The sonic revelation among the most recent batch of Sony reissues of Broadway cast albums from the Columbia archives is Finian's Rainbow. Recorded in 1947, just before the advent of magnetic audio tape and the vinyl LP, Finian's was originally released on 78s. The first CD issue of the album was drawn from second- or third-generation sources and exhibited severe roll-off of high and low frequencies, not to mention "spurious reverberation" (in the words of reissue producer Thomas Z. Shepard). All of this created the effect of hearing the performances of Ella Logan, Donald Richards, David Wayne, and company through a long, narrow tunnel.
Happily, Sony has gone back to acetate safety recordings from those long-ago sessions in Liederkranz Hall (?!) for the new CD, and the results will make you feel as if you're hearing a classic album for the first time. As if this sonic housecleaning weren't enough reason to rush out and buy the disc, Finian's Rainbow is the only release of the new Sony batch to include material laid down during the original cast sessions but never before issued: You'll find previously edited dance music in "Look to the Rainbow" and full alternate takes of "The Begat" and "That Great Come-and-Get It Day." The last-named track is especially fascinating in that it is led by Richards (who played Woody Mahoney in the show) rather than by Logan (the show's nominal star in the role of Sharon McLonergan, who leads the take of the number which has been included on every version of the album released for the past 50 years).
Two of the other albums reissued by Sony on May 30 are a boon to fans of the great John Raitt: the Original Broadway Cast Recording of The Pajama Game (with Janis Paige, Eddie Foy, Jr., and Carol Haney) and a fine studio cast album of Show Boat (co-starring Barbara Cook and William Warfield). This latest clutch of releases is rounded out by the OBCRs of Kismet (Alfred Drake, Doretta Morrow, Joan Diener) and Bye Bye Birdie (Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Susan Watson). The use of 24-bit technology in the remastering process brings noticeable new clarity to these albums, even if it sometimes reveals imperfections and deterioration of certain sections of the master tapes (e.g., the Kismet overture).
The reissues offer lively, informative notes by Mark Kirkeby, Didier C. Deutsch, and Andrew Vélez, along with some nifty, rare, black-and-white recording session photos; but I do wish Sony would go the extra mile and include color photos of the original productions, where available. The company seems to want to keep costs down, and that's a very good thing: Each of these discs retails for $11.98, which is far less than what we're being asked to pay for Decca Broadway's recent reissues of Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I. But I would argue that almost anyone who'd buy these CDs would be more than willing to pay a dollar or two extra for releases that were as definitive and comprehensive in terms of packaging as they are on the audio front.
One final pet peeve: Though Sony has taken pains to reproduce classic Columbia labels on these CDs, those labels don't necessarily apply to the particular recordings that now sport them; I'm sorry, but The Pajama Game was recorded in mono, not in "Stereo 360 Sound." Such quibbles, of course, should not turn you away from otherwise laudable reissues of some of the greatest musical theater recordings of the 20th century.