Though it surely wasn't intentional, the latest cast album CD reissues from Sony Classical/Columbia/Legacy fully span the range of quality from one end to the other. The original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady is justly regarded as exemplary and essential, whereas the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris has--to put it kindly--limited appeal.
There's not much to say about the My Fair Lady album that hasn't already been said. By my count, this is the third CD incarnation of the recording--but it sounds better than ever, so who's complaining? Suffice it to say that Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, Stanley Holloway, and their colleagues perform the magnificent Lerner & Loewe score with more talent, skill, enthusiasm, and aplomb than mere mortals can normally muster. Aside from marginally improved sound, this latest edition of the classic 1956 recording is recommendable for some highly entertaining notes by Dick Scanlan, lyricist and co-author of the stage adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie (and, I might add, a one-time member of the Julie Andrews Fan Club). "You can hear in the vocal performances a giddy sort of shock at the enormity of the show's success," Scanlan writes of the album. "The singers have yet to perform their songs for more than a few dozen audiences, and the sense of newness, of discovery, of triumph, is infectious. These are first-rate theatre artists at the top of their game, but even so, you can almost hear them asking themselves, 'Is this really happening? Am I really starring in the biggest hit of all time?'"
Though Columbia assembled a solid lineup headed by John Raitt, Florence Henderson, and Phyllis Newman for its 1964 studio cast recording of Oklahoma!, the album is marred by unpersuasive new orchestrations by Philip J. Lang, who did far better work as the original orchestrator of many other wonderful shows (including Hello, Dolly!). One might ask why anyone felt it necessary to replace Robert Russell Bennett's landmark orchestrations in the first place; because of Lang's self-conscious attempt to avoid aping Bennett, his work tends to sound gimmicky and/or non-theatrical. That's a pity, for Raitt and Henderson are fine as Curly and Laurey--though Raitt was already a bit past his prime--and Newman's sopranoish Ado Annie is an intriguing departure from the overtly comic interpretations of this role that we've more often heard since Oklahoma! knocked Broadway on its ear in 1943.
A show of more recent vintage, Barnum--with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and a book by Mark Bramble--yielded a cast album that is very enjoyable despite the fact that neither of the stars, Jim Dale nor Glenn Close, can sing all that well. The eclectic score remains a winner, with such songs as "The Colors of My Life," "I Like Your Style," and "The Museum Song" among my personal favorites. Included are notes by Coleman and Dale, and four bonus tracks performed by Coleman and Stewart.
So as not to end this roundup on a low note, I've saved one of the best for last. L'il Abner, a delightful show with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Gene de Paul, and a book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, is not as well known as it should be. Its dearth of revivals is undoubtedly due to (1) the fact that the Al Capp comic strip which served as the basis for the musical is long gone from America's newspapers, and (2) the perception that the show's Cold War-era political humor is hopelessly dated. But an Encores! presentation a few seasons back, lackluster though it was, proved that L'il Abner still works. And Mercer's lyrics are sheer genius. The original Broadway cast album is an important document in that it preserves the vocal performances of Edith ("Edie") Adams as Daisy Mae and Charlotte Rae as Mammy Yokum, the only leading players who did not repeat their roles in the film version of the musical. (P.S. Though it was rumored that the whole album was recorded in stereo, it turns out that this was only true of two orchestral cuts, the "Overture" and the "Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet." These are included here in stereo and they sound great--though, maddeningly, the left and right channels are reversed, with the strings on the right and the brass on the left. One of the four bonus tracks on the album is a cut from the L'il Abner film soundtrack, which deserves to be released in its entirety, if only because of its super-duper stereophonic sound.)