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Some Compleat Complete Recordings

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Director Joe Mantello’s excellent production of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, opens on Broadway next week. I saw it during early previews, just a couple of days prior to Jim Parson’s curtain call slip-up, which fractured his foot. He’s now playing the show in a boot and with the aid of a cane, but I’m sure that will make no difference in his dynamic performance as Michael, the self-hating gay man and party host, though navigating the two-story set may prove a challenge. Already a hot ticket, thanks in part to its starry cast of out gay actors, the show will be harder than ever to get into once the reviews arrive, so I advise you to get your tix now.

The original 1968 production was a landmark cultural event, captured on screen in 1970 in William Friedkin’s definitive film version, also featuring the original stage cast. But before the movie, the show was available on a complete double LP set, which as a closeted teenager I listened to at my local library (it was too dangerous to take it home). Boys was hardly the first Broadway play to be waxed in its entirety. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Murray Schisgal’s Luv, Sidney Michaels’ Dylan, Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among others, were also preserved for posterity by their original casts. And there was even an entire record label, Caedmon Records, devoted to recording classic plays with top actors. Alas, none of that repertory appears to be available today in digital form, whether on CD or for download, except for the Albee drama. Still, in honor of that tradition, and The Boys in the Band in particular, our topic today at BwayTunes is favorite complete recordings of musicals. Here are 10 of mine, in alphabetical order.

Candide (1974 Broadway Cast Recording)
I was already a fan of this classic Leonard Bernstein–Richard Wilbur (mostly) score thanks to its 1956 OBCR starring the incomparable Barbara Cook. So when I heard that director Harold Prince and book writer Hugh Wheeler were doing an off-Broadway revisal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I was thrilled. I had read Lillian Hellman’s published script for the musical and found it problematic; perhaps they would fix the flaws. Hellman forbade the use of any of her text, so Wheeler was allowed to start afresh, and he brought the show closer in tone and style to Voltaire’s original, freewheeling “schoolboy jape” satire on unbridled optimism. The production pleased the critics and transferred to a commercial Broadway run of 740 performances, of which I finally managed to see the 738th. But before that I listened to this over and over; it was the next best thing to being there. Also, it had the scintillatingly cynical “Auto-da-Fé (What a Day)” sequence, with its brilliant John Latouche lyric (augmented a bit by Stephen Sondheim), which was not recorded in 1956. The reduced orchestra didn’t bother me; it felt in keeping with the cartoon-like style. To this day it’s also the only version of Candide I have seen that I think worked as a piece of theatre, and I have seen more than my share, even writing narration for a concert version given by the San Francisco Symphony in 1993. My husband, who saw the show at BAM, was such a fan of this recording that he bought two of them, so he could stack his record player up and play the show straight through without getting up to flip sides. We didn’t know each other then, but now, whenever we encounter one of life’s confounding moments of arbitrary cruelty, we are apt to share a glance and mouth Wheeler’s curtain line, spoken at the end of the soaring “Make Our Garden Grow” when a cow suddenly shudders, falls over, and dies: “Ah, me. The pox!”

The Cradle Will Rock (1985 Original Cast Recording)
Marc Blitzstein’s Brechtian broadside about prostitution in all its forms eluded me until I saw the Acting Company perform it off-Broadway in 1983, I think because previous recordings were limited to the songs, and I had never really understood their dramatic context and the piece’s overall performance style. This production traveled to London’s Old Vic Theatre and was recorded there by Jay Records two years later. Patti LuPone won an Olivier Award for her performance (in tandem with her work in Les Misérables the same season), but the whole company is superb, and director John Houseman’s opening narration recounting the piece’s dramatic history is as riveting on disc as it was in the theatre. (Houseman co-produced the original in 1937 as part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre.) This complete recording lets you hear Blitzstein’s scorching sui generis blending of spoken dialogue, Sprechstimme, underscoring, and song in its full glory.

