WITH ALL the more celebrated casualties of cultural progress, can anyone spare a tear for the original cast album? The four that have emerged from the 1980-81 season tell a sad story. Three of them feature evocative performances of memorable songs, but songs written, 40 to 100 years ago. The fourth album, from the original musical of the season that didn't close within a couple of weeks, features a grating, proasic, relentlessly cliched score, and a star who can hardly strike a note, much less carry a tune.
The three resucitations are "The Pirates of Penzance," "Sophisicated Ladies" and "42nd Street," with songs by Gilbert & Sullivan, Duke Ellington and the old Holywood team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The instant mummification is "Woman of the Year," with Lauren Bacall and with songs by the Broadway team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who gave us "Caberet" in what, surely, were better days. This show, like such recent hits as "They're Playing Our Song" and "Barnum," throbs with the nervous beat of a profession on the defensive, which is where Broadway musical comedy song writing has been since the early '60s, when rock 'n' roll swept theatrical music from the mass market.
The appeal of cast albums always has been tied to the appeal of Broadway musicials themselves. But there was a time when all but the most resounding flops would be recorded and have a chance to find somewhere, someday, an audience. Among the wizened collectors of old cast albums, there are those who can, even now, pluck the likes of "Out of This World," "High spirits" or "Mack and Mabel" from their shelves, and cite the esoteric virtues of each. And there are those who could put together a esoteric virtues of each. And there are those who could put together a concert of "Bajour," "Milk and Honey" and "Goldilocks," and let us vividly experience the depths of banality of contrivance to which the medium has sometimes descended.
In their heyday, musical comedies commanded a following far beyond the geographically and financially priviledged few who would routinely see a show in person. The rest of the populace would have to made do with cast albums, except for the rare case when, after months or years of waiting, the chance to visit New York, or a touring company's visit to the home town, beckoned. To see "The King and I" or "Guys and Dolls" or "My Fair Lady" after such a buildup was like no other experience. It was better, in some ways, than the experience of the hardened Broadway theatergoer. A good score would only get better on re-hearing, and the theategoer who came with that edge was probably a more astute judge of the show's worth than the critic who had to judge it cold -- which helps explain such transcendent acts of idiocy asd the New York newspaper review which called "Oklahoma's" score "lacking in variety."
Some shows have been considerably more seductive in the album-inspired imagination than the flesh -- "Candide," for example, which Leonard Barstein and various co-conspirators have continued to refine ever since its original failure in 1956. And "Finian's Rainbow," which, while a hit in 1948-49, joined an immortal score with a riduculous book. And "Cabaret," whose plot was so monotonous and predicatable that the movie discarded it completely (along with half the songs). These are the cases that have been seen widely enough for people to chart their problems. Other musicials have enjoyed brief runs on Broadway and never surfaced again, while their cast albums have won their way into every serious collector's library and heart. If you have heard Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll in the Harold Arlen/Truman Capote/Peter Brook musical "House of Flowers," to pick one memorable example, you will be hard pressed to explain why the show survived barely half a season.
Among the musicials responsible for keeping the form barely alive today is one which has probably never been smug as well as on stage as on the original album. This is the peculiar case of "Evita," which following a formula developed by song writers Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, was on album before it became a show. But Julie Covington, the extraordinary singer who sang the part of Eva Peron on that first record, has never done so in a theater.
"Evita," "Sweeney Todd" and "Annie" are new musicals -- legitimately new musicals -- which have succeeded as cast albums in the last five years. For all their differences, these scores exude their authors' confidence in the enduring potential of the musical as a distinct form of song writing, not merely a second-rate, homogenized brand of rock. Lloyd Weber and Rice are regarded as exponents of the rock musical, but "Evita's" songs are irrevocably tied to its plot and characters, and "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," the most popular of them, is a remarkably sophisticated effort to capture in music the dark spell that Eva Peron cast over her people."
Those who have condemned "Evita" for glorifying an evil woman have probably not listened to the album in any of its versions. "Don't Cry for me, Argentina," Eva sings, "for I am ordinary, unimportant and underserving of such attention. Unless we all are -- I think we all are." This is demagoguery in song -- particularly the last lyrical amendment, "I think we all are." The fakery is transparent, but the song is rivetingly beautiful. It reveals something of the strong emotional ties that beleagured peoples tend to establish with leaders who are, in fact, "undeserving of such attention." (In the epic frenzy of Harold Prince's staging, it is easy to miss some of the subtlety of the score -- so "Edvita," which should reach Washington's National Theater later this year, is a prime candidate for prelistening."
"Eva and Sweeney Todd" are brash efforts to stake out a new territory for the musical. "Annie" is a brash effort to reoccupy the traditional territory. In between lies the great unfortunate mass of today's musicals, which, in their desperate attempts to be top-40-ish as well as theatrical, combine the worst of both worlds. Spurred by the example of "A Chorus Line" -- a very effective piece of theater despite the nondescript score -- Broadway song writers are going tiresomely pop, and one of the results is that the appeal of a cast album is limited to people who have actually seen the show and demand a memento of the occasion. Hence the virtual dictum in the record business nowadays that if a show doesn't get beyond Broadway, it won't be worth recording.
