starring Carol Burnett and Barbara Cook amongst many others, and the double-reissue of the original cast album and original soundtrack of Godspell to coincide with the recent Broadway revivals of these shows. The Godspell release is particularly interesting because of the addition of a new little article by Stephen Schwartz. Also of note is the digital release of Jerry Herman’s score for the TV musical of Mrs Santa Claus – a favourite of mine that features a sparkling performance from Angela Lansbury.
However, the aspect of the label’s activities that excites me the most is by far the reissue campaign to make available some of their older or more obscure musical theatre recordings as digital and disc-on-demand releases through Arkivmusic.com and Amazon.com. These appear at a rate of about one a month, and it’s a real highlight of the calendar for me when the next one appears through my postbox. To be fair, one or two of the releases are undoubtedly eccentric. Divine Hair, for instance, is a live recording of a slightly strange event: a celebration of the third anniversary of Hair on Broadway at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, mixing selections from the musical with a new work by the composer Galt MacDermot titled Mass in F. I was more than intrigued to be able to hear this for the first time, and it’s a very worth addition to the catalogue, but I can’t deny that the wonderful Columbia Masterworks 1951 studio recording of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, with the irreplaceable Mary Martin, Jack Cassidy and Lehmen Engel (conductor), is more my scene. This little album has had a slightly lukewarm press in the past, but I think Martin and Cassidy bring personality and sensitivity to the material, even if it is a bit studio-bound.
Another joyful addition is the album David Merrick Presents Hits from his Broadway Hits performed by John Gary and Ann-Margret. This charmer from October 1964 was the first LP to celebrate a Broadway producer, and it features a dozen songs from a dozen musicals that had been produced by Merrick, eight of which received Tony nominations for Best Musical. The honest talents of Gary and Ann-Margret are ideal in songs like “Small World” from Gypsy and “As Long As He Needs Me” from Oliver! The Merrill Staton Voices excel, too, in ensemble numbers like “Hello, Dolly!” and “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi, and the rich arrangements and conducting of Joe Lipton and Henri René complete a deeply attractive package. It’s a shame that this is only a disc-on-demand, because I’m sure it would have a wide audience if it were available in shops; Peter Filichia’s new liner notes are a real asset.
Of the four remaining albums under consideration here, the complete recording of Menotti’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Saint of Bleecker Street was perhaps the biggest revelation to me. This piece is truly stunning, with its imaginative textures and complex scene structures, and with compelling performances by Gloria Lane and Gabrielle Ruggiero under conductor Thomas Schippers, it’s unmissable; nobody with an interest in this period of opera should overlook the opportunity to hear this unusual score. At the other end of the scale is the admittedly short (only eight tracks) but absolutely delicious pairing of Blackbirds of 1928 with Shuffle Along (1953 studio recordings). The former is especially delightful with its Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh score sung by Cab Calloway and Thelma Carpenter and conducted by Lehman Engel, but the disc as a whole is nicely recorded and well performed, so it’s just a shame that more wasn’t fitted on to it. I must confess that Half-Past Wednesday – billed as “the new musical version of Rumpelstiltskin” – is less to my taste. An off-Broadway musical from 1962, it’s just a little too cute and silly, but all credit to the label for investing in it by making it available. And finally, A Thurber Carnival makes a welcome CD debut in a fresh new transfer. The show opened at the ANTA Theatre in New York City on February 26, 1960, and ran 223 performances, a sign of its cultural resonance at the time. The score is delectably stylish and jazzy, and is based on James Thurber’s famous cartoons for the New Yorker. It’s yet another important, entertaining offering from the Masterworks Broadway stable. Long may they continue.