RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN REVISITED
This morning I had an interesting package on my desk top. Complete recordings of THE KING AND I (1994) and SOUTH PACIFIC (1996) from Jay Records, in a lushly remixed, digital form.
These, I thought, I will enjoy. Jay recordings are a guarantee of accuracy, completeness, fine orchestras and conducting ... and sometimes interesting, even eccentric, casting. But hey! If we want to hear classic musicals sung exactly as they were by the original casts, why should we ever listen to anything but the original recordings. And, that way, we'd miss out on some fine, fine, performances.
I grew up, in the 50s, in New Zealand. We didn't have many records (we made our own music) and what we did have were Strauss tone poems, Wagner and Verdi, Chaliapin etc. But father was an eclectic. He directed G&S comic operas extremely well. And when the musical play hit its post-war boom the G&S sets on our radiogram were supplemented by the occasional example of the genre.
There were Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner on one cover, Mitzi Gaynor gazing into the eyes of Rossano Brazzi ... but oh! those lying covers! Without knowing it, I became fond of ... Marni Nixon and Giorgio Tozzi! And ever since, it is they by whom I judge all others.
They are often damned hard to beat. Hollywood may have had dubberitis at this time, but the results were pretty fine.
So, have they been equalled since? And how do these 20th-21st century recordings compare?
THE KING AND I
In spite of being written -- well, produced, anyway .. with one charming comic actress and one non-singing actor as its central characters -- The King and I came across as an effective musical play on stage, owing to the acting skills of its stars. On record, without the backbone scenes in which I and the King held the piece together, it can be a bit problematic. We have Miss Lawrence's jolly ditties, a bit of Sprechgesang from the King and the rest are very delightful incidentals. So even an utterly complete recording, such as this, which does include important bits of dialogue which hold up the story, doesn't quite represent the show. But nevertheless the 'incidentals' are glorious ... the world cannot do without 'Something Wonderful'!
In my Musical Theatre on Record, twenty years ago, I reviewed the recordings of The King and I, up to that time. None got 100%. I wrote, 'Oh that it were possible to take [June] Bronhill and [Inia] Te Wiata from one recording, Muriel Smith from a second, and Lee Venora and Frank Poretta from a third ... maybe it will happen yet '
Well, I gather there have been more recordings since, but this one, judged not in comparison but on its own merits, gets the nearest of those I have heard! 90% from me.
Valerie Masterson is the nearest thing I know in Britain today to the great Bronhill. She is delicious when she trips, Julie Andrews-style, through the Lawrence numbers ... best when lightest, when we climb up a bit in volume we get the odd unfortunate breath in the middle of phrases -- but I know few actress-singers today with such sheen of (light) voice, and a clear and welcoming sense of speech.
There is no way anyone is going to equal Inia te Wiata's record version of the King. I didn't know Christopher Lee could sing (apparently he trained as a singer), but here he sounds less than comfortable as a vocalist. He comes into his own in the final act, and in the acting moments he is simply grand.
The supporting singers are absolutely first rate. So much so that these confirmed me in my belief that this is the nearest to a 100% King and I I have yet to hear.
Sally Burgess is Lady Thiang. I like my Thiangs contralto -- Regina Resnik or Agnes Zwierko -- but I know Rodgers wrote it for a high mezzo. Here it is, thus, sung to perfection. I am so happy. Because it is, and has always been, by far my favourite moment of this score.
The Lun Tha (Jason Howard) is superb. Really beautiful performance. Ringing tenor robusto. Stays just on the right side of the sound barrier. Lovely dynamics. What could you ask for more? He has a tad more power than his Tuptim (Tinuke Olafimihan) who is charming ... although I cannot quite forgive her for her sometimes ugly phrasing ('I love another (gasp) man') ...
'The Small House of Uncle Thomas' is, as it should be, the magnificent highlight (and heart) of the whole thing. Beautifully played by the orchestra, heart-renderingly narrated by Tuptim.
