Cast Recording Reviews
How does one choose a pool of recordings to review for a show like Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s 1943 musical, Oklahoma!, which has a handful of cast albums, a film soundtrack and more than a score of studio albums dedicated to showcasing the score of this popular American show? I suppose one has to made choices somewhere down the line, so for the purposes of this review, I’ll stick with the major stage productions and the film. The images here allow to you to purchase the recordings from Amazon: just click on the image and you will be directed to a page with further details on each recording.
The Original Broadway Cast Recording (OBCR) is a landmark recording. Originally released in two volumes, the one-disc CD release includes all of the major songs, predictable skipping only the “Dream Ballet”, the “Entr’acte” and the reprise of “People Will Say We’re in Love”, with several of the other numbers trimmed internally. On offer is a super cast, led by Alfred Drake and Joan Roberts as Curly and Laurey. Although Drake in particular is perhaps rooted somewhat too much in the tradition of operetta from which Oklahoma! itself springs, their performances are thrilling. With a uniformly excellent supporting cast, every song is a treat: there is an energy that penetrates every moment of this recording that makes it immediately accessible and always enjoyable, even upon repeat listens. It is an essential recording for fans of the show and of musical theatre in general.
In comparison, the Original London Cast Recording (OLCR) sounds rather sedate and is severely truncated, with most songs featuring only a verse and chorus before coming to a sudden end. Featuring Howard Keel as Curly and Betty Jane Watson as Laurey, the there is nothing wrong with the cast, per se; they just don’t equal their 1940s Broadway counterparts. Keel gives an endearing reading as Curly and Watson is sweet – but a little pitchy – as Laurey. Dorothea MacFarland gives a typically fashioned old-school comic reading of Ado Annie, but is unable to banish the memory of Celeste Holm, who offers a definitive performance of the songs on the OBCR. This isn’t the recording to get if you really want to experience what Oklahoma! has to offer. Rather go for the OBCR, the soundtrack or one of the revivals. This one is a triviality for completists and hardcore fans of the show.
Next up is the soundtrack of the 1955 film version, which starred Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones as Curly and Laurey. Both typify the kind of romantic leads that Rogers and Hammerstein had in mind for the show during the 1940s and 1950s: a dapper, charming and confident young cowboy and a romantic, somewhat histrionic young woman. Both fill the roles quite nicely and the leading cast is rounded out quite well by Gloria Grahame, a typically character-voiced Ado Annie, and Gene Nelson, who is a charming Will – possibly the best to portray the role on record thus far. It’s also interesting to hear a different “Overture”, one clearly capitalising on the most popular numbers of the score rather than on the tunes chosen to set the mood for the stage show, the earlier of the two being the more successful in that regard to my mind. The CD release of the soundtrack supplemented the LP release with a number of tracks, including the full “Out of My Dreams” ballet. While it was not the only number cut from the film, “Lonely Room” is perhaps the most glaring omission here. Essential to the show, it was excluded from the film and is excluded here.
Cast recordings of the show pretty much made way for a slew of studio recordings until 1980, when we got a double whammy from both sides of the Atlantic. The 1980 recording of the 1979 Broadway revival (the BRCR) offers us more music than we’d heard to date on a cast recording of this kind. Including many short interludes that lead into numbers, the disc tries to offer a sense of drama, with vocals echoing in the distance when people enter from offstage, at the top of the show, for example, when Curly sings the start of his song in the distance as he approaches the farm. The leads are pretty solid, sounding more authentically mid-Western than their 1940s counterparts, but both are overshadowed by the supporting cast: an effervescent Christine Ebersole as Ado Annie, an endearing Harry Groener as Will Parker and a rascally Mary Wickes as Aunt Eller. The orchestra is lively, the choral singing is rock solid and the principle cast is committed to telling this story. As a result, this recording comes closest to reproducing the energy of the 1943 recording while still interpreting the material in a unique manner. With the reprises, “Lonely Room” and “It’s a Scandal” all present, the only major exclusion on this recording is the dream ballet.
The 1980 London Revival Cast Recording (LRCR) tried using a different strategy to communicate the vitality of the show by offering a live recording of a performance from the run. To that end, it doesn’t achieve anything that any of the in-studio cast recordings have not and the album is beset with lamentable technical troubles to boot, with strange fades in and out of some tracks and everything sounding as if it were recorded from behind a curtain of water. Applause tacked on the end of tracks does not make the recording more energetic. Furthermore, none of the performances impress. John Diedrich delivers a Curly very much in the Gordon MacRae mode; Rosamund Shelley is a shaky Laurey who sounds like she’s struggling to take on the vocal demands of the role; and Mark White and Jillian Mack are undistinguished as Will and Ado Annie. A disappointment through and through, this is surely one of the least successful recordings of the show’s score to date.
On its third attempt, the West End did finally offer a cast recording of the show that is worth buying. The 1998 Royal National Theatre Cast Recording (RNTCR) features Hugh Jackman and Josephina Gabrielle as Curly and Laurey and offer, perhaps, the most human readings of the two roles to date. Maureen Lipman is delicious as Aunt Eller and Shuler Hensley is a most menacing Jud, truly plunging the depths of the character and offering a very compelling threat to Curly and Laurey’s happiness. Although they don’t quite live up to the 1943 OBCR or 1979 RBCR’s pairing, Vicki Simon and Jimmy Johnston are personable as Will Parker and Ado Annie. With the ballet music included, as well as all the songs – along with snippets of dialogue that provide some dramatic context for the pieces – London finally has a recording that can stand alongside the OBCR.
So which to choose? I’d say that the 1943 OBCR is indispensable. Supplement that with either the soundtrack, the 1980 RBCR or the 1998 RNTCR and you’ll be all set to enjoy just about everything that this show has to offer. Clicking on any of the images above will allow you to purchase the recording at Amazon. Still not satiated? Check out one of the studio recordings listed below!
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT:
1. Oklahoma! 1952 Studio Cast Recording CD.
2. The Music from Oklahoma! 1955 Instrumental CD.
3. Oklahoma! 1964 Studio Cast Recording CD.
4. Oklahoma! 1996 Studio Cast Recording CD.
5. Oklahoma! 1996 Karaoke CD.