‘Spartacus’ score gets upgrade

North's masterpiece reissued with book, DVD, 6 CDs

This year marks the centenary of Alex North, the composer of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cleopatra” and nearly 60 other scores, and the first composer ever to be awarded an honorary Oscar for his body of work.

Spartacus,” the 1960 score for the Kirk Douglas classic that is widely perceived to be North’s finest, is about to be issued in a deluxe package that also happens to be the 1,000th album of film music produced by Robert Townson of soundtrack label Varese Sarabande.

Townson, who has been producing soundtracks since 1986 and been with Varese since 1989, called “Spartacus” “the masterpiece of Alex’s career and his life. It has a range of expression, a level of writing, that is simply not matched in other epics. There is an enormity and an intimacy to ‘Spartacus’ that is unique.”

To celebrate the North centennial, Varese Sarabande is releasing a package that includes six CDs, a DVD and a 168-page book all dealing with the music of “Spartacus.” According to Townson, one disc will contain all surviving 70 minutes of stereo music; two more will feature the entire two-hour, 20-minute score in mono; and a fourth contains early, unused and alternate versions of cues from the score.

Two more discs feature 22 different versions of the “Spartacus” love theme, which pianist Bill Evans turned into a jazz standard in 1963.

That recording, plus others by Yusef Lateef, Carlos Santana and others are interspersed with newly recorded versions by Lalo Schifrin, Mark Isham and Dave Grusin, among others.

The DVD includes interviews with film composers — including John Williams, David Newman and Alexandre Desplat — talking about North, the “Spartacus” score and his impact on film music. Townson himself wrote the book, discussing the score and and the career of North, who died in 1991.

“Spartacus” was originally issued as a 42-minute LP in 1960, and reissued on CD in 1991. But the fact that the film is owned by Universal and the LP/CD by Universal Music Group, two different companies, made the undertaking “far and away the most complicated thing I have ever done,” said Townson. It took four years to make the deals, locate all the music (some of which came from the North estate), record the new material and write the book.

It may be the most elaborate package ever created for a single movie soundtrack. “I’ve never done anything that I’m prouder of,” Townson said, “and I can’t imagine topping it.”

The 5,000-copy limited edition will be released Aug. 2. Music from “Spartacus” will be performed July 10 at the Canary Islands’ Tenerife film music festival, and July 17 at Spain’s Ubeda film music festival.

The revival of “Promises, Promises” may be a success on Broadway, but for fans of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David score, there’s nothing like the original 1968 cast recording, which introduced songs like “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and modernized the sound of music on the Great White Way.

That cast album has just been reissued in an unusual two-CD configuration: the first disc offers, for the first time, the original mix of the Grammy-winning LP (the 1999 Rykodisc CD was a remix); and a second disc that uses modern technology to correct problems that have bugged fans about the original for 40 years — notably Jerry Orbach’s off-key vocals.Producer Bruce Kimmel, whose Kritzerland label specializes in soundtrack and original-cast recordings, used the original eight-track session tapes for the second disc.

“In those days, you’d go in and record the entire show in a day, and you’d get what you’d get. For whatever reasons, Orbach was very pitchy,” he said of the late actor. “So I decided to use today’s technology to fix those. For the first time, you’re going to hear Jerry Orbach singing perfectly on pitch. I think he would be very happy.”

In addition to correcting vocal issues, the new disc puts the songs in the correct order, modifies the reverb, puts the strings into the left channel (the original, oddly, had them in the right), adds Jill O’Hara’s charming hiccups (heard in the show) to one number, and includes a previously unknown recording of O’Hara singing the title song.

Kimmel recalls seeing the original show and being impressed by the sound. “Not only was it electric and exciting, you had never heard anything like that kind of sound.

“It was the first time that a mixing board had been brought into a theater, and the band was mic’d as in a recording studio,” he said. “And he brought in pit singers, for backup vocals, which had never been done. You can credit Burt Bacharach and (orchestrator) Jonathan Tunick for changing the sound of Broadway.”

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