Wonderful Town

Wonderful Town

Wonderful Town was the second of Leonard Bernstein’s trio of ‘New York’ musicals begun in 1944 with On The Town and completed with 1957’s West Side Story. If it is the least well remembered then the fault does not lie with either its score or Comden and Green’s witty, satirical lyrics. Coincidentally, the show has received two new recordings in as many years with Jay Records’ version, conducted by John Owen Edwards and featuring Karen Mason and Rebecca Luker, followed closely bythis latest release from EMI Classics.

Bernstein’s achievement is all the more impressive given that the score was written over a period of only five weeks after the original music and lyrics were deemed unacceptable by several participants including the show’s star, Rosalind Russell. Adapted from their 1940 play My Sister Eileen by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, Wonderful Town is a love letter to New York in the ’30’s. It follows the lives of two sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, in the first weeks after they arrive in the city from Ohio. Ruth is a writer and Eileen an aspiring actress. Landing in the heart of Greenwich Village, they encounter a number of colourful local characters and gain footholds in their chosen careers while simultaneously trying to deal with the interest (or otherwise) of a variety of men.

Bernstein’s score combines witty pastiches of various popular musical styles of the 30s – Conga!, Swing!, The Wrong Note Rag – and some of his most winning ballads – A Quiet Girl, It’s Love, A Little Bit In Love. The whole is infused with the kind of edgy, intense rhythms that were the composer’s trademark and to this day still seem synonymous with the dynamism of the Big Apple itself.

While the original recording of any musical theatre score is likely to remain in some ways definitive – and both this and Russell’s subsequent TV version are currently available – there is much to recommend here. Simon Rattle’s conducting of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group brings out all the energy and vitality of the score. Kim Criswell, like Karen Mason on the Jay recording, is a better singer than Russell ever was and the material itself undoubtedly gains from her confidence. If Mason is a shade more authentic in her reproduction of the musical theatre style of another age, Criswell is much funnier. Audra McDonald’s Eileen is deliciously sung and, if she misses a little of the character’s innocent sensuality, she has all of the requisite sweetness and warmth. Luker is lacklustre by comparison. Thomas Hampson manages to lighten his classical tone effectively and sings beautifully, if a little stolidly, as Bob Baker, the magazine editor who first encourages Ruth’s literary aspirations and ends up falling in love with her.

The one undoubted advantage that this recording enjoys over the original is that it features far more of the score. Jay’s version is even more complete – with virtually every reprise and extensive underscored dialogue – but few listeners will require more than is included here. Given that John Owen Edwards’ conducting lacks some of Rattle’s fire, the EMI recording is clearly a winner. Collectors should (and most will) own Russell’s 1953 original but this new Wonderful Town offers many pleasures of its own.

Mark Jennett...