The impresarios of the musical theater the few who remain -- recognize the frailty of most of the original material that comes to them, and they have responded by pillaging the past. which brings us back to "42nd Street," "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Pirates of Penance," three of the most successful pillaging expeditions in recent Broadway history.
The "42nd Street' and Sophisticated Ladies" albums hail from RCA and producer Thomas Z. Shepard, who have jointly been behind a plurality of the worthwhile cast albums of the '70s. (The others include "Sweeney Todd," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the "Oklahoma" and "King and I" revivals.) "42nd Street," a far more imaginative production when it reached Broadway than when it passed through the Kennedy Center last summer, is simple-minded nostalgic kitsch elevated by the ingenuity of director/choreographer Gower Champion, who died just before the opening-night curtain, and by good basic ingredients: an unstinting production, a strong cast and, underneath it all, a very agreeable and well-crafted score, with songs like "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Dames" and "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me."
For contrast, ask yourself when Broadway last had a show that yielded more than a single song which became a popular standard. "Annie" had one, "Tomorrow." And "A Little Night Music" had one, "Send in the Clowns," but in that case it took the passages of several years and the intervention of July Collins to turn the trick.
Lest anyone forget that "42nd Street" is a David Merrick production, purchasers of the album will find an unexpected box in the lower left-hand corner of one of the inside flaps. "For Marguerita Merrick," it reads. "My lovely daughter, age 8, Christmas 1980." Another reminder is the room-rattling volume of the dance numbers -- something Merrick is said to have insisted on. As live shows, both "42nd Street" and "Sophisticated Ladies" depend heavily on dance. This must pose a dilemma for the record producer, and it has to be said that "Sophisticated Ladies" (a two-record set, also from the RCA/Shepard team) meets the problem with greater aplomb. Here, mixed more gently into the overall musical scheme of things, and edited more shrewdly, the tap-dancing acutally becomes the extra percussion instrument that, ideally, it should be.
The album's greatest strengths are the show's -- the Ellington music and the charm and talent of a remarkable cast, most notably Gregory Hines and phyllis Hyman. (Singers Terri Klausner and Priscilla Baskerville also make a memorable impression on the album, while Gregg Burge and Judith Jamison, basically dancers in the show, inevitably get somewhat lost here.) Like "42nd Street," "Sophisticated Laides" was another Kennedy Center tenant-in-flux before it reached Broadway. The record is a reminder of what a calamity it would have been if Gregory Hines, who was fired the morning after the Washington opening, had stayed fired. Hines has something of Fred Astaire's incredible musical gentility and virtuosity. If old-fashioned musical comedy has to die, it should at least provide one fresh vehicle worthy of this man's talents before it does so.
"The Pirates of Penzance" is both the oldest and newest of Broadway hits, and it has been turned into a sensational two-record set by Elektra Records and producer Peter Asher. They came to the task through their association with star Linda Ronstadt, after a delay reportedly caused by a custody battle between Elektra and Columbia, co-star Rex Smith's label. Sir Arthur Sullivan's music sits very happily with William Elliott's electronically invigorated arrangements, and William S. Gilbert's lyrics are equally well-served by the voices of Ronstadt, Smith, George Rose, Kevin Kline and Estelle Parons (although the decision to include virtually all the dialogue may be debatable; for rehearing purposes, the casual listener might prefer uninterrupted music).
The soloists are a stronger presence here than on most show albums, including the old Doyly Carte recording that inhabit many a shelf. This is probably because Asher and Elektra are used to thinking of a record as a separate experience, not a mere re-creation of a live performance. (The album was recorded in New York and mixed in Los Angeles.) The cold truth is that "Pirates" will sound better in your living room than it does at Broadway's mammoth Uris Theater. (Washington audiences may have a chummier expericence in store when the show comes to the National this fall, although we will not be getting Ronstadt or, presumably, any of the other members of the Broadway cast.)
If "Pirates" represents an accommodation to the age of rock, it is a very agreeable form of accommodation, with lessons for those who aspire to keep musical comedy going. It suggests, first, that singers who can sing are, on the whole, preferable to those can't. It suggests that the popular-music world may be one good source of recognized names who fall into that category. It suggests that a score can be orchestrated and performed in ways that please a modern ear, without neccessarily sacrificing such old-fashioned notions as the hummable tune and the graceful lyric. And it suggests that feisty arrangements need not render the words inaudible.
Anyone who doubts the last point has only to listen to George Rose as the Major-General who boasts that: I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard dows and Zoffanies; I know the croaking chorus from the "Frogs" of Aristophanes . . .
Evey word is impeccably enunciated, and having ripped through this tongue-twisting lyric once at mind-boggling speed, he does an even faster encore with no fall-off in diction. Rose, of course, is a venerable man of the theater, and from the gusto of his performance you don't get the idea taht he feels his profession threatened by the presence of rock stars and strange new keyboard instruments. He might even see the shape of his salvation in those presences. He might even be right.