ON THE RECORD: It Seems I've Heard That Song Before

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: It Seems I've Heard That Song Before MY FAVORITE BROADWAY: The Leading Ladies Live at Carnegie Hall (Hybrid/TVT TVT 2010-2)
My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies Live at Carnegie Hall is a live performance recording of a September 28, 1998 concert, which was simultaneously taped for PBS (it airs on December 1). From the title and the publicity, it appears to be a collection of musical comedy's greatest ladies performing their greatest roles. In fact, the talented performers are somewhat less exalted than one might surmise. Which is not to say that the disc is without merit; some tracks are well worth hearing. But "the leading ladies"?

MY FAVORITE BROADWAY: The Leading Ladies Live at Carnegie Hall (Hybrid/TVT TVT 2010-2)
My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies Live at Carnegie Hall is a live performance recording of a September 28, 1998 concert, which was simultaneously taped for PBS (it airs on December 1). From the title and the publicity, it appears to be a collection of musical comedy's greatest ladies performing their greatest roles. In fact, the talented performers are somewhat less exalted than one might surmise. Which is not to say that the disc is without merit; some tracks are well worth hearing. But "the leading ladies"?

Julie Andrews, who hosts the disc (but does not sing), lays out the theme in her introduction: When she first arrived on Broadway (in 1954), she was "in awe of the ladies who were starring on Broadway at that time: names like Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Gertrude Lawrence, Judy Holliday and Gwen Verdon." This statement was presumably written by an overreaching scriptwriter, and hopefully not prodded from Ms. Andrews' memory. Martin and Merman were indeed Broadway's biggest stars when Julie first graced our shores; but Gertie Lawrence died in 1952, when Andrews was sixteen; Judy Holliday didn't appear in a Broadway musical until 1956; and Gwen Verdon, at the time, was not a Broadway star but working in the movies as choreographer Jack Cole's assistant.

This imprecision is indicative of the formatting of the evening. "The leading ladies" are given first-name-only billing on the album cover. "Liza" is self apparent; no one is likely to ask "Liza who?" The average musical theatregoer will, for obvious reasons, readily identify Faith, Audra, Marin, Bebe, and even Nell. But Priscilla? Linda? Elaine? Judy? (Not Garland, not Holliday, not even Judy Kaye.) Debra, Dorothy, Lea, Karen -- these are not exactly household names, even on the upper West Side.

Many of these "leading ladies" have never headed a new Broadway show; the only ones who've starred in more than one hit musical are Julie and Liza. Some are on hand, seemingly, simply because they were asked. Broadway's true leading ladies -- Gwen, Chita, Carol C., Carol B., Barbara C., Barbra, Bernadette, Angela -- none of them are present.

The disc starts, oddly enough, with the Overture to Girl Crazy. Why, one might well wonder? Within sixteen bars, though, you realize that the music is extremely well played and crisply recorded, especially for a live performance. The advance copy of the disc did not reveal who was performing so impressively; I had to track down the finished release to learn that it was Paul Gemignani and his American Theater Orchestra, and they do a fine job. (The liner notes, by the way, list all the performers and writers except the poor guy who wrote the Overture to Girl Crazy, which is credited to "WB Music Corp.") The fifteen star spots include things you'd expect (Faith Prince singing "Adelaide's Lament," Jennifer Holliday singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going") and some unlikely entries for an album of Broadway greats (Debra Monk singing "Everybody's Girl," Linda Eder singing -- oddly enough -- "I, Don Quixote"). Elaine sings "The Ladies Who Lunch" and Dorothy sings "Fifty Percent"; both give pretty subdued sounding performances, although the applause suggests that they were highly effective in person. I guess that we'll be able to tell from the telecast. (As reported two columns ago, Dame Edna Everage -- who is now, suddenly, a Broadway star -- puts a new spin on "Ladies Who Lunch" on Jay Records' recently released Sondheim Tonight.)

Three tracks are of special interest. Lea Delaria sings "I Can Cook Too" from last season's revival of On the Town, which gives out-of towners a chance to hear what the critics were raving about. Priscilla Lopez's "Nothing," from A Chorus Line, is strangely moving. The number -- not a flashy favorite, but one of the finest songs in that score - is basically a memory exercise, and thus ageless. Ms. Lopez, back in 1975, was a fine dancer/singer; in the intervening twenty-three years she has become an actress (which is what the song is about, incidentally) and twenty-three years older as well. Which gives the song a different -- yet effective -- context. Finally, Ms. Minnelli gives us a driving rendition of "Some People" from Gypsy. Now, we have certainly heard this song before, but never like this. Minnelli seems to do it at double-time; she trims more than half a minute off Merman's original cast album performance. (It appears to be the original Sid Ramin/Red Ginzler arrangement, with very loud bongos driving the beat.) Now, I don't know that I'd want to see this performance in the context of the show -- Liza's Rose sounds like she's gonna flatten her stingy Poppa with a runaway locomotive if he doesn't give her the eighty-eight bucks -- but Minnelli turns the song into a powerhouse audition piece, complete with acting. If this is any indication of what we can expect from her upcoming visit to the Palace -- well, let's just say that she sounds better on this track than you might have expected. There is also a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber hits -- which thankfully do not include "Memory" -- sung by Audra, Marin, and Judy. Judy Kuhn, that is.

