Picks and Pans Review: American Musical Theater

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Various artists

The 81 tracks in this exemplary collection cover a representative sample of American musicals from 1898 to 1964, and most of the tracks are original cast recordings or versions by original cast members.

Within their basic goal of reflecting "the significant trends, authors and performers in the medium" producers Dwight Blocker Bowers and Margaret Robinson get in one selection from just about all of the most famous musicals of the period with a few wild cards thrown in. (Jack Towers was mastering engineer.) They pleasingly mix obvious and familiar tunes with the surprising and relatively unknown. The tracks range from Eddie Cantor's still-recognizable version of "Makin' Whoopee" and Barbra Streisand's "People" to Clifton Webb singing "Easter Parade" and Shirley Booth's "He Had Refinement." Among the most frequently featured vocalists is—who's complaining?—Mary Martin, whose five songs include "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," an especially lovely "Speak Low," "A Wonderful Guy," "I've Gotta Crow" and "Do Re Mi." Ethel Merman appears five times too (once as part of a quartet) and Fred Astaire and Gertrude Lawrence three.

Despite the lack of context, the songs are very listenable in this form. Then again, in what form wouldn't it be fun to hear Ethel Waters's "Taking a Chance on Love" or Sydney Chaplin and Judy Holliday's "Just in Time"? And with the exception of a few of the earliest tunes ("You Made Me Love You" by Al Jolson among them) the sound quality is exceptional.

There are plenty of arguments to be made, of course. Why "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady and not "I Could Have Danced All Night" or why "76 Trombones" from The Music Man and not "Till There Was You"? Why omit entirely such noted shows as Little Me or Flower Drum Song and why not include more sleepers such as Early to Bed, Tenderloin or 110 in the Shade? Not enough room, you say, Mr. Bowers and Ms. Robinson? Only one solution to that: Do another collection, and do it fast. (The Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, on four compact discs, six records or four audio cassettes; 800-678-2677)

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