Friday, 24 January 2014

Review: The Very Besf of Andrew Lloyd Webber (1994)

The Very Best of
Andrew Lloyd Webber

      1.   Memory – Elaine Paige
      2.   The Music of the Night – Michael Crawford
      3.   Take That Look Off Your Face – Marti Webb
      4.   Any Dream Will Do – Jason Donovan
      5.   Don’t Cry for Me Argentina – Sarah Brightman
      6.   Love Changes Everything – Michael Ball
      7.   I Don’t Know How to Love Him – Sarah Brightman
      8.   The Perfect Year – Dina Carroll
      9.   The Phantom of the Opera – Sarah Brightman & Steve Harley
 10.   Oh What a Circus – David Essex
 11.   Tell Me on a Sunday – Marti Webb
 12.   Close Every Door – Phillip Schofield
 13.   With One Look – Barbra Streisand
 14.   All I Ask of You – Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman
 15.   Sunset Boulevard – Michael Ball
 16.   As If We Never Said Goodbye – Glenn Close
 17.   Next Time You Fall in Love – Reva Rice & Greg Ellis
 18.   Amigos Para Siempre (Friends for Life) – Jose Carreras & Sarah Brightman

Originally from the following musicals (year of first production, not of this recording):
Cats (1981): track 1;
The Phantom of the Opera (1986): 2, 9, 14;
Tell Me on a Sunday (1979): 3, 11;
Evita (1976*): 5, 10;
Aspects of Love (1989): 6;
Sunset Boulevard (1993): 8, 13, 15, 16;
Starlight Express (1984): 17.

*Original concept album.


Wonderful Collection that Should Have Been More Wonderful Still

This CD offers a superb introduction to the genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber. By 1994, when this compilation was released, he had already composed pretty much everything for which – pace the arrogant highbrows! – he is widely recognised as one of the greatest composers of our time. Twenty years later, there is no human being – bearing the same exception in mind! – to whom I would hesitate to recommend this disc. But consider a few caveats before buying it.

The selection is excellent title-wise, but not performance-wise. The front cover boasts “18 Original Recordings”, but though most of them do come from “original cast recordings”, at least nine don’t (5, 7-10, 12-15). These are important exceptions one should be aware of, though not all of them are for the worse. The booklet contains small photos of the singers and basic information about the compositions (music, text, lots of copyright stuff), but nowhere (!!!) is it mentioned what comes from where and when exactly it was recorded. Lyrics are not included, either. So make sure you find all sung texts online – together with their contexts! – if you don’t want to miss an essential part of the enjoyment. This sloppy presentation may lead to quite a bit of confusion and some none too pleasant surprises as your familiarity with Andrew Lloyd Webber grows.

Sarah Brightman’s two solo selections come from her 1992 album that has nothing to do with the original musicals. If you have never heard “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” with Julie Covington (1976, Original Concept Album) or Elaine Paige (1978, Original London Cast), not to mention “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the stunning Yvonne Elliman (1970, Original Concept Album), you may well find Sarah’s renditions convincing. But I do suggest seeking the true originals for comparison. I am grateful they did not include “Memory” with her.

The case with Brightman’s two duets from The Phantom of the Opera is similar but not identical. They come from the same album, not very originally titled Sarah Brightman Sings the Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (1992), but they do fare better than her solo attempts. She is, of course, perfect. Since she just happened to be Andrew’s wife at the time, he created the role of Christine especially for her. She thanked him by making it very much her own. These two duets are remarkable for her somewhat unusual partners.

“All I Ask of You”, the love duet between Christine and Raoul which they sing on the roof of the opera house, is beautifully executed and does benefit from Cliff Richard’s mellifluous voice. He would have made a fine Raoul on the stage, at least vocally (he might have been considered too old physically). The performance of “Phantom of the Opera”, the sinister duet while the Phantom and Christine are descending in his underground chambers, has been much lambasted because of Steve Harley’s vocals. This is unjust. The man is no Michael Crawford, to be sure, but neither does he try to imitate him. To my ears, he offers a less dramatic but more musical interpretation that is worth hearing as a fascinating alternative to the much better known Original Cast Recording. Note also that the sumptuous orchestra and the organ of the original version are largely replaced with prominent electric guitars (something like a hard rock arrangement evidently). There is even a video clip. The rumour has it that Steve was originally cast as the Phantom but was later sacked in favour of Michael. That’s showbiz.

It must be said, however, that labels such as “original cast recording” and the like are no guarantee for the best available on market. Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a case in point – and the greatest defect of this otherwise delightful disc. The pathetic Jason Donovan was part of the 1991 London Revival Cast (and recording, alas) and the perfectly mediocre Phillip Schofield took over the part when he left. Neither has the voice for it. Neither should have been included here. Neither can hold a candle to Donny Osmond. He was the first Canadian Joseph in 1992; later on the same year the aptly titled “Canadian Cast” was released on CD. “Any Dream Will Do” and “Close Every Door” from this recording should have been included. Both are vastly superior to the colourless renditions of Donovan and Schofield. The only performance that tops Donny’s Canadian Joseph is his own remake on video from 1999 (which may well be the best Andrew Lloyd Webber show on DVD and cannot be recommended highly enough).

Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the best example how promiscuous the selection really is. There are four numbers from this terrific musical, to my mind Andrew's finest work from the 1990s and a worthy companion to Billy Wilder’s 1950 cinematic masterpiece. Only “As If We Never Said Goodbye” comes from a complete recording, the first American one or the so-called “Los Angeles Cast” (1994). I have seen Glenn Close criticised of insufficient vocal ability and unconvincing interpretation. I disagree. She is superb on all fronts, far superior to the overrated Patty LuPone on the World Premiere Recording (Original London Cast, 1993). Barbra Streisand does a fantastic job with “With One Look”, Norma Desmond’s tribute to her own genius for acting, but the real gem is Michael Ball’s fabulous rendition of the title song. He totally puts to shame both Kevin Anderson (1993) and Alan Campbell (1994); it is indeed a shame that he never made a complete recording of the part. (But he did make one of Alex in Aspects of Love (1989), although this is not where his awesome “Love Changes Everything” comes from.) “The Perfect Year” is the most bizarre oddity on the disc. Originally a duet, here it is completely revised as a solo number that bears little resemblance to the original. It is best described as broadly based on motifs from Sunset Boulevard. That said, Dina Carroll does full justice to this wonderful song.  

“Oh What a Circus” is another strong candidate for the strangest piece on the disc. David Essex did sing Che on the 1978 Original London Cast Recording (not to be mistaken, I repeat, with the 1976 Original Concept Album which has an entirely different cast), but his performance here is not taken from this recording. It was obviously recorded separately as a showpiece. What’s more, it contains numerous differences to all other versions known to me (the “sing you fools” interlude is omitted, for instance). Nevertheless, this is an excellent interpretation, in fact better than Essex’s other studio effort. Here he captures Che’s cynical irreverence without lapsing into the mannered, melodically disastrous delivery that so often mars this charming “aria”.

Some of excerpts from original cast albums have become definitive. In addition to Glenn Close, you have at least three other examples on this disc.

Elaine Paige owns “Memory”. It is that simple. Period. She was the first Grizabella on the stage as well as on record (Original London Cast, 1981); the latter is the source for this disc. I doubt anybody else has ever captured the wistful sadness of this song so well. And she does have the voice! Some people prefer Betty Buckley on the Original Broadway Recording (1982). No, sir. Not me. I have little patience with her shrill and affected performance. But Elaine Paige! This is perfection. She recorded the song at least twice more on video, first as a part of the complete role in a stunningly lavish production (1998), and on the next year at the grand tribute concert in celebration of Andrew’s 50th birthday (1999). Both occasions were live and well over a decade after she had created the epitome of heartbroken cat. The voice was still magnificent. She again proved unsurpassed.

I am not quite as bowled over by Michael Crawford’s Phantom as everybody else seems to be. In the more dramatic moments, when he has to convey the Phantom’s madness and obsession, his voice strikes me as strained and lacking in power. But I admit he is fabulous in the lyrical sections. This is why “The Music of the Night” on this disc is the definitive version. It simply doesn’t get better than this. The sensuous lyricism, the miraculous quiet singing – nobody does them better than Michael Crawford.

The two pieces sung by Marti Webb come from the original recording of Tell Me on a Sunday (1979), Andrew’s one-woman show. It has not been recorded much, this unjustly forgotten treasure, but maybe it doesn’t make much sense to try to surpass Marti Webb’s perfection. I have heard only one other recording, an expanded and much revised 2003 version starring Denise van Outen in the only role, but fine as it is, it is worth hearing as a completely different work (which, indeed, it is). The several parts that were left vaguely the same, such as the title song and the cheeky “Take That Look Off Your Face”, are significantly superior with Marti Webb. She has warmth and liveliness that Denise van Outen cannot aspire to match.

The last track, “Amigos para siempre”, is the only one that was composed as a stand-alone song, especially for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. The recording is the original one. It captures Jose Carreras in the beginning of his long and painful vocal decline, but he manages to pull off decently the demanding part. The song contains one of Andrew’s most haunting tunes and it works up to a gloriously orchestrated climax. The man could turn masterpieces at any time, for any occasion, on any lyrics, for any voice or voices. Seriously brilliant creature.

Should you get a copy? Oh, yes! It is old, but it is pure gold. And used copies are embarrassingly cheap. If you are a newcomer to Andrew Lloyd Webber, you could do a great deal worse for an introduction. This one will help you make up your mind as to whether Andrew’s musicals are worth checking in more detail. If you are already well familiar with his works, you will enjoy playing this CD and being reminded of Andrew’s versatility. Of course, you will complain, as I have, that some of your favourite pieces are missing and others are not represented by their best recordings; unless you are making the selection yourself, this is inevitable. Personally, in addition to the changes I have already mentioned above, I would have liked something more from Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), for my money Andrew’s most consistently perfect creation, but with total timing of 73 minutes or so, it seems churlish to complain about that.