Kiss Me, Kate. When three of the first four vocal selections on this Columbia recording turned out to have introductory dialogue, I was surprised. The label's legendary cast album producer, Goddard Lieberson, hated spoken introductions to songs because he believed that people would enjoy them once but not upon repeated playing. He often omitted dialogue in the middle of songs, too, which is really unfortunate in two cases: I miss the lovely patter between Ella and Jeff in "Just in Time" from Bells are Ringing (listen to either the soundtrack or the revival cast album to catch it) and between Arthur and Guenevere in the title song of Camelot. Do you know where Lieberson did include introductory dialogue? Just before Conrad Birdie sings "Honestly Sincere," when Ursula Merkle drools to him, "Speak to us, oh beautiful one. Tell us how you make that glorious sound that even now, in anticipation of it, has reduced me to a snarling, raging, panting, jungle beast." I daresay that Lieberson retained these lines so that mature listeners to "Columbia Masterworks" records would be able to put in context the first rock 'n' roll song on any cast album and understand that it was a spoof. Anyway, I eventually noticed that Kiss Me, Kate and Finian's Rainbow, another Columbia cast album that includes introductory dialogue, weren't produced by Lieberson. His stewardship began with South Pacific, which doesn't have any dialogue.
Mr. Wonderful. How poignant to hear Sammy Davis's opening song, which in the innocent '50s referred to Iran and Iraq when they were just harmless words on a map. During "Charlie Welch," a song that celebrates celebrities, we hear references to the then very-much-alive Sophie Tucker, Helen Hayes, Rudy Vallee, and Marlon Brando. They're all gone now -- as is Davis himself, of course. Chita Rivera, who got her first big break in this show, sings "I'm Available" in such a distinct way that you can tell she'd already found her persona in 1956. And she's still here!
My Fair Lady. I daresay that the most frequent rhyme in Broadway musical history is "life" and "wife." What does this have to do with My Fair Lady? Well, you may recall that there's a song titled "I'm an Ordinary Man" in which Higgins sings, "But let a woman in your life..." yet lyricist Alan Jay Lerner never went for the most obvious rhyme. He compared letting a woman in your life to plunging in a knife and inviting eternal strife, but nary a word about a wife. Good for you, Alan!
New Faces of 1952. This album shows us that the revue opened by having one Ronny Graham come out and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, this has certainly been a season for experiment in theater. The Fourposter got the number of actors down to two. Emlyn Williams cut that in half. Cornelia Otis Skinner held the whole thing at par. I have only to leave this stage in order to break fresh ground. Even a production of Don Juan in Hell seemed to share in this passion for condensation. And so, building on the foundation they have laid -- or rather, removing what they have neglected to eliminate -- we bring what we consider to be the irreducible minimum: one obscure member of Actors' Equity reading a revue. I shall now read New Faces." Well, maybe in 1952 that was considered a funny joke, but last season we more than once did have an obscure member of Actors' Equity reading Trumbo. (By the way, while Graham was reading, the curtain opened and showed 16 other performers ready to entertain. That didn't happen in Trumbo.)
Oh, Kay! Lehman Engel was a wonderful teacher, and the musical theater owes him a great deal. But I can't say that I much like most of the studio recordings of '20s, '30s, and '40s shows that he made in the '50s. There's a pop approach that irks me, only surpassed by the ultimate cast album disgrace: The Reprise Repertory Theatre, with such artists as The McGuire Sisters singing "The Begat" and Bing Crosby doing "Younger Than Springtime" with no attempt at all to play character. Anyway, Engel conducted this album at an extremely slow pace. 6:18 is much too long for "Do, Do, Do." Still, he and the aforementioned Goddard Lieberson did, did, did what no one had ever done, done done before: They gave us most of the score on one disc, and I guess I have to be grateful for that.
Oklahoma! You may know that when this album came out in 1943, Jud Fry's "Lonely Room" wasn't included; it only showed up later, in "Volume Two." Unfortunately, when "Lonely Room" was set to be recorded, original Jud Howard Da Silva wasn't available. For some reason, the decision was made to have Alfred Drake -- the original Curly, who'd already recorded the rest of the album -- do the cut. When you listen to the song after hearing Curly blithely sing about the beautiful mornin' and the surrey with the fringe on top, he suddenly seems to be displaying his dark side.
Pal Joey. Speaking of these Lieberson-Engel albums, I remember the baleful look that I got from Ted Chapin, the head honcho of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization, when we were both on a panel at Goodspeed and I said that these recordings could be ranked at "B" level. Chapin slowly said, "Pal Joey is an 'A,' " and I have to concede that he's right. Anyway, every time I hear this album, I always think of the cover story that Newsweek did on Stephen Sondheim in 1973. In that article, Sondheim was asked his opinions of Broadway lyricists and said that he didn't have as much admiration for Lorenz Hart as he did for some others. He cited a false accent in the show's (delicious) 11 o'clock number, "Take Him": "I know a movie executive who's twice as bright" -- as opposed to "I know a movie executive who's twice as bright," which is the way we'd say it when speaking. The incorrect stress had never bothered me up to that point, but ever since, it always has.
Finally, though these are old mono recordings, they sound substantially better than they did on LP. Which reminded me of Clive Barnes' famous review in The New York Times on the morning of April 5, 1971: "Follies is the kind of musical that should have its original cast album out on 78s." More than 33 1/3 years after that notorious 33 1/3 LP was issued -- and decades since our ears have grown accustomed to unscratchy digital sound -- if we were to listen to that LP now, it would sound to us as if it was, indeed, on 78s!
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]
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