Her First Roman 1993 Studio Cast
Reissued, Import, Cast Recording
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Audio CD, Cast Recording, Import, September 7, 2004
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A famous flop show (only 17 performances), Her First Roman was the most anticipated new musical of 1968. Adapted and musicalized from G.B.Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra:, this big and brassy and expensive musical was a big disappointment to everyone. Mr. Drake's score was blamed ... but fans in the audience secretly taped the show, and these bootleg tapes proved the music was terrific, as were the stars.
"Richard Kiley and Leslie Uggams are nothing short of sensational!" -- Show Music
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"Her First Roman" had a disastrous out-of-town try-out that led to major changes in creative personnel, a revamping of the book, and the addition of new numbers and the deletion of others from Ervin Drake's original score. Only in backstage fantasy exercises such as "Smash" does such chaos usually lead to an artistic success. The show did not really live on in Broadway lore, I've always been both a Cleopatra buff and a Broadway musical fan, and I had never heard of the show until I stumbled onto a reference to it one day while researching Cleopatra in popular culture. This 1993 "studio cast recording" restores Drake's original songs, as such it is a monument to what was and what might-have-been way back in 1968. What this album captures is a show that was not awful but not particularly memorable either.
As in the Shaw drama that serves as the show's main source material, the focus is on the relationship between Julius Caesar, nearing the end of his run as the head of the Roman empire, and a young Cleopatra VII, her ambition still being held in check by her brother and enemies in the Egyptian court. Consequently she channels her exceptional energies into seducing men by the galley-load. Over the course of their tumultuous romance Caesar, now emotionally calcified underneath his breastplate, discovers he still has flickering embers of passion and idealism deep inside, and Cleopatra grows into the mature adult woman who will go on to rule half the world.
Richard Kiley and Leslie Uggams reprise their leading roles from the original production. Kiley's brillance as an actor shines through in this recording, he captures perfectly every note of Caesar as the proverbial lion in winter who discovers he still has a few passionate roars left in him. Unfortunately, his singing voice, never the best, is virtually gone, and he half-sings, half-ruminates his way through his numbers, in Rex Harrison style. As the score lacks any real musical inventiveness, the songs start to blur together.
Cleopatra, appropriately, has the best numbers, and Uggams makes the most of them, including the show's stand-outs, "Save Me From Caesar!" "Many Young Men From Now" (the one song that could probably exist outside of the show, like another reviewer, I'm surprised drag queens and cabaret performers haven't latched on to it), "Magic Carpet", and "Just For Today." However, she's hamstrung by lyrics that, for the most part, characterize the future Queen of the Nile as a spoiled teen queen brat, who would not be out of place on a TV reality show, "First Century Housewives of Alexandria."
The other numbers move the story forward but accomplish little else. "What Are We Doing in Egypt?" in which Caesar's foot soldiers lament their never-ending military expeditions, starts the show off in a suprisingly low-key manner, "The Things We Think We Are" is a bouncy number in which Cleopatra's skepticism plays off Caesar's ode to positive thinking. "Parable of the Monkey," which sounds like it was meant to be a show-stopper, only stops the show dead in its tracks. "In Vino Veritas" about the sleep-inducing properties of wine is, well, sleepy. "I Cannot Make Him Jealous/I Can't Help Feeling Jealous" in which both Cleopatra and Caesar come to terms with their feelings for each other, is the dramatic high-point.
I'm charitably giving this recording 3 stars. Overall the score is enjoyable, if not particularly distinguished. Many of the lyrics are clever and literate, again, reflecting the original Shaw material. But there is little here that touches the heart, and when it comes to Cleopatra, our hearts are always ready to be captured.
Recommended for: Cleopatra buffs, connoisseurs of Broadway curiosities.
Back to "Roman" - there are moments, phrases (not many and not long) that are pretty. But not enough for a show. And I do remember liking the lyrics (which held the songs together), but I don't remember them well.
Don't be afraid to change the order of the songs either. I start off with 2,3, then 1, etc. In fact, the only song I didn't end up liking on the entire CD was "Many Young Men From Now".
When I read a review by someone, I'm always curious about other shows they've liked, or didn't like, to see how similar (or dissimilar!) our tastes are. Some scores I've enjoyed include: House of Flowers, Grass Harp, Saratoga, Camelot, Purlie, Dear World, Mata Hari, The Life, Avenue Q and Wicked.
Some I didn't like include Bajour, Subways Are For Sleeping, The Seussical, St. Louie Woman, Applause, Urinetown, Greenwillow, Big River, Sweet Charity and The Golden Apple.