ON THE RECORD: Rodgers and Hammerstein -- The Masters Remastered

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Rodgers and Hammerstein -- The Masters Remastered Decca Broadway has, happily, embarked on a series of more than a dozen reissues of the hit cast albums in their archives. The old Decca label originated the commercial Broadway cast album with Oklahoma! in 1943, and monopolized the field until overtaken by Columbia -- and, to a lesser extent, RCA Victor -- in the early 1950s. (Columbia was more technologically advanced, but I would guess that a large part of Decca's downfall had to do with the investment dollars available from Columbia and RCA's corporate parents, CBS and NBC.)

Decca Broadway has, happily, embarked on a series of more than a dozen reissues of the hit cast albums in their archives. The old Decca label originated the commercial Broadway cast album with Oklahoma! in 1943, and monopolized the field until overtaken by Columbia -- and, to a lesser extent, RCA Victor -- in the early 1950s. (Columbia was more technologically advanced, but I would guess that a large part of Decca's downfall had to do with the investment dollars available from Columbia and RCA's corporate parents, CBS and NBC.)

Oklahoma! began the reign of Rodgers and Hammerstein as Broadway's songwriting kings. (They were also Broadway's most powerful producers for a decade.) Decca recorded three of the big five R&H hits, missing out to Columbia on South Pacific and The Sound of Music. But Oklahoma! revolutionized the field -- actually, it created the field -- and Carousel and King and I joined it as all-time classics.

Oklahoma! and Carousel were originally released on 78s. As technology progressed, they were transferred to LPs. Sometime later, the three albums were "enhanced" for stereo, and eventually transferred onto CD. In 1993 they were remastered and rereleased on CD as part of the Rodgers and Hammerstein 50th Anniversary. Which is to say some of us have bought these same recordings over and over, over the years. Not to mention numerous other cast and studio album versions of these shows. These 2000 releases have been remastered using 24-bit digital technology. It appears, though, that they did the remastering from the 1993 transfers. This is not necessarily a negative, but it means that the new releases are spiffed up versions of what the recording engineers decided to do in 1993. (For other titles in the series -- like Guys and Dolls and Annie Get Your Gun -- Decca went back to the original recording session tapes, which gives them all new sound, relatively speaking.)

CAROUSEL (Decca Broadway 012 157 980-2)

"Best Musical of the 20th Century" says a sticker affixed to the Carousel packaging, which might seem like an overly broad statement to make. I, however, happen to agree. Carousel was by far the least commercially successful of the big R&H hits, with a run of just over two years, but it was Dick Rodgers' personal favorite. And maybe my own. Many of Broadway's great musicals, South Pacific and The King and I among them, manage to emotionally envelop their audiences, but Carousel seems to do it better. I have not made an intensive study of this, but I'd guess that in Carousel -- more than in other shows -- the heart-wrenching moments are more successfully rooted in the music. Most readers are already fully aware of the power of Carousel, and many of you already have this cast album in one of its various incarnations. Do you need this new version?

Yes, I say. True, it is severely cut down. The 78 R.P.M. format kept the maximum playing time-per-selection under five minutes; thus, we get less than half of the famous ten-minute bench scene (which includes "If I Loved You"). But it doesn't matter. The 1945 Carousel is absolutely wonderful, in performances and playing. John Raitt and Jan Clayton's "If I Loved You" is simply glorious; so is Raitt's "Soliloquy." And Clayton's "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?" is breathtaking, one of the most moving songs in musical theatre history.

Carousel fans are likely to already have one of the several more complete recordings, where they can get the "meat" of the score. My personal choice is the 1965 revival, which was produced by Rodgers himself for the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center (RCA Victor 6395-2-RC). You get fuller versions of most of the songs, plus an authoritative performance from Raitt, although he was working with an indifferent Julie and pushing fifty at the time. Putting on this new remastered remaster, though, was like a blissful homecoming for me. This is the Carousel that I fell in love with in the first place. Now that it is in perfectly audible condition, I have kept it on for hours at a time and simply don't want to take it off the CD changer.

The original album includes three things missing from later recordings. First, there is Russell Bennett's original orchestration of the Prologue ("Carousel Waltz"), which Don Walker re-scored shortly after the opening. Bennett withdrew from Carousel after completing the first two numbers; to save time (and money), his versions were used until Walker could re-orchestrate the Prologue and "Mister Snow." (Bennett's Prologue can be identified by the tooting piccolos -- which sound like steam whistles -- in the opening measures; Walker uses a triangle in measures 11-17.) Second is the "when I have a daughter" bridge which leads into the "My Little Girl" section of the "Soliloquy." This was added and cut during the Boston tryout, but Raitt nevertheless sang it on the 1945 recording. Finally, there is a highly effective violin solo accompanying Clayton in "What's the Use of Wond'rin'?" This is quite a mystery; it doesn't appear in the pit parts or the original orchestration, and was never heard again. But just listen to it!

