Zing’s Record Collection: Chicago – The Cast Recordings (Pt. 2)
Hello and welcome to ‘Zing’s Record Collection’; join me as I review the very best (and worst) of musical theatre recordings, past and present.
Welcome indeed to this belated second part of my Chicago cast recording round-up-athon. We have three more Chicago recordings to review; join me as I discover which ‘Razzle Dazzle’ and which are only a ‘Little Bit of Good’.
London Cast Recording (1998): Cast; Ute Lemper, Ruthie Henshall, Henry Goodman, Nigel Planer, Meg Johnson et al.
The next recording produced was, at long last, a London Cast Recording of the modern Chicago we have come to know and love. Produced in 1998, some nineteen years after its original London premiere, this cast recording is extremely similar to the Broadway Revival Cast recording – unsurprising considering the then-new London show was a replica of the already successful Broadway production. The only difference in the creative team between the two productions was a new musical director in the shape of Gareth Valentine (although Broadway MD Rob Fisher was retained in a supervisory capacity), and this shows to some extent on the cast recording with some minor differences in tempo and a few slightly different cuts. The cast aside, it is these subtle differences alone which make the London Cast Recording a somewhat worthwhile purchase, even if you already own the Broadway Revival Recording.
The cast are packed full of names; after the lively overture the familiar strains of ‘All That Jazz’ pipe up and we have a first listen to our Velma, noted German cabaret and theatre singer Ute Lemper. Lemper is thoroughly believable and gives a harsh, cynical performance which works wonderfully. Her singing is powerful and stern; Lemper has obviously worked extremely hard on her American Vaudeville accent for the part and it shows; at no point does she slip into her native accent, a remarkable feat considering she is singing not only in a very specialist American regional accent, but not in her native tongue. In many ways, Lemper could be considered the polar opposite of the quirky, jokey Chita Rivera – for the most part she plays it very straight. Both performances are superb, but fans will have their preference between these two – as for me, I simply can’t decide which style I prefer! Counteracting this, on the other hand, is the performance of Ruthie Henshall as Roxie Hart. Henshall gives an enormous, melodramatic and comic performance as the wannabe starlet. Henshall hams it up to brilliant comic effect and her over the top performance works as the perfect juxtaposition to Lemper’s serious Velma – to the benefit of the cast recording as a whole.
Elsewhere, Meg Johnson as Matron Mama Morton is big and brash and gives a superb performance, excelling in her solo number ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Again, her accent is spot on – in a strange way, because the cast so conscious of their accents, they actually increase the impetus put on them, making the songs fit even better into the ‘vaudeville’ style. The cast, especially Johnson and Lemper truly sound “of the period”, I think partly because their accents are so over the top and ‘heightened’. Henry Goodman’s Billy Flynn is a strange one. He sounds like he is about to burst into laughter any second throughout the recording. Although Goodman plays it for laughs with a kooky and ‘knowing’ performance, he isn’t actually all that funny. It is one of those cases where the actor thinks he needs to exaggerate the part more than he does – the role is actually a lot more funny when the actor plays it straight. After just two songs he leaves himself no room to maneuver in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, where of course Flynn sings as both himself as his ‘puppet’ Roxie and I feel his performance is perhaps misjudged.
Whilst on the surface there is not a lot of difference between the London recording and the Broadway recording which preceded it, there is no doubt that both have their own merits and own charms and it is hard to separate one from the other. My preference is for the London recording, mainly due to the star pair of Lemper and Henshall, as good a pairing as have ever been cast in the show.
Music from the Motion Picture (2002): Cast; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, James C Reilly, Queen Latifah et al.
In 2002, Tinseltown came knocking and Chicago answered. The movie adaption, as you are no doubt aware, went on to become one of the most critically and commercially successful movie-musicals yet made, winning six Oscars including “Best Picture” and grossing over $300m worldwide. The movie, directed and choreographed by relative unknown Rob Marshall, is – in my opinion – one of the finest movie musicals ever made and in most ways a much more satisfying and engaging experience than its stage counterpart. Inevitably, the soundtrack enjoyed a phenomenal success, selling approximately 2.5m copies – but does it stand up? Well, yes and no.
As you would expect, the production values are superb and the band and arrangements have never sounded better – you expect these values from a movie musical with a much larger budget and resources than a stage show recording. The singing, it is fair to say, is mixed.
On the one hand you have Catherine Zeta-Jones, who gives the performance of her career as Velma. Listening to her conjures up all the images from the movie, her intense expressions, those black tights! But her voice also legitimately stands up this cast recording on its own merit, no mean feat for someone who was cast for her ‘triple threat’ qualities and star name appeal. Frankly, Zeta-Jones is the star and was right to win in her Oscar nominated category for her performance. Why Renee Zellweger was nominated as Best Actress ahead of Zeta-Jones I will never know – but it is likely to be a decision someone somewhere has been very keen to forget! As for Zellweger, well, she is okay – she clearly tries very hard and her voice, whilst not the strongest, does not sound bad on the recording by any stretch of the imagination. Seeing her performance adds very little to what you hear from Zellweger, but from a movie I know so well I’m not sure how much this is down to my being ‘used’ to her. I can also appreciate that, especially in a visual sense, Zellweger was not everybody’s cup of tea. At the opposite end of the singing spectrum to Zeta-Jones is Richard Gere as Billy Flynn. Now, I love watching Gere in the movie; he is funny, acts well and has some wonderful moments, but taking his voice on the recording on its own, it is fair to say that Gere is the weak link on the soundtrack. His voice is wafer thin even after every single trick has been used to squeeze every drop out of his voice. Although no stranger to musical theatre having appeared in the original production of Grease having covered and played Danny, Gere is simply not a singer and every line sounds like an arduous uphill climb, akin to Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! Queen Latifah is very well cast as Mama Morton and belts out her big number with gusto, I really like how Latifah gives her Matron a unashamedly ‘butch’ quality, as I feel the character was clearly written to be a bit on the ‘dykey’ side. The quality she gives in her performance in the movie carries over to the recording nicely and, as with Zeta-Jones, it is easy to picture her every move and expression as you listen! John C. Reilly is the most pathetic Amos to date, and as with Joel Grey, earns genuine sympathy for his naivety and loyalty to his murderess wife.
