Two brand new studio recordings and three varied reissues highlight the full-on dedication of Sony's Masterworks Broadway wing to the preservation of musical theatre. Spanning over sixty years of recordings and more than eighty years of writing, not enough can be said in praise of this slew of releases: whether each title is to an individual's taste is beside the point when the label is clearly working hard to serve this niche market well, rather than simply investing in some of today's flash-in-the-pan pop singers.
Recently closed after a well-received seasonal engagement at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, A Christmas Story's principal attraction on disc is the wonderfully dazzling orchestrations by Larry Blank, whose work has also graced the stage version of White Christmas and Jerry Herman's Mrs. Santa Claus (the TV soundtrack of the latter, a personal favourite of mine, is now also available from Masterworks Broadway as a download). A Christmas Story is based on the 1983 movie of the same name, which is set in 1940s Indiana. A bespectacled and highly imaginative young boy, Ralphie, wants just one thing for Christmas, a Red Ryder BB Gun, and the show depicts his exploits. But for adults there's plenty to enjoy here, and on the basis of this excellent recording the message goes beyond mere pantomime.
The score is by two young writers, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and with the help of Blank's orchestrations they conjure up the flair of a 1940s musical in a series of jolly songs. The opening number, "Counting Down to Christmas" gets things off to a strong start and depicts Ralphie's excitement in anticipating the 34,053 minutes he has to wait before the big day; a short choral reprise of the same number expands the song with thick, fast-moving harmonies that underline the sense of period, and this is typical of the show as a whole. Similarly catchy are "A Major Award", "The Genius on Cleveland Street" and especially "Somewhere Hovering Over Indiana", which is also anticipated early on in the glossy overture, and although one or two of the other songs are slightly less distinguished ("When You're a Wimp" isn't so much to my taste, anyway), the overall effect is highly enjoyable. It will be interesting to observe how Pasek and Paul develop over the coming seasons, as they're clearly a talent to watch.
Masterworks Broadway's other new studio cast recording deserves equally high praise. Last season's Encores! production of Jule Styne's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a big hit with audiences, and this lovely new recording shows why. The 1949 musical confirmed Styne's position as a major Broadway talent alongside his lyricist (Leo Robin) and book writers (Anita Loos and Joseph Fields), and although it did not have the revolutionary impact of something like Oklahoma!, it is an important work of its period. This delicious new album preserves considerably more of the score than the original cast album, on twenty-seven tracks, including extensive dance music, reprises and full versions of the songs. Mention should also be made that the well-produced full-colour booklet includes all the lyrics and several useful essays.
Smash star Megan Hilty leads the cast as Lorelei Lee, the role original taken by Carol Channing (and Marilyn Monroe in the movie adaptation), and does so with considerable verve and charm, though to my ears she inclines towards a slightly too contemporary sound at times. The real star for me is Rachel York as Dorothy, who simply commands the scene with her renditions of "It's High Time", "I Love What I'm Doing", "Sunshine" and "Keeping Cool with Coolidge". The rest of the cast is solid or better, but the joy of this recording is hearing Don Walker's orchestrations and Hugh Martin's legendary vocal arrangements performed so exquisitely under Rob Berman's stylish musical direction. I, for one, have been unable to stop listening to it for months now.
Two decades before Blondes became a hit, the Broadway musical had two major modes: Jazz Age musical comedies and romantic operettas. A key example of the latter was Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song, which is all but forgotten now but a huge hit in 1926, when it ran an incredible 471 performances. The exoticism of the story and score appealed to audiences for quite some time and the key character of the Red Shadow became familiar from the operetta's three movie adaptations (1929, 1943 and 1953). This reissue makes available Lehman Engel's 1958 studio recording, completely reorchestrated and starring Giorgio Tozzi, who was not only enjoying a major career at the New York Metropolitan Opera but had also dubbed Rossano Brazzi's singing voice in the recent hit movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. It's curious how tastes change: the 1920s songs of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin remain popular today, whereas these Romberg melodies are virtually obscure now. But I think listeners would be surprised by how much there is to enjoy in this album, which is well played, sung and recorded. Engel's work was usually of the highest quality, as it is here, and there's also an appearance by Peter Palmer, who was the original Broadway Li'l Abner.
As is well known, RCA Victor's original cast album of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam did not feature the star of he Broadway production, the effervescent Ethel Merman, because she was under contract to RCA's rival, Decca. The result of the clash was two albums of Call Me Madam, neither of which quite conjured up what happened on stage: the Broadway cast went into the studio with Dinah Shore as Mrs. Sally Adams, the “hostess with the mostes’” who becomes ambassador to the imaginary country of Lichtenburg, while Decca brought out an alternative album with Merman performing her songs with Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra, alongside pop star Dick Haymes and Eileen Wilson of TV’s Your Hit Parade. Masterworks Broadway are to be highly commended for making the RCA version available again in its first official CD release, but unfortunately it highlights what an inappropriate choice Shore was to fill Merman’s shoes. There is nothing of the theatre in her rendition, and certainly nothing of Merman’s joie de vivre and power of personality; Shore’s version is effectively a highly pleasant cover version. Nevertheless, it’s great to have other members of the cast preserved in their original roles, such as Russell Nype’s Kenneth and Paul Lukas’s Cosmo, and Call Me Madam is certainly top-drawer Irving Berlin.
I have to confess from the outset that Working, the last of these reissues, is not at all to my taste, but that in no way detracts from Sony’s efforts in making it available again. The show is of considerable ambition: a team of writers, including Stephen Schwartz, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and Craig Carnelia, came together to turn Studs Terkel’s book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) into a musical depicting the working lives of “ordinary” people. They include a waitress, a supermarket checkout operator, a fireman, and so on. It’s a great idea for a show and it’s had several revisions, including a recent off-Broadway revival, but somehow the fragmented concept and multi-authors don’t cohere on record, for me at least. Nonetheless, it’s an essential purchase for true enthusiasts of musical theatre, and Masterworks Broadway is to be commended for its ongoing work in this area.