ReDISCoveries: The Woman in White
(Original Cast Recording, Disc One)
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. This week’s entry covers Disc One of the 2004 Original London Cast Recording of The Woman in White, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by David Zippel, and book by Charlotte Jones. The show was recorded live on its opening night at the Palace Theatre, which boasts an in-house studio; per the liner notes, applause and stage noises were eliminated through clever editing and touch-up recording.
In contrast to the recordings I’ve written about so far, this one is for a show I’ve never seen, and it’s also not a recording that I’d call one of my favorites. But I had listened to it, and enjoyed it, quite a bit when it came out almost twenty years ago, and I thought it was time to give it another go. I think it stands up reasonably well as a document of some mostly very pleasing music.
The show itself, as I recall, attracted neither raves, nor many outright pans, but mostly indifference when it premiered on Broadway. Listening to the recording, it’s easy to understand why: there is not enough story to justify the extraneous characters, the many recitative sections and reprises, and the sheer length of it. The composer frequently indulges in extended musical passages that seem to exist to spotlight his lush melodies rather than move the plot forward. This is a dull way to tell a story (especially a mystery/thriller), but it’s more forgivable on a recording, at least if you approach it as a musical diversion rather than a gripping drama. I don’t consider it too big an insult to say that the recording makes for excellent background music. (I’ll have more to say about the score and orchestrations next time.)
In this first act of The Woman in White, young drawing teacher Walter travels to a country estate to meet his two students, half-sisters Marian and Laura. Both fall for him, but his affections lie with the younger Laura, who unfortunately turns out to already be engaged to a nobleman, Glyde. During the course of his travels, he encounters the mysterious title woman, learning that her name is Anne and that she has been tormented by a man who turns out to be Laura’s fiancé. Laura marries Glyde under duress; he is abusive to her in turn; and the two sisters and Anne begin their plot to expose his crimes and free themselves from his grip.
I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two
stars (**). Most tracks include a titled song with some recitative or mini-songs before and/or after the main song. (This recording really should have been broken up into more tracks.)
Prologue: Jagged, dark, and bordering on atonal, the prologue features some very interesting, un-ALW-like, appropriately alienating music. As the composer tells it, he had once intended to write a show based on Dickens’ short story The Signal-Man, and this extended scene gave him the opportunity to partially resurrect that idea. Walter (Martin Crewes), wandering in the dark, encounters first a railway signal-man (Vincent Prillo), who has some dire predictions about the fate of his trip, and then a mysterious woman in white (Angela Christian), who is in some trouble. The music reflects Walter’s fear and confusion, which prevent him from finding out much more about her plight.
I Hope You’ll Like It Here: The title seems like a nod to a famous song from Annie, which likewise functioned to welcome a newcomer to a fancy estate. Marian (Maria Friedman) introduces Walter to her house and its inhabitants (her younger half-sister and their uncle). This gentle patter-song features some memorable lyrics like: “with his bed pan and his hanky/he is terminally cranky.”
Perspective: Walter gets to know the two sisters as he begins their art lessons while exploring the countryside with them. The music alternates between jauntily pastoral and quietly rhapsodic as both sisters realize their attraction to their teacher. Another fun couplet from the sisters: “I must disregard his charms/and his manly rugged arms.”
* Trying Not to Notice: This vibrant trio is musically of a similar ilk to “All I Ask of You” and “Too Much in Love to Care,” but more poignant than those two earlier ALW songs because of its chromatic touches and its function in the story. The two devoted sisters are each falling for him, but he’s only falling for the younger Laura (Jill Paice). (The melody that accompanies the title words evokes the bridge from “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and, especially, the Jeeves song from which it was recycled, “Half a Moment.”)
I Believe My Heart: The first act so far has been dominated by a trilogy of luxuriant, romantic songs, concluding with this passionate duet for Walter and Laura. I think it’s probably the best-known song from the show, but it’s just a little too stately and metrically regular for my taste. It sounds more like a national anthem than a love song, and suffers by comparison with the two much more supple songs that precede it. The rangy melody does give Crewes and (particularly) Paice an excuse to show off their considerable vocal talents.
