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CD Reviews: Caroline or Change and The Battle of Britain


Caroline or Change *** 1/2

JEANINE TESORI AND TONY KUSHNER

Hollywood 2061-62436-2

Disc One: 29 tracks - 59:42    Disc Two: 24 tracks - 61:18

In the biggest "Best Musical" upset in the Tony's history since Nine won over Dreamgirls in 1982, Avenue Q, the adult muppet show, beat out the favorite, Wicked, the musical back-story to The Wizard of Oz. What makes this even more surprising is that neither show was actually the most ambitious musical on Broadway this season. That distinction goes to Caroline or Change, an earnest, serious musical by Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America, and Jeanine Tesori who wrote new songs to musical version of Thoroughly Modern Millie a couple of seasons back.

Caroline is a sung-through musical, and every scene works: the songs, the acting, the writing, the direction. The problem is, when you put all the scenes together, a serious flaw becomes apparent. Nothing happens. The show's title character is a black maid in Louisiana in the early '60s who works for a seemingly happy and rich Jewish family. The Gellmans do have problem: the widowed father just remarried a liberal woman from New York, and his son is having trouble adjusting to her. The main action of the show, however, doesn't appear until the end of act one, when the mother insists that her step-son learn responsibility for his money and announces that any money Caroline finds in his pants pockets, she gets to keep. What happens up to that point is just back-story, not only of the Gellmans but of Caroline's family. Caroline is terribly unhappy and surly about the cards she's dealt. Inanimate objects sing (the moon, a bus, the washing machine), President Kennedy is assassinated and Caroline gets sadder, angrier and meaner.

Only in the second act do things finally pick up. The son accidentally leaves a 20-dollar bill in his pocket, and that development unleashes a lot of buried feelings on everyone's part. These lead to a dramatic confrontation between Caroline and the son, Noah. Another highlight is Caroline's inner monologue about that fight called "Lot's Wife," one of the most powerful (yet also one of the more confusing) songs in the show. Caroline is horrified that she unleashed her anger on a little boy, and she starts to rage against the fury that is her life, but her parallels to Lot's Wife turning to salt seems unearned. Yet, it's a great moment for actress Tonya Pinkins, and one must applaud her commitment to keep Caroline a truly unlikable character. Since the whole first act is character-driven, this makes for rough waters for the audience.

The CD is the first Broadway Cast Recording for Hollywood Records, and they extended the generous effort of making it an almost complete two-disc set, which is crucial for the future life of the show. Composer Tersori is the star of this recording. Her music bounces from Doo-Wop, Motown and Jewish folk to a solid Broadway sensibility with ease and she will have a bright future ahead of her. Kushner's lyrics are a love-them-hate-them affair. For his first musical, Kushner infuses his lyrics with sophistication and wit, but it's also didactic and static, which is predictable from a wordsmith intellectual like Kushner. The performances on the CD are first rate. Along with Pinkins, you get the wonderful Veanne Cox as the step-mother, Harrison Chad as Noah, and Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose as Caroline's equally strong-willed daughter. Ultimately, I found this a fulfilling show, and if you're feeling adventurous, this CD may hold many rewards as well.     -- Cary Wong






Battle of Britain ****

RON GOODWIN/SIR WILLIAM WALTON

Varèse Sarabande 302 066 578 2

28 tracks - 58:49

Imagine the headlines in Film Score Daily, summer of '69. "Prolific composer gets 'old-fashioned' score rejected in favor of replacement by composer with proven track record in the genre, with just a couple of weeks to write it." You could be forgiven for thinking that we're talking about Troy, but this just proves how little things have changed over the years. Returning after a 14-year cinema hiatus, fans of the Henry V and Hamlet composer couldn't wait to listen to Sir William Walton's new war score to the Royal Air Force's defining moment of the Second World War. However, this wasn't to be, and Ron Goodwin, fresh from the popular war stories Where Eagles Dare and Submarine X-1 (not forgetting Squadron 633 and Operation: Crossbow) was drafted in to provide a more familiar popular sound. Apart from the cue "Battle in the Air," Walton's score hit the cutting room floor, only to be discovered years later in the sound engineer's garage!

Varèse Sarabande's 25th Anniversary release is a straight re-release of the 1999 Rykodisc CD (though missing the film trailer). An essential purchase for any war music library, this will sit proudly alongside FSM's release of Goodwin's Where Eagles Dare/ Operation: Crossbow. When listening to both scores, it's easy to see the draw of Goodwin (18 tracks - 33:06). For a high budget movie with a galaxy of A-list stars the producers clearly wanted something big to match. And big is exactly what they got with Goodwin's military percussion and triumphant brassy marches for both the RAF and the Luftwaffe. Without being overly critical, Goodwin's score is a touch too heroic and overblown, whereas Walton's score (10 tracks - 25:43), by contrast, is a more restrained, though equally noble. Goodwin's marches still appear in the program of many military bands, and they are rousing processional pieces. Walton's is more elegant, but at 25 minutes was considered too short for the film (Goodwin contributed nearly an hour of material).

Did the producers make the right choice? Lord Olivier clearly didn't think so, and threatened to have his name taken of the movie's credits if his Hamlet/ Henry V composer didn't get some recognition in the film -- hence the inclusion of his "Battle in the Air" cue. Personally, I'm 60/40 in favor of Walton's score, but believe that the world is big enough for both pieces to complement each other. Incidentally, the UK DVD release gives you the option to choose which score you want to listen to. Now, why couldn't they have done that with Troy? Okay chaps, time to take to the sky for the battle of the scores. Who will triumph, and who will crash and burn? The choice is yours.     -- Nick Joy

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