Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Columbia Broadway Masterworks

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Columbia Broadway Masterworks The third group of Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissues includes two Stephen Sondheim Broadway cast albums, one Rodgers and Hammerstein, and two Gershwin studio cast recordings.

The third group of Columbia Broadway Masterworks reissues includes two Stephen Sondheim Broadway cast albums, one Rodgers and Hammerstein, and two Gershwin studio cast recordings.

Although Company has two other cast recordings --from the mid '90s Broadway (Angel) and West End (First Night) revivals (the latter production, directed by Sam Mendes for the Donmar Warehouse, was also televised in England) -- they are almost negligible when compared with the original Broadway cast recording. Sondheim came into his own as composer-lyricist here, creating for this conceptual landmark a series of showstoppers as powerful as anything he's ever done. Hearing them in 1970 at the Alvin and on the Columbia LP was electrifying, a door opening on a new sound and level of Broadway originality and brilliance.

In addition to Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, Boris Aronson, and Jonathan Tunick all functioning at their peak, the original production featured one of the more distinctive (and in some cases irreplaceable) casts in musicals of the last three decades; this was amply brought home by the 1993 reunion concerts in Los Angeles and New York (not to mention those revivals).

Larry Kert took over for original leading man Dean Jones in New York, then continued in London; for the latter engagement, a second LP was issued identical to this one but with Kert in place of Jones. That disc is available on a Sony West End CD, but one track -- Kert's "Being Alive" -- is included as a bonus here. Remastered for the first time, this recording really needs no recommendation from me; it's essential.

As is the Broadway cast album of A Little Night Music, the Sondheim show that arrived three years later. There is one other recording -- Tring's CD of the recent Royal National Theatre revival -- that is a must, particularly as it restores "My Husband, The Pig," combines the different "Glamorous Life" songs from the stage and film versions, and preserves Judi Dench's Desiree. There are also the good first London cast recording (Jean Simmons, Hermione Gingold, Joss Ackland, Diane Langton, David Kernan), the film soundtrack (and video release), and a TER/JAY studio disc (Sian Phillips, Elisabeth Welch, Maria Friedman). Still, the first cast remains the finest: Glynis Johns' deliciously earthy Desiree; Gingold's droll mother; Patricia Elliott's dry Charlotte; the never-equaled Anne of Victoria Mallory; the ideal singing of leading men Len Cariou and Laurence Guittard. And the score remains flawless, as Broadway will hear next season when the show gets revived (with Glenn Close the likely Desiree).

In addition to a new mix, the Night Music disc adds (in its correct spot) "Night Waltz II," not unreleased as indicated on the packaging but previously available on the RCA set A Collector's Sondheim. The bonus track is well chosen: "The Glamorous Life" from Columbia's soundtrack album.

Both George and Ira Gershwin scores included now have scrupulously restored, complete Nonesuch studio recordings. But such authenticity was not sought after in the '50s, when Lehman Engel conducted for Columbia a series of Goddard Lieberson-produced studio LPs of major titles; for that matter, LP length would not have allowed the kind of completeness we now expect.

The 1951 Girl Crazy was the first full-length recording of the score, and features most of the songs, most of them sung by fresh-from South Pacific Mary Martin. The star performs numbers introduced by both original leading ladies, Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman; Louise Carlyle and Eddie Chappell take over on other tracks, all backed by a chorus. In place of the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations are enjoyable '50s-style ones, mostly by Ted Royal. As a bonus track, there's an encore "But Not For Me," recorded by Martin and Engel two years earlier.

Listening to Martin here, it's hard to care about authenticity: She's heaven whether belting Merman's signature "I Got Rhythm," lazing through a languid "Bidin' My Time," or delivering a ravishingly smooth "But Not For Me." She puts her special stamp on everything, and makes this Girl Crazy difficult to ignore.

In addition to the Nonesuch version, there's an off-Broadway revival cast recording of Oh, Kay!, plus a Smithsonian disc collecting period recordings by original star Gertrude Lawrence and others (David Merrick's 1990 Broadway revival with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Angela Teek was not preserved).

Recorded in 1955, the Lehman Engel studio Oh, Kay! has in the title role Barbara Ruick, known mostly for two Rodgers and Hammerstein performances, Carrie in the Carousel film, and a stepsister in the 1965 TV Cinderella. She does nicely, and even better is Jack Cassidy, one of the finest theatre voices of the '50s and '60s. Also prominent is Allen Case, of Once Upon A Mattress and Hallelujah, Baby!.

The uncredited arrangements are not particularly theatrical and very slow; it's an okay but dull set. The bonus tracks are "Maybe" in a Mary Martin-Engel 1949 recording, and 1926 piano performances by George Gershwin of "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Clap Yo' Hands."

The original 1949 Broadway cast recording of South Pacific had a remastering in its second, 1993 CD issue. That Sony Broadway disc added three bonuses: Mary Martin's wonderful recordings of the cut songs "Loneliness of Evening" (recycled in the '65 Cinderella) and "My Girl Back Home" (restored for the film), and Ezio Pinza's "Bali Ha'i." In addition to those, the Columbia Broadway Masterworks issue adds the 10-minute "Symphonic Scenario for Concert Orchestra," a 1952 recording conducted by Andre Kostelanetz.

Otherwise, not much more about this disc need be said except it's the only one with Martin and Pinza singing roles that no one has since managed to touch them in. And Juanita Hall and William Tabbert as every bit as definitive. If you have the '93 issue, however, the new one is probably not required.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com