When one character assassinated another’s musical taste in The Lisbon Traviata with the observation, “He’s into crossover albums. He just bought Teresa Stratas in Funny Girl,” I laughed so hard in the theatre, I had to be shushed. The idea of Ms. Stratas, a diva not known for a merry disposition, portraying Ziegfeld comedienne Fanny Brice in songs originally tailored for a third temperament, Barbra Streisand, was comic dementia of the highest order. And yet, considering the crossover mindset of the ’80s, which yielded not only Jose Carreras’s impersonation of a Polish gang leader on Deutsche Grammophon’s complete and operatic West Side Story, but also Dame Te Kanawa’s sensationally inert Eliza Doolittle and Nellie Forbush, the possibility of Stratas singing Styne, with, say, Krista Ludwig as Mrs. Brice, seemed frighteningly plausible at the time. If, in those heady days gone by, Linda Ronstadt could do La Boheme and Ronald Reagan could hold office hours as President, if Cher could win an Oscar, then by all means don’t rain on Teresa Stratas’s parade – she might have gone platinum.
We now know that too much money and not enough taste circulated in the ’80s, and while it’s easy to take potshots at foreign opera singers trolling for trade on Tin Pan Alley, we can thank some of them for helping build a new market for the output of our native musical giants. If economics have made Broadway a losing proposition for the new American musical, a series of events in the last decade launched an unprecedented reassessment of the old American musical. In 1982, when a cache of orchestral manuscripts from long-vanished shows of the ’20s and ’30s was discovered in a Secaucus, N.J. warehouse, theatre historians, musicologists and the Library of Congress rushed to reconstruct them for concert performance and publication. The successful 1983 revival of Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, which used the original Hans Spialek orchestrations, proved that the sounds of the past could delight the modern ear. The staggering sales figures for the West Side Story and Follies studio recordings revealed just how much the market could bear. And finally, John McGlinn’s exhaustive, magnificent restoration of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat demonstrated that preserving the musical theatre treasures of the past makes for both righteous cultural recovery and glorious listening.
Today, 10 years after the Secaucus find, a cottage industry of tenacious, dedicated conductors and orchestrators, scholars and archivists, record producers, presenting organizations, musical foundations and performers is in place to make permanent documents of shows which, ironically, were seldom built or meant to last. Although discs of dubious necessity are still being released, the last several months have also brought forth not one but two complete recordings of Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’s Street Scene, a restoration of the 1927 version of the Gershwin-Kaufman Strike Up the Band, a new recording of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, and the premiere of Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Since its 1947 Broadway premiere, STREET SCENE, which Weill felt was his most artistically successful work for the theatre, has permanently crossed over to the opera house, a situation that would have distressed its composer, who had hoped, with the characteristic melting-pot enthusiasm of the post-war era, to create a new kind of American musical by fusing operatic technique with popular subject matter. A complete recording is long overdue; both efforts, one on the London label and the other on TER, give full value to Weill’s brooding masterpiece. The London version (433 371-2), conducted by John Mauceri, has the edge in terms of vocal strength and theatrical energy. The leads are resonant actors as well as singers, and Mauceri wisely exploits the infrequent flashes of humor in the score.
There is no shortage of wit in STRIKE UP THE BAND (Elektra Nonesuch 979 273-2); there may in fact be too much. George S. Kaufman’s first draft of the material, a satiric treatment of a war between the U.S. and Switzerland over the price of cheese, closed out of town in 1927. Three years later, cheese became chocolate, and the revised Strike Up the Band proved a modest success in New York. If its strong political content taxed audience expectations, the Gershwins’ experiments with writing extended musical scenes at the expense of signature hit tunes may have also contributed to the prevailing bewilderment. To record Strike Up the Band John Mauceri, Tommy Krasker and six new arrangers have reconstructed the complex score from Orchestral fragments, authorial intentions and conjecture. If the result – beautifully sung, lovingly.