Feature Review: Masterworks Broadway Keeps Musical Theatre History Alive

New releases and reissues combine the best of current talent and vintage greats from the vaults

25 August 2010

Promises, PromisesAt one time, the Broadway cast album industry was an important part of the music business. Within a few years of its original release, the original recording of My Fair Lady had sold over 3 million copies, and it stayed in the charts for months. Admittedly, this was the show of shows, and other cast albums had more modest sales, but nowadays, things are much bleaker. Each year brings only a handful of new recordings – not least because the number of shows worth recording is lower.

A beacon of light in this worrying environment comes from Sony's Masterworks Broadway series, which mixes new cast albums with reissues of classics from earlier decades. A dedicated website (http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/ ) is a hub of activity devoted to the label's Broadway output: features include regular blogs from expert Peter Filichia, exclusive interviews with composers and performers, spotlights on artists and specific recordings, photographs from the vault, and a magnificent podcast series (http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/podcasts). Who could ask for anything more?

The latest brand new release from Masterworks Broadway is the cast album of the current Broadway revival of the Burt Bacharach show Promises, Promises. A groundbreaking show in its day, Promises brought together the hit songwriting team of Bacharach and Hal David with a book by Neil Simon based on Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Musically, the show was significant for the presence of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, who went on to provide charts for many of Sondheim's greatest scores. Amongst the songs are the title number, the rousing 'Turkey Lurkey Time', the bouncy 'A Young Pretty Girl Like You', the poignant 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again' and the wry narrative 'Upstairs'. The star of the original production was the late Jerry Orbach, whose performance on the hastily-recorded original cast album was uncharacteristically flawed in terms of pitching. (As an aside, the original album has just been released in a remixed, pitch-corrected 2-CD version by Bruce Kimmel on the Kritzerland label: this is a must-hear release.)

Tunick is also orchestrator for this revival, and his work on it is excellent as always. Less compelling to me are the two leads, who are both professional and committed but don't quite cut the mustard. Sean Hayes – best known for playing Jack in the TV comedy Will and Grace – has a pathos as Chuck Baxter but lacks personality. His singing isn't at all bad and I can imagine enjoying him in the theatre, but on record it's hard not to wish for a slightly more substantial instrument. Kristin Chenoweth is curious casting as Fran Kubelik: as much as I've always liked her, her cutesy persona and her age are at odds with the character. Nor do I understand why 'I Say a Little Prayer' and 'A House is Not a Home' have been interpolated; they stick out a mile and are stylistically wrong. The co-stars give stronger performances and Phil Reno's conducting is fine, if a little four-square and rigid. Overall, the CD is fun rather than profound, a nice document of a popular revival, and as always it's lavishly packaged with complete lyrics and photographs in the accompanying booklet (though a detailed synopsis and/or historical note would have been nice).

City of AngelsMasterworks Broadway has recently started reissuing some of its major titles in a new slimmer style of cardboard packaging (described as 'eco-friendly'). The album unfolds in two, with the booklet in the left hand sleeve and the CD on the right. Amongst the ten titles released in May 2010 were the original Mary Martin Peter Pan; the Broadway 42nd Street, a revival of which is currently playing at the UK-based Chichester Festival; the Broadway 1776; the 1966 Lincoln Center Revival of Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman; the 1965 Lincoln Center Carousel with John Raitt; Risë Stevens in the 1964 revival of The King and I; and the original Broadway recordings of Oliver!, Mame and How to Succeed.

Additionally, Masterworks Broadway have released the OBC of City of Angels in the same series. Unavailable on CD for some time, this Cy Coleman-David Zippel show won six Tony Awards including Best Musical and was one of the first of a wave of musicals in the late 1980s and '90s to play on a kind of invented musical nostalgia for its expressive palette (The Producers and Thoroughly Modern Millie fall into the same category). The use of musical pastiche can lead to a sense of emptiness in parts of all these shows, but in Angels there are some cracking numbers, including the jolly duet 'The Tennis Song', the jazzy 'You Can Always Count on Me' and the hit song 'I'm Nothing Without You' (recently heard on Michael Feinstein's The Power of Two album). With some fine performances by the likes of Gregg Edelman and period orchestrations by Billy Byers, this recording has some swing, even if it's not quite Coleman's finest achievement.

