Monday, October 25, 2010

Under-Recorded Musicals

As a fan of musicals, I long ago learned to accept that many of the pre-1943 musicals are unlikely to receive a full-fledged cast recording: these shows were created before Oklahoma! popularized the Original Cast Album in the U.S. (original cast recordings had been much more common in England up until then) and before the LP made it possible to record most of the important numbers in a score. Some shows have been reconstructed and recorded in their original form, mostly when someone is willing to pay for them -- the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization has paid for several Rodgers and Hart musicals to be recorded (though not enough of them; most of their '20s scores lack full recordings) and the Gershwin estate often does the same with musicals by George and/or Ira Gershwin. But this is always going to be an under-recorded part of musical history; the supply is too great and consumer demand for recordings too small.

There's another category of under-recorded musical, which is a post-Oklahoma! musical that was recorded but, for one reason or another, never really got a fully satisfying recording. Usually this happens with musicals that have extremely long scores that couldn't be contained on a single LP; they had to undergo cutting and pruning for that purpose.

The show whose lack of a really complete recording is most frustrating to me is Carousel. It has probably the longest score of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show (as well as possibly the best), and no single-disc version could accommodate it. The original cast version, on 78s, really gives only a vague idea of what the score was like -- and it also incorporates several arrangements that were thrown out soon after the recording was made. (Robert Russell Bennett's original version of the "Carousel Waltz," used on the recording, was replaced with a more symphonic version by the show's main orchestrator, Don Walker, and it's Walker's version that's the basis for most stand-alone performances of the suite.) The movie soundtrack incorporates all the cuts and changes that were made for the movie version. The Lincoln Center cast recording, from 1965, has nearly-complete versions of some numbers -- notably the bench scene, perhaps the most ambitious musical scene ever undertaken in musical theatre up to that point -- but had to drop or truncate other numbers to make room for them.

In the '80s, when studio cast recordings of old musicals were briefly popular, there were plans to do a complete Carousel, but it never happened. MCA did do a recording with Samuel Ramey as Billy, but due to some kind of rights issue they were not allowed to use the original orchestrations, and had new (and not very good, as I recall) ones specially made for the recording.

Since then, there have been two cast recordings based on Nicholas Hytner's 1993 London stage production. They have their good points, but the vocalism isn't always up to what the score needs. More importantly, they had to re-orchestrate for smaller orchestras, and that's a bigger problem for Carousel than most musicals: it was scored for one of the biggest orchestras in Broadway history. It used a 39-piece orchestra, including 22 strings. That's bigger than some orchestras that play Mozart, never mind Broadway. It can be done with a smaller string section (it's hard to tell, but it sounds like fewer strings in the clip above), but when you cut down the strings to the level of modern pit bands, the music's impact is reduced even more than for the average re-orchestrated show.

At least the 1994 recording based on Hytner's production (after it moved to New York), though with some re-scoring, uses a string section that's large enough to do some justice to the score -- though even with the longer running times of CD, it had to make some cuts to avoid spilling over onto two discs.

What Carousel needs is a recording of two discs, with a full orchestra. But though there were a bunch of recordings like these in the '90s, from John Yap's TER/Jay company (which recorded every note of dance music and transition music for many classic musicals, marketing them to schools and amateurs who wanted to learn all the music prior to performing it), Carousel never made it onto the list of recorded shows; I'm not sure why. The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization recently paid to make a two-disc complete recording of Allegro, but I honestly think Carousel needs it more.

Another big show that needs another recording is Follies, though that's a show that actually has had nearly all its music recorded in its original form; it's just that it's never had a really satisfying recording. There have been four recordings of Follies, and all of them have something wrong with them:

- The original cast recording has (of course) the best cast, but the record company refused to give the album two LPs. To get it onto one, nearly every song was truncated.

- The 1985 "Follies in Concert" recording has the usual problems of live recording at the time -- it's not a great-sounding album. More importantly, it's not a satisfying cast overall; hardly anybody is exactly right for his or her part. (Barbara Cook is a great singer; Sally was never really her kind of part -- it's not a part she would have done on the stage.) And even this version left out or changed some bits of the score.

- The 1987 London cast recording preserves the "revisal" that Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman created (on suggestions by the producer, Cameron Mackintosh) for this production, revisions that were eventually withdrawn because hardly anyone liked them. Though this was the only production of Follies that has ever been a commercial hit, so frankly I would think they'd be worth looking at more closely. Still, the recording preserves the worst ideas from the production: dropping a very important song ("The Road You Didn't Take") and adding mostly mediocre new songs from a Sondheim who had forgotten how to write a concise 32-bar song. (The new climactic number, "Make The Most of Your Music," is one of Sondheim's most overlong and repetitive songs.)

- The 1998 recording based on the New Jersey Papermill Playhouse production includes nearly the whole score plus some cut numbers, with the original orchestrations and a cast that at least had performed the thing on stage. While I'm glad to have it just for the completeness and archival value, it's a very unexciting recording -- maybe because Jonathan Tunick, the orchestrator, stepped in to conduct it. He's a great orchestrator but a dull conductor, and the whole thing is too low-energy to make much of an impact.

It's too bad the 2007 Encores! production of Follies didn't get a recording, but again, if no one wants to step in and pay for one, you can't blame record companies for not doing it; most show albums are money-losers. There's a production of Follies coming next year with Bernadette Peters as Sally, and that might get a recording if it does well -- but I fear that this might use a reduced orchestra too, and this (like Carousel) is a show that needs the original orchestrations more than most.

Finally, the post-Oklahoma! musical that is done least justice by its recording is probably The Golden Apple, John LaTouche and Jerome Moross's monumentally ambitious, weird, goofy and kind of brilliant Americanized take on The Odyssey. As one of the first true through-composed musicals -- a show that's sung almost from beginning to end but calls for musical-comedy, not opera, voices -- the single-disc cast album can't give more than a taste of the score, but because it wasn't a big hit, there's never been a full recording. Except that because there's no full recording, it's hard for people to discover it, and therefore hard for the show to get as many performances as it probably deserves.


Patrick Murtha said...

I'm with you generally, although I like "Follies in Concert" better than you do. Also, even in its truncated state, the cast album of "The Golden Apple" is pretty darned enchanting. What needs to happen with that piece is for an opera company to take it up (and to cast it appropriately, of course). If opera companies can perform "Sweeney Todd" and "Pacific Overtures" and do well by those masterpieces, there is no reason why "The Golden Apple" shouldn't have its day.

Anonymous said...

"... a Sondheim who had forgotten how to write a concise 32-bar song..."

I wish Sondheim could punch you.