"Legends of Broadway" is the name of the new series from Masterworks Broadway. Four CDs have started what will presumably be an intermittent parade of compilations pulled from the catalogues of Columbia and RCA.
Why — the big question that immediately comes to mind — should musical theatre fans with a well-stocked CD shelf bother with these collections of tracks we already have (presumably on LPs, early CDs, improved and remastered CDs, cassettes, and more). I mean, can't you simply take your copies of Angela Lansbury cast albums, place them on your five-CD changer, and program your own "Best of Angela Lansbury"? Of course you can. Simply program track eight of Anyone Can Whistle, tracks three and 14 of Mame, tracks four, nine and 11 of Dear World, tracks two, three, seven, ten and 14 of the 1973 Gypsy, tracks — well, wait a minute. Maybe it's not so simple. Especially if you want to listen to these selections next week. How likely are you to program them all again?
Legends of Broadway: Angela Lansbury [Masterworks Broadway 88397] ranges from "It's Today" to "A Little Priest" — which, I suppose you can say, is quite a range. Legends of Broadway: Bernadette Peters [Masterworks Broadway 88399], too, runs from Herman ("Time Heals Everything") to Sondheim (on eight of the 14 tracks, with the inclusion of a couple of revival albums). Bernadette's disc also includes a few tracks you might be less likely to have in your collection, including the touching "Tell Me on a Sunday" from Song and Dance and — from way, way back — the tongue-on-cheek "Raining in My Heart" from Dames at Sea.
Legends of Broadway: Chita Rivera [Masterworks Broadway 88402] is a somewhat more difficult compilation, as Chita — alone among the quartet — does not have the same sort of star vehicles to her credit. Seven of the 16 tracks are pulled from one show, Chicago; while nobody would consider Velma anything less than a starring role, the spotlight was very clearly (and literally) on Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart. The same can be said for West Side Story; Chita seized the stage in at least one number, "America," but I wouldn't call her performance of "Tonight" legendary. (And yes, they include it — the "Quintet" version — on this CD.) I'm always glad to hear "An English Teacher," from Bye Bye Birdie, and the Masterworks people see fit to include Chita's spitfire-sharp performance of "Mean," from Bajour. But this CD is not exactly the stuff of legends.
Counter this, though, with Legends of Broadway: Barbara Cook [Masterworks Broadway 88398]. This is perhaps the best of the quartet of releases, and not just as a convenient way of hearing the songs without programming all those CDs. Barbara's collection gives us "Glitter and Be Gay," "Ice Cream," "Magic Moment" and "My White Knight" — and those are just for starters. The last three, alas, are concert tracks, not from the original cast albums; on the plus side, "My White Knight" includes material cut prior to the Broadway opening.
Cook's original roles are joined by three from revivals or studio casts: Barbara as Sally Durant, Barbara as Magnolia Ravenal, and Barbara as Anna Leonowens. These are not albums we listen to all the time, the last two at any rate. The result is that unlike the other three "Legends" CDs, Barbara Cook's familiar and famous songs are combined with several delightful surprises.
One might parenthetically question the choice of legends in this initial group. Angela and Barbara, of course, belong in any pack; but, then, so do Mary and Ethel. And Gwen, too. I suppose that the idea is to give us living legends of Broadway first, on the assumption that their fans are more likely to buy product. But let's not be churlish. I expect that should these four prove profitable, Mary and Ethel and Gwen (and Alfred?) will have their day. Among those accompanying the ladies are Gwen, with Chita from Chicago, and John Raitt, Len Cariou, George Hearn, Carol Lawrence, Dick Van Dyke and Mandy Patinkin.
The four CDs are handsomely packaged, with high-quality, photo-filled, 20-page booklets. These contain new interviews between the stars and David Foil, who serves as executive producer of the series. Foil knows what questions to ask, making these lively and fascinating. There are also some cannily-chosen photos — including one of Cook being directed by Tyrone Guthrie of Candide, the latter formally dressed but wearing what appear to be plaid bedroom slippers.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section of Playbill.com. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)