A major player in the cast album arena since the mid-1940s, RCA Victor has now begun to release "Broadway Deluxe Collector's Editions" of recordings in its catalogue, with its famous dog-and-gramophone logo proudly displayed. Almost simultaneously, the company has issued a CD titled Ultimate Broadway 2, a compilation of cuts from various sources. The good news about the new editions of the original Broadway cast albums of Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oliver! is that (a) they sound better than ever, and (b) they are more than complete, thanks to the inclusion of a wealth of bonus tracks. The not-so-good news is that the gatefold packaging of these discs isn't quite as "deluxe" as one might hope, and there are some significant lapses in the notes contained in the accompanying booklets. As for Ultimate Broadway 2 -- read on!

********************

Sparked by Carol Channing's wonderfully daffy performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi, RCA's 1964 recording of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! has always been notable for its theatrical snap and its excellent sound quality. It remains a delight -- although, for my money, the best statement of this score is the 1967 replacement cast recording starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.

The new edition of the Channing Dolly! is attractively packaged but, alas, that packaging includes not one color photo of the original production. (The booklet that came along with RCA's previous CD release of the album at least has one large, vibrant shot of Channing in the famous red dress that Freddy Wittop designed for the Harmonia Gardens scene.) Among the bonus tracks here are recordings by Ethel Merman (with piano accompaniment) of two songs that were originally written for the show when it was hoped that Merman would star in it. As it turned out, these numbers -- "Love, Look in My Window" and "World, Take Me Back" -- didn't go into Dolly! until 1970, when Merman took over as the leading lady of the final Broadway company. Two of the other bonus tracks, "Before the Parade Passes By" and the title song, are taken from the peerless Bailey-Calloway album.

The final two bonus tracks, "I Put My Hand In" and "So Long Dearie," are culled from the original London cast recording starring Mary Martin. Though it's great to hear these cuts in refurbished sound, one certainly hopes their inclusion here doesn't imply that there are no plans to transfer the complete Martin album to CD.

The CD booklet has notes by RCA's Bill Rosenfield. These are very well written and informative overall but fail to include some pertinent facts -- understandably, perhaps, given the facts in question. First of all, though Rosenfield notes that several songs were cut and others added to Dolly during the show's out-of-town tryout period, he declines to mention that two of the added songs -- "Motherhood" and "Elegance" -- were at least partly the work of Bob Merrill. Nor does Rosenfield tell us that Jerry Herman was sued by the author of the old ditty "Sunflower," who charged that Herman had plagiarized the song's melody for use in the "Hello, Dolly!" number. (Reportedly, Herman paid a significant sum of money to settle that case out of court.)

Another piece in the CD booklet, by series producer Daniel Guss, includes some interesting observations about the bonus tracks but suffers from one egregious error: The main character's name is printed as "Molly Gallagher Levi" in the very first sentence and, to make matters worse, that offending "M" is printed as a huge, bold drop-cap. Of course, these kinds of mistakes can happen to anyone, but the truth is that they're not nearly as unfortunate when they occur in daily, weekly, or monthly publications (which tend to be disposed of quickly) or on websites (which allow for the immediate correction of errors after the fact). It's something else again to have the title character of Hello, Dolly! boldly and dramatically misidentified as "Molly" in a deluxe collector's edition of the cast album that is intended to be kept and cherished by musical theater mavens on a long-term basis.

********************

One of RCA's greatest cast albums commemorates the original production of the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick-Joseph Stein musical Fiddler on the Roof, a true masterpiece of the American musical theater. From all reports, star Zero Mostel was one of those talents whose monstrous egos all too often caused them to indulge in hateful behavior (see also Yul Brynner, Danny Kaye, Buddy Hackett -- and, yes, Pearl Bailey). It's well documented that Mostel became impossible as Fiddler settled into its long run, ad-libbing outrageously and unprofessionally. I've often wondered if his antics were partly responsible for his being passed over for the 1971 film version of Fiddler. At any rate, we can all be thankful that "Z" was on his best behavior for the cast recording -- which, of course, was made just after the show opened.

The rest of the cast is equally marvelous: The late, great Maria Karnilova manages to be simultaneously sharp, funny, and warm as Golde, while Julia Migenes delivers the definitive performance of the beautiful "Far From the Home I Love." Steven Suskin's essay on the history of Fiddler is especially interesting, and I didn't spot any major errors in the CD booklet -- but, again, the lack of color photos is disappointing. Yes, the previous CD edition of this Fiddler has a wonderful color shot of Mostel in one of his Tevye costumes. (I don't mean to harp on the "color photos" thing, but it does seem fair to question their exclusion given that these albums are billed as deluxe collector's editions and are being sold at a list price of $18.98. For an example of how to package such reissues correctly, see Decca Broadway's recent CD release of the flop 1964 musical I Had a Ball, which features several color shots.)

All but one of the new Fiddler's bonus tracks feature lyricist Harnick: He is heard performing "If I Were a Rich Man" and two cut songs from the show, "How Much Richer Could One Man Be?" and "When Messiah Comes," in a 1971 "Lyrics and Lyricists" program at the 92nd Street Y, and he shares stories of the original production in an interview recorded in February 2003. The remaining bonus item is an instrumental version of "If I Were a Rich Man" as performed by the Moscow Virtuosi.