Yes, no June, no Inia, no Muriel ... but a great orchestra under John Owen Edwards (listen to that overture!), and better overall casting and performances than on any recording I know ...
I have always liked South Pacific the best of the core Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But that, really, largely because of the magnificent book.
So, you have the problem, again, with a recording of the score of keeping the show's backbone. But, once again, the dramaturg at Jay has done a skilful job in keeping just enough dialogue to keep the story well to the fore. And the 'singers' prove to be effective actors.
But, I don't know quite why, somehow this one seems to have been put together with a slightly less masterful hand than The King and I. But personal quibblets for later. More important are the many splendid points of this set.
The heart of any South Pacific, staged and/or recorded is its Emile. And herein lies one of its difficulties. The original Emile, Ezio Pinza, made of the song 'Once Nearly Was Mine' 'probably the most memorable basso piece in all recorded light musical theatre'. Others have scarcely dared to compete. And when they have, the result has been negative. We have had clapped out tenors from Carreras to Belcourt record the role, but even Tozzi seems pale in contrast. Pinza is alone. WAS alone, I should say. I'm not going to compare two great men, but Justino Diaz, on this recording is marvellous, and in earlier days, his 'Once Nearly Was Mine' would have been put out as a single and shot up the hit parades. Fan-tas-tic! I would have had his 'Some Enchanted Evening' as the B-side, except that is
suffers from UTN (unnecessary top note-itis). How much more effective he is in the reprise when he takes the final UTNs in a warm falsetto. Anyway, Mr Diaz is an Emile of anthology. A dazzling performance.
My second love-letter goes to Pat Suzuki as Bloody Mary. THIS is how I like the role played and sung. In her interpretation, the wizened, little Polynesian/Asian woman sings of 'Bali H'ai' to the young Cable as a seductive, be-witchy come-on-to-my-island... not as a plant-your-feet-and-howl aria. Miss Suzuki is, to my way of feeling, the perfect Mary.
Sean McDermott is a fine Joe Cable, giving his 'Younger than Springtime' smoothly and firmly, UTNs and all. I felt, although he masters it all very well, it would have been more gently comfortable down a tone or two.
Which leaves Nellie Forbush. Definitively created by Mary Martin. 20 years ago, I described Paige O'Hara as a 'pouting little sunbeam' on the McGlinn recording of Show Boat. Since then, the sunbeam has become a solar storm. Pleasant when gentle, when she climbs to the upper stratum the sound of the voice reminds me of my neighbour's unoiled chainsaw, or a vicious bacon-slicer. Finally, I had to hit skip-to-next-track when it got unbearable. A shame. And do they really speak like that in Little Rock? Lorelei Lee didn't. It's harsh and hard on the ear. Maybe on stage a performance this powerful works well: but you don't have to squeeze out fortissimo sounds for the microphone. I know some folk like this brass-balled style. All I can say is, I don't.
Other complaint. The chorus. Far too numerous. AND one of them is out of tune. South Pacific doesn't need the Mormon Tabernacle Choir AND the Rita Williams Singers combined to back up its story, even though half of them maybe West End Wendys.
Final complaint. Every department in a Jay record is always minutely cared for. Except one. Where is the singing master? Where is the man who will stop the soloists from indulging their dreadful phrasing! Even the wonderful Mr Diaz sings 'once you have found her, never let her (big breath) goooooo'. And in this day and age there is no excuse for singing out of tune. As for UTNs ... surely they went out with Mario Lanza.
So, to my surprise, although there is much to like, there is just a little more for me to not like here than there is on The King and I recording. But the performances of Mr Diaz and Miss Suzuki make it a must-listen. 75% for this one. After all, where else will you go for a decent, thorough South Pacific?
So, all in all, a decidedly useful addition to the recorded archive of musical shows of last century, with a handful of jewelled performances: Mr Diaz, Misses Masterson and Suzuki ... that'll do this old codger with sixty year-old memories..
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