It was a nice touch to leave the song “Class”on the CD, sung by Latifah and Zeta-Jones, despite it being from a deleted scene in the movie. It is actually one of my favourite songs from the show and is well performed by both singers. It is worth mentioning the songs from the stage show which were cut from the movie – and therefore the soundtrack. Essentially, the fat was trimmed and I agree with all the cuts which were made, as none of the numbers cut advanced the story or were particularly strong on their own. Mary Sunshine’s screech-fest “A Little Bit of Good” is axed, as is “My Own Best Friend”, “I Know a Girl” and “Me and my Baby” which don’t fit in with the stylised framing for the movie (Roxie’s dream world juxtaposed with real life grit) and lastly “When Velma Takes the Stand”, which again was dropped due to not being relevant to Roxie herself.
Without comparing the actual movie with the stage show too much, the cast recording is certainly another very different Chicago and the performances are, again, very individual and interesting. But, in my opinion, the movie is a wonderful experience and the soundtrack diminishes many of the qualities which made the movie such a classic; I’d suggest buying the DVD instead and savouring every minute.
Last – and least – is a highlights CD I picked up recently from “The London Theatre Orchestra & Cast”, who have recorded a range of popular musicals in their own unique style. There are sadly no cast credits as I believe they hire session singers. On some of the recordings the singers don’t actually sing the correct tune (Les Misérables springs to mind) or make lyric mistakes, presumably due to studio time constraints. But they are always good for a laugh and at a budget price (usually £1-3) they are always worth a listen.
The London Theatre Orchestra & Cast Present Highlights From.. Chicago (2002): Cast; Alan Smithee
This effort from Pickwick in 2002 scrapes the barrel in terms of what can be called a ‘cast recording’, but as the last Chicago recording in Chewingthescenery.com HQ it is getting a listen.
According to the CD player I am using, alarm bells officially started to ring for me at 0:02 into the first track. The man introducing the show (I’m sure it’s the same guy who plays Amos) “Ladies and Gentleman, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation adultery and treachery – all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts, thank you” sounds rather more like Elmer Fudd than anything else. The overture kicks into life and doesn’t sound too bad, there are obviously a lot of digitally synthesised instruments, but it never gets so bad that I could confuse the ‘orchestra’ for a midi track – just.
Our Velma isn’t too bad, our backing tracks are – unfortunately. Note to music supervisor: if you are using programmed backing tracks, try to minimise the amount of time tracks are playing on their own, don’t create new extended parts which aren’t even in the original score to show off your skills! The ensemble consists of two women and a man, who also play other parts later on the CD. “All That Jazz” sounds very hollow – like a karaoke backing track with the backing vocals turned right down, but Velma has a surprisingly good belt in her big finale. I somehow doubt this recording will be on her CV, however.
Roxie does a rather accurate Ruthie Henshall impression in “Funny Honey” and, again, is perfectly okay in keeping with the general ‘standard’ of the CD. In ” Cell Block Tango” the two ladies double up and share the parts between them, trying different accents with varying degrees of success to mask their true identities. Again, it sounds very hollow and would sound a good deal better if Pickford had managed to flesh out the recording with just a handful more voices in the ‘ensemble’. In “Cell Block Tango” they commit the common but unforgivable sin on these types of recording by not actually knowing the tune they are singing. The two voices, with microphones turned to the max, sing a harmony instead of the melody – perhaps they were told to do this as they would be adding in more voices later? It is hard to say, but the result is almost unlistenable. Mama Morton at least has a lot of fun, rolling her R’s comically at the beginning and singing with the most wobbly vibrato I’ve ever heard. At least it’s nice to hear them enjoying themselves…
Billy Flynn sounds a lot like Sean Connery which is no bad thing, except that he couldn’t possibly sound less American. He is actually rather good in “We Both Reached for the Gun” especially as Roxie and is the standout performer on the CD by some distance.
I must admit to being unable to stomach getting to the end of the recording, the general poor production values and hearing the same songs dozens of times by now has taken its toll on me; suffice to say, this album should only be bought purely for comic value and could not possibly be considered anywhere near the official cast recordings available. This recording should be considered as an absolute last resort or a cruel punishment for a friend/family member who asks for a Chicago CD as a present. It will save you a few quid, too.
With the news that the recently closed West End production of Chicago is to immediately reopen at the Garrick Theatre from 7th November 2011 starring Ugly Betty‘s America Ferrera as Roxie, we have come full circle. Will the show run another 14 years?
Zing’s preferred cast:
Velma Kelly – Catherine Zeta-Jones (Movie)
Roxie Hart – Ruthie Henshall (London)
Billy Flynn – Jerry Orbach (Original)
Mama Morton – Queen Latifah (Movie)
Amos Hart – Joel Grey (Broadway)
“Ladies and Gentleman, you are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation adultery and treachery – all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts, thank you” Guy – Elmer Fudd (LTO&C)
– Harry Zing