Mad About Musicals

Chicago, Man of La Mancha, La Boheme on Broadway, and more

“Whatever happened to class?”

Just like the delicious duet “Class” sung by prison matron Mama Morton and celebrity double-murderer Velma Kelly, that’s a question a lot of fans of the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago and its still-running 1996 revival have been asking since the big-screen adaptation debuted last month with the clever showstopper nowhere to be found.

Well, you need only wait until the soundtrack of Chicago (Epic Records) is released this Tuesday, January 14, to find out how much fun it is when Queen Latifah (as Mama) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Velma) grab hold of such classic lines — crafted by the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb as an overwrought, Schubertian art song, no less — as, “There ain’t no gentlemen that’s fit for any use, and any girl’ll touch your privates for a deuce…nobody’s got no class.” Preach it, sisters.

(Was it really necessary, though, to update “Everybody you watch, s’got his brains in his crotch” with “Every guy is a snot, every girl is a twat?”)

The rich, full-voiced Latifah and Zeta-Jones are perfect for the wry likes of “Class,” the only bonus track on the CD really worth mentioning. But, for the record — so to speak — you’ll also find two silly, generic “inspired-by-the-motion-picture” pop/hip-hop numbers: Anastacia’s “Love Is a Crime” and Latifah, Lil’ Kim and Macy Gray’s “Cell Block Tango/He Had It Comin’,” based on the same Kander and Ebb number from the score. You also get, for no good reason, “After Midnight” and “Roxie’s Suite” from Danny Elfman’s insignificant, barely detectable “score.”

Chicago‘s musical impact, after all, is about Kander and Ebb’s vaudeville-inspired music and lyrics created for the Broadway production. “All That Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “Mister Cellophane,” “Nowadays” — they’re undeniably some of the greatest contributions to the musical theatre canon, surpassing in many ways the sky-high standard Kander and Ebb had already set for themselves in the mid-’60s with Cabaret.

Elfman and hip-hop aside, the Chicago soundtrack — brimming with sparkling, meticulous orchestrations — is pure pleasure through-and-through. Zeta-Jones brings a fiercely passionate edge to Velma’s numbers, turning up the heat to Match director Rob Marshall’s departure from the cooler, detached Bob Fosse style that permeates the stage versions.

Renee Zellweger’s vocal performance, unfairly criticized by some as weak, is really quite delightful. Ripe with subtle phrasing and budding with sensuality, Zellweger’s turn as Roxie is certainly a far more pleasant listen than the role’s originator, Broadway icon Gwen Verdon. And Roxie, a wanna-be star, shouldn’t match the powerhouse skill of the already-famous Velma. (That’s why you’ll find me in the anti-Liza camp when it comes to the role of Sally Bowles in the ’72 film adaptation of Cabaret. Such a big voice just isn’t right for the only semi-talented character.)

The Chicago soundtrack also conveys every bit of the agility and comic timing that makes Richard Gere such a hooty delight as Billy Flynn. Make room in your CD rack, Chicago lovers. This one’s definitely a keeper.

The new Broadway cast recording of Man of La Mancha (RCA Victor) doesn’t reach the same status, although you can at least be grateful it hasn’t inspired a rap version of “The Impossible Dream.” And you can certainly be grateful to have Brian Stokes Mitchell’s gorgeous rendering of a handful of musical gems — “Dulcinea,” “The Impossible Dream,” “I, Don Quixote” — committed to recording history. Of course, that’s three tracks out of twenty drawn from a score that’s mediocre and painfully reminiscent of this awful revival for those unfortunate enough to have seen it. You do the math.

Like La Mancha, the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (DRG Records) has not met with universal acclaim. But its new cast recording, considered solely on its own accord, is enchanting. David Chase’s music adaptation puts an appropriate contemporary Broadway sheen on the 1950s score without insulting it. Plus, songs such as “You Are Beautiful” and “Love, Look Away” demand that kind of tweaking to accommodate the stunning beauty and sheer power of star Lea Salonga’s voice, accustomed as she is to soaring through the likes of Les Miz and Miss Saigon.

It’s hard to say what all the fuss is about as you listen to the original cast recording of Baz Luhrmann’s Production of Puccini’s La Boheme on Broadway (DreamWorks). From the musical perspective, Luhrmann — both lauded and reviled for the likes of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge on the big screen — doesn’t really stray from opera tradition. (His visual and dramatic interpretation, though, is something else entirely.)

Multiple sets of leads — all real-deal opera singers — rotate in the production, as well as on the album’s highlights of La Boheme‘s four acts, and the original orchestrations are used. It adds up to scarcely more than an hour of music, but it’s beautifully done and proves to be a great introduction to, or reminder of, La Boheme‘s famous themes without taking on the full score in a single sitting.

Finally, from the strange-but-true department are two new discs worth mentioning. Could any other name than Donny Osmond be on an album, Somewhere in Time (Decca), that includes both a cover of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “No One Has to Be Alone” from the new straight-to-kid-vid The Land Before Time IX: Journey to Big Water? What’s truly weird is that “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is actually pretty good, if you’re not too depressed by the thought of cool ’80s songs being turned into Easy Listening. And who in their wildest dreams would imagine that Johnny Cash would cover Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” on American IV: The Man Comes Around (American/Lost Highway)? So crazy, it’s cool.

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