Personally, I had a fine time at this rousing if seemingly mindless show, the latest from composer Frank Wildhorn. There are now two recordings of the score, the concept recording which is slightly more rousing, and the original Broadway cast album which is being released today on Sony’s Masterworks Broadway label.This energetic, tuneful, colorful and distinctly pop style musical comedy is a modern take on Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice, complete with a Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, a White Rabbit, a Caterpillar and a Cheshire Cat rendered as a distinctly latin “El Gato.”
It frequently tries to either raise a thought worth pondering or to illustrate a homily. In the words of its lyricist, Jack Murphy, “The audience gets to smile and they get to laugh, but we smuggle in a couple of ideas that are important.” Unfortunately, those ideas are frequently either underdeveloped or overblown.
Most of the strengths of the production make it onto the original Broadway cast recording or are illustrated in its booklet. The cast sells the numbers with panache and the orchestra playing the spacious and frequently scintillating charts of Kim Scharnberg sounds even better on the disc than it does in the the Marquis Theatre pit.
That orchestra is augmented for the recording by an additional cello, two additional french horns and a trombonist doubling on bass trombone, but the charts remain the same. Scharnberg uses the brass and woodwinds, as well as percussion and guitar, to give each song a distinctly individual sound while using the strings to provide heft. There are three keyboards and their sounds seem to spread left to right to give even more breadth to the orchestra.
The album was recorded a few weeks before opening night while the show was still being re-worked. There were many last minute changes which aren’t reflected on the recording. For example, the opening song on the recording is “Home” sung by Alice’s daughter. By the time the show opened, that song was merged with the song that had opened the concept disc last year, “Worst Day Of My Life.” The merger preserved some of the lyrics of Jack Murphy from “Worst Day” but combining it with “Home” merged some sharp lyricsizing with some sloppy work. Murphy opens “Home” with this:
“Home is not a place, an address you memorize
It’s more than seven flights or apartment 8-A
It’s where you never feel lonely whenever you’re alone”
The use of the word “where” is jarring since that would make it a “place.”
In the theater, the show picks up steam at the same point that the recording does – with track 4’s “Welcome to Wonderland,” an up-tempo ensemble number that gets feet tapping before the start of a series of big numbers – one for each of the major characters. There’s “Advice from a Caterpillar” that builds on Carroll’s repeated refrain “Who Are You?” (The song sets out issues of identity but the show doesn’t do much with those issues.) The Cheshire Cat gets a Latin tempo “Go with the Flow” that is flashy and fun. The White Knight delivers Murphy’s clever twist on the identical sounds of “night” and “knight” to make a “one knight stand” sound appealing.
A new addition to the score is a lovely song raising identity and self-determination issues, “I Am My Own Invention,” but deletions will bother those who have come to like missing songs from their version on the concept disc. “Keep on Dancin'” and “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love” are among the missing.
Another significant difference between these two discs is the rendition of some of the big specialty numbers. Karen Mason, whose “Off With Their Heads” as the Queen of Hearts is a highlight of each disc and of the show itself, starts the song at a lower intensity level on stage than she did on the concept disc. This allows her to build at an even steeper climb. The same is true of Kate Shindle’s rendition of her big number “The Mad Hatter.” Personally, I prefer the concept disc versions.
The disc is only 58 minutes long so I regret the absence of the entr’acte played before the lights come up on Act Two as well as of the music for the bows and the playout.
So, which is it? Broadway cast or concept recording? If you have seen the show and want a souvenir or you want to hear what the show actually sounds like, the new disc is your best bet. If you want a pop album that features the fabulous performances of songs created specifically to put the singers in the spotlight, get the concept disc. Me? Well, I’m a completist, especially where the work of Frank Wildhorn is concerned, so you know where I come out!