Dessa Rose
Jay Records producer John Yap made the fortuitous decision to record this ambitious 2005 off-Broadway musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) in its entirety because the show seamlessly interweaves dialogue and song. Employing story-theatre techniques, song fragments and set pieces, nearly continuous underscoring, commentary and action, time shifting, and fluid movement, the end result was a work of total theatre. LaChanze and Rachel York are outstanding as, respectively, Dessa Rose, a runaway slave who incited a rebellion, and Ruth, an abandoned Southern wife who shelters runaways to keep her plantation going. Michael Hayden as a journalist obsessed with Dessa Rose and Norm Lewis as a runaway slave who helps her but becomes romantically involved with Ruth provide strong support. Ahrens’ use of twin narrations—as old women Dessa Rose and Ruth each narrates the other’s story in flashback—is marvelously sophisticated, giving the show a novelistic texture that could only be captured by a complete recording. Oh, and the luxurious CD packaging, including a hardcover full script, is faboo.

Falsettos (March of the Falsettosand Falsettoland)
William Finn’s one-act Marvin musicals were as groundbreaking in their way as The Boys in the Band, coming in 1981 and 1990 and eventually being combined on Broadway in 1992, though the Broadway version, which contained rewrites and changes, wasn’t recorded until 2016’s phenomenal revival, helmed by original director and co–book writer James Lapine. In 1981 leading gay characters in a musical were as new as Mart Crowley’s open homosexuals were in 1968. The 1981 and 1990 recordings are necessary both as documents of Finn and Lapine’s initial impulses and for the definitive performances of Michael Rupert, Chip Zien, Stephen Bogardus, Alison Fraser, Faith Prince, Lonny Price, Heather Mac Rae, Janet Metz, James Kushner, and Danny Gerard. The 2016 recording is a heart-stopping rendering of the extraordinary final product, with great work from Christian Borle, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Rannels, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, and Anthony Rosenthal that resoundingly honors their predecessors.

The Golden Apple (2014 Lyric Stage Cast Recording)
Lyric Stage of Irving, Texas, did musical theatre lovers a great service by programming a production of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ delicious 1954 retelling of the myths of the Trojan War set in bucolic turn-of-the-20th-century America with the explicit intent of recording the whole thing live in performance. The show’s OBCR, released by RCA in 1954, was confined to one LP and far too truncated to convey what the through-sung musical was, though the faultless performances of Kaye Ballard, Priscilla Gillette, Stephen Douglass, Jack Whiting, Martha Larrimore, Shannon Bolin, Portia Nelson, and Bibi Osterwald are happily captured for all time. If Lyric’s able regional company can’t match their brilliance, or the wonderful work done by the company of the 2017 production mounted by Encores! at City Center, they are more than good enough to let the piece speak for itself. What’s more, who knows if Encores! would ever have produced the show if the Lyric Stage recording hadn’t come out?

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
When Mass, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to open the Kennedy Center, premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, it was the first new stage work from Leonard Bernstein since West Side Story opened in 1957. As I was only three years old then and not yet aware of the musical theatre, Mass was really the first Bernstein “musical” of my life. I was tremendously excited by the prospect but confess to being disappointed when I first heard Columbia’s two-LP boxed recording. While I liked a lot of the music, the lack of a detailed story and characters frustrated me. It wasn’t until I saw the piece broadcast by PBS in a 10th anniversary production that I “got” the work, and I have loved it ever since, despite being as secular a person as one could possibly be. Alan Titus is a commanding yet vulnerable Celebrant, and his fury at the chorus of questioning believers during the consecration of the bread and wine is coruscating. Indeed, I remember the outraged cries of “Sacrilege!” against Bernstein at the time. Lenny being controversial. Who’d a thunk it?

