Thursday, October 19, 2006

Two Sparkling Musicals, One Glorious CD

By Tony Buchsbaum

Two of my favorite musicals are A Chorus Line and Sunday in the Park with George. The two could not be more different: A Chorus Line, which took over Broadway’s Shubert Theater from 1975 to 1990, was a thinly-plotted but hugely addictive show about dancers at an audition, and Sunday in the Park is a plot-heavy examination of the artist George Seurat and his most famous painting.

What the two share, at least at the moment, is they been have restaged and re-recorded — though the results, it must be said, are as different as the musicals themselves.

A Chorus Line, originally directed by Michael Bennett, with unforgettable music by Marvin Hamlisch and spot-on lyrics by Edward Kleban, has been revived for a new run on Broadway. Though I haven’t seen the new production, I have seen the show perhaps a dozen times, both on Broadway and in regional theaters. There is an undeniable magic here, no matter how elaborate or scaled-back the staging is, and there is an honesty and urgency to the material that pulls you in right away.

The original recording, which was expanded and remastered not too many years ago, is a classic. Though it took some liberties with the score—cutting here, reordering songs there—it remains the cast album you’re most likely to find on any musical theater enthusiast’s CD shelf.

The new recording of A Chorus Line has restored some of the cuts and correctly ordered everything, giving fans of the show a more complete experience. While this is a wonderful gift, in other respects the CD is lacking. The most notable problem is that where the original seemed spontaneous and real, almost as if it were recorded at an actual audition, the new one sounds performed and produced, perhaps even over-produced. (The recording studio, Skywalker Sound, which is great for film scores, perhaps doesn’t bring the right tone to the recording of a musical; too often it sounds dampened and artificial.)

The performances themselves, though earnest, lack the spark and kick of the original. I very much got the feeling the new producers were almost trying to replicate the original, much like film director Gus Van Sant tried to replicate Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho a few years back, frame by frame, with a new cast. The fascination with the film wasn’t whether it would be thrilling; rather, it was all about how painstakingly close Van Sant could get to what Hitchcock did. In the end, it was too precise—and the gimmick actually overshadowed the story.

Here, while there’s no such gimmick, the result is much the same. Though several of the key musical-makers have died, Marvin Hamlisch made sure his music got the attention it deserved. And though its brilliance cannot be denied, I just wish someone would have thought to bring a note of rawness to the proceedings. After all, rawness—of nerves, of emotions, of ambition, of disappointment—is what A Chorus Line is all about.

In a way, the same can be said of Sunday in the Park with George, which was revived in London in late 2005. This new recording memorializes that production, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

The Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical is a magical, melody-filled musing on art, from both the artist’s and the viewer’s points of view. There are so many startlingly good songs that it’s impossible to pick a favorite, but the highlights are the title song, the splendid “Color and Light,” the obsessive “Finishing the Hat,” “Sunday,” “Children and Art,” “Move On,” and the stirring, overwhelming finale.

The new cast’s Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell sound an awful lot like the originals (Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters), but the show seems to require these voice types. I wasn’t aware of any efforts at recreation, but I was aware that they performed with a finely-focused passion; they seemed to really feel what was going on, and this is essential, of course, since you’re not watching, but listening.

The deluxe 2-CD package includes a lavish booklet, with an essay, all the lyrics, and lots of production photos. It must be said that the CD’s producer, PS Classics, knows what theater fans want, and they deliver every time.

If you don’t know Sunday in the Park, then this is a wonderful addition to your library. If you know the original version, you’ll find a lot to love here, from expanded cues to the endless variety of emotional colors in the performances themselves.

No comments: