Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Play It Again: Chicago's "When You're Good to Mama"

PLAY IT AGAIN: Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama” 

For this new series, Jeff has invited me to choose some classic Broadway show tunes and compare versions of these songs from several different cast recordings. Wherever possible, I’ll link to the songs on YouTube, where I listen to most of them myself.

This week I consider four recordings of “When You’re Good to Mama” from Kander and Ebb’s
Chicago, wherein Matron “Mama” Morton espouses her avaricious correctional philosophy through a series of suggestive jokes. The versions reviewed here include the original Broadway recording, the 1990s Broadway and London revivals, and the soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning film. All four singers do an excellent job, and there’s admittedly a little less variety among these entries than usual in terms of orchestration and overall sound. There is some variety in terms of singing, though, and I found that one performance emerged as the first among near-equals.

My overall favorite version is marked with two stars (**); one star (*) is used to indicate that a particular version stands out in terms of singing, orchestra, sound, or other miscellaneous qualities.

- YouTube

Matron “Mama” Morton: Mary McCarty

SINGING: McCarty’s voice is delightfully earthy, but she doesn’t quite sell the song and the character as well as her successors. She executes the “mother… hen” joke with aplomb, but other jokes (“tit for tat,” “up yours”) pass by without any particular attempt to really land them. (At least, of course, on the recording, which I realize only affords a very incomplete picture of what any performance was really like.)

ORCHESTRA: The three stage recordings (i.e. this one and the 1996 and 1998 installments) are all very similar to each other in the size and sound of the orchestra. The orchestration is, of course, dominated by the brass section, with lots of different playing styles that contribute color and contrast.

*SOUND: Of the four recordings, this one shows off the many orchestral details better than the others, such as the rhythmic tuba and the plucked violin that doubles the voice at the end of many phrases. The vocals are also very clear and in nice balance with the orchestra.

MISCELLANEOUS: This version has a somewhat slower tempo than the others.

- YouTube

Matron “Mama” Morton: Marcia Lewis

SINGING: Lewis’ voice is a little thinner than the others, but it’s full of comic details that make up for it. She definitely lands all of the jokes.

ORCHESTRA: Essentially the same as the 1975 and 1998 recordings.

SOUND: Very clear, but the orchestra is a little too quiet on this one for my taste.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is slightly faster and features more shifts than the 1975 recording.


Matron “Mama” Morton: Meg Johnson

*SINGING: Johnson’s protean vocal style alternates vibrato-heavy traditional singing with gravelly low notes, deftly following the contours of Kander’s melody and Ebb’s lyrics. For me, she is the clear winner in terms of nailing the jokes and building an authentic character through her voice alone.

ORCHESTRA: Essentially the same as the 1975 and 1996 recordings.

SOUND: Very clear and well-balanced throughout; a strong runner up in this category, but not quite as vivid as the original recording.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This one features the juiciest intro from the emcee. The pacing is brisk but varied, similar to the Broadway revival recording. This is the only one that includes Mama’s mid-song dialogue with an inmate about charging $50 for telephone calls.

- YouTube

Matron “Mama” Morton: Queen Latifah

SINGING: As a long-time fan of the Chicago film - and Latifah’s performance - I expected this one to be my pick, but without her commanding physical presence, a little something is lost on the recording. It’s still a delectable vocal performance and is good for a solid second place. The end of this song provides an opportunity for a little improvised outburst, and I like Latifah’s choice the best.

*ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is not too different from the stage versions, but benefits from a larger ensemble. Extra layers can be heard in the brass accompaniment at times, and the percussion section, especially, is much more vivid and propulsive.

SOUND: The loud brass passage right after the emcee’s introduction sounded a little washed out, but after that both orchestra and vocalist are crystal clear.

MISCELLANEOUS: This one has the fastest tempo of the four.


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