The cover art for Oh Captain! -- the 1958 cast album of which has just been issued for the first time on CD by DRG -- tells you everything you need to know about the show, and about its era. A curvaceous redhead in a sailor's cap stirs a saucepan, her one-piece apron just barely concealing her booty. Here is a musical comedy with a maritime setting, a simplistic pre-liberation view of women, and, above all, lots of sex -- but a cartoonish, ultimately chaste kind of sex, with no dirty parts really showing. To paraphrase Hairspray: Welcome to the Fifties.

Oh Captain! was a musical version of a 1953 British movie, The Captain's Paradise, which starred Alec Guinness as a bigamist sea captain with a proper English wife in Gibraltar (Celia Johnson) and a sexpot spouse in Tangiers (Yvonne De Carlo). The adaptation, by José Ferrer and radio/TV writer Al Morgan, switched the action to suburban London and Paris, but was in most other respects faithful. Captain Henry St. James (Tony Randall) still divides his affections between long-suffering Maud (Jacquelyn McKeever) and lusty Bobo (Abbe Lane) until Maud wins a trip to Paris, the wives meet up, and all musical comedy hell breaks loose. St. James finally chooses Maud and Bobo pairs up with her husband's shipmate, Manzoni, thus providing the requisite happy ending and upholding the requisite 1950s morality.

Oh Captain! ran only 192 performances, and nobody knows why. It did have plenty of out-of-town headaches: Co-star Xavier Cugat was fired, Edward Platt (later the Chief on Get Smart) was hired, and what other show ever needed eight orchestrators? But the New York reviews were mixed-to-good, the Jay Livingston-Ray Evans score produced one standard ("All the Time"), and the show earned six Tony nominations including Best Musical. (It lost to The Music Man.) Maybe the competition was too stiff: My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Li'l Abner, Damn Yankees, and West Side Story were all playing nearby. Maybe the book wasn't much good: "Abbe Lane," ran one review, "who is more tightly constructed than the plot..." Or maybe this is the sort of play-out-the-season-and-vanish musical that audiences used to take for granted. Whatever the reason, Oh Captain! ran out of headwind by August and has had no major revivals.

But, as set down for Columbia Records by the incomparable Goddard Lieberson, it sure sounds like a hit to me. (DRG's release retains the bright, late-'50s stereo sound and George Dale's original liner notes but adds a few fun facts of its own and several photos.) Oh Captain! was Livingston and Evans's Broadway debut after years of writing successful but twee movie songs like "Que Sera Sera." It's a fine effort by any standard, but for a pair of first-timers it's outstanding. The team wrote only one other complete Broadway score, Let It Ride!, and it isn't nearly as assured.

The booklet contains a synopsis, but you don't need it. The songs are the story -- and they're varied, appropriate to every plot turn, and hummable. From brassy overture to joyous finale, the score is a model of musical comedy efficiency, cleverer and catchier than many '50s musicals that ran far longer. Yes, a couple of numbers are clunkers, with lyrics true to their Playboy era that sometimes sound like they were written by a bunch of high school boys sneaking cigarettes behind the gym. Generally, though, Livingston and Evans apportion bawdiness, sentiment, and characterization in just the right doses. This was a girls-and-gags show, but a smart one with a heart. Consider "You Don't Know Him," where the two Mrs. St. Jameses meet and compare notes about their hubby:

MAUD: He's British as the palace guard...
BOBO: Parisian as a boulevard...
MAUD: As English as a vesper bell...
BOBO: As French as girls au naturelle...
MAUD: He's so shy...
BOBO: He's so strong...
BOTH: She can't be right, or I'd be wrong!

Tony Randall
Tony Randall
This is good writing -- concise, psychologically sound, and infectiously tuneful to boot. Or take "It's Never the Quite the Same," where Maud and Manzoni (Platt, displaying a surprisingly sturdy bass-baritone) sing of unmet expectations to a gentle, persuasive melody. It's one of the rarest things in musicals: a quiet show-stopper. And those are only two of many highlights. "We're Not Children" has Maud almost succumbing to the lecherous advances of a Latin roué (Paul Valentine). "Femininity" has Bobo lamenting how her nubility gets her in trouble ("Other girls have the same these-them-and-those / But they always manage to stay in their clothes!"). And when both wives confront St. James in "Double Standard," an exasperated Maud snarls, "Anywhere you hang your pants is home!"

Randall, singing well enough and sporting a bogus but entertaining British accent, sounds like he's having a swell time. McKeever, who retired shortly after the show closed (her only other major credit is the TV version of Wonderful Town), is warm and winsome. Eileen Rodgers, filling in for Abbe Lane as Bobo (Lane was under contract to another label), has more voice and probably better comic timing. Her in-and-out-of-focus accent only adds to the fun.

All this and Susan Johnson, too. The great Broadway second banana turns up late in Act I, wearing purple hair and, as usual, playing a restaurateur (also her profession in Whoop-Up, Donnybrook!, and Buttrio Square). Instantly, she belts "Give It All You've Got" clear into the bleachers, and she soon returns for an appealing "Morning Music of Monmartre." It sounds like the role, not really crucial to the action, was written for her. Smart move -- if Susan Johnson's available, by all means, get her.

But then, the whole show had an anything-goes, eager-to-please quality. It even had the prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova for a three-minute pas de deux with Randall. (According to him, she used to watch the rest of the show from the wings, captivated.) Brilliantly assembled Oh Captain! may not have been, nor particularly profound. But it's ingratiating and unpretentious and talent-filled, in the best tradition of middle-of-the-road, mid-century musical comedy.