Marina Prior, leading lady of the Australian musical stage, has veered away from the music theatre catalogue of her previous three solo recordings in this collection of classic romantic ballads. With those three earlier CDs released over a four-year period, the eighteen-year gap before this new release has been quite extraordinary, and it is pleasing to report that the result has been well worth the wait.
Prior was a well-established star in 1991 when she released Leading Lady, which included tracks from her high profile smash hits Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. “Poor Wandering One” was a nod to her breakout role as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” was an unwitting choice from her future starring role in the Australian tour of the Broadway revival of Showboat.
1992’s Aspects of Andrew Lloyd Webber celebrated the best work of the man who had penned not only Phantom but also one of Prior’s other early shows, the mega musical Cats. Coming from Cats to play Christine mirrored the career track of English Lloyd Webber muse Sarah Brightman, so it seemed only appropriate that Prior covered other Brightman hits, such as the 1992 Olympics theme “Amigos Para Siempre,” and “Pie Jesu” from Requiem.
The success of the West Side Story, directed by British opera director Ian Judge, led to Somewhere: The Songs of Bernstein and Sondheim. The album included four of Maria’s songs from West Side Story, supported by co-stars Caroline O’Connor (Anita) and Broadway’s Sean McDermott (Tony). As well as again showcasing her soaring soprano, this recording also exhibited Prior’s sense of humour, on tracks such as On The Town’s “I Can Cook Too” and The Mad Show’s “The Boy From… .” This CD is a true classic and well worth taking off the shelf for a listen if you haven’t played it for a while (or, if it’s before your time, order a copy).
The songs of love, loss and longing on Both Sides Now have all clearly been carefully selected for their beauty and their personal meaning for Prior. Mostly written in the late 1960s and 1970s, these songs are the soundtrack of Prior’s life away from the footlights and greasepaint. Traditional tunes “Waters of Babylon,” which has never sounded as beautiful, and “Scarborough Fair” are joined by tracks from some of the greatest pop songwriters of all time, such as The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Abba’s Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and Queen’s Freddy Mercury.
While the ‘easy listening’ tag is an obvious one to make, there is certainly not a trace of the dreaded ‘muzak’ sound to be heard thanks to gorgeous, distinct and deceptively simple orchestrations that make the tracks sound as fresh as if they had all been written for Prior to sing like this. Song after song receives this loving treatment, with many previously indecipherable lyrics being heard clearly heard for the first time thanks to Prior’s crystalline diction.
Prior slips from chest to head voice with effortless ease, the gorgeous quality of her voice greatly supplemented by the mature expression she brings to the emotional songs. A mere singer without Prior’s extensive theatrical background would not be able to bring half as much meaning and feeling to these songs, and they are all the richer for it. Best of all, the pristine quality of Prior’s voice means that no tinkering and tampering are needed in the studio. The pure vocal sound that rings out from the CD is almost startling in its clarity after so many recordings that rely on vocoders for adjustment, amplification and augmentation.
In an album of very evenly matched selections, it is difficult to pick out highlights. The medley of “In My Life” and “Here Comes The Sun” has a particularly fresh heartfelt beauty. Abba’s “SOS” is re-imagined as a plaintive torch song to great effect. For sheer delicious glee nothing beats “Killer Queen.” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” captures the emotional essence of the recording as a whole.
It is clear that these personal, gorgeous songs would sound wonderful when performed live, so hopefully there will be concert dates planned.
Fortunately for traditional music theatre fans, Prior will not be away from the stage for too long, with The Production Company’s Promises, Promises coming up in October.
Marina Prior – Both Sides Now is available wherever good records are sold.
Stage photos: Jeff Busby.