The Most Happy Fella
The three-LP boxed set OBCR of Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical comedy opera based on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted was long out of print by the time I became interested in the show. Even the well-stocked Cleveland Public Library didn’t have it. I had to settle for a single, tantalizing disc of excerpts. When I finally acquired the full-length recording from Chicago’s Rose Records while at college at Northwestern University, it was like finding the Holy Grail, and listening to it was an ecstatic and revelatory experience. And, yes, I know it’s technically not complete, because the short comedy dialogue scene in which Shorty Long teaches Susan Johnson to paste labels on crates is missing, but I’m including it in this list anyway. Uber completists will find that scene on Jay Records’ 2000 studio recording, which also has a useful appendix of cut numbers, including two for Tony’s sister, Marie, that I think should be restored in performance: “Nobody’s Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You” (a duet with Tony) and “Eyes Like a Stranger.”

Porgy and Bess (1976 Houston Grand Opera Cast Recording)
I spent my weekend food money to get a prime orchestra seat at the Mark Hellinger Theatre to see Houston Grand Opera’s acclaimed production of George Gershwin’s masterpiece of an opera, and it was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. You forget living on leftover cereal and stale bagels for two days, but I’ll remember that performance all my life. I didn’t see Clamma Dale’s Bess, alas (though Esther Hinds was excellent), but Donnie Ray Albert’s transcendent Porgy and Larry Marshall’s galvanic Sportin’ Life are burned into my duodenal lining forever. This was only the second full-length recording, coming within a year of the release of one done by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of its new (at the time) maestro Lorin Maazel. (A 1951 studio recording conducted by the eminent Broadway musical director Lehman Engel for Columbia Masterworks claimed it was complete but only included about two-thirds of the score, clocking in at 129 minutes. Nevertheless, it was my introduction to the work, and I will always think of it fondly. It’s available on CD but not for digital download.) I had Maazel’s recording, but once I heard the Houston discs I could never go back to it. Maazel was too “legit” and stodgy for me. And, of course, the singers on Maazel’s opus didn’t have the advantage of having played the roles on stage.

Putting It Together
This musical-revue-with-a-wisp-of-plot utilized the songs of Stephen Sondheim to tell the tale of a troubled upper-class WASP marriage. Conceived and directed by English musical theatre star Julia McKenzie, it played a limited run of 96 performances off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993. The run sold out before the show began performances because the star was none other than Julie Andrews, in her first appearance on the New York stage since Camelot, 33 years earlier. I didn’t think the wisp of a plot worked very well, but nevertheless I somehow managed to see the show three times (once taking advantage of a blizzard) because Andrews’ work in it was so extraordinary, supremely intelligent and bracingly adult. She gave textbook acting lessons on songs such as “Could I Leave You?,” “Country House,” “My Husband the Pig/Ev’ry Day a Little Death,” “Like It Was,” and especially a virtuosic rendition of “Getting Married Today” in which she sang all the parts. I enjoy the contributions of Michael Rupert, Stephen Collins, Rachel York, and Christopher Durang as well, but I listen to this for Andrews.

Regina (1958 New York City Opera Cast Recording)
In 1979 Encompass New Opera Theatre did a vest-pocket off-off-Broadway production of Marc Blitzstein’s masterful musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Incorporating some jazz-band-inflected material for the African-American characters that had been cut at Hellman’s request originally, it was a triumphant evening in the theatre and cemented a love of this show in my heart then and there. Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949 to mixed notices and a run of only 56 performances, but its reputation was greatly enhanced by New York City Opera’s 1958 production starring the great Brenda Lewis in the title role (she had played Birdie on Broadway in 1949), with George S. Irving, in a rare non-comedic part, opposite her as Regina’s ruthless older brother Ben. The recording positively crackles with theatrical electricity. That said, in 1992 conductor John Mauceri recorded his and Leonard Bernstein’s restoration of the opera, including the material that Encompass did back in 1979 and more, based on Scottish Opera’s 1991 production. Alas, it’s out of print, but copies of the CD do sometimes show up on Amazon.com. It’s not as theatrical as the NYCO version, but if you want to know Regina, you need both recordings.

 


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