So, My Favorite Broadway has some high spots which you might want to hear. If you want actual bona fide leading ladies, there are two new compilations which offer scads of them.

BROADWAY: The Great Original Cast Recordings (Sony Classical/Legacy J2K 65810)
Broadway: The Great Original Cast Recordings is the two-disc musical theatre section of the twenty-six disc series Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century. (And yes, the Broadway set can be purchased separately.) Sony's massive undertaking is meant to encompass the entire twentieth century, although all but four of the forty-one Broadway tracks were recorded between 1946 and 1977. So this disc does not represent one hundred years, exactly, but hey. . .

Included on this handsomely produced set are up to three tracks from each of twenty-two cast albums. Most of the expected performances are included: Pinza's "Some Enchanted Evening," Channing's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Andrews' "I Could Have Danced All Night," Harrison's "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," Merman's "Everything's Coming Up Roses," Martin's "Do Re Mi," Burton's "Camelot." And on. There are also a few unlikely entries in this hit parade, like "Conga!," from the telecast album of Wonderful Town, "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from Flower Drum Song, the title songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Do I Hear a Waltz, and -- go figure - "My Friend" from The Life. That last comes, apparently, because one of the compilers of this project produced the cast album of The Life. Other less-than-great tracks from albums he produced are also included; conversely, a clutch of top theatres stars who recorded Columbia cast albums -- like Barbara Cook, Gwen Verdon, Barbara Harris, Barbra Streisand, and Angela Lansbury (who starred in three Columbia-recorded musicals) -- are not represented.

But that's a minor quibble. Broadway: The Great Original Cast Recordings is a fine collection if you want a compilation of Broadway highlights. (The true musical comedy fan will already have most of these cast albums.) There is also a colorful and informative sixty-four-page booklet, with an incisive essay by Frank Rich.

Listeners with sharp ears will find one selection which is only partially available on CD: Raul Julia's ninety-second solo leading into the "Folies Bergere" number from Nine. (The original cassette release of this show included material that never made it onto the LP or CD versions. The longer version used here was presumably an unconscious choice by the compilers, as Julia is not listed as one of the singers.) Maury Yeston's first musical has been mentioned as part of the ongoing series of Sony Broadway reissues, and I hope that they do get around to this enjoyable and incredibly rich score -- and that they include all of the material heretofore heard only on tape.

Sony has by far the best catalogue of cast albums to draw from, thanks to the stewardship of record producer Goddard Lieberson. The concept of recording original cast albums of important Broadway musicals originated with Jack Kapp at Decca Records in 1943. Decca held on until 1951, but Lieberson -- who recorded Columbia's first original cast album, I>Finian's Rainbow, in 1947 -- revolutionized the field and soon had first pick of the Broadway litter. The Lieberson era lasted until his retirement in 1975; since then, RCA Victor has taken over Columbia/Sony's mantle. Which leads us to:

THE ONLY OTHER BROADWAY CD YOU'LL EVER NEED (RCA Victor 09026-63573-2)
Last year, RCA issued a CD with the tongue-in-cheek title The Only Broadway CD You'll Ever Need. This was similar to the new Sony set, except that only one disc was needed; for most of the golden era of the Broadway musical, Columbia and Goddard Lieberson cornered the market on great musicals. (RCA has revivals of many these shows, but they recorded original cast albums of only three landmark smash hits: Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Hair.)

RCA has now brought forth The Only OTHER Broadway CD You'll Ever Need. This is decidedly not a lineup of Broadway's greatest; however, it includes favorite tracks from cast albums that the average collector might not own (like "They Call the Wind Maria" from Paint Your Wagon, "Heart" from Damn Yankees, and John Cullum singing the title song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). The folks at RCA have also slipped us a hidden gem: Russell Nype and Dinah Shore doing Irving Berlin's counterpoint duet "You're Just in Love" from Call Me Madam. (Ethel Merman was under contract to Decca, so RCA -- which financed the show - made the cast album with Shore instead of Merman. Even without Merman, you hear the original orchestration, vocal arrangement, and pit band -- as well as Nype's ingenuous, Tony Award-winning performance.) The disc includes a set of humorous notes by Bill Rosenfield, with color shots of the nineteen albums represented -- and a cover photo of an authentic, happily smiling Broadway usher (Katie Coscia of the Booth).

-- Steven Suskin, author of the Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (published by Oxford) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books (from Schirmer). Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section. You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com