Whistle Down the Wind (Original London Cast, Disc One)
Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Each week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. I begin this week with Disc One (i.e. Act One) from the 1999 Original London Cast Recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s Whistle Down the Wind.
I’ve had the opportunity to see Whistle twice (more about that next time), and I’ve always found it a messy affair that is nonetheless curiously affecting. Although uneven, the score remains one of my favorites from ALW. It’s a very ambitious effort that, even if it often falls short of its aims, features several moments of intense power. It also includes two of my favorite ALW songs (one from each act).
Act One admittedly starts very slowly, with a series of unremarkable songs. It reaches a musical peak with “Unsettled Scores,” and the final sequence of songs, starting with “Safe Haven,” constitute a slow but thrilling buildup of tension between the adults of the town and their children, who have very different attitudes about their mysterious visitor.
If you do listen to the recording, several issues become clear very quickly, related both to the performances and the material itself. For one thing, the Southern accents are very hit-or miss, especially among the children (one of whom comes off sounding oddly like Kira from Xanadu). For another, some characters, especially the adult men, are given some very over-the-top dialogue that they deliver with corresponding bombast; it’s not very believable, at least on the recording. More seriously (but also understandably), the show’s late-twentieth-century approach to themes of race and prejudice seems very dated in 2023. Presumably most of this could be fixed if there’s ever another American production of the show.
I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two stars (**).
The Vaults of Heaven: This song does a fine job of introducing the fundamentalist Southern community that provides the setting for the show. It’s a straightforward gospel pastiche with predictable melody and lyrics. In the original (Washington, DC) version of the show, one section of the song sounded perilously like a main theme from John Williams’ Jurassic Park score - which several critics noticed - but that’s been fixed for this version.
I Never Get What I Pray For: This heavily expositional song introduces the three main children in the show and their family situation. It could probably be replaced by a short dialogue scene.
Home By Now: This is little more than a continuation of the previous song, introducing a few of the other characters in the show. It also serves to introduce a couple of musical themes that will recur throughout the score.
It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: This is an expressive but very short song introducing us to the siblings’ father, Boone. It’s not much more than an introductory verse for the title song.
Whistle Down the Wind: The title song, sung first by Boone and then by his daughter, Swallow, is a very simple musical breath of fresh air. It is a statement of optimism in the face of adversity, an attitude that will be severely tested by the events of the show.
The Vow: This brief exchange between the children and their new friend (The Man) introduces an innocent, soothing melody that will form one of the building blocks of the score.
Cold: Probably my least favorite song from the disc, this rather bland country pastiche mainly exists to give the character of Earl his own song, and to provide an excuse for a little bit of dancing. I’ll admit that some of the lyrics are fairly clever (“they’re evacuatin’ Satan who’s waitin’ for hell to freeze over”).
**Unsettled Scores: This complex, varied, and generally satisfying song begins with a short evocation of the airy melody from “The Vow” and a preview of “A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste” from Act Two, as The Man reflects on his past misdeeds and current predicament. The main song follows, basically a list of happy and painful memories that amount, in the end, to a lifetime of grievances. Its two verses are each followed by an epic chorus, allowing The Man to revel in his glorious hopelessness. The combination of Lloyd Webber’s powerful music, Steinman’s evocative images, and Marcus Lovett’s vivid delivery make this a major highlight.
*If Only: This is a gentle, expansive melody for the main female character of Swallow, putting it in the same general territory as “Memory” from Cats or “Surrender” from Sunset Boulevard, and Lottie Mayor knocks it out of the park. This song adds an appropriately rustic touch to the formula, making it another backbone of the Whistle score.
Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts: The melody of this song is a retread (ha) of “English Girls” from Song and Dance. It’s re-imagined and extended, and of course features a starkly different arrangement, but it’s still patently a version of the same song. While it works at least as well here (embodying the doomed romance between two young rebels) as it does in the earlier show, there’s something very questionable about recycling material from such a relatively successful and well-known work.
Safe Haven: As the children gather around The Man, the adults have their own ideas about justice and how it must be served. The song isn’t really much to listen to on its own, but it does a good job igniting the slow burn that will lead the act to its climax.
Long Overdue for a Miracle: This jaunty song for the children surrounding The Man is really just an introduction for the more substantial one to follow.
*When Children Rule the World: An ebullient Christmas song for the children, this song features a very simple but charming melody, and lyrics that vividly enunciate the group’s own vision for a just world - starkly different from that of the adults.
Annie Christmas: This is a rather strange song, in which The Man does his best to satisfy the children’s need to hear a story. Though it’s called “Annie Christmas,” its music and lyrics are both more appropriate for Halloween. I’ve listened to this song many times and I still don’t know quite what it means, but it does tell an interesting story.
*No Matter What: This song forms a gradual crescendo, beginning with individual statements of devotion on the part of the children before building up to grand promises of unconditional communal dedication to The Man. The Boyzone version of this song might have been a genuine radio hit, but it is really only in context that the song packs a real punch, especially when musical interruptions from the revenge-fueled adults are answered with ever more fervent expressions of allegiance from the children. It’s a highly effective end to the act.
Next time I’ll cover Disc Two of this same recording.