Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
On the Town (1944) [74.53]
Frederica von Stade (Claire), Tyne Daly (Hildy), Marie McLaughlin (Ivy), Thomas Hampson (Gabey), Kurt Ollman (Chip), David Garrison (Ozzie), Samuel Ramey (Pitkin, First workman, Announcer), Evelyn Lear (Madame Dilly), Cleo Laine (Nightclub singer), Meriel Dickinson (Diana Dream), Lindsay Benson, Stewart Collins (Workmen), Lindsay Benson, Bruce Ogsten, Nicholas Spears (‘New’ sailors), Adolph Green (Rajah Bimmy)
London Voices
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. London Barbican Centre, June 1992

It was Bernstein himself in his 1984 West Side Story who began the fashion for re-recording for the digital era Broadway musical scores employing singers trained in the classical tradition. Although the results were problematic – Bernstein famously falling out with José Carreras during recorded rehearsal sequences – other companies and conductors were quick to jump into the niche he had opened up. A whole raft of releases followed either featuring entirely classical singers or a mixture of such singers with singing-actors. This trend did not establish itself without considerable criticism. Many reviewers, particularly those in America familiar with the Broadway tradition, were quick to complain of the lack of dramatic involvement and sheer believability which operatic voices, believed by them to be inexpressive, brought to their roles. They harked back wistfully to the days of recordings by original Broadway casts, even when these not infrequently confined themselves to highlights from the scores rather than the complete musicals.

What such critics appear to have overlooked is the fact that even in the 1950s and 1960s it was not at all infrequent for filmed musicals to employ one performer to act the role on screen, and someone else to provide their singing voices. Marni Nixon was probably the best-known of these (frequently uncredited) ‘shadows’ but she was far from the only one. It was clear that composers, and producers, regarded the musical element of their works as of such importance that they were prepared to tolerate or even encourage the artificiality of ‘lip-synching’, an actor miming with more or less verisimilitude to a voice provided by someone completely different. This custom fell into disuse during the 1970s, with subsequent results that have not always been happy. Recent film versions of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd and Into the woods have all featured excellent actors whose singing voices have simply proved unable to rise to the challenge of the music provided for them by composers, often with very unhappy results even when the theatrically of the scores has been adequately served.

This recording of Bernstein’s early Broadway musical On the town has little truck with such concerns. The casting is drawn almost totally from the ranks of the operatic stage, and the singers here clearly demonstrate that the critical reservations regarding their inability to act with the voice are totally misplaced. Whatever may be the advantages in stage performances and films of musicals being given by ‘theatrical’ rather than ‘operatic’ voices (neither term precisely accurate) I have little hesitation in declaring that for purely audio purposes – to enjoy listening to the music of these scores at home – I prefer my voices to be clear, capable of holding a tune without wavering from pitch or rhythm, and accompanied by a full orchestra who can give the music its weight where needed. Michael Tilson Thomas and his performers here deliver on all three counts.

Indeed the only two performers here who come whole-heartedly from the ‘Broadway tradition’ are Tyne Daly as Hildy and Adolph Green (one of the original writers of the book) in the cameo role of Rajah Bimmy. Even Cleo Laine, appropriately cast as the Nightclub Singer, had solid classical credentials and made one of the most fascinating recordings of Walton’s Façade I have ever heard. This recording re-establishes Bernstein’s score in its original stage form, and has no truck with the 1949 film which effectively recomposed and recast the music – to its considerable detriment; Bernstein himself took the role of Rajah Bimmy, thereby lending the movie version unmerited kudos. Ethan Mordden, one of the most interesting of writers on American Broadway musicals, provides a substantial booklet note here in which he makes big claims for the originality of the score; and in a performance like this, one can see that such claims are justified. The booklet also commendably includes the complete sung and spoken text heard on the discs, together with a summary of the plot between individual numbers. The recording won the Gramophone Award for Music Theatre in 1994, and rightly so; it is in just this sort of way that Broadway scores should be presented to the home listener.

The principal roles in this set are nearly all taken by established American singers such as Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, Kurt Ollman, David Garrison and Samuel Ramey who have rightly established reputations in recordings of musical theatre in various guises over the years. Frederica von Stade was panned for her ‘placid’ Maria in The sound of music – Kurt Gänzl in Musical Theatre of Record cruelly observed that she “would never have been asked to leave the convent” – but she has plenty of spirit and life here. Marie McLaughlin as Ivy is the only principal British singer, and she fits into the transatlantic line-up like a glove. It is a nice surprise to hear the veteran Evelyn Lear, who made her career in European opera houses during the 1960s, as Madame Dilly. The smaller roles are largely taken by artists known from small roles on London stages and on recordings, and the British chorus enter into the American idiom with gusto. Tyne Daly is a rather different kettle of fish, much more abrasive and less keenly attuned to the classical style; but then Hildy is that sort of character anyway. Michael Tilson Thomas, it hardly needs to be said, enters wholeheartedly into the mood of the music. It may be that some of the ‘untheatrical’ performances in this tradition of which some critics have complained simply lack his sort of commitment. The fact that this is a live recording adds a further degree of frisson.

It is surprising that DG, who made this original recording in the aftermath of their West Side Story, have apparently been prepared to allow the disc to go out of circulation - although it is still currently listed on Archiv music. We should therefore be grateful to Presto for licensing the CD for a new reissue, especially since all the original documentation has been faithfully preserved. Since this recording was issued there has been a later set, based on a 2014 Broadway revival; but the orchestra there is restricted to 28 players — as in the original performances — and the cast is entirely drawn from the ranks of Broadway singers, which puts it into a different sort of market from DG. The later release also lasts a quarter of an hour longer than this one — presumably we get more of the dialogue — which means that it spreads over two CDs rather than a single one as here. The only oddity about this issue is that there is no track-listing given, although the individual tracks are identified in the provided text. This means that someone wishing to find a particular number to play may be condemned to a bit of a search.

However we are hardly spoiled for recordings of On the town, and this performance is thoroughly satisfying.
Paul Corfield Godfrey

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