The musical heritage of the “Great American Songbook” and the Hollywood and Broadway musical is one of America’s artistic treasures. Yet with the fast-changing and troubled face of the contemporary recording industry, much of this great music is left forgotten or undiscovered. Alone amongst the main record labels, Sony has a dedicated label called Masterworks Broadway, which is dedicated to bringing their entire back catalogue into digital form, so that people can download these rarities at will. Much more preferably to those of us who take collecting seriously, however, most of the MB titles are available as limited edition “discs on demand,” containing lovely photographs (many previously unseen) as well as the original (and sometimes new) liner notes. I also have to commend the rather snazzy online portal masterworksbroadway.com, which is updated daily with photographs, articles and videos to complement the recording releases. The label also issues new cast albums of some new shows, so in all, it’s a fantastic operation.
Time spent researching and writing my new book (on Alan Jay Lerner, due out this summer) has left me behind with recent Masterworks Broadway releases, so here’s a brief overview of some of their releases since last autumn.
To begin with the reissues (my favourite bit!), the soundtrack of the movie of Li’l Abner comes to CD officially for the first time. The Broadway show on which it is based was a beloved hit of the 1950s, even amongst competition like My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella. Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer’s adaptation of Al Capp’s comic strip bounces along like a summer breeze, and although the movie version seems a little stage-bound, this suits the material (which itself is self-knowingly stagey). For the movie, Nelson Riddle adapted the score, but the soundtrack album was actually a re-recording of the songs for home consumption, rather than lifted directly from the movie. This is what we hear on the CD, and it’s perhaps a shame some (or all?) of the movie tracks weren’t included as bonus tracks (or a second CD). Nonetheless, this is an absolutely delightful, jolly, tuneful album, and one of the happiest things I’ve heard in ages.
The most recent release in the series is a real collector’s item: the soundtrack recordings of the Robert Goulet television adaptations of the beloved Broadway hits Kiss Me, Kate and Brigadoon. Back in the 1960s, television versions of musicals were a fairly common occurrence: David Foil’s fine liner notes for the CD release tell us that Brigadoon was shown in October 1966, followed by Carousel in May 1967, Kismet in October 1967 and Kiss Me, Kate in 1968. The Brigadoon is very enjoyable indeed: the young Goulet – a few years after his Broadway debut as Lancelot in the original production of Camelot – sang superbly, with Sally Ann Howes as Fiona and musical arrangements by Irwin Kostal (of the movies The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins). It was a lavish adaptation, and in spite of the limitations of making it into a 90-minute TV special, Brigadoon comes across well. Kiss Me, Kate is much less successful (and also received a more mixed reception even at the time): there’s an unfortunate decision to treat songs like “I Hate Men” like 1960s pop songs, and it just doesn’t work. Carol Lawrence’s Lilli is well sung, however, and Goulet’s voice is in prime form in both musicals. Look out for Jules Munshin (the third sailor in On the Town) as one of the gangsters, too. Let’s hope Sony choose to bring out some other TV soundtracks in the coming years; they’ve certainly made my day with the announcement of Richard Rodgers’s TV version of Androcles and the Lion – with Patricia Routledge, Inga Swenson and various other stars – as their next reissue.
Noel Coward is one of the other big names in Androcles, and he’s also the focus of Cowardy Custard, another recent MB release. Back in 1972, this splendid revue was presented by the Mermaid Theatre in London, with a superior British case: Patricia Routledge, Una Stubbs, Elaine Delmar, Geoffrey Burridge, John Moffatt, Derek Waring and others. The recording features two CDs of Coward highlights in pristine sound, with highlights including Moffatt’s “Nina”, Delmar’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Twentieth Century Blues”, and a complete “Mad About the Boy” in its Words and Music version, with a verse each given to Routledge, Stubbs, Delmar and Anna Sharkey. There are several cute medleys and some verse readings too. Coward fanatics have long wished for the album to come to CD and here it is finally, beautifully presented.
Though he’s the senior surviving figure of the Broadway musical and a titan of the theatre, Stephen Sondheim has rarely been well served on the big screen. As I understand it, he’s dubious about the ability of the musical to work at the cinema anyway, but few of his stage-to-screen adaptations have been truly successful. This is certainly true of A Little Night Music, which was a bewitching success on Broadway but rather bland as a movie. Financial and technical constraints led several key numbers to go unfilmed (“Remember”, “In Praise of Women”, Liaisons” and “The Miller’s Son”), and the star, Elizabeth Taylor, suffered ill health and was often late on the set. Nevertheless, this first CD release of the movie’s soundtrack is welcome. Diana Rigg’s Charlotte is a real highlight, as heard in “Every Day a Little Death”, and Jonathan Tunick’s expanded orchestrations are a treat. For the CD release we’re lucky to have three extra tracks not previously issued on the LP, including the carriage ride verse of “Every Day”. Sondheim’s admirers shouldn’t hesitate.
My all-time hero is Fred Astaire, so perhaps I’m biased in my complete delight in the album Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO, also from Sony. Here we have two discs containing thirty-seven tracks from Astaire’s early movies, including some of the greatest songs ever written; “Night and Day”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, “A Fine Romance”, “They All Laughed”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “Change Partners” radiate the same warmth, charm and brilliance through the ages that they had when they were first recorded. Of course, many of these recordings have been available for quite a long time, though the sound quality is particularly good on this release. But the reason for seeking this one out is the addition of six bonus tracks, such as alternate takes of “A Fine Romance” and “Waltz in Swing Time”. We also have “The Yam” and “I Used to be Color Blind” sung by Ginger Rogers, Astaire’s main dance partner of the period. The artistry of these performances has a truly timeless quality, and just one listen of this lovely album confirms Astaire, as Michael Feinstein writes in a loving tribute in the liner notes, as “the most sublime popular singer and dancer of any generation”.
Two new albums finish this survey of releases. Last December, NBC boldly programmed a brand new, live television adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. The cast included Broadway favourites Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti and Christian Borle, as well as Carrie Underwood (winner of the fourth season of American Idol) and British actor Stephen Moyer. Underwood’s performance was deeply criticised at the time, and the style of presentation was not uniformly appreciated. But with 18.62 million viewers tuning into a Broadway musical from 1959, who are we to complain? I haven’t personally seen the programme itself, but this album of performances by the cast of most of the score is pleasant enough, and it’s nice that they included “No Way to Stop It” and “How Can Love Survive?” from the stage version (cut from the movie of the show). Clearly, this album is in a different solar system to the delectable original with Mary Martin, but I found it perfectly serviceable. On the other hand, the world premiere recording of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, with a score by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin, is not at all to my taste. There are a few nice songs, and the two classic numbers by Albert Hague (including “You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch”) are always worth hearing, but to my ears the album doesn’t sound rich enough for home listening. Anyone who enjoyed the stage show itself though will be pleased to have this memento, and frankly it’s great news when any musical gets recorded now; without new recordings, how will listeners of the future have today’s equivalent of niche treasures like Cowardy Custard or the movie soundtrack of Li’l Abner to look back on?