The Carousel disc also includes alternate takes of three of the selections. They needed to trim a minute out of the Prologue in order to fit it on a 78, and the alternate version on this disc has a cut that sounds pretty awkward. But this take is nevertheless the finest performance of the Waltz that I have ever heard. As the Prologue pantomime climaxed, Billy leaned against the carousel horse on which Julie sat and their ill fated romance began to spin out of control (before the play, proper, even starts). Here, the players -- the show's original pit orchestra -- seem to speed ahead of themselves, only barely reined in by conductor Joseph Littau. This extra special bonus makes the perfect coda to this wonderful reissue.

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So much to say about Carousel, and so little to add about its brethren. Decca's Oklahoma! and The King and I are fine, historic albums which present the material as it was heard when Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves were standing in the back of the theatre.

OKLAHOMA! (Decca Broadway 012 157 981-2)

Oklahoma! broke ground back in 1943, certainly, and can be highly effective in a strong production (like the 1998 Trevor Nunn-Susan Stroman National Theatre version we hope to see, someday, on Broadway). For me, though, it doesn't have the impact of Carousel. If you wish to get a new Oklahoma! CD, then this one is certainly worthy of notice, especially if you don't have the 1993 remastering. The main feature of the Decca album is the golden-voiced Alfred Drake, an Italian baritone from Brooklyn (née Alfredo Capurro) who seemed so at home strolling through the golden-hazed meadow that he became Broadway's favorite leading man of the 40s and 50s.

The sound quality is superb -- on one song, that is. "People Will Say We're in Love" sounds as fresh as if it were recorded yesterday. (Well, in 1960, maybe.) Drake and Joan Roberts are clear and precise, and the track is a joy to hear. The rest of the album... well, we get few of the instrumental colors that can be heard on the Carousel remaster. As with the 1993 release, the album combines the twelve tracks released in 1943 with three less familiar songs released as "Volume Two" in 1944. An alternate version of "Pore Jud Is Daid," including dialogue within the song, making it much more flavorful than the familiar "Jud" track, is a welcome addition.

THE KING AND I (Decca Broadway 012 157 982-2)

The King and I is the "newest" of the three R&H shows under discussion, having opened in 1951. In some ways, though, the cast album has always sounded older than the others. There's a certain tinny feeling to the recording that can't be explained by its age, a squareness in the playing which can't be mastered out of the remaster.

Gertrude Lawrence, who optioned the property for herself and brought it to R&H, was by all accounts magical on stage. This never came through on records or film, though, and her performance here is kind of cramped. Yul Brynner is his now-familiar self but barely present, with "A Puzzlement" and the last thirty seconds of "Shall We Dance." The supporting singers -- Doretta Morrow and Larry Douglas as the star-crossed lovers, Dorothy Sarnoff as the head wife -- are all much clearer and distinct than I remember them from previous releases of this album. Douglas, especially, displays far more character than I've noticed before. Whenever I listen to this score, though, I wonder: does anyone have as much trouble with "I Have Dreamed" as I do? I like the song, mind you, a pretty pop tune with a driving melody. But here you have a young woman forced into -- face it -- sexual slavery, secretly meeting a man from back home who's liable to be killed at any minute. (In fact, he goes to his dressing room after the song and never returns.) And what do they sing? A pretty pop tune, the sort of emotions two college kids might have expressed to each other back in the days before frequent flyer miles and ten-cents-a-minute long distance. While other musical theatre writers of the era did this sort of thing all too routinely, it seems mighty insensitive for Rodgers and especially Hammerstein. Certainly, they didn't give Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan nor Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque any such generic material. Tuptim elsewhere sings about her "tap'ring limb" - she's just out of Burma -- and you wonder how Hammerstein let that get by. End of observation.

While Decca has not bothered to alter the booklets -- all three of these releases reprint Max Preeo's informative notes from 1993 -- someone has seen fit to promote Yul Brynner to star billing, placing him over Gertrude Lawrence, albeit only on the disc itself (in the booklet and on the packaging he takes his accustomed place beneath the title in small type). Maybe they thought Brynner would help sell copies, but the change is invisible until you take the CD out of the jewel case. Lawrence, as she lay dying, reportedly requested that Rodgers & Hammerstein move Brynner's name above the title of the still-running show. She felt he had earned it - but she did not suggest changing it while she was still up their in the spotlight. This won't matter much to anyone, but then, why do it?

-- Steven Suskin, author of the new Third Edition of "Show Tunes" (from Oxford University Press) and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left-hand side of the screen. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com