Collecting music is not rare. Most people have a favorite band; they head over to Tower on the day the new CD comes out and own every album the group has ever released (including the double-live album with terrible sound quality, no new songs and lengthy periods of applause that should have been left in the editing room). Some fans have more exotic tastes, though, than can be satisfied at the local overcharging music retailer. I am one such fan. Yet it is not indy rock, turn-of-the-century ragtime or even scarily popular polka that I crave—it’s musical theater.
I admit it. I collect the original Broadway cast recordings of many shows. I also collect the recordings of the original London cast. And the revival cast. And the studio cast. Often, all for the same show.
It matters which versions of shows have had songs cut or added, which have had the song list shuffled, which have had lyrics revised. It matters that the Broadway revival of Company reinserts at the end of Act One, “Marry Me a Little,” a song originally written as a possible finale for the show. It matters that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Secret Garden not only cuts the Act Two quintet featured in its Broadway debut, but slides the haunting “Lily’s Eyes” into its place, while making numerous other changes to the order of songs. It even matters that the most recent London recording of Jesus Christ Superstar replaces the phrase “women of her kind” with the more obvious and still-not-quite-rhyming “such a concubine.”
Changes to music and lyrics are just the tip of the iceberg; interpretation is also crucial. It matters how a TV star may interpret a lyric differently from a classic Broadway belter or a London lilter. It matters that Brent Spiner (Star Trek’s Data) is a vocally superior John Adams in 1776, but somehow his performance in the revival matches the wit or intensity of William Daniels’ original portrayal. It matters that in the second Broadway revival of Cabaret, Alan Cumming delivers the shocking final line of “If You Could See Her” as a harsh whisper, whereas Joel Grey sings it in the original production.
I suppose one might ask to whom such things matter. Well, there is an obvious answer—to me! In selecting the last examples, I am still concentrating on those I chose not to include, doting on comparisons between Rebecca Luker and Julie Andrews, between Terrence Mann and Philip Quast and between Brian Stokes Mitchell, Richard Kiley and Howard Keel.
But, as I have discovered more and more since coming to Harvard, I am not alone in my collecting and listening habits. Though I will not name names (as occurs in the London but not the Broadway recording of Chess), I know more than a few who can sooner list all Mandy Patinkin’s albums than Mandy Moore’s.
I won’t take this opportunity to argue for equality of shelf space or even social acceptability (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s post-Evita work set back that mission by at least a generation), but, for those who know not only that New York hosted two adaptations of The Wild Party in 2000 but also which featured an opening number entitled “Queenie Was a Blonde” (trick question, both did), I’d like to offer a recommendation regarding my favorite recent album, last year’s New York Philharmonic-backed recording of Sweeney Todd.
Recorded at a live concert, the album is a treat for any musical theater fan (as well as any fan of music or drama, for that matter). It preserves the entire score of the show, along with great portions of the dialogue. The recording also boasts a particularly compelling cast. Though Patti Lupone’s thick British accent is less than endearing, the diva is in strong voice as the duplicitous Mrs. Lovett. Neil Patrick Harris, all grown up from his teenage doctor days, is endearing and sweet-voiced as Tobias, while Davis Gaines gives Anthony first-rate treatment with his lush baritone.
But the real reward of the double album is Sweeney himself, portrayed by the redoubtable George Hearn. Twenty years after he played the role in New York, Hearn’s voice shows no strain and his performance remains remarkably powerful. Though an out-of-print videotape of Hearn’s performance in Hal Prince’s original staging is available, this is the first recording to feature him as Sweeney, and even were it not desirable for its comprehensiveness and its perfectly cast principals, Hearn’s Sweeney is a marvel worth possessing.
The Philharmonic Sweeney is only one of a growing number of gems now available to fellow enthusiasts. Amazon.com has an excellent selection in its Broadway and Vocalists section of uncommon recordings from the recent as well as not-so-recent past. One can find on the site the recording of Bea Arthur on Broadway, a show that opened just last month, as well as the 1954 Threepenny Opera featuring the young Arthur.
Still, even Amazon.com doesn’t boast the debut album of virtuoso Broadway tenor Craig Schulman. To hear his tender renditions of classic musical theater ballads, one must seek out a site like BroadwayGemsRecords.com.
Yet, that such a site exists, and Schulman even has a commercially available album, is hope for all of us—hope that some day access to what we seek and acceptance for our musical tastes is coming. When is that day? To quote from one of the unforgettable songs Schulman renders for the album, “Who knows? / It’s only just out of reach, / Down the block, on a beach, / Maybe tonight, / Maybe tonight, / Maybe tonight...”