Overture! Curtain up! To mark the premiere of this new monthly Whatsonstage.com feature, here’s an inaugural selection of recent theatre-related CDs. Every month a CD/DVD will be in the spotlight, with a full review, followed by a selection of the 'best of the rest'.

We aim to cover the gamut, from the West End and Broadway, fringe and regional, Europe and Australia, and all points in between - north, south, east, and west - covering musical theatre of all kinds, cabaret, personality albums both old and new, the work of songwriters, gala tributes and anthologies, drama and comedy, the spoken word, instruction, and yes, even sing-a-long and karaoke editions. Plus there'll be an occasional “retrospective” feature showcasing material of continuing/current interest.

Our first featured CD is a recording of Jerome Kern’s The Cabaret Girl. Rounding out this first playlist are recordings of stalwarts Annie and Mamma Mia!, more early Kern rarities, older West End classics Bitter Sweet and Bless the Bride, Gloria Swanson’s pioneering Sunset Boulevard concept album, an early cover album of Gigi featuring Tony Martin (with extra French dressing by Maurice Chevalier), Home Guard TV nostalgia featuring the cast of Dad’s Army, and a trio of comparatively new kids on the block, Jersey Boys, Priscilla, and Zorro. Plus our first DVD, Rick McKay’s wondrous documentary, Broadway: The Golden Age. Enjoy!

Catherine Surowiec
CD & DVD reviewer


Editor’s Pick

The Cabaret Girl
Albany Records.
Ohio Light Opera Company production, 2008. 2-CD, plus booklet.

Jerome Kern’s elegant New York Princess Theatre musicals, written with P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, shine like gems in the annals of American musical theatre, as anyone can tell you who has ever heard the late John McGlinn’s magical 1990 recording of the 1924 Sitting Pretty. The Cabaret Girl was one of Kern’s London shows, written at the suggestion of actor-producer George Grossmith, Jr., who teamed with Wodehouse to provide the book and lyrics, and also played one of the comic leads. The show opened at London’s Winter Garden in September 1922.

Kudos to the ambitious Ohio Light Opera Company for tackling this delicate territory. This double-disc CD presents the entire score, complete with dialogue, recorded live at the Ohio Light Opera 2008 Festival, conducted by Michael Borowitz. They give it their all, and we are grateful to have this recording, but ultimately one misses the elegant spirit and musical finesse of McGlinn. A few minor quibbles: The voices of the two actors playing the music publishers Gravvins and Gripps, obviously a parody of the team of Gallagher & Shean in that year’s Ziegfeld Follies, are too similar; it was often difficult to tell them apart. The only time we sense the audience in this live recording is at the very end, when there is a burst of applause which is then rapidly cut short. Were they instructed to keep quiet? It kills the spontaneity, and gives the recording an eerie vacuum-like quality. The booklet includes the full libretto, although the typeface is light and hard to read, and one wishes there were more information about the show and its original 1922 London cast (there is nary a mention of star Dorothy Dickson, or that Gravvins was to have been played by comedian Leslie Henson, who had to pull out at the last minute).


CDs

Annie
TimeLife

The complete recording of the Strouse-Charnin Broadway blockbuster, in its 30th Anniversary production. Deluxe 2-CD set, with a lavish booklet illustrated in comic-strip style, featuring notes by composer Charles Strouse, librettist Thomas Meehan, lyricist Martin Charnin, and a tribute to costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge by William Ivey Long. This is the first time the entire Tony-winning score has been available. Disc 2 features a fully-orchestrated selection of songs from the never-recorded sequel Annie 2, narrated by Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan, plus three bonus tracks introduced by Andrea McArdle, the original 1977 Broadway Annie. Leapin’ Lizards!

Bitter Sweet
Sepia Records

Billed as “Selections from the Operette by Noël Coward”, this album actually includes a chronological collection of recordings of Coward’s best-known work, beginning with the original 1929 London and New York casts and the 1930 Paris cast, joined by a 1958 studio recording in stereo, plus the Master himself performing his wistful hit ballad “I’ll See You Again”. The leads featured across the years are Peggy Wood, Georges Metaxa, Evelyn Laye, Jane Marnac, and Vanessa Lee. Listen and judge for yourself whether you agree with Coward that this beautifully crafted piece is an operetta, or a musical.

Bless the Bride
Sepia Records

This charming Vivian Ellis musical was a bit hit in 1947, the year of the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lt. Philip Mountbatten. The original London cast (Georges Guétary, Lizbeth Webb) recorded only 4 numbers commercially, but thankfully they were also invited to record an hour-long version of the show for radio broadcast. These rare radio transcriptions have been restored for this CD, which also includes three of the commercially recorded songs, plus Guétary singing “Ma Belle Marguerite” in French, and composer Ellis at the piano performing selections from the show. Lizbeth Webb herself supplied the production photos in the CD booklet. The result: 24 tracks of happiness, which will have you echoing the sentiments of the show’s wedding anthem, “This is my lovely day”!

Boulevard! The Complete Recording
Stage Door Records

Screen diva Gloria Swanson knew a meaty role when she saw one, and her Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard will live down the ages. In the early 1950s she developed a musical version of the show with Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley, which almost made it to English stages in 1956. Alas, Paramount refused permission and the project fizzled, but thankfully the demos have survived.

