Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Play It Again: Grease's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"

 Play It Again:
Grease's "There Are Worse Things I Could Do"

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 review four recordings of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s counterculture classic
Grease. This intense, Dusty Springfield-like dramatic ballad is one of the show’s most earnest and heartfelt songs. Facing a pregnancy scare, tough-girl Rizzo recognizes her vulnerability and insists on her own kind of integrity. The four recorded versions considered here, spanning more than three decades, embody very different vocal styles and musical textures, making this week’s comparative review a particularly satisfying exercise.

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

Rizzo: Adrienne Barbeau

SINGING: Barbeau’s singing is vocally assured and certainly dramatic, but in a way that doesn’t quite seem ideal for this enigmatic character. With her full-throated held notes and dramatic pauses - both enhanced by the very slow tempo - this version leans into pathos at the expense of authentic feeling.

ORCHESTRA: The orchestration is the very picture of simplicity, with an initially diffident keyboard gradually joined by a typical 1950s bluesy ensemble of drums, bass, and saxophone, reflecting Rizzo’s own growing resolve as she sings the song.

SOUND: A little flat and muddy; some of the lyrics are hard to hear, especially in the higher vocal lines near the end. 

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is noticeably slower here than in subsequent versions.


Rizzo: Stockard Channing

*SINGING: Channing is not the most accomplished vocalist of the four, but her take on this song reflects a deeper understanding of the character and her motivations. Her delivery is more relaxed, with little vibrato, and sometimes deliberately off the beat; but her interpretation is quite dynamic in other ways, as she works her way from a seductive introduction to deeply felt desperation later in the song.

*ORCHESTRA: The orchestration doesn’t stray too far from the original, but this version features a much more active piano part that gives it a fuller sound, and also helps to create little dramatic transitions between sections of the song (where the original just had pauses).

SOUND: The sound is fine, and the vocals in particular have a very pleasant disco-era warmth to them, but the two modern recordings are a little more balanced and detailed.

MISCELLANEOUS: The tempo is quite moderate.

- YouTube

Rizzo: Rosie O’Donnell

SINGING: O’Donnell’s vocals embrace the simplicity of Channing’s version, but lack most of her predecessor’s colorful dramatic touches. I don’t know why she chose (or was directed) to sing such extended notes at the ends of phrases, but they don’t sound great. I did enjoy her breathless take on the lyrics “a fact I bet you’ll never know.”

ORCHESTRA: Except for the ending (noted below), the orchestration sounds quite similar to the movie soundtrack. (Irrelevant digression: it would be fun to hear a version of this song backed by a large string section, à la some of its torchy 1950s models. Of course I didn’t do an exhaustive search, so there may be such recordings; I certainly understand why stage versions of Grease wouldn’t want to go that route.)

SOUND: Quite clear, with a good balance between voice and musicians.

*MISCELLANEOUS: This version features the quickest tempo. It also ends starkly on the song’s chilling final line, a subtle but striking variation on the title, sung without accompaniment. 

- YouTube

Rizzo: Jenny Powers

SINGING: Powers sings the song well, but it’s a very straightforward, standard Broadway performance for a character that calls for something more off-beat. Her belting throughout honestly sounds pretty good, but the powerful vocal style is at odds with a song that’s about an outwardly tough character recognizing her carefully concealed virtues.

ORCHESTRA: It’s the same basic arrangement as the other versions, but the flickering keyboard part sounds a little exaggerated, while the piano part at times sounds more contemporary.

*SOUND: The sound is warm, clear, and perfectly balanced, a great example of a well-recorded 21st-century cast album.

MISCELLANEOUS: A rather brisk tempo once again.

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