Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mama's Got the Stuff


There are certainly a variety of recordings of Gypsy on the market for discerning cast album collectors. Ethel Merman originated the role of Rose in 1959, Roz Russell scored the 1962 film adaptation. Angela Lansbury breathed life into the original London and first Broadway revival in 1973 & 74, respectively. Tyne Daly starred in the 1989 revival; Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival and of course Patti LuPone in the recent 2008 production. Oh, and Bette Midler made the 1993 made for television adaptation. So even if you don't count the horrendous Kay Medford studio cast album, that's a lot of Gypsy.

If there is any one argument to be had, it's over which actress is the definitive Rose. Every one of these leading ladies has had their share of vociferous champions as well as detractors. It's just the nature of the beast. When it comes down to it, there are two recordings of Gypsy I listen to repeatedly: the original Broadway and original London albums.

Tyne Daly's album is marred by the powers that be who insisted she record the score while suffering from laryngitis (don't let the album - which Tyne herself has disowned - fool you: a trip to youtube shows you what a marvel she was in the part). I don't feel that the most two recent albums fully captured what made Bernadette and Patti's performances indelible (and the tempo and energy on the latter is surprisingly lacking). The two soundtrack albums offer very little in terms of musical enjoyment, unless you're a fan of Lisa Kirk or Bette Midler.

While I love the London cast album for Angela Lansbury's truly stunning turn as Rose, the recording of Gypsy to end all Gypsy's is the original Broadway cast recording with Miss Ethel Merman. The album was recorded May 24, 1959. As was the tradition for most musicals at the time, it was recorded on the first Sunday after opening. It was released a mere two weeks later and has been a must have for Broadway fans ever since.

The original album is definitive for three reasons: Ethel Merman, Milton Rosenstock and Dick Perry. Merman was a force of nature in the part, and though people have looked back on her performance as lacking, she is electrifying on the album. Rosenstock was the musical director and I've yet to hear a better Gypsy orchestra. Dick Perry was the second trumpet player on the show who became an in demand player for many musicals as a result of the showstopping improvisation during the overture. Styne insisted on Perry for the pits of many of his subsequent musicals and can be heard on the cast albums of Do Re Mi, Subways Are for Sleeping and most prominently in Funny Girl where he was the Cornet Man. Gypsy is widely considered to have the greatest overture in musical theatre, and its first recording has never been bettered.

There is also something about the way Goddard Lieberson recorded these big scores for Columbia records in the late 50s and 60s that is just so satisfying. While Lieberson took liberties with false lead-ins and endings and rarely recording dialogue, his albums are some of the best ever produced. He had a knack for producing and helped make Columbia the leader in original cast recordings, when show music was at the height of popular culture. Once he retired in the 70s, Thomas Shepard, who produced the remastering of this recording, became the leader over at RCA. But in terms of how it was recorded - everyone was in a large room and the performances were big and theatrical, truly capturing what it was like to hear the score in the theatre. There was a kineticism that is lacking on most contemporary cast albums. This energy is especially evident on Lieberson's recordings such as Gypsy and for my money, the greatest cast album of a musical ever made, Mame.

In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, Sony Masterworks has reissued the album in a brand new edition (its third CD release). The new release is pretty much the same as the '99 release, with the noted addition of three tracks: a publisher's demo of "Who Needs Him?" from 1959, Michael Feinstein's brief interview with composer Jule Styne about working on the show and "Gypsy Rose Lee Recalls Burlesque." The latter is one of those novelty items that has to be heard to be fully appreciated. The liner notes are reprinted verbatim from '99, with the addition of a few new paragraphs that comment on the continuing popularity of the show, mentioning Bernadette and Patti in the process.

In lieu of a jewel case, the new release is in one of those trifold cardboard slimline cases, with an insert for the liner note booklet and another for the CD itself. The case itself recreates the original LP artwork, the liner notes recreates the collage of photos used for the LP reissue and first CD release. One in particular that I've never seen before but is a rather fun shot of Paul Wallace recording "All I Need is the Girl" with Sandra Church.

If you already have the '99 Gypsy, the new release isn't really necessary unless you're a purist, such as myself. To those who don't have it, I resist the urge to ask you what you're waiting for and instead offer you links from which you can purchase it.

5 comments:

ShoNuff said...

merman's recording is the best. what people (including me) loved so much about lupone's performance was her dramatic power - which doesn't come through at all on a audio recording.

SarahB said...

While Merman's standard Gypsy tunes made my *Rose* playlist, I sometimes find myself moving on to the next Rose. My inclusion of the original cast is more out of respect than out of love - the tempo is slower than I care for. My favorites are Angela's and Bernadette's. I also love the German cast recording with Angelika Milster as Rose. Her voice is fabulous! It's a shame that Patti's wasn't recorded live because, as ShoNuff points out, the recording just didn't capture the emotion or power of her magnificent stage performance.

Bob said...

Wonderful post.

I love the sound of the Gypsy and Mame OBC recordings -- and Funny Girl, too. The orchestras are so rick and full.

LuPone never records well. Her voice is suited for the theatre -- not a studio. It's meant to echo and reverberate. Anything Goes is the only cast recording that represents her well, as they had the mic a few feet away from her and just let her sing - full out.

Bob said...

*rich*

Kevin Daly said...

I understand what you mean about LuPone. She's best live, many of her vocal shortcomings are highlighted on CD that you wouldn't think about live in performance. And I think that's where people get their biggest gripes about her diction and tone.