When you've got good friends, you've got a good life -- so here I am, replete with CDs that I didn't have before Christmas arrived. They're all original cast album reissues from DRG that I hadn't yet gotten a hold of. In alphabetical order, they are: Ernest in Love, The Happiest Girl in the World, Kean, The Nervous Set, Of Thee I Sing, Oh! Calcutta!, Paris '90, Plain and Fancy, Runaways, and Top Banana.

How are these 10 scores? Terrific. But you know that already, either from reviews you've read when these albums were re-released earlier this year or from listening to their vintage LP versions. So I'd like to review what's in the front section of each jewel box. Alas, DRG apparently doesn't have the financial resources to give us ornate booklets including every lyric heard on each disc. All of these reissues have reissued liner notes, taken verbatim from the original LPs of yore; Kean doesn't have a single word or picture that wasn't on the original Columbia LP.

But there are occasional extras in these packages, and those are what we'll look at here. The Nervous Set sports two new pictures. One shows a long-before-J.R. Larry Hagman while the other that lets us see what super-agent Robert Lantz (who produced this show as well as Kean) looked like circa 1959. Of Thee I Sing does even better, with no new words but three new pictures.

Now on to the profound differences. Ernest in Love's lyricist Anne Croswell -- who did wonderful work on this show, by the way -- starts by quoting what the BBC said soon after this musical version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest opened on May 4, 1960: "It should run for years." Croswell writes that, "Nearly half a century later, it's still running" -- then she specifies "in theaters, churches, tents, and opera houses across the U.S. and abroad." Perhaps, but I've only heard of two productions in the ensuing four decades.

Croswell goes on to say that she discovered the Wilde play on a TV broadcast and then "brashly interviewed 16 knowns and unknowns until I found Lee Pockriss, whose music seemed to have the style and wit to complement Wilde's words." Hmmm, I have to wonder if he played her his composition "(She Wore an) Itsy Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," which most certainly would not have been Exhibit "A" that he could "complement Wilde's words." The notes include an amusing story about what happened when she auditioned Ernest in Love for Charles Laughton; they also serve to remind us that the show's original title was Who's Earnest? and that it took 23 auditions to get it on for $16,000. Croswell doesn't mention (not that she had to) that a show that opened the day before with the same budget did go on to run for years: The Fantasticks. (In fact, it ran for decades.)

Top Banana offers a four-paragraph essay from co-star Rose Marie, best known as Sally on the original Dick Van Dyke Show. ("They offered me $50 more a week to do the tour," she writes, "but I said, 'Shove it, I'm going home.'" Ever the lady!) A poster for the film version is reproduced in the size of a postage stamp (and I don't mean commemorative). "Completely hilarious," it brags at the top -- which, I'm sorry to say, is an outright canard. The movie of Top Banana was filmed right on stage at the Winter Garden but what was given to us was hardly the entire show, so I don't agree with the movie poster's claim, "Biggest Bargain on the Screen!" Still, just like when you go to a museum and see the remnants of a precious statue because that's all that's left, we have to be grateful that some shards of the actual Top Banana stage production are still available to us.

"Runaways," writes composer-lyricist Elizabeth Swados, "has made its mark on contemporary musical theater as well. I'd venture to say that at least two shows -- Sarafina and Rent -- were clearly influenced by the gritty street feel of this musical." Well, perhaps. While I can't speak for the Sarafina team, I knew Jonathan Larson when he was writing Rent, and though he mentioned Hair and Sondheim as profound influences, I never once heard him mention Runaways. Granted, that wouldn't hold up as evidence in court, but I still must wonder at Swados's claim. What she does offer that's somewhat valuable is a whatever-happened-to list of several members (though not all) of her young cast, especially noting the kids who went on to achieve some degree of fame: Diane Lane, Carlo Imperato, Trini Alvarado, and Josie De Guzman.

While the previous CD edition of Plain and Fancy had an interview with Barbara Cook, this package has an updated one. Cook notes that "Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch and I are all connected because of our one-woman shows last season and the Tony nominations we shared, but we are all connected through Plain and Fancy." She tells us that Arthur spelled star Shirl Conway on Broadway and Stritch played the same role in a stock production in Pittsburgh that Cook also graced.

What's most endearing about this booklet is a page replicated from the show's original program. "Intermission Interview" asked a theatergoer, "How many of these hits have you seen?" Checkboxes were helpfully provided for seven musicals (The Boy Friend, Can-Can, Fanny, The Pajama Game, Plain and Fancy, The Saint of Bleecker Street, and Silk Stockings), three dramas (Anastasia, Tea and Sympathy, and The Desperate Hours), and five comedies (Anniversary Waltz, Bus Stop, Comedy in Music, The Flowering Peach, and Lunatics and Lovers -- described as "Sidney Kingsley's gay and impudent farce.")

Paris '90 was the one-woman show in which Cornelia Otis Skinner portrayed some ladies who lived in the French capital during the last decade of the 1890s. The new CD package offers 13 thumbnail pictures of Skinner in various guises, among them a laundress, a lion tamer, a lady of fashion, and a visiting Boston schoolteacher. There's also an interview with Skinner from a 1952 issue of Theatre Arts magazine. My favorite line concerns her daddy, famed performer Otis Skinner, on his trip with her abroad: "Father could barely read French, and he couldn't speak it, but he could make wonderful noises."

The Happiest Girl in the World -- a musical version of Lysistrata -- gives us only a picture of the show's program (with star Cyril Ritchard dressed in battle gear) and a page with eight quotations from the critics. At soon as I saw the one that began "I suppose Cyril Ritchard and Janice Rule could have danced all night," I assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that Walter Kerr wrote it. His style was so wondefully recognizable.

And then there's Oh! Calcutta! -- the nudie revue about which we're all probably the least curious. The CD package sports a four-page essay that Calcutta! contributor Sherman Yellen wrote in 2002, titled "Oh, What a Beautiful Porning." It gives us a timeline of 1969 and mentions, "It's Stephen Sondheim's Company that's offering us a fresh view of urban life" and "Midnight Cowboy becomes the first (and only) X-rated movie to win an Oscar" -- but neither of those things happened until 1970. But Yellen does finally tell us which Calcutta! authors wrote which sketches. Until he spilled the beans, those credits were never made public, suggesting that everyone was (understandably) ashamed of what he did.

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

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]