Whistle Down the Wind (Original London Cast, Disc Two)
Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. I continue this week with Disc Two (i.e. Act Two) from the 1999 Original London Cast Recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s Whistle Down the Wind.
While the end of Act One introduces a series of songs that build nicely towards a clash between the show’s children and adults, Act Two suffers from being pretty much the opposite. It peaks early with one of Lloyd Webber’s most urgent and energetic creations, but sags after that under the weight of music that is mostly recycled from the first act. That’s a shame, because the overall tension of the show continues to build nicely as Swallow and her family come to terms with the identity of the mysterious visitor. I think the relative lack of new music in the second act bothered me less when I saw Whistle Down the Wind on stage than it does when I listen to the recording.
I never saw the London version of the show, as preserved on this recording, but I did see the original Hal Prince-directed production in Washington, D.C., as well as a much later touring production directed by British impresario Bill Kenwright. The D.C. production was certainly unpolished and rightly deemed not ready for Broadway, but I much preferred it to the pallid, cheap-looking tour.
I particularly disliked the pat, unpersuasive ending of the touring production. Wisely, neither the D.C. version nor the London version explicitly resolve the identity of The Man, but everything about him is consistent with the fact that he is an escaped convict who has convinced some kids that he’s Jesus for his own benefit. Of course he finds some Harold Hill-like redemption in his interaction with Swallow and the other children, but The Man is just a man. In Kenwright’s version, though, Swallow and her family are clearly left with the belief that The Man really was Jesus, and this works against the point of everything else that has happened in the show.
I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two stars (**).
Introduction to Act Two: In typical ALW style, the second act begins with a rollicking potpourri of musical themes from the first act. I give him a lot of credit for sticking to tradition and providing some music to ease the transition out of intermission. I think he provides similar music for most of his shows, up to and including Bad Cinderella.
Try Not to Be Afraid: Unfortunately, the first proper song in the act - and one of only two really new ones - is this low-energy ballad that could easily be replaced by some dialogue.
** A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste: The Jim Steinman influence is strong here, as he and ALW create a true rock epic that really gets things going. (Unsurprisingly, Steinman’s friend Meat Loaf recorded a nice version of this song.) While the lyrics are somewhat repetitive and the coda a little long-winded, this is a song I never tire of listening to. Some of the lyrics are quite striking (“we’ll never be as young as we are right now”), and the music builds and builds until it has nothing to do but collapse on itself. The orchestrations are also gorgeous, particularly the melodic French Horn parts near the end of the song.
If Only (Reprise): Just as nice as it was in the first act, but nothing new about it.
Charlie Christmas: This is the first of several songs in the act which are titled like new songs but, in terms of the music, are actually reprises. This one completes the first-act story of Annie Christmas by telling the tale of her husband, using the same music.
Off Ramp Exit to Paradise: Another semi-reprise, this one mostly rehashes the first-act music for the young rebels, “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts.”
Safe Haven (Reprise): Here the dramatic tension begins to build but, once again, using music from the first act rather than developing new material. I think it works fine on stage, but makes for a bit of a let-down when listening to the cast recording.
Wrestle With the Devil: Once again, the music and lyrics from this song have mostly been heard before (several times). Technically, those were “pre-prises,” and this is the actual song.
The Hunt: This song pits the adults and children directly against each other as the show reaches its climax, mainly through reprises of “Wrestle With the Devil” for the former and “When Children Rule the World” for the latter. There’s nothing really new here, but in this case the juxtaposition of the two musical styles does create an interesting effect.
* Nature of the Beast: Likewise, this song is mostly built up from pieces of “Unsettled Scores” and a few other motifs from earlier in the show. But those motifs are some of my favorite tunes from the score, and this song does a good job really developing the material rather than rehashing it.
Whistle Down the Wind: The gentle music of the title song returns for the show’s denouement.
Next time I’ll discuss the 2006 off-Broadway cast recording of Michael John LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba.