REVIEW: Prince of Broadway - Original Broadway Cast

Recording CoverOn paper, this should be a tremendous celebration. Harold Prince, the director and producer whose astonishing body of work is the subject of this revue, has arguably made as large a contribution to the evolution of musical theatre as any individual since the end of World War Two. He's worked with Bernstein, Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, and nearly everybody in between. He's produced and/or directed musicals that are now widely – universally – hailed as landmarks of the genre. His biggest hit – The Phantom of the Opera – has now been running on Broadway for more than thirty years. This revue's songstack contains an embarrassment of riches: peerless classic after peerless classic, performed by a brilliantly talented ensemble cast, all of whom have turned in distinguished work in other productions, with new arrangements and a new finale by the astonishingly talented Jason Robert Brown. You can practically feel the fireworks beginning in the instant before you press 'play'. What could possibly go wrong?

Well... something did. I didn't see the show in the theatre, so I've no idea how well (or otherwise) it worked on stage. Shorn of David Thompson's book, Susan Stroman's choreography, and sets, costumes and all the rest of it, the overall effect is simultaneously strangely muted and slightly cartoonish. Aside from the overture and finale, the album essentially offers a greatest-hits romp through Prince's career, from Damn Yankees through to Parade, with the performers singing the songs in character rather than as themselves. That, perhaps, is the problem: since they aren't playing their (several) characters in a full production of whichever show they're doing in a given scene, 'character' inevitably starts to slide towards caricature. Sometimes, as in Brandon Uranowitz's carefully-manic Tonight at Eight from She Loves Me or Tony Yazbeck's slow-burn take on This Is Not Over Yet from Brown's Parade, the result is perfectly pleasant (in the latter song, though, Lucille Frank's counterpoint in the final verse is missed here). Chuck Cooper does well by Ol' Man River and – less predictably – If I Were a Rich Man. Kaley Ann Voorhees does a lovely job of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, and Michael Xavier's Music of the Night even manages to soar. All of them, inevitably, are hamstrung to an extent by the decision to have them perform their songs in character – because the revue format means they don't get to build each character from the ground up, you're left with the sense that phenomenally gifted performers are having to push a little too hard against the format of the show they're in. It doesn't help, either, that we're all already familiar with the original cast albums from Prince's biggest productions; it's difficult for this cast not to evoke performances we've all been listening to for decades, and the comparison is not always flattering. Very little of it is bad, exactly – although I hope Bryonha Marie Parham doesn't think she's doing an English accent while she's singing Cabaret – but very little of it feels as fresh as it should. For that matter, very little of it feels as fresh as it would if these (wonderful) performers were simply allowed to take the songs and sing them as concert pieces.

The best moments, unsurprisingly, are the ones where the actors are able to transcend the aura of careful reverence that hangs over so much of this recording. Janet Dacal's You've Got Possibilities from It's Superman is a hoot, and while she's flawlessly funny and has a hell of a voice, she makes a bigger impact, I admit, simply because the song and the show's original cast album are the least familiar things (to me) on this album. Her take on the song is utterly fresh and thoroughly enjoyable. And Emily Skinner's Now You Know, arranged to sound like something from a lounge act, is a surprising take on a song I've always loved; Brown takes the song somewhere I didn't expect, and Skinner gives it everything she's got. Brown's new overture – a whistle-stop tour through, according to the Playbill, no fewer than seventeen songs from fifteen different shows – is a delight, and his new finale – an ensemble number called Do the Work – is terrific, and gets a terrific performance from the show's (terrific) cast.

In the end, though, there's something about this recording that doesn't quite add up. The talent involved, as I said, is phenomenal, and certainly you'll want to own it if you're a fan of one or more of the performers, or of Prince, or if you're just a completist. It's mostly perfectly enjoyable, but the material and the personnel involved may create an unfeasible set of expectations. If you're expecting an earthquake, you'll be disappointed; at best, to borrow an expression from one of Prince's most famous shows, listening to this album is likely to leave you sorry/grateful.


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