One thing has become obvious about American musicals: On the whole, they are being done better outside the United States than inside. Mostly, they are being imported from London, whose bustling West End theater district is the center of the Andrew Lloyd Webber one-man industry ("Evita," "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera") and also the source of some look-alike blockbusters such as "Les Miserables."
A British company that calls itself TER (short for "That's Entertainment Records") is responsible for most of the excellent recent English recordings of classic American musical theater. In the past, it has leased American rights to its productions to companies such as RCA and MCA, but now it is developing its own distribution on this continent, through Records, Ltd. (P.O. Box 20136, Los Angeles, Calif., 90006). Recent issues on the TER label make this company already a significant presence in the field.
Stephen Sondheim heads the list, with a complete London original cast recording, including dialogue, of "Pacific Overtures" (TER CDTER2 1152, two CDs with libretto). The first London production of this show did not come until nearly a dozen years after its 1976 American premiere. By then, the composer and his work had attained such a stature that the show was produced by the English National Opera -- in effect, recognized as a classic on its first appearance. This performance completely eclipses the original American cast, not only in completeness but in the quality of singing and acting, awareness and highlighting of key thematic elements. The stature of "Pacific Overtures" is fully recognized and presented for the first time. The inclusion of a complete libretto is a thoughtful touch, allowing the high literary quality of the text to be appreciated at leisure and in fine detail.
If there is one piece of musical theater that does not need a new recording, you might think, it is Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," which already has two good recordings: the Broadway original cast on CBS and the (even better) London original cast on RCA. Still, the 1989 London revival (CDTER 1179) has limpid new orchestration, good singing throughout the cast, a heartbreaking performance of "Send in the Clowns" by Sian Phillips and a memorable cameo appearance by Elizabeth Welch in the role of Madame Arnfeldt singing "Liaisons." Welch, now in her eighties, became a star on the London stage more than a half-century ago. Her voice is still clear and musical, though naturally limited in power and range, and listening to her is a lesson in song interpretation.
For its recording of "Kismet" (CDTER2 1170, two CDs), TER had two excellent ideas: It included five added numbers from "Timbuktu" to fill out the second disc, and it used singers with strong operatic backgrounds (Valerie Masterson, Donald Maxwell, David Rendall, Richard Van Allan) in key roles. Not all Broadway musicals need (or can stand) this kind of treatment, but this show's classic melodies, by Alexander Borodin, respond well to trained solo voices -- also to the singing of the Ambrosian Chorus and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by John Owen Edwards. The Ambrosian Chorus, with the London Philharmonic conducted by Elmer Bernstein, are also featured in "A Musical Spectacular" (Chandos CHAN 8781), which features the movie arrangements of nine numbers from classic MGM musicals ("Kismet," "Gigi," "Singin' in the Rain" etc.).
Paris was the birthplace of the most distinctively American hit show recently on the international scene. "Black and Blue" was conceived, directed and produced by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli on the model of their previous shows, "Tango Argentino" and "Flamenco Puro" -- celebrations of vivid ethnic traditions that are in danger of slipping into oblivion on their native soils and deserve preservation in their classic forms. The blues are certainly a central phenomenon (arguably the central phenomenon) in American music. Like tango in Argentina and flamenco in Spain, the harmonies, rhythms and melodic patterns of the blues impart their flavor to a wide range of American music, including operas and string quartets, and mark it as distinctively American. In "Black and Blue," a first-class jazz orchestra and three singers (Ruth Brown, Linda Hopkins and Carrie Smith) explore a wide variety of blues flavors from composers who range from W.C. Handy to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. The whole show is good; Brown's singing stands out.
A clear-cut confrontation between London and New York can be seen in current recordings of "Anything Goes." The Lincoln Center production (RCA 7769-2-RC, with libretto) has a fine cast headed by the bright, energetic Patti LuPone; it imports four songs from other Cole Porter musicals (including "It's De-Lovely" and "Friendship"), and it revives "Easy to Love," which was written for this show but ultimately used in another. It is hard to imagine the show being done better until you put on the London recording (EMI CDC 7 49848 2, with libretto), on which Kim Criswell is even more versatile than LuPone. The London disc runs 22 minutes longer, partly because of bits of dialogue but mostly because of music from various productions of the show not on the New York disc, including "Kate the Great," "Waltz Down the Aisle," "Where Are the Men?" and "What a Joy to Be Young" (sung -- ultimate luxury -- by Frederica von Stade). Both have, of course, the show's impressive list of big hits, including the title tune, "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." Both are so well done and they have so much unduplicated material (well over half an hour between them) that anyone seriously interested in Cole Porter should hear both. But purely for documentation of "Anything Goes," the London production is clearly preferable.
The fact that Broadway shows are part of America's classic tradition is getting practical recognition from New World Records, which has already put Rodgers and Hart's "Babes in Arms" in its catalogue, along with all sorts of American symphonies, concertos and string quartets, and now offers a sparkling new recording of "Sitting Pretty" (80387-2, two CDs with libretto), composed by Jerome Kern. Dating from 1920, this was the last of six musicals written by Kern with book by Guy Bolton and lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse -- key shows in the evolution of the American musical but also (if "Sitting Pretty" is a fair sample), still enjoyable listening after 70 years and a landmark on the road to "Showboat" (1927), after which nothing was ever the same again. A lot of this music's charm today is rooted in nostalgia, but there are also some fine flashes of irony and perhaps even parody. An ex-con's alma mater song, "Tulip Time in Sing Sing," cannot possibly be a lampoon of the Heidelberg nostalgia in "The Student Prince," which was not composed until four years later, but it certainly makes fun of a particular kind of sentimentality. When he is not joking about it, of course, Kern is apt to slip into it. But he does so with a melodic sense that disarms criticism. The performance is splendid and well-recorded.
RCA has reissued on CD several classic original cast albums of special interest. The best, for my taste, is the original Broadway cast of "Purlie" (60229-2-RG) with a cast that includes Cleavon Little, Melba Moore and Sherman Hemsley. The original London cast of "Gypsy" (60571-2-RG) has Angela Lansbury in the mother's role, giving to "Everything's Coming Up Roses" a musical dimension quite different from Ethel Merman's treatment.