Once again, the Decca original cast album sounds rushed, is truncated, and features Lawrence’s infamous approximation of pitch. It would take until the 1977 Broadway revival starring Brynner and Constance Towers for The King and I to get its definitive recording. But what a recording it is! Produced in superb sound by Thomas Z. Shepard with meticulous attention to detail and tempo by conductor Milton Rosenstock, yet maintaining a strong theatrical feel, this is one of the best cast albums ever. Brynner gets the chance to preserve complete performances of all of his numbers, Towers shines in the wistful “Hello, Young Lovers,” the charming “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” and gets to show her backbone in the angry “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” With a strong secondary couple, the tragic Lun Tha and Tuptim (Martin Vidnovic and June Angela, the latter sounding as if no note is too high) and enough dialogue to enhance the drama but not bore, this is hard to beat. Although the famous ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is not included, there is much recorded here for the first time, including the often cut “Western People Funny.”
The “Musical Arabian Night” Kismet (Sony), adapted by Robert Wright and George Forrest in 1953 using melodies by Alexander Borodin, never fails to delight. We finally get to hear the wonderful Alfred Drake (the original Curly from Oklahoma!) in decent, if mono, sound. Doretta Morrow (the original King and I Tuptim) shines in the standards “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “And This Is My Beloved.” Joan Diener (later the original Aldonza in Man of La Mancha) heroically belts out “Not Since Nineveh” with its Eydie Gormé climax. Also from La Mancha and due to become a huge Broadway star is Richard Kiley, surprisingly strong in the ultra-romantic duet with Morrow, “Stranger in Paradise.” There have been other more complete recordings, but this Goddard Lieberson-produced is the most exciting and theatrical.
The original cast album (Columbia/ Sony) of My Fair Lady (1956) is not only one of the biggest-selling cast recordings of one of the biggest hits (the original ran over 2700 performances) of all time, but also one of the best, completely capturing the magic of this wonderful musical. Having no love story and using the seemingly impossible-to-musicalize George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, composer Frederick Loewe and librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner solved the problem not by turning Pygmalion into a musical but by inserting a musical into Pygmalion, retaining large portions of Shaw’s dialogue in the libretto, with a leading character, linguist Henry Higgins, whose role involves “speak-singing” more than actual singing. Yet this show also contains one of the most demanding singing roles ever in the transformation of “guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle into a “lady.” Leads Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews are perfect here, and though the show was later re-recorded in stereo with Harrison and Andrews and the original London cast, the first recording remains the best, in spite of Lieberson’s usual tampering with endings and tempos.
After going to Hollywood to write the score for Gigi (1958), which would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Lerner and Loewe returned to Broadway for 1960’s Camelot, a tale of King Arthur and the Round Table based on The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Once again, we have a male leading character not known for his singing ability, in this case Richard Burton as King Arthur, and once again we have the sweet-voiced Julie Andrews as his foil, Guenevere. Arthur’s rival for Guenevere’s affections is none other than newcomer Robert Goulet as Lancelot, whose single release of the show’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” launched his recording career. The wonderful cast album obscures the longeurs of Lerner’s libretto and is unique in offering not one, but two songs that were cut while the show was running!
A true landmark in every sense of the word, West Side Story (1957), with its book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by newcomer Stephen Sondheim, and direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, is also a landmark recording in Columbia’s early yet vibrant stereo sound. The exuberantly youthful cast has never been bettered and the recording has tremendous energy. Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence fully convey their discovery of newfound love in the “balcony scene” using nothing but their voices. Chita Rivera makes an earthy Anita and you can practically see her swishing her skirt as she belts out “America.”
But WSS lost the Tony Award that year to The Music Man, a classic this-shouldn’t-work-but-it-does show with book, music, and lyrics by Meredith Wilson. Wilson wanted to depict small-town life in Iowa as he remembered it (he even briefly played in John Philip Sousa’s band!) and he created a unique musical with its own language. Extremely difficult to stage with its many locations and lavish period costumes, The Music Man has rarely been revived (although always a high school and summer stock mainstay). But no matter, for here we have Robert Preston as the conniving “Professor” Harold Hill (another speak-singing leading character) dazzling the townspeople of River City with “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones” as well as the insouciant “Marian the Librarian” and a surprisingly tender “Till There Was You.” His foil is the spectacular Barbara Cook as Marian, suspicious at first but finally succumbing. Her clear soprano in “My White Knight” is one of the highlights of the entire era. Add to this a full-throated chorus and even a barbershop quartet and you have one of the most entertaining show albums ever produced. The original stereo LP (Capitol) came with a warning that voices would move between the speakers. The first CD release of the show (Capitol 46633) retains this mix, which is fascinating to hear. Lie on the floor with your head between the speakers and recall how excited you were when you first heard stereo sound! In 1992, the recording was remixed with better sound and the voices centered (Angel 64663). Thankfully both retain the performances of the leads, with the young Barbara Cook singing like no one else.
After the success of their only “musical comedy” Flower Drum Song (1958), Rodgers and Hammerstein returned to the musical play with The Sound of Music (1959), OCR on Sony. It would become their last, as Oscar Hammerstein died soon after the show opened (his final lyric would be “Edelweiss”). It became one of the biggest successes of all involved and was, of course, made into the extremely popular film in 1965.
Based on the memoirs of “ecdysiast” Gypsy Rose Lee, a more proper name might have been Rose, for Gypsy (1959) is actually the story of Gypsy’s “stage mother,” Rose Hovick, and her desire for her two girls to succeed in show business. This was Ethel Merman’s triumphant return to Broadway after her one and only out-and-out flop in 1956, Happy Hunting. Herbie is none other than Jack Klugman in a rare musical appearance. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (to Jule Styne’s music) are among his best, wittily conveying character while propelling the plot forward. Although Merman wasn’t always well served by the recording industry, this can’t be said about Gypsy. The entire company performs the cast recording (Columbia/Sony) with electrifying verve, and the dazzling orchestra evokes venues from cheap vaudeville houses to lavish Broadway theaters. It grabs you from the beginning of the overture and holds you until the very (altered by Goddard Lieberson) end. This is one of those irreplaceable recordings in which everything comes together, the singers, the orchestra, and the orchestrations all contributing to one of the most exciting cast albums ever made.
Roger Grodsky is Professor of Musical Theater at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He’s conducted many shows and participated in performances, PBS broadcasts, and recordings (on Telarc) of the Cincinnati Pops. He’s also worked with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization on restoring classic shows by Rodgers and Hart.