These four new releases show the excellent ongoing work of the London-based label, Sepia Records. Though these recordings are now in the public domain, they would probably be all but forgotten were it not for the efforts of labels like Sepia, whose output is exemplary of how the material should be treated (unlike Naxos' recent reissue of the original My Fair Lady): careful sound restoration, attractive packaging and informative booklets.
Much as I appreciate the content of all four, there's no denying the fact that one stands out way above the rest, simply because the source material is nothing less than irresistible. Jane Morgan was born in Boston in 1920 and became one of the foremost singers of popular music of her generation, in the latter part of her career going on to win acclaim as one of Angela Lansbury's successors in the title role of Mame. It's fascinating to read that Morgan underwent extensive training at Julliard in New York, because her exemplary sense of line, immaculate diction and perfect tuning – as shown by Sepia's new disc – are redolent of someone in total control of her instrument. The velveteen tone, however, is a natural gift, and one that's well exploited in this collection of 'showstoppers' (of which there are a generous twenty-seven on offer here).
It makes such a delightful programme that it's hard to pick out favourites. The slower, more seductive numbers like 'Dancing in the Dark' (from Dietz and Schwartz's The Band Wagon), 'Hello Young Lovers' (from The King and I), 'Hey There' (from The Pajama Game) and 'Speak Low' (from Weill's One Touch of Venus) give rise to the most alluring interpretations, while it says everything about her renditions of absolute standards such as Gershwin's 'Love is Here to Stay' and Porter's 'Love For Sale' that they stand up to the best. There's something for everyone here: from operetta in 'The Merry Widow Waltz', which is handled beautifully, to comedy in 'A Bushel and a Peck' (from Guys and Dolls) and wistful romance in 'How are Things in Glocca Morra?' (from Finian's Rainbow). There's also an unusual version of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' from My Fair Lady and a characterful duet with Michael Stewart of 'You're Just in Love' from Call Me Madam. In short, this is one of the finest albums of any genre I've heard so far this summer and an unreserved recommendation.
Reactions to the second release, a long-lost television version of Pinocchio for which a related album was recorded, will depend on expectations. The presentation and sound quality are impeccable, but the source material is less stimulating: Alec Wilder's score is a bit of a one-hit wonder, the hit being the undeniably attractive 'Listen To Your Heart', which comes back no less than four times. Mickey Rooney stars as both Pinocchio and the narrator, and fans of his work will be delighted: he guides the listener deftly through the story, and with support from familiar names such as Fran Allison and Stubby Kaye there's much of interest here. Nevertheless, it remains a fairytale, and not a terribly sophisticated one at that. Thankfully, the disc is filled up with more interesting fare: some cracking Rooney tracks from a TV show he did called 'Mr Broadway', including 'Manhattan' and his self-composed 'You Couldn't tell the Tear Drops from the Rain', and six items sung by Allison. If this isn't my favourite CD of the year, at least it paves the way for what one hopes will be a series of TV musicals from Sepia.
The ever-popular Deanna Durbin is the focus of the third release, but in true Sepia style, the contents of the disc are extremely unusual. Here we have her singing everything from an English-language version of Puccini's 'Nessun dorma' to Porter's 'Night and Day'. Sepia has sourced many of the twenty-three tracks from unique studio lacquers, and some of them include extra verses or alternative sections from the songs that derive from the films in which she appeared; these include the complete 'When I Sing' from It Started With Eve, the unheard first half of 'In the Spirit of the Moment' from His Butler's Sister and the deleted songs 'Carmena Waltz', 'Sweet Molly Malone' and Brahms' Lullaby. Although the CD comes with a caveat about sound quality, I honestly don't hear anything to apologise for, especially given the recordings' age. For me, it's more the case that Durbin's voice and manner of singing are not to my taste – she's neither of sufficient operatic weight to do justice to the heavier repertoire nor stylish and flexible enough to compete seriously with the great popular singers of her generation in the Porter/Rodgers/Berlin items – but the project is a great achievement and ought to be snapped up by Durbin enthusiasts.
Ending this varied selection is a long-overdue release of the Original London Cast album of Irma la Douce, which is currently the only way to buy the complete recording on CD. A rival company has released extracts from the album but has omitted the ten-minute 'There is Only One Paris For That', the reprise of 'Our Language of Love', 'But' and 'Christmas Child', all of which are integral to the original recording, therefore Sepia's release is clearly preferable. Irma's score is by Marguerite Monnot, the composer of many of Edith Piaf's hits, and the show's enormous success was down to its veristic depiction of sleaziness (or 'louche glamour', as the original album cover described it) in the backstreets of Paris. The story depicts a prostitute and her protector, and the dialogue was infused with 'thieves slang' that was so remote that even the programme for the original Paris production (which predated the London version) contained a glossary of terms.
The achievement of Elizabeth Seal and Keith Michell in the lead roles comes across vividly in Sepia's remastered release, which is also distinguished by a revelatory interview with Seal as well as bonus tracks in French with Zizi Jeanmaire and Colette Renard as Irma. Like the Jane Morgan disc discussed above, and last month's highly-recommended Arabian Nights, it's a must-have release for musical theatre collectors.