Now we can savour the original concept cast recording, starring La Swanson herself. The experience is often like listening to a radio play, preserving not only the songs but extensive dialogue and lead-ins, as well as even some spoken stage directions. Its melodic range is limited, but as a curiosity it’s well worth comparing with Lloyd Webber’s infinitely more flavourful musical adaptation, which has been wowing audiences in the Watermill’s pared-down revival at London’s Comedy Theatre. This double CD with booklet also presents six bonus tracks from early Swanson sound films, recorded 1929-33 (The Trespasser, Indiscreet, and Perfect Understanding).

Dad’s Army
Rhino / Warner Platinum

First time on CD for the original 1975 London cast album of the stage revue based on the perennially popular British TV comedy series, featuring songs and familiar scenes from the show. The cast includes Home Guard regulars John Le Mesurier, Ian Lavender, Arthur Lowe, Bill Pertwee, Arnold Ridley, and Clive Dunn. Recorded at the Forum Theatre, Billingham, during the production’s initial run.

Jersey Boys
Rhino

Original Broadway cast of the Tony (and now Olivier) award-winning musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, produced by Bob Gaudio. A nostalgia trip to the 1960s, the hits keep coming, thick and fast, interwoven with the stories of the boys from New Jersey with a unique sound that still thrills audiences. The album includes not only the songs – classics like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, “Oh What a Night”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Sherry”, “Rag Doll”, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” – but also bits of dialogue and narration. Have your finned convertible revved up and ready to cruise!

The First Rose of Summer: Rare Early Theatre Songs by Jerome Kern, 1912-1928
42nd Street Moon/Music Box Recordings. MBR 04003

Aficionados of early American musical theatre and Kern should definitely seek out this album by 42nd Street Moon, a San Francisco group specializing in revivals along the lines of London’s “Lost Musicals”. Among the treasure trove of unearthed rarities are songs from The Stepping Stones, Oh, Lady! Lady!, Love O’ Mike, Sally, and Sunny. Most are performed to piano accompaniment, but the icing on the cake is a selection of five numbers from The Cabaret Girl with small ensemble – “Dancing Time” is pure musical whipped cream.

Gigi
Stage Door Records

Vincente Minnelli’s elegant filming of Lerner and Loewe’s marvellous score spawned numerous cover versions. This long out-of-print studio recording features Tony Martin and Gogi Grant with Dennis Farnon’s Orchestra and Chorus. Martin’s suave crooning and Grant’s full-throated pop delivery are marred by a literally “la-la-la” chorus and tinny and often too-fast orchestral accompaniment. The bonus tracks are the real treat: nine songs in French by the inimitable Maurice Chevalier, with Sacha Distel as Gaston and Marie-France as Gigi, and three songs in Spanish recorded for the film’s Mexican release by Andre Toffel and Manolo Fabregas, all using André Previn’s original lush orchestration backings. You’ll find yourself humming “Je m’en souviens très bien” and “La Noche en que nacia el champagne”.

Mamma Mia!
Polydor

Special Edition original cast recording, celebrating the global Abba phenomenon’s 10th London anniversary, featuring three bonus tracks of live finale recordings, plus a booklet with all the lyrics. Turn up the music - it’s time for mirrored disco balls and synthesizers a-go-go.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical
Universal Music

Original Australian stage cast, 2007, with Tony Sheldon as Bernadette, Jeremy Stanford as Tick (Mitzi), and Daniel Scott as Adam (Felicia). Based on Stephan Elliott’s 1994 film starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving, and Guy Pearce. Hear the show that is now packing them in at the Palace Theatre, London. Sheldon is a wonder as Bernadette. You’ll just have to imagine the Outback scenery - and those utterly fabulous costumes.

Zorro: The Musical
First Night Records

Original 2008 West End cast recording of this lamentably short-lived show, starring Matt Rawle, Emma Williams, and Lesli Margherita. A highly enjoyable flamenco-flavoured stage version of the Zorro story, with music by the Gipsy Kings. One just has to imagine the swashbuckling and swirling skirts, but they’re here in spirit. “Bamboleo” and “Djobi Djoba” will have you clapping out the rhythm, and perhaps even signing up for flamenco classes.


DVDs

Broadway: The Golden Age
RCA Victor Broadway
1-DVD, 111 mins., Region 1 (NTSC), colour + b/w, aspect ratio 1:33:1, Dolby Digital. Extras: Director’s Commentary; deleted scenes; Broadway and Hollywood premieres.

A true labour of love by director Rick McKay, this amazing documentary is a celebration and tribute to Broadway’s Golden Age, via interviews, firsthand accounts, and archival footage. Every theatre-lover will watch spellbound, gratefully marvelling at the 100-plus cast of actors, directors, and writers, and the footage and reminiscences by or about such stage luminaries as Laurette Taylor, Katharine Cornell, Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, Julie Harris, Uta Hagen, Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury, Gwen Verdon, Al Hirschfeld, June Havoc, Shirley MacLaine, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Robert Goulet, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Barbara Cook, Jerry Orbach, John Raitt, Elaine Stritch, Stephen Sondheim, Fred Ebb, Jerry Herman, and Hal Prince, and how they helped to create theatrical history.

As the liner notes observe: “Great films can be restored, fine literature can be kept in print - but historic Broadway performances are the most endangered. They leave only memories that, while more vivid, are more difficult to preserve.” Three cheers for this 2004 documentary. But it does make one long for a time machine!