Another string to Masterworks Broadway's bow is making catalogue releases available both digitally and via ArkivMusic.com. The label is moving rapidly with these releases, which include cast albums and recital discs. I was sent a physical copy of Heart and Soul: Celebrating the Unforgettable Songs of Frank Loesser and – having been cynical about this manufacture-on-demand service in advance – was surprised by how high-quality the packaging, CD and notes are. The booklet is well designed and contains a couple of attractive photographs and a fine article, while the disc itself includes nineteen tracks from a variety of sources. These are a mixture of cover versions of the big numbers from the shows – such as Barry Manilow's rendition of 'Luck Be a Lady', Doris Day's 'Somebody Somewhere' and Vic Damone's 'Never Will I Marry' from Greenwillow – to movie songs, such as Dinah Shore singing 'I Wish I Didn't Love You So' from The Perils of Pauline. This is a highly attractive selection, even if some of the tracks sound a bit rough-and-ready, and it's good to see the otherwise low-key centenary of Loesser commemorated in such a way.

ReginaI've had downloaded versions of two more titles from the same series, both of them cast albums that have been unavailable for many years. Again, I was delighted by them both, but most particularly the 1958 New York City Opera recording of Blitzstein's Regina. The download comes with a new sixteen-page digital booklet, which can be printed out if the listener requires, containing track listings, a synopsis, a biography of Blitzstein, articles by Lillian Hellman (on whose play The Little Foxes the show-opera is based) and Leonard Bernstein (a long-time champion of Blitzstein's music) and Frank Loesser. The recording is a complete revelation, demonstrating the work's extraordinary imagination and originality. As Bernstein says in his essay, 'In The Cradle and No for an Answer… [Blitzstein uses] straight jazz, quasi-symphonic music, Mozartean recitative, romantic recitative, ballads, comic songs of a burlesque-show nature, operatic arias and ensembles – anything that suits the purpose at hand. …With Regina we have a kind of apex, a summation of what Blitzstein has been trying to do. The words sing themselves, so to speak. The result is true song – a long, flexible, pragmatic, dramatic song.' The Southern flavours, spirituals and Broadway aspects of the piece all come together in a fascinating and compelling way, and the superb cast (including Brenda Lewis, Elisabeth Carron, Carol Brice and Joshua Hecht), fluently conducted by Samuel Krachmmalnick, brings it all to life beautifully.

Also available in this series is the Jones Beach Marine Theatre production of Song of Norway, the 'musical extravaganza based on the life and music of Edvard Grieg'. The attraction here is perhaps the conducting of Broadway legend Lehman Engel, though the excellent cast includes Brenda Lewis, Helena Scott and John Reardon. The sound quality isn't wonderful, and these Wright and Forrest pieces based on classical music (such as Kismet) aren't particularly my cup of tea, but this is nevertheless a valuable release. Coming on 14 September in the same series is Make a Wish.Bernstein

Finally, Masterworks Broadway has announced weekly digital download-only releases, starting with The Bernstein Songbook on 10 August. These releases have been available previously but not in recent years. The Bernstein Songbook is largely a selection of familiar recordings from West Side Story, Candide and On the Town, but does include lesser-known selections such as 'Take Care of This House' from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The second reissue was Jerry Hadley's Standing Room Only, an interesting programme of Broadway songs, running the gamut from Bock and Harnick's The Apple Tree to The Phantom of the Opera. This week saw the release of Harolyn Blackwell's A Simple Song (a truly gorgeous selection of Bernstein's vocal music), and next week sees the return of the Celebrate Broadway series with Volume 1: Sing Happy. The rest of that series will be available in coming months, along with Harold Rome's Pins and Needles starring Barbra Streisand, Maury Yeston's Goya with Placido Domingo, and Harold Sings Arlen (With Friend). More information on the coming releases is promised on the Masterworks Broadway website in due course.

By Dominic McHugh