Lammastide: This energetic song, which would fit in at any Renaissance fair, provides a much-needed change of pace, as the village celebrates a mid-summer festival.
You Can See I Am No Ghost: Here, the musical texture turns to an extended series of recitative sections and short bursts of song that move the plot along. At the festival, Walter spots the mysterious woman he met at the start of the show and follows her to a local graveyard. Reprising some of the music from the Prologue, she tells him her name is Anne and that she is in flight from a man named Sir Percival Glide (Oliver Darley).
Back at the estate, the jealous Marian takes Walter aside and tells him that Laura is engaged to a rich nobleman; this turns out to be none other than Glyde himself, who soon arrives to a jocular, fanfare-like melody, and insists that they marry at Christmas.
Another guest, the Italian Count Fosco (Michael Crawford), arrives and, to a playful but tense tango, begins to curry favor with Marian, who welcomes him warmly (“you may dine on any single thing you wish/though I’d wait for dinner, we are serving fish”).
I think this is probably a good time to note that the three main female characters are all very well-cast, especially for the recording. Christian, as Anne, sings with a thin, vibrato-free voice, filled with little character touches; Paice, a Broadway fixture, delivers Laura’s songs with a lusty soprano; and Friedman is appropriately dark and deep as Marian. The voices are so unique that there’s never any confusion about who is singing which lines, and each interpretation is well-matched to its character.
A Gift for Living Well: As the orchestra evokes a majestic Viennese-sounding waltz, Fosco boasts of his titular gift for food, wine, and romance. I know this character is a holdover from the Wilkie Collins novel on which this show is based, but here he seems like a total waste of time. I understand that Crawford’s schtick played very well in the theater, but on the recording his long solo number just ruins the dramatic momentum that is finally building up late in the first act.
Returning to an extended, plot-heavy recitative passage, Walter arrives and accuses Glyde of mistreating Anne. He denies it, claiming he actually took her in and cared for her when her mother died. Laura is reconsidering her marriage to Glyde, but Marian persuades her to go through with it, noting it was their father’s dying wish. To a grand reprise of “I Believe My Heart,” Walter departs and Laura grieves the loss of her true love.
The Holly and the Ivy: This grim, monotonous carol tells us that things are not going well at Glyde’s estate for the two sisters. Glyde has repeatedly abused Laura and has maneuvered to seize her inheritance, and Laura has come to resent Marian for persuading her to marry him.
** All For Laura: Realizing that her own jealous feelings for Walter have led her to be an accomplice in her sister’s ruin, Marian vows to dedicate her life to saving her from this terrible predicament. The music, sad and intense, is based on a repeated four-note motive whose first few iterations lead to a precipitous melodic fall, reflecting Marian’s desperation; further repetitions lead to louder, more determined outbursts, and finally to iron-clad resolve (“I will somehow learn to be strong/I will live to right this wrong”). Sung as it is by a former Fosca, this obsessively sorrowful song is surely the only thing ALW has written that might sort-of fit in with the score of Passion.
Anne, who has also decided to help Laura bring down Percival Glyde, joins late in the song and tells Marian she has a plan which they will execute the next day.
The Document: In an angry, rapid-fire sequence, Glyde demands that Laura sign a financial document. Urged on by Marian, she refuses to do so without reading it. Fosco, called on to witness the signature, tells an increasingly furious Glyde that he cannot do so in good conscience, leading Marian to believe that he can be trusted as an ally.
Act One Finale: Marian and Laura go for a walk with the intent to meet up with Anne, who hints at a foolproof plan to bring Glyde to justice. The music here is hopeful, with little joyous swells, and features a melodic snippet recycled from a Whistle Down the Wind song, “Unsettled Scores.” Unfortunately, Glyde and Fosco have followed them; they seize Anne, who is to be taken to an asylum. Laura feels powerless; Anne vows that she still has secrets to reveal; and Laura promises that they will win in the end.
Next time I will continue with Disc Two of this recording.