Decca had the early lead; until Goddard Lieberson came along, that is. Lieberson's Columbia engaged in a seesaw battle with Decca for a few years, grabbing hits like Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific against Decca's Guys and Dolls and The King and I. But Lieberson prevailed, in part because Columbia's corporate parent was willing to finance shows in exchange recording rights. My Fair Lady is the best example, perhaps; Columbia got an enormous payback, both from record sales and as a backer.
Lieberson monopolized the field through the 1950s, seemingly grabbing the cast album rights for any show he wanted. The only major bestseller that got away, off the top of my head, was the unexpected superhit The Music Man (which went to Capitol). As the 1960s began, Columbia was still thriving, with titles like The Sound of Music and Camelot. But RCA — which had been a constant presence since issuing Brigadoon in 1947 — suddenly managed to spring ahead. If Columbia still recorded what might arguably be called the classiest musicals, RCA came up with four of the best-selling Broadway cast albums of the 1960s. RCA/BMG has now brought us what they term Broadway Deluxe Collector's Editions of the first three. (The fourth, Hair, received a satisfactory remastering in 1988 and is less in need of overhaul.)
OLIVER! [RCAVictor 82876-51432]
Producer David Merrick knew what he had when he picked up Lionel Bart's 1960 West End hit Oliver!: a smashingly surefire family show. (This despite an oversimplification of the source material, and a slight tendency to lag in places.) The producer had a leg up on getting the rights from London producer Donald Albery; Merrick just then had Albery's Irma la Douce and Taste of Honey on Broadway, turning tidy profits. (By the time Oliver! closed, Merrick and Albery were hurling threatening epistles over the Atlantic.)
Most musicals of the time played two or three tryout stops, to allow work on the show and hopefully make some money in the process. But why rush in to town with a surefire money maker? Oliver!'s London reputation enabled Merrick to book the lucrative Los Angeles-San Francisco Civic Light Opera circuit, with its substantial guarantees; he then arranged stops in Detroit and Toronto before heading to Broadway. Merrick was to follow this strategy with other anticipated blockbusters, although with little success. Roar of the Greasepaint made enough in California to turn an overall profit, despite a poor showing on Broadway; Pickwick, The Happy Time, Mack & Mabel and The Baker's Wife spent their tryouts spending time, energy and money on expensive fixings that never fixed the problems.
Thanks to the tryout, Oliver! arrived at Broadway's Imperial Theatre on January 6, 1963, having already paid back its investment; its cast album, recorded in Hollywood in August, was already on the charts. Oliver! enjoyed a run of 774 performances, with the touring company returning in 1965 for an additional eight weeks at the Beck (Hirschfeld, to you). A 1984 re-creation of the original production, starring Ron Moody — who created Fagin in London and on the screen — and Patti LuPone, was a flop at the Hellinger for 17 performances. We're likely to see another Oliver! in the near future, from the Cameron Mackintosh showshop, and I expect Broadway audiences will prove more than ready. RCA wisely grabbed the cast album rights of the first Broadway Oliver!, although not unreasonably so; they had recorded five of Merrick's twelve musicals thus far (including his first, Fanny). Oliver! was smashingly successful for RCA, apparently their most successful cast album at the time. More importantly, it cemented the relationship with Merrick; they would issue his next eight recorded musicals.
BMG has rounded out the original LP with four additional selections. Three come from the original London cast album (issued on CD in 2002 by Decca Broadway [422 820 590]). Two tracks feature Moody's Fagin. The third, "That's Your Funeral," was not included on the Broadway album; while not much of a song, it has curiosity value in that it is led by Barry Humphries. (Humphries performed the role of undertaker Sowerberry in London and New York, eventually playing Fagin in London.) There is also a live rendition of "As Long As He Needs Me" by LuPone. Speaking of "As Long As He Needs Me," the CD includes a photo of Georgia Brown recording the song, incongruously attired in a flowered sundress with bare feet.
Finally, there is an extended interview with musical director Don Pippin, who won a best conductor Tony Award for the show. This is interesting stuff, with Pippin discussing the kids and the mothers and explaining how the show was reorchestrated for Broadway. Not the sort of thing you'll want to hear every time you put on the CD, but a worthwhile bonus.
HELLO, DOLLY! [RCAVictor 82876-51431]
If Oliver! was a substantial hit and massive LP seller, Hello, Dolly! was an outright blockbuster in both categories. The liner notes tell us that the cast album sold 80,000 copies — in the first week of release! For comparison sake, a recent Tony Award-winning musical that shall go unnamed has only just hit the 50,000 mark after a full year.
So much has been written about Dolly! over the years that it seems unnecessary to go over it all once more. Yes, the tryout of this musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker received poor reviews in Detroit; yes, changes were made by several hands; and yes, by the time they reached the National Theatre in Washington, the show was irrepressible.