********************

RCA's cast album of Oliver!, which was actually recorded in 1962 in Los Angeles during the show's pre-Broadway tour, is highlighted by the marvelously throaty singing and outsize emoting of Georgia Brown as Nancy. It's interesting to note that this show and Hello, Dolly! had one cast member in common: Alice Playten was Ermengarde in the Herman and Bet in the Bart, though she has no solo vocal moments on the Dolly! recording. The Oliver! kids -- led by Bruce Prochnik in the title role and Michael Goodman as The Artful Dodger -- are game and charming if not great singers, as conductor Donald Pippin points out in a delightful interview that may be found among the disc's bonus tracks. (Before the show opened on Broadway, Goodman was replaced by David Jones, who later went on to fame as one of The Monkees.)

RCA deserves credit for including additional bonus material from the original London cast recording of this British musical, now licensed to Decca Broadway. The first of these selections is "That's Your Funeral," a song that went unrecorded on the RCA album; it's performed by Barry Humphries, now a.k.a. Dame Edna. The other two tracks from the London album showcase the Fagin of Ron Moody, who later played that role in the Oscar-winning 1968 film version of Oliver! Another addition here is Patti LuPone's recording of Nancy's "As Long as He Needs Me," accompanied on piano by John McDaniel, from a 1993 concert in Los Angeles. (LuPone played Nancy opposite Moody in a short-lived 1986 Broadway revival of the show.) Though the voice itself sounds great as always, LuPone is unfortunately at her most mannered in this recording, which probably shouldn't have been released.

Listening to this wonderfully infectious score for the umpteenth time, I was once again struck by the fact that so many of the songs -- e.g., "Oom-Pah-Pah," "I'd Do Anything," "Be Back Soon" -- are generic in the sense that they're not strongly tied to any one character or situation. And one of the songs, "Where is Love?", is a total non-sequitur. If you recall the setup, the pre-pubescent Oliver has been locked in a cellar by the evil Sowerberry clan -- so, of course, he starts to sing about romantic love! ("Where is she who I close my eyes to see? Will I ever know the sweet hello that's meant for only me?") One wonders if "Where is Love?" was a pre-existing Bart number that the composer-lyricist desperately shoved into the show just because he needed a ballad in this slot, however inappropriate its lyrics were to the situation at hand. Or perhaps Bart just sold out in hopes that the song would become a stand-alone hit? Either way, it's a disconcerting lapse in a generally fine musical.

*********************

Ultimate Broadway 2 begins inauspiciously with what is, to my knowledge, the worst performance of the Gypsy overture ever laid down in a recording studio: It's the version that opens the London cast album of the show, starring Angela Lansbury as Rose. Lansbury later came to Broadway with the production, which I was privileged to see. But though the star shone in the part and the show as a whole was strong, at least in New York, the London recording is not a success -- and the overture is a disaster, marred by slow tempi and at least three sour trumpet notes. (I'm not joking. Why didn't they do retakes?!) You might assume that this version is found here because it's the only one in the RCA catalogue, but not so: The company issued a far superior account of the Gypsy overture, with Jack Everly conducting a much larger and better orchestra, on a CD titled Everything's Coming Up Roses: The Overtures of Jule Styne.

There are a number of worthy tracks on Ultimate Broadway 2, among them Audra McDonald's stunning rendition of "Your Daddy's Son" from Ragtime, Hunter Foster and company in the rousing "Run, Freedom, Run" from Urinetown, Patrick Wilson in the lovely "Breeze Off the River" from The Full Monty, and Randy Graff in the gorgeous "Next Best Thing to Love" from A Class Act. But there is also a surfeit of wacked-out choices, none more so than Placido Domingo and Monserrat Caballé singing "O soave fanciulla" from that brand-new hit Broadway musical La Bohème. We also get "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers -- not as heard in the Broadway show but as heard in the 1968 film version!

That's not all, folks. RCA gives us the title song from its 1979 revival cast recording of Oklahoma! but fails to identify any of the singers. (For the record, that's Laurence Guittard as Curly.) Barbara Cook's "Losing My Mind" is heart-stoppingly beautiful, but that song is from Follies, not from Mostly Sondheim as listed here. (You'll have to read Daniel Guss's notes to find that this track was taken not from Cook's Mostly Sondheim recording -- a DRG release -- but from RCA's album of the New York Philharmonic's Follies in Concert.)

In a 2002 "Tunes and Tomes" review, I wrote than an Angel Records compilation titled The Best of Broadway was "a crazy collage of cuts from original cast albums, revival cast albums, studio cast albums, and film soundtracks, with a few recordings by opera singers thrown into the mix." That description applies equally well to RCA's Ultimate Broadway 2. It's hard to imagine the audience for which this disc was intended: Musical theater buffs will likely object to the many strange selections, while the less discriminating general public probably won't be interested in purchasing the CD at all.