Various Artists

Fans already have their faves--the 1975 original Broadway recording with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, the 1996 Broadway revival starring Bebe Neuwirth and Ann Reinking, the '98 Brit-hits-the-fans disc featuring Ute Lemper and Ruthie Henshall--over which they argue in chat rooms and Amazon customer-comment forums. Of the three, the first is easily the best, and not just because it's the lone offering to feature Jerry Orbach, who can't get arrested (ha ha) in musicals these days. The London cast recording's fine and dandy, though I'd rather Lemper sing Weill and Costello than Kander and Ebb, while the NY revival disc gets docked a point or two for Neuwirth, a knockout who sings in the key of H sharp. (Sure, they loved her on Broadway, especially the people who flew in from Nebraska. Cats ran forever, too, and it way sucked.)

But it's all moot now that Sony's finally releasing the soundtrack to the big-screen adaptation; this is the one that'll sell better than all the predecessors put together and then some--Harvey Weinstein and whoever's running Sony these days will see to that. And it deserves the paper and platinum (and golden statues); it may not sound better than what's come before, but it sure sounds bigger. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a hoofer from way back with pipes that make Nicole Kidman's sound clogged by a fine film of phlegm and rust, can render any song a showstopper; her "All That Jazz" is all that and then some, the kind of opening number that made Bob Fosse light up a smoke and ask for a new heart. She's the belter of the bunch, leaving Renée Zellweger with most of the ballads; the former's songs take place on the stage, the latter's unfold in her demented head, and it's a decent trade-off.

The real revelations: Richard Gere can sing almost as well as he can almost dance (he's the most weaselly sounding of all the Billy Flynns, but Gere's always been good at playing the lawyer with one hand on the scales of justice); Queen Latifah's got big lungs (and the cans to match--uh, wow); and John C. Reilly can take a sad song and make it better (boy doesn't have two left feet...or two left jazz hands, for that matter). On the plus side, the soundtrack restores the ribald "Class" cut out of the film (too many "shits" and "son of a bitches" for Oscar's delicate ears?). On the minus side, the Latifah-Lil' Kim-Macy Gray (c)rap redo of "Cell Block Tango" oughta be sentenced to life without parole, while Anastacia's tacked-on "Love Is a Crime" (inspired by the film, though apparently not this one) is, yeahyeah, a crime.


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