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A Bizarre Best

Angel Records' The Best of Broadway defines the word ''Broadway'' loosely -- not to mention the word ''best.'' logo

Broadway musical compilation CDs tend to be frustrating. Reluctant to pay extra licensing fees, companies that release these discs tend only to include material to which they already own the rights. Since cast albums of the great Broadway shows were variously recorded by a number of different labels--most notably Columbia, RCA, Decca, and Capitol--it's almost impossible for any one label to offer a thorough survey of shows and performances. That said, Angel Records' new CD The Best of Broadway ranks as one of the oddest collections of musical theater songs ever issued.

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, this disc isn't remotely cohesive in terms of its sources. Nor does it hold together stylistically: Terrific songs from the golden age of the American musical theater (i.e., the 1920s through the '60s) make up most of the album, but the later, Eurotrashy Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera are also represented. The CD further includes a performance of South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening" by the operatic bass Samuel Ramey, plus "Music of the Night" from Phantom and "Bring Him Home" from Les Miz as delivered by baritone Thomas Hampson. These last two cuts are drawn from a Hampson solo album released by Angel that has almost exactly the same title as this compilation, Best of Broadway. The Hampson CD is also the source of another song included on the new compilation disc: "If I Can't Love Her," from the superfluous stage adaptation of Disney's wonderful animated feature Beauty and the Beast.

If the criteria for deciding what would appear on this album are hard to discern, it must be said that many of the individual tracks are thoroughly enjoyable on their own terms. Odd as it may seem to include recordings from the films Oklahoma! and The King and I on a "Best of Broadway" CD, it can certainly be argued that Rodgers and Hammerstein's songs are more enjoyably rendered on those soundtracks than on the corresponding original Broadway cast albums of the three shows. Not only is the quality of the sound vastly superior, the orchestrations are richer -- and, in many cases, the singing is better. Gordon Mac Rae and Shirley Jones might have been born to play Curley and Laurey in Oklahoma!, and Marni Nixon, the vocal double for Deborah Kerr in the King and I movie, sings "Shall We Dance?" far more beautifully than Gertrude Lawrence does on Decca's 1951 cast recording.

Less defensible is the inclusion of Topol's "If I Were a Rich Man" as heard in the film version of Bock and Harnick's Fiddler on the Roof. If Angel couldn't or wouldn't license the performance of Zero Mostel (the first Tevye) from RCA, they might at least have gone for the Topol rendition heard on Columbia's original London cast album. Though the Fiddler film is fine on the whole, the soundtrack versions of the songs are not fully satisfying as pure listening experiences.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the CD is the mislabeling of its final cut, "You'll Never Walk Alone." Though the notes and the track list tell us that this performance is by "Shirley Jones and the Film Cast," that's dead wrong. I don't know who's singing but it ain't Shirley Jones, and this cut was definitely not taken from the soundtrack of the film of Carousel. (Maybe it's Shirley Verrett from Angel's cast album of the 1994 Broadway revival?)

The revivals aurally sampled -- and correctly labeled! -- on The Best of Broadway are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Nathan Lane and Annie Get Your Gun with Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat. The sole selection from a studio cast album is well chosen: Bruce Hubbard's heartfelt reading of "Ol' Man River" from John McGlinn's complete Show Boat.

If only from a standpoint of authenticity, many listeners will be partial to the five cuts on the disc that were culled from original Broadway cast recordings (hereafter, "OBCR"s). Though Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence were not the most vocally gifted artists ever to essay the roles of Tony and Maria in West Side Story, their performance of the gorgeous "Tonight" duet from that show is winning, and Kert is equally persuasive as he rhapsodizes over "Maria." Robert Preston was such a definitive presence as Harold Hill in The Music Man, both on stage and on film, that Craig Bierko shamelessly imitated his vocal and physical mannerisms in the recent Broadway revival; that revival was recorded, but The Best of Broadway wisely offers Preston's rendition of "Seventy-Six Trombones" from the original 1957 cast album, and Preston may also be heard duetting with Barbara Cook in the last few measures of "Till There Was You." Finally, aficionados of a certain age may appreciate the inclusion of the title song from The Sound of Music as sung by Mary Martin on the OBCR, rather than Julie Andrews' much more familiar--and much different--recording for the perennially popular film version.

Some years ago, Angel began issuing on CD many recordings that first appeared as Capitol LPs--hence the presence here of excerpts from the Rodgers and Hammerstein film soundtracks and the OBCR of The Music Man. But the West Side Story and Sound of Music selections at hand are drawn from Columbia albums now owned by Sony. One wonders why Angel went outside of its own backyard for these three cuts and then chose not to go further. This is just one of several mysteries surrounding a strange CD of which it can be said that the whole is less than the high quality of some of its parts.

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