A group of people exists who love show music like I love show music – and the theatre gods have finally given them the wherewithal to share their love. They work at Masterworks Broadway and they are in the process of filling in blanks in the collections of us fanatics.
You don’t need to be a full fledged fanatic, however, to appreciate the chance to pick up some of the scores you always wanted to own at the bargain price of $8.99!
Not all of Masterworks Broadway’s catalog is priced this way, but a series of re-issues in what they call “eco-friendly packaging” are a bargain you ought to consider snapping up. The packaging isn’t your normal plastic cd “jewell case.” Instead, these cds come in cardboard slipcases that hold the cd on one side and a printed booklet on the other. In most cases the booklets reflect the original packaging and the cds contain clean and clear sound from the original recordings.
There’s Mary Martin and Cyril Richard in the 1954 Peter Pan – what fun!
There’s Rex Everhart as Benjamin Franklin in the original 1776 – he was filling in for the ailing Howard De Silva. Since De Silva’s performance was subsequently captured for the movie version, which was essentially a filming of the stage play, we get to have both performances.
Every visit anybody has made to Broadway over the past fourteen years has involved at least walking past a theatre where the revival of Chicago was playing – but the original cast recording takes you back thirty-five years to a day when “Roxie Hart” was Gwen Verdon, “Velma Kelly” was Chita Rivera and “Billy Flynn” was Jerry Orbach!
Want to hear just how funny a musical comedy can be? Check out Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying! (If you wonder if you should be buying this one or the 1995 revival, stick with the original.)
The treasures are astounding. There’s South Pacific, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Cabaret, Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, A Chorus Line, A Little Night Music, Kiss Me Kate, Show Boat, Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma!, Kismet, Hair, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, Oliver, Mame, City of Angels and 42nd Street. Not all are the original Broadway cast recordings. There are few of the Music Theater of Lincoln Center revivals including the 1966 Annie Get Your Gun with a 58 year old Ethel Merman still making you believe in her teenaged Annie Oakley.
It has been quite a while since we could celebrate the behavior of mega-corporations regarding musical theatre. For the past decade or so, the real pleasures were to be had on labels most record stores (you remember them!) didn’t seem to know existed: Jay Records, PS Classics and, for a while, Varasee Sarabande. When music became the product of mega-corporations, and labels were bought and sold on the basis of bottom line projections, show music became nothing but a pawn in the corporate moves with new recordings and reissues approved or rejected by executives who may not have known the difference between a cast recording and a “soundtrack.”
In the last few years, however, one aspect of the corporate consolidation parade has worked to the benefit of musical theatre lovers. After a mind-boggling array of permutations, Sony Corporation of America has become the owner of both the old Columbia Records and of RCA Victor. Between the two, these labels had dominated the Broadway musical recording field for decades. The company seems to understand the value (both monetary and artistic) represented by the material they have in their vaults.
The beneficence of these people’s efforts doesn’t end with the availability of treasured recordings. They have established a website that provides a treasure trove of material of interest to show music buffs. (Naturally, it is www.masterworksbroadway.com.) There are pages and pages of photos from the recording sessions of albums stretching back into the 1950s and even beyond. You can see John Henson, Roy Lazarus, Shorty Long and Alan Gilbert singing “Standing on the Corner” when you listen to the 1956 original cast recording of The Most Happy Fella. Want to see Herschel Bernardi laying down tracks from Bajour? Its here. How about incredibly young Julie Andrews, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet recording Camelot or an even younger Julie Andrews at the recording session for Cinderella in 1957? Plow through the collection and you’ll find fascinating tidbits … like a candid shot of Stephen Sondheim chatting with David Merrick during the recording session of Gypsy.
They don’t skimp on videos, either. The preview videos are, of course, glorified commercials for the albums, but it’s great to see the people involved doing their thing. They also come with commercials of their own but ignore them and just enjoy watching Matthew Morrison sing “Younger Than Springtime” or Paulo Szot’s enrapturing “Some Enchanted Evening” from the current revival of South Pacific.
The site includes a blog which, among other things, features commentary on various releases by none other than Peter Filichia, a writer who knows more about and cares more deeply for musical theatre than any writer I know.
Viewing things and reading items on websites can’t, however, take the place of listening to the recordings of some of the greatest moments in the history of musical theatre. Many of these, now, are to be had for – well, not a song but less than a ten-spot.