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The Best That Ever Happened to Musicals

November 29, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

We didn't have a phonograph during the war, but my best friend Richard's parents did--a lordly console model that changed those big old 78s automatically. One day, Richard's father came home with an album of songs from a big hit show in New York called "Oklahoma!"

The songs--especially "People Will Say We're in Love" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning"--had already made "Your Hit Parade." But here you had them performed exactly as they were in the show, by the very actors whom one would have to pay up to $7.90 to see in New York--not to mention the hotel bill. This may have been part of Richard's father's thinking.

All that a 10-year-old knew was that these songs didn't sound anything like the ones on the radio. You didn't visualize singers clustered around a microphone. You imagined figures moving around a big, dark, somewhat mythic space--characters whose voices the microphones just happened to pick up.

It was the sound of theater, and there must have been some apprehension at Decca Records as to whether listeners would buy it. There also must have been some anxiety at the Theatre Guild as to whether people would come to see "Oklahoma!" on the stage if they could take home its best numbers and play them over and over again in their living rooms.

FOR THE RECORD - Imperfections
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 6, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Page 115 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Samuel Ramey, not David Rendall, sings the role of Billy Bigelow on the new MCA Classics recording of "Carousel" reviewed by Dan Sullivan last Sunday. Rendall sings the role of Mr. Snow. . . .

These fears were groundless. The original-cast album turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Broadway musical. Rather than keeping people home from a particular show, the cast album acted as an advance man for the show, putting its logo and its songs into every college dorm around the country, particularly after LP records made "albums" so much more packageable.

Indeed, sometimes the album created the show. Columbia's 1952 LP of "Pal Joey"--a musical that had died a dozen years before--sold so well that the show was remounted on Broadway and ran longer than the original.

Ever since the 1940s, it's safe to say that most of us experienced our first Broadway musical on somebody's record player, and that some of us never got over the magic of it. I know people who can give a firsthand account of Merman storming that runway in "Gypsy," notwithstanding the fact that they were living in Canton, Ohio, at the time.

What's interesting is that Merman's Mama Rose is with us yet. This is the only example in theater history where an era of great performances has been well-enough preserved so that a subsequent generation has some idea of what the old-timers are talking about when they start boasting about how great Miss X was in role Y.

Laurette Taylor's performance in "The Glass Menagerie" will forever disappear when the last person who saw it is dead. But, thanks to recordings, Mary Martin's performance in "South Pacific" survives: not all of it, but enough of it so that listeners in 50 years will get a first-hand sense of how delightful she must have been. The first generation of original-cast albums is a legacy of a golden age in the American theater. They will only grow more precious as the years go on.

But the theater moves on, too. Now we are in an era of British musicals, most of them composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is a much less scrupulous musician than our Stephen Sondheim, much less worried about being caught doing something vulgar or stealing from some other composer. Much of Webber's work is frankly vulgar and lifted, besides--the Puccinisms in "Memory," from "Cats," for instance. At the same time, while others were talking about bridging the gap between opera and musicals, Webber was doing something about it. Some of his early shows actually made their first appearance as records--"Evita," for instance, much less impressive in its original British recording than after Hal Prince had actually found a form for the show on stage and brought it to America.

Prince and Webber joined forces again in "The Phantom of the Opera," now running in London and about to open on Broadway. A two-disk cast album has just come out on the Polydor label, in keeping with the trend to include every scrap of a musical on record. "Gems from 'The Phantom of the Opera' " would have done as well. This is not a musical for the ages.

But it does sound like a lot of fun--something like "Sweeney Todd" if Sondheim had been able to take the assignment with a grain of salt. The Phantom's (Michael Crawford) every appearance is marked by a crashing organ blast. Sarah Brightman sings fetchingly as the Phantom's favorite soprano. Webber spoofs the selfishness of opera folk and the dizziness of opera conventions. Add the visual component--that famous crashing chandelier--and you might well be entertained. You might even care.

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