The "Original Broadway Cast" albums from "La Cage Aux Folles" and "On Your Toes" provide more than just keepsakes of memorable evenings at the theater. Both are rich entertainment: a frothy new musical farce and a 1930s American musical classic. The records are packaged with lengthy liner notes and contain most of the shows' significant music on one disc.
Although "La Cage Aux Folles" opened less than a month ago, stores are already stocking a crisply recorded version of the extravagant musical that book writer Harvey Fierstein calls in his liner notes "our beautiful bejeweled balloon." RCA recorded the LP in its studios between the show's Boston and New York runs and rushed the album into general release the day after the show's splashy Broadway opening.
Although the show's premise sounds racy and "very '80s," its ideals are all-American and family-oriented. Jerry Herman, creator of "Mame" and "Hello Dolly!" among others, has complemented Fierstein's book with a score full of traditional Broadway songs. Donald Pippin and Jim Tyler's arrangements of Herman's words and music are a synthesis of hearts-and-flowers schmaltz and nightclub brass, sweetened with bells and strings.
As Georges and Albin, the homosexual partners in a 20-year business and romantic relationship, Gene Barry and George Hearn provide the story's musical anchor. The charmingly Gallic "Song on the Sand," sung by Georges to Albin, should have middle-of-the-road singers falling over each other to get at it (Frank Sinatra has reportedly already gone into the studio with it). With its subdued accordion refrain suggesting a candlelit St. Tropez cafe, the song is decidedly corny, but also sublimely romantic. Barry's chesty, rich baritone is full of character, but tender and wistful as well.
The clarity of the digital recording points up some of the more obvious casting flaws. As the son Jean-Michel, actor John Weiner is a weak choice. In "With Anne on My Arm," he strains to reach notes, rushes words and misses the lilting sweetness of the song. This could almost be a generic number for any romantic musical comedy, and its credibility depends entirely on the reading it's given. When Barry sings the reprise, "With You on My Arm" to Hearn one band later, it is a different song entirely, ending as a joyous duet.
Side two opens with Albin's anthemic show-stopper "I Am What I Am," which closes the first act. The song begins a cappella, Hearn's voice trembling with mingled hurt, pride and anger, then picking up confidence until it snowballs into the roaring climax, when Hearn strides offstage and through the audience.
The heartbreaking ballad "Look Over There" is the emotional center of the show, featuring Barry gently confronting his callous son.
"The Best of Times" would be equally at home if sung around Mame's spinet or Dolly's staircase, or in "Fiddler on the Roof," for that matter. Still, it is an infectious, exhilarating tune, rousingly sung by the company. The overlong "Finale" is yet another reprise of all the memorable numbers in the musical.
There is one minor problem with an otherwise fine record: Although enunciation is perfect and the producer's careful miking is praiseworthy, the vocals are mixed way above the music, a bit too loud, and have a faint, unpleasant tinny sound.
"On Your Toes" is a remarkable cast album that may actually be more enjoyable than sitting through the entire show.
The revival of Rodgers and Hart's 1936 milestone musical got on its toes at the Kennedy Center and went on to win two Tony awards on Broadway, largely because of Natalia Makarova's performance. Unfortunately, Makarova doesn't have a singing part, but Makarova's two big numbers, the "Princesse Zenobia Ballet" spoof and the classic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," are both splendidly reproduced here, and the listener's imagination can take over and provide the missing choreography.
Once you get past its silly plot, "On Your Toes" is really about music and dancing, and the music shines on the record. Hans Spialek, 89, has recreated his original orchestrations, and the 25-piece orchestra, conducted by John Mauceri, mimics a vaudeville pit orchestra, a dance band, a Rimsky-Korsakov symphony orchestra and a '30s jazz ensemble (for "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue") without sounding dated or nostalgic.
The "Princesse Zenobia Ballet" is rendered complete here, from its delicate, exotically colored passages to its hilariously bombastic cymbal-crashing rhythms, as is "Slaughter," the "jazz ballet," in all its tricky turns, from sleazy to sinister to slapstick.
Christine Andreas, as the ingenue Frankie Frayne, gets several of the most meaty numbers. The less said about Dina Merrill's singing, the better, but Merrill and George S. Irving turn in a jaunty performance of Hart's subtly political lyrics on "Too Good for the Average Man."
This record is plagued with the opposite problem of the "La Cage Aux Folles" collection. While the orchestral arrangements are lush, the vocals sound distant, and one must often strain to hear lyrics or spoken passages. The sound of dancing feet comes through loud and clear, however, as tap dancing is prominently featured in five numbers.