“On the Level” Original London Cast Recording
Review by Zander Opper
Stage Door Records has just released the highly entertaining 1966 London cast recording of “On the Level” on CD and there are many pleasures to be had. As written by Ronald Millar (book and lyrics) and Ron Grainer (music), “On the Level” was the team’s second musical, following “Robert and Elizabeth.” But, while “Robert and Elizabeth” contains a grand and majestic period score, “On the Level” couldn’t be more different, capturing, instead, the sound of the Swinging Sixties in London. And while “On the Level” can never really achieve the heights of the creators’ previous musical, it doesn’t really aspire to that. The score of “On the Level” is about having a good time and it’s easy for any listener of this CD to share in that delightful feeling.
More than just having the same writers, “On the Level” shared the same producer, choreographer, and designer who had worked on “Robert and Elizabeth,” led by impresario Martin Landau. And, while the show was not a success, the score of “On the Level” was happily recorded. In reading the liner notes in the CD booklet, this musical focused on the theft of G. C. E. exam papers, which were illegally attained by students and their parents. The opening number, “Three Crazy Letters (G. C. E.),” sets the perfect tone for the musical and how this conspiracy eventually led to a huge scandal. However, aside for this song, the subject of the exam papers isn’t really evoked in the rest of the score. And while one might crave more character and plot-oriented songs, the score of “On the Level” is more of a celebration of youth and having fun and, in this area, it succeeds terrifically.
That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t numbers that dramatize the plot and characters. Indeed, the central couple in the musical, portrayed by Gary Bond and Angela Richards, sing a beautiful duet, “Strangely Attractive,” early in the show, which is eventually followed up by a good, bitter number, “And Then I’ll Go,” for the pair near the conclusion. Bond and Richards also score in the lovely tune, “My Girl at the Dance,” which they share with Rod McLennan and Sandra Michaels. Other effective numbers include a raucous duet, “Love Gets Younger Every Year,” featuring Sandra Michaels and Bernard Sharpe, and there is also a charming song, called “Nostalgia,” which acts as a pleasant diversion from the central story, reflecting on times gone by.
Looking at the cast list, it is a little surprising that top-billed Barrie Ingham has hardly anything to do on the recording, aside from a few lines in the nightmare sequence, “Thermodynamically Yours,” and singing the ironically titled “Very Good Friend,” where he is joined by Phyllida Law. Still, this actor, nonetheless, sounds good and it is likely that Ingham carried more of the dramatic weight of the show’s plot. As mentioned, the score reflects more on the young people in the musical, in such lively numbers as “Where the Action Is” and the title song. It must be mentioned, however, that, even in this strong cast, the adorable Sheila White steals the show with her funny and infectious showstopper, “Bleep-Bleep,” which she puts over wonderfully.
As has become customary with CDs reissued by Stage Door Records, the sound quality of “On the Level” is simply brilliant and the recording has been beautifully remastered. “On the Level” is actually the fourth London album (following the original London cast recordings of “Ambassador,” “Man of Magic,” and “Annie”) in Stage Door’s “Cast Album Masters Series,” in which recordings are licensed from the major labels and are remastered directly from the original master tapes. In this series, Stage Door Records is focusing on those London cast albums from the 1960s and 1970s which have never been issued on CD. In a way, Stage Door Records is preserving British musical theater history with these reissues, and this mission deserves to be celebrated and supported. Who knows what other treasures will be unearthed, but, for now, “On the Level” is a dandy new release and it should provide a great deal of enjoyment for show collectors.