Listening to the score today, it is hard to gauge the show's impact in 1964. This was one of the most colorful, dancingest musicals ever; thanks to Gower Champion's wizardry, even the scenery seemed to dance! (Oliver Smith designed the sets, but assistant designer Robin Wagner — the man who was to pioneer choreographed scenic moves in his musicals with Michael Bennett — was at the drafting table.)
Most extraordinary was the star performance. We are all long-familiar with Carol Channing's Dolly; she has been playing it, again and again, ever since. But the overly-familiar persona is one thing. In 1964, this powerhouse was dynamic and startling. Channing batted her oversized lashes and audiences batted their eyes in amazement; here was a cartoon come to life, charging out at the audience — literally so, on the ramp circling the orchestra pit — and you were too busy laughing to duck.
Dolly! was quite something in its early days on 44th Street, generating the same outsized media circus as fellow St. James tenants Oklahoma! and The Producers. It ran on and on and on; Merrick had the ingenious idea of reimagining the production four years in, with Pearl Bailey in the lead. This resulted in a second birth; Dolly! — in the hands of Champion's assistant Lucia Victor — was suddenly glowing and crowing once more. And so was the box office.
As the show inevitably wound down, Merrick brought in Ethel Merman. Why not? This gave Dolly! a bit of a boost, publicity-wise, and offered Broadway audiences one last chance to see Merman. But it was a tired show, without the dazzle of Carol or the exuberance of Pearl. As bonus material, BMG has given us a taste of three other Dollys. Mary Martin, who headed the international company, is heard on two tracks from the 1965 London cast album. Pearlie Mae is present, too, with two selections from the 1967 recording. (As far as I can recall, this was the first of only two occasions when a Broadway production issued bonafide cast albums with totally different sets of stars.)
And then there's Ethel. Composer Jerry Herman reinstated two cut songs for her, which Merman recorded (with two pianos and a bass) on a 45. "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window" are curiosities, certainly, but I don't suppose anyone would put them on a list of the Best of Jerry Herman. Ethel's spoken sections in the latter — "Oh Efff-rum, let me go; it's been long enough, Efff-rum" — give an idea of her line readings.
These last two tracks were included on the fascinating "Mermania" [Harbinger HCD1711]. Mary's cast album hasn't made it to CD yet, and Pearl's [RCAVictor 1147-2-RG] is long out-of-print; so these selections will be of special interest to their fans. As with the other discs in the Broadway Deluxe Collectors' Edition, BMG went into the studio to interview one of the original participants. In this case, we have a somewhat rambling ten-minute interview with Carol that is quite something. Really.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF[RCAVictor 82876-51430]
Fiddler on the Roof followed Hello, Dolly! by eight months — to Detroit, to Washington, to Broadway and into the record books as the longest-running musical in history (at the time). The similarities between the two very-dissimilar shows don't end there; both had severe tryout troubles, with particularly disheartening receptions at their Fisher Theatre premieres. (The latter portion of Fiddler was almost totally revamped on the road; all but one of the songs used in the second act at the Detroit opening were gone by the time the show hit Broadway.)
In other matters, the shows couldn't have been more different. Yes, both were crowd pleasers and immediate box-office bonanzas; but one was prime musical comedy entertainment, while the other was pure art. One was traditional, one pointed forward to the musical of tomorrow. One was Gower, one was Robbins; one was Merrick, one was Prince. Yes, you could have seen the original cast on the very same Saturday, warming up Friday night with Barbra Streisand's Funny Girl. (I suppose that some out-of-town visitors with connections might have done so, if you can imagine.) But Fiddler and Dolly! provide very different associations.
Little need be said about the shows at this late date; readers of this column are no doubt intimately familiar with them both. As for the new CDs, the state-of-the-art remastering has resulted in sound that is far superior than previously; Oliver!, which always sounded especially tinny, is markedly improved.
All three discs are presented in handsome gatefold booklets. Oliver! and Dolly! are accompanied by Bill Rosenfield's informative and entertaining notes from their prior CD releases. (The first Fiddler CD reprinted the spare liner notes from 1964; a new set has been written for the deluxe collector's edition by myself.) Bonus tracks on the new Fiddler include three songs from the 92nd Street Y's Evening with Sheldon Harnick [DRG 5174], one of which is that marvelous Tevye song "When Messiah Comes," which stubbornly refused to work in Detroit. The disc ends with a 12-minute interview with Sheldon.
Many of Broadway's so-called golden musicals have received multiple remasterings — some have appeared in as many as four editions — leading to the familiar refrain: Yes, I'm sure it sounds better, but do I really have to buy another CD of this show? In these three cases, the answer is yes; if you enjoy these scores, certainly get the new CDs.
—Steven Suskin, author of the new "Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.