Golden Age Broadway Musicals On Record

Equipment report
Golden Age Broadway Musicals On Record

When Rodgers and Hammerstein, now acting strictly as producers, decided to produce Annie Get Your Gun (1946/1966), they hired Jerome Kern to write the music, but when Kern suddenly died at the end of 1945, the job fell to Irving Berlin. This was an unusual choice as Berlin, who was famous as a songwriter par excellence, was not known for his book musicals, having composed mostly for revues and Hollywood films. The result was a show with more hit songs per square inch than any other and sent audiences from the theater happily humming the tunes of “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “I Got Lost in His Arms,” “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” and the ultimate Broadway anthem, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The show would also be one of star Ethel Merman’s biggest successes and she achieved the highly unusual feat of starring in her own revival twenty years after the original production.

Although the 1946 original cast recording (on Decca) is indispensible, capturing the great star at her peak and in fresh voice (as well as the later deleted song for the soubrettes, the delightful and bouncy “Who Do You Love, I Hope?”) the selections are quite truncated and the sound, despite sounding better than a transfer from 78s has a right to, is mono. So we turn to the 1966 Lincoln Center revival (RCA) that transferred to Broadway. Robert Russell Bennett updated his orchestrations from the original and Berlin even contributed his final published composition, “An Old Fashioned Wedding.” This recording finds Merman in still-amazing voice, belting out almost the entire score herself in her inimitable style. She’s aided by a particularly strong supporting cast, including Bruce Yarnell as Frank Butler and Jerry Orbach as Charlie Davenport. But it’s the Merm’s show all the way and she perfectly captures the sly humor in “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” and “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” and is surprisingly moving in “They Say It’s Wonderful.” The great overture (not on the 1946 album) is a plus, as is the huge orchestra and wonderful stereo sound.

One would think that the shows of such seminal writers such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, whom some contend invented modern musical theater, would be well-served by recordings. But one would be wrong. As important as the Decca recordings of Oklahoma! and Carousel are (and everyone should own them) they can in no way be called “definitive.” For good stereo recordings of these seminal works, there are the cast recordings of the 1979 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! (RCA, conducted by 1943’s Jay Blackton who was then 70 years old and sounds like he’s in a hurry), and the cast album of the 1965 Lincoln Center production of Carousel (RCA, with its original 1945 lead, John Raitt).

Although many cuts and changes were made to accommodate playing time on the original release of South Pacific (1949), this is one of the first recordings we think of when we think of what original Broadway cast albums are, for here we have definitive performances that have never been bettered by its two stars, Mary Martin as naïve nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush and opera singer Ezio Pinza as French planter-with-a-past Emile de Becque. Their passion practically jumps off the recording and even though they almost never sing at the same time (it’s been said that Martin was worried about being compared to the operatically trained Pinza) this mismatched couple clutching each other while World War II rages around them makes the audience want the pair to be together. A strong supporting cast rounds out a magnificent recording. William Tabbert’s passionate “Younger Than Springtime” has never been equaled, nor has Juanita Hall’s transfixing “Bali Ha’i.”

South Pacific was recorded on both acetate discs and magnetic tape. The tapes were somehow not released on CD until 1988. That CD (Columbia 32604) is well worth seeking out. Besides being an important document, the atmosphere and ambiance of the sound is quite different from the familiar releases of the 78 sides. For a more complete recording in excellent sound, get the recent Lincoln Center Broadway revival from 2008 (Sony). This deluxe production features a large orchestra and includes the complete overture. Paulo Szot makes a sexy Emile and Kelli O’Hara, if lacking the quirkiness of the old-time Broadway divas, brings a grounded simplicity and wonder to Nellie. It still seems amazing that this was the very first Broadway revival of South Pacific.

Broadway Musicals from the Fifties
Along with Irving Berlin and Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser is one of the few Broadway composers to write his own lyrics. His Guys and Dolls (1950) is that rare musical that has both a perfect book (by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling) and score, Loesser’s lyrics flawlessly expressing the “Noo Yawk” gangster patois of the Damon Runyon stories on which the show is based. Although absent the overture and any dance music, the original Broadway cast album (Decca) is still the best representation of the show with the latest release remastered in clear mono sound and with the addition of bonus tracks from the soundtrack of the overblown 1955 film version that featured an enthusiastic Marlon Brando warbling “I’ll Know” with Jean Simmons. The hard-to-beat original Broadway cast features Robert Alda (Alan’s father) and Isabel Bigley as romantic leads Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown. Alda’s sonorous baritone makes you realize how wonderful classics such as “I’ll Know,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Luck Be a Lady” must have sounded when they were new. Bigley’s soprano is more subdued, but her rendition of “If I Were a Bell” perfectly captures the intoxication of suddenly finding oneself in love. Other highlights include the hilarious “Adalaide’s Lament” performed by the irreplaceable Vivian Blaine (the only Broadway lead to make it into the film) and the rouser “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” belted to the skies by the great Stubby Kaye.

After Guys and Dolls, Loesser would go on to write his magnum opus, The Most Happy Fella (1956), given a deluxe, virtually complete 3-LP recording (now on two CDs) produced by Lieberson (Sony), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961), recorded in wide-separation stereo (RCA).

The great musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence brought the idea of musicalizing Margaret Landon’s 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam, the true story of a British schoolteacher becoming governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s, to Rodgers and Hammerstein. The King and I would become the team’s 1951 follow-up to South Pacific and would be Lawrence’s final show (she died while the original production was still running).

In a bit of casting thought to be unusual at the time, the role of the king went to newcomer Yul Brynner, who would go on to star in several revivals and tours and break all sorts of records, performing the role of the King over 4000 times.