Wednesday, November 1, 2023

ReDISCoveries: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1994 Broadway Cast Recording): Part One

ReDISCoveries: Kiss of the Spider Woman

(1994 Broadway Cast Recording): Part 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 is about the 1994 Broadway recording of Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Note from Jeff: I decided to divide Mike's thorough work into two parts, though it is not divided by acts.)

Although I played Herr Schultz in a college production of Cabaret, it wasn’t until I first listened to my Kiss of the Spider Woman CD that I truly became a Kander and Ebb enthusiast. Almost every song was exhilarating, positively buzzing with energy, dripping with pathos, or both at the same time. Not only that, these songs formed a cohesive and satisfying whole, making it easy to follow the story of the show just from the songs. (This is a credit to Terrence McNally’s carefully plotted book, even if little of his snappy dialog is on the recording.) A little later I got to see the Broadway show on stage and was not disappointed, despite the vocal struggles of the actress then playing the title role. Since that time my appreciation for the show, and for its iconic writing team, has only grown.

For the record, the CD that so impressed me back then was the original cast recording,  made in London and featuring Tony-winner Chita Rivera in the title role. Today I’ll be taking a look at its New York successor, made after Vanessa Williams took over the role, instantly making the show her own. To be honest, both are amazing recordings and fine representations of the show, and in some ways very similar of course, but definitely two separate listening experiences. Both interpretations of the main role include moments of bulldozing menace as well as sweet manipulation, but Rivera leans much more heavily towards the former and Williams the latter. 

In the end, I chose to take another look at the Williams version because I’ve listened to it a lot less than the original, so it’s a little easier to hear things with a fresh brain. It’s also a more definitive account of the show itself, since it includes an additional song and incorporates small changes that were made to the show for Broadway. 

The plot centers on two cellmates in a South American prison: Molina, a queer window-dresser, and Valentin, a political radical. Molina survives through memories of his favorite movie star, Aurora, though he hates the role of the Spider Woman, whose kiss is inevitably fatal. After a difficult start, the cellmates eventually bond. When Molina is released, Valentin manipulates him into delivering a message for his collaborators, but the warden has set a trap that leads to Molina choosing to give up his own life rather than betray Valentin. Molina finally accepts the Spider Woman’s kiss without objection.


I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two

stars (**). This CD includes a few brief dialogue scenes, some with small bits of music; these aren’t listed separately below.

Prologue: A beguiling sequence of diaphanous chords, which will characterize the Spider Woman throughout the show, alternates with the seductive exhortations of the title character herself (Vanessa Williams), and we immediately know we’re in expert hands with the score and with its leading lady. The bliss doesn’t last, though: we’re quickly thrown into the jagged musical terrain of the prison, where the screams of inmates give way to the warden’s (Herndon Lackey) introduction of Valentin (Brian Stokes Mitchell). A brief long-distance preview of the title song concludes this swift but highly evocative opening sequence.


I don’t know if anyone else has ever noticed this, but those downward-cascading chords from the start of the Prologue have always reminded me (a lot) of a similar sequence of chords in the Presentation of the Rose scene from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier (heard at about twenty seconds and repeatedly throughout). In that scene the music is meant to evoke the feeling of love at first sight, and the chords are shimmering rather than disorienting.

Her Name is Aurora: Molina’s (Howard McGillin) lyrical and prayer-like verse introduces us to his cinematic heroine, Aurora, leading directly to her first production number with her male retinue. This one is sultry and lithely flowing; the lyrics promise love but also something less pleasant, a mysterious “loud piercing sound.” (There’s a brief, sexy-sounding viola solo that I’ve always loved in this number.) 

Over the Wall I:
The three different songs with this title all function to give us a look at things from the prisoners’ perspective. Here, they list the things that they loved on the other side of the prison wall, with increasingly exalted music - until it all stops, and a solitary, unaccompanied voice wonders if he’ll ever see any of this again. It’s a very succinct way to musicalize the inmates’ misery and isolation.

And the Moon Grows Dimmer: This is another little snippet from the title song, foreshadowing the web that will slowly entrap Molina.

Bluebloods: Molina uses this little ditty as an icebreaker, trying to get his cellmate to talk to him; he’s rebuffed but keeps trying.

*Dressing Them Up: This ridiculously catchy song makes it impossible not to root for Molina as he tries to win Valentin over. Ebb’s clever wordplay and striking rhymes are a great match for Kander’s tunefulness here. (This might be a good time to point out one thing I do prefer about the original recording, which is the orchestral sound. I’m not sure, but I think it’s a combination of the orchestration itself and the sound engineering; either way, as is particularly apparent in this song, the wind accompaniment “pops” on the original recording in a way that it doesn’t on this one.)

I Draw the Line: Valentin, however, continues to resist Molina’s charms, rebuffing him again by dividing up the cell à la I Love Lucy.

**Dear One: The cellmates have discovered that they do have something in common: they each desperately miss the woman in their lives. In this ravishingly beautiful quartet, Molina, his mother (Mimi Turque), Valentin, and his girlfriend Marta (Kirsti Carnahan) bare their musical souls in an outpouring of loneliness and longing. This may not exactly be a quintessential Kander and Ebb song, but it is my favorite among the many that I’ve heard (there are still many that I haven’t). 

Over the Wall II: Earthier and more spirited than the first song of this name, the prisoners here wonder if their friends and family are remaining faithful or screwing them over in various ways. 

Where You Are:
This bouncy and brassy number for Aurora and her men is another contender for one of K&E’s best (and one which is much more typical of their style). With its rangy melody and surprise dynamic shifts, its energy is infectious - which is exactly why Molina is able to use it to help Valentin share in his favorite form of escapism. 

Marta: Valentin finally gets his own solo with this slowly simmering torch song. The simple, affecting melody gradually builds up steam with a dramatic key change, crescendos, and help from the chorus of prisoners, ending, like the first “Over the Wall,” with the plaintive observation: “I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.” With its booming climax and soft ending, the melody really gives Stokes an opportunity to shine, and he does not disappoint. 

Look for Part Two of this article in two weeks!

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