Saturday, January 26, 2008

Album Droppings: The Royals

One of the many geeky aspects of my personality is my fascination with European royalty. Or at least, the history of it. I don't have much interest in the current royals, as they don't wield much power and are usually sad, lame descendants of much more exciting ancestors.

So, whenever I ran across any kind of soundtrack recording of anything having to do with royalty, I snapped it up.

I was enamored of the BBC costume dramas covering the lives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, which were shown to much acclaim on PBS back in the day. One of the series, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was such a success, here and abroad, that a quickie movie was produced, with the same actor, Keith Michell, playing the king. The DVD of that movie has not been released in this country, but for some reason, I own the soundtrack on vinyl. I suppose it's a reasonable recreation of actual Renaissance music, full of lutes and flutes and tambourines and things. There is no earthly reason for my owning this album except one: it exists.

Soon after the Elizabeth I miniseries hit the American airwaves, big screen producer Hal Wallis tossed us a sumptuous telling of the story of Bess's cousin and rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Wallis had had some success earlier with the Ann Boleyn- Henry VIII story (Anne of the Thousand Days), so he knew a little something about showy historical biopics. He enlisted Glenda Jackson to recreate her signature role as Elizabeth, and cast Vanessa Redgrave as Mary. I have always been interested in the actual story of Mary, who became queen of Scotland at 6 days old, and Queen of France as an early teen. Three marriages, a couple of gruesome murders, an exploding palace, two daring escapes, and Mary's eventual execution, what's not to like? But the film is pretty draggy, and I never thought I would say this, but Redgrave, one of the phenomenal film actresses of all time, is downright dull in this movie.

That doesn't stop me from owning the DVD of this snore-fest, recently released, nor does it prevent me from owning the original soundtrack. Composer John Barry is known for his lush, full-bodied scores, and he does not disappoint here. The album contains a little gem, too: Vanessa Redgrave, as Mary, singing a wispy ballad in French.

British royalty has been represented on the Broadway musical stage, too. Of course, everybody knows Camelot, but as I own that one on CD already, my vinyl recording does not need my transfer treatment. But Henry VIII, a most unlikely musical hero, appeared onstage in a musical in the mid-70s. The show is called Rex, and judging from the original cast recording, it's Rex, the dog. The liner notes are very complete, which is good, because the show was reportedly very hard to follow in the theatre. Americans are not well-versed in British history, so this tale of the king who divorced two wives and beheaded two others was a whirlwind. (And everybody looks the same in those clothes).

The only things interesting about this album are the names attached to it. Above the title: Richard Rodgers. Yep, that Richard Rodgers, during his loooooooong decline from greatness, was here hooked up with Sheldon Harnick from Fiddler fame. They were unable to come up with anything memorable for their cast to sing, and the show holds the distinction of having the shortest run of Rodgers' long career. But what a cast. Nicol Williamson was playing the king, and apparently acting up alot (he had a reputation for bad behavior, including slapping actors onstage and worse. His co-star in I Hate Hamlet quit the show due to Williamson's disorderly handling of fight choreography).

Penny Fuller was the female lead in the piece, playing both Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (yes, they tried to cover Henry's entire reign in one evening. They couldn't cram it all in, and dispatched two wives during intermission). Fuller is one of those terrific stage actresses who, had they been working in an earlier period, would have been a full-fledged star. She had a real triumph in Applause, holding her own opposite Lauren Becall (go here for a Dance Party clip from the show). But because the era of Broadway stars becoming nationally known was now over, few people outside the theatre community have ever heard of her these days. The biggest star attached to Rex was a then-unknown talent, making her Broadway debut as Henry's eldest daughter Mary, Glenn Close.

Rodgers had only one more musical make it to Broadway before kicking the bucket. It was a musical version of I Remember Mama, and with brooding Scandinavian film star Liv Ullmann in the leading role, it was as big a flop as Rex. But I never purchased that cast album, if they ever made one, so at least I won't have to put myself through that.