ON THE RECORD: Original Cast Albums of Big Fish and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Steven Suskin
09 Mar 2014

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [Masterworks Broadway]

There is only so much you can get from an original cast recording of a non-musical play, right? It's just the actors saying the lines. You might as well be listening to radio. Or so I find is the case, usually. The original cast recording of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a grand and lacerating exception.

We have seen countless Virginia Woolfs over the years; they come along like clockwork, as befits a modern-day classic, and provide high-grade fodder for dramatic actors. (The last Broadway edition, starring Amy Morton and Tracy Letts, was top grade.) But the original 1962 production, preserved on LP by Columbia Records and now released by Masterworks Broadway, can be seen as — or, rather, heard as — a revelation.

Martha and George always battle their way through Albee's three-act prizefight, yes, but with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, it is a true slugfest. These now-familiar words come across like darts and bullets; the now-familiar dramatic peaks — the "fun and games" they play, the various plot points (including the history of Martha and George's son) — come at us as if they are original thoughts, hurled like blistering weapons of attack to help the protagonists get through the long night's journey into day. As the play proceeds, you stop listening to the recording and become immersed in the death-struggle.

George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon contribute mightily as well, and one mustn't overlook that the whole has been tautened by director Alan Schneider to the point that it resembles a grand spider's web made of steel strands. But it's Albee's words and Hagen & Hill's barely-controlled violence that makes this cast recording spellbinding. Virginia Woolf, which won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album, is a knockout.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)