Throwing Out My CDs by Ben Rimalower: SONG & DANCE
The West End and Broadway musical Song & Dance has taken up a lot of space in my CD collection. In addition to the Original London Cast Recording starring Marti Webb (recorded live at the Palace Theatre in 1982), the 1984 British television broadcast from the stage of recently closed production at the Palace starring Sarah Brightman and the Original Broadway Cast Recording (of just the songs half, no dance music...) starring Bernadette Peters, I'm also including the original 1979 "Tell Me on a Sunday" album starring Marti Webb in her first stab at the material, from which the sung portion of Song & Dance was derived, as well as its 2003 London production starring Denise Van Outen.
That first "Tell Me on a Sunday" album was a big success and led to a BBC television production also starring Marti Webb. Around this time, Webb was replacing Elaine Paige in Evita and was actually for a while being managed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Clearly, there was energy behind her. It's easy to hear why listening to the album. Her voice is impressive in its clarity and simplicity. Her tone is incredibly even as she rises along the lines of Lloyd Webber's melodies. And while I wouldn't call the unadorned, almost no-frills way she phrases the lyrics overly expressive, there is something undeniably compelling in Marti Webb's renditions of these words and music, particularly in her iconic original recording of the songs "Tell Me on a Sunday" (without the superfluous if exciting added bridge "Don't run off in the pouring rain...") and "Take That Look Off Your Face," which reached #3 on the Billboard UK charts. Chew on that for a minute.
The next incarnation of this score was the West End production adding a second act--dances set to Lloyd Webber's "Variations." The main alteration to the material was the addition of the numbers, "The Last Man in My Life" and "Married Man." For most of the years that I've known "The Last Man in My Life," I've looked a bit down upon it. How do you listen to those first words, "I'm a lady when you kiss me, I'm a child when you are leaving," and not immediately regard it as cheese? I have to admit, though, the damn thing's grown on me. Of course, those lyrics are ridiculous, but to me, the whole thing offers the perfect representation of early 80s Andrew Lloyd Webber and really conjures an entire era for me. Maybe that's just nostalgia, but I can't help be moved. On this live recorded West End cast album, Marti Webb is again impressive, perhaps even more so knowing that she delivers such a flawless performance in one live take, although for listening pleasure, she's got more steam for the long notes, crescendos and decrescendos on the original "Tell Me on a Sunday" studio tracks.
There were some interesting replacements over Song & Dance's two-year West End run including Lulu and Liz Robertson before the production closed and was broadcast starring Sarah Brightman. It's fascinating to consider Sarah Brightman at this time. For younger fans today, she is this other worldly international pop/classical crossover diva, naturally associated with musical theatre and especially Andrew Lloyd Webber due to their former marriage and her career history, notably creating the role of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera. Older people, particularly New Yorkers, tend to deride her as a grotesque example of nepotism, starring in her then husband's mega musical ahead of the dozens of other superior actresses and singers who went on to replace her. The thing about Sarah Brightman, though, is that--say what you will--Andrew Lloyd Webber fell in love with her voice and cast her in a bunch of things before they were married. Some of those things, especially Song & Dance, she wasn't even really right for. Listening to her on this score, it's an odd fit. She's not a belter, so she can't really excel where Marti Webb and others have on these songs. The music mostly lies in a strange, nasal middle part of her voice without any opportunities to show off the high soprano range she's famous for. You have to wonder what Lloyd Webber's take on this was. Is this really how he likes it?
I suppose what Brightman can bring to the score that others can't is an agility with the somewhat ridiculous high notes that adorn some of the songs. Patti LuPone has famously said that she took one look at the insanely rangy score to Evita and thought Lloyd Webber must hate women to write such a taxing tessitura. There are examples of this in Song & Dance too, like in "The Last Man in My Life," where Marti Webb has to sustain a D on the word "now." Or famously in "Unexpected Song," which was replaced "The Last Man in My Life" and where Brightman had to hit a great, big G for end of the song as well as some pesly little high notes unnecessarily tacked on the melody of the final verse. Surely any woman who's even sung this has cursed the composer; Brightman pops F#s out of a mix before breakfast.
For the inevitable Broadway production of Song & Dance, major changes were made to the piece (including bringing on Richard Maltby, Jr. to write additional lyrics, adapt and direct and they certainly went in a different direction with the casting. Bernadette Peters is the polar opposite of Marti Webb and Sarah Brightman. Bernadette Peters may be the polar opposite of everyone. Is there another performer more unique and distinctive? If Webb's recording is an everywoman the listener can project themself on to, then Peters is a singular moonbeam in a jar. She is a star.
From the first words out of her mouth on the first track, you hear that crazy gorgeous blend of husky-toned, hoarse voice and emotionally damaged, beautiful heart her on sleeve that's lit up Broadway for decades. Where Webb flew through the score with effortless ease, Peters reaches and scratches and barks and belts to get to the far reaches of her range for these songs and she means every single word of it. She's warm and funny and quirky and charming and surprising and memorable and moving.
It's no surprise she won the Tony and established her dominance on Broadway for years to come. The tragedy is that the Broadway Song & Dance was recorded as one of RCA's "Red Seal" releases with the strangely muffled sound. I pray a clearer version is released, but in the meantime, no matter. I would crush glass in my ears if that's what it took to listen to Bernadette.
As far as the final CD of this score in my collection goes, the less said the better. For the 2003 British Tell Me on a Sunday revival, the words were updated to reflect then modern technology and new orchestrations were written to better fit the times. Maybe I'm just an old crank, but if I'm listening to Tell Me on a Sunday, it ain't to be cool and hip. And I'm sure Denise Van Outen is very talented, but I either want the Bernadette Peters thrill ride or a trip down Marti Webb memory lane. I'm throwing all these CDs away, but I'm not digitizing or downloading Denise Van Outen. Just Bernadette and Marti. All right, maybe I'll stream Sarah Brightman. But that's it!