Masterworks Broadway continues its virtual monopoly amongst the major labels of the Broadway repertoire with these three contrasting releases.
First up is On Broadway, the fourth solo album from Australian musical theatre performer < b>David Campbell. A hugely popular performer and recording artist in his native Australia, Campbell is scarcely less well known in America, thanks to his appearances in a series of high-profile productions. These include the New York premiere of Sondheim’s early show Saturday Night and the Encores! production of Babes in Arms. In Australia, his stage appearances include Les Miserables and Shout.
What appeals to me about Campbell, at least on the basis of this album, is his versatility as a singer. Rather than trotting out a drearily predictable series of songs from mid-period Lloyd Webber or sticking to contemporary repertoire, Campbell’s fourteen tracks run the gamut from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! to Catch Me If You Can, which is Broadway-bound this season. As it happens, these tracks are two of his finest: he has the legit-style technical facility to cope well with ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and packs a punch in Marc Shaiman’s new piece, ‘Goodbye’. It’s almost a relief to realise one is being confronted with a modern Broadway artist who’s not afraid to show off his rich baritone, rather than thinning out the tone and trying to lift his voice into something it’s not. This makes listening to a classic such as ‘Hey There’ from Adler and Ross’s The Pajama Game a sheer pleasure.
Beautifully crafted, too, is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel, while there’s a real swagger to ‘Luck Be a Lady’ from Guys and Dolls. That said, I can’t warm to Campbell’s rendition of the title song from Hello, Dolly!, which adds nothing to the mix and is too familiar to be given such a prosaic performance and arrangement. There are also some strange moments in ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables in which he havers around the tone on the long sustained notes in an attempt to invigorate an over-familiar song, rather than maintaining the tuning and giving the song an elegant simplicity (something he does very well elsewhere). However, I love his intelligent rendition of ‘Proud Lady’ from Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife, and Billy’s ‘All I Care About’ from Chicago is similarly well done. Signing off with an exquisite ‘Some Other Time’ from On the Town, Campbell indicates what he’s capable of both vocally and expressively, gaining a high standard that is typical of much, if not all, of this album.
Complementing this brand new recording is a slew of re-releases from Sony’s back catalogue. In the first place, there’s the admirable digital release programme run by Masterworks Broadway, whereby one recently out-of-print recording is released every week of the year via online/digital service providers like iTunes. These releases are truly varied and make excellent recordings available to a range of tastes. The early autumn saw the appearance of the soundtrack of the famous Julie Andrews/Carol Burnett Carnegie Hall TV special and the Maury Yeston score Goya starring Placido Domingo. The Celebrate Broadway series has been gradually appearing over recent months, with volumes 8-10 due later in December, and this week’s release was a Johnny Mathis double bill of his albums Ballads of Broadway and Rhythms of Broadway. Although nobody could pretend that online releasing (over physical product) is ideal, and clearly everyone will have their own ideas about what should and should not be included, Sony should nevertheless be applauded for trying to serve a market which is, sadly, a specialist niche nowadays.
What excites me more is the first-time appearance of two rare albums in both digital and disc-on-demand formats. Cast album collectors who, like me, enjoy having the physical product in their hands and in particular appreciate being able to read proper liner notes, will surely be relieved (and even thrilled) that Masterworks Broadway is allowing some of its digital reissues to come out as discs-on-demand through Arkivmusic.com. A sleek generic layout allows for the reproduction of the original cover art, while the booklets include varying numbers of photographs of the productions and/or recording sessions. And although the sound has not been remastered or vastly improved, it still sounds excellent to these ears. Although I’d personally like the booklets to be enhanced with the addition of new liner notes alongside the original ones (which are much appreciated, I hasten to add), I’ve really treasured the addition of these two new releases to my CD collection.
The two shows in question could not be more different from one another. First we have The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus – once a regular favourite, now unjustly neglected like much of the operetta repertoire. This is the work that caused George Bernard Shaw to refuse permission to adapt Pygmalion into a musical during his lifetime, because it’s an adaptation of his play Arms of the Man – and he deplored what Straus did with it. As Stanley Green’s liner note explains, the project started in the hands of two Viennese librettists, Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson, and it was they who turned to Straus – composer of the recent hit A Waltz Dream – to write the music. Shaw only gave his permission for the operetta to be written after insisting the piece be changed almost beyond recognition, including all the names; in 1941, he went on to deny MGM the rights to make it into a film when they wouldn’t give him enough money, so they had to use a completely new story. The show itself opened in Vienna in 1908, and it proved to be more of a critical success than a commercial one.
Still, it travelled to New York in 1909 and London the following season, when it went on to run for 500 performances. At the height of the renaissance of operetta on Broadway in the 1920s and ‘30s it was a favourite across America, but it subsequently fell from favour. Sony’s disc comes from 1958 and was part of a series of studio cast recordings conducted by the great Lehman Engel on the RCA Victor label in that period (others included Show Boat with Rise Stevens and Robert Merrill and The Desert Song with Giorgio Tozzi). The recording features a line-up of outstanding vocalists, all of whom do a great job: Rise Stevens (Nadina) and Robert Merrill (Bumerli) bring the stature of the operatic stage to their roles, while Jo Sullivan (of The Most Happy Fella fame) and Peter Palmer (from Li’l Abner) add a theatrical frisson. Though the piece has its clunky moments compared to the dramatic works being shown on Broadway when the recording was originally released, it’s a charming score and well worth exploring.
However, the disc that has spent the most time in my CD player is the Grammy-nominated What Makes Sammy Run?, enjoying its first appearance on CD using the original stereo master. Though it’s a bit of an oddity, this 1964 show has its moments, thanks to Ervin Drake’s (composer of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’) quirky score, Don Walker’s imaginative orchestrations, Lehman Engel’s tight conducting, and an interesting cast. Steve Lawrence made his Broadway debut in the show and earned a Tony nomination for it, while support from Sally Ann Howes and Robert Alda meant the piece was in safe hands. Drake’s music is characterised by harmonic density, rhythmic flexibility and striking word-setting. Although the show is clearly not from the top drawer of 1960s Broadway shows, it is a high-quality curiosity and benefits from a lively, theatrical performance that distinguishes the very best cast albums. It also has superior sound quality and is eminently entertaining. In short, anyone with an interest in 1960s Broadway musicals shouldn’t hesitate to go ahead and order a copy from Arkiv. For my own part, I can’t wait for the appearance of the next release: Harold Rome’s The Zulu and the Zayda.