'Show Boat' and a Boatload of Shows from Sony

The company amasses 25 Broadway musicals in one CD box set

The American musical, as an art form, isn't dead, but it mostly isn't on Broadway, which for the first three-fourths of the past century was our principal provider of musical-theater entertainments. Many still mistakenly call the form "the Broadway musical," but that ancient phenomenon, recent attempts suggest, is virtually moribund. Most successful musicals of the past three decades have come to Broadway from elsewhere—from London, from Paris via London, or from Off-Broadway and the now well-established network of U.S. resident theaters that were just starting operations in the 1960s, when Broadway began its long decline as a source of new musicals.

The causes of the Broadway musical's waning were many. American taste in popular music changed, with rap and its coevals superseding rock just as Broadway belatedly absorbed the latter. Meantime, civilized social intercourse, which included theatergoing, was replaced by television, itself now submerged in social media and YouTube. As Broadway struggled to cope with these sweeping cultural changes, it faced simultaneous battles on the economic and sociopolitical fronts, adapting to changing public mores while reshaping its business model to survive in a rapidly altering financial world. Broadway managements rebuilt what had formerly been a moderate-priced specialty craft into a set of competing conglomerates, mass-manufacturing label-based goods at high-profit markups.

The results have matched those in banking, retailing, and other conglomerate activities: Today, Broadway is booming, but its gigantic success makes almost no one except its executive managements happy. At prices that would have given a 1950s ticket broker cardiac arrest, it purveys entertainments that seem increasingly removed from anything you could reasonably call theater. Catering largely to tourist audiences, it annually pumps millions of needed dollars into New York's economy but has lost almost all organic connection to the city's spirit. Tourists may throng there; New Yorkers, more astute, search downtown, for shows that cost less and give more artistic gratification.

And Broadway's fiscal triumph carries its own irony: Two generations ago, most Americans would have considered show music a key element in their cultural lives. Today, for most Americans, even admitting you like show tunes automatically renders you different. What was once a majority form looked down on by highbrows as vulgar has become a high-art form squinted up at, by the mainstream, as pretentious, artsy, cornball, and very probably queer.

Paradoxically, increasing numbers of youngsters ignore this national prejudice, continuing to dream of starring in or creating "a Broadway show." More and more university programs have sprung up across the country, claiming to train them for the task. If you happen to know any such youngsters, and were wondering what to buy them for Christmas, Sony Masterworks has just solved your problem by releasing what amounts to an essential teaching tool: a 25-CD collection of cast recordings, all of major musicals from Broadway's yesteryear. The selection and presentation are open to quibbles, some of which I'll lay out below. And the box is not for aficionados, who will already know most of what's on these discs by heart. But for beginners, this collection will be invaluable, the most vivid kind of aural textbook.

The set even carries its own built-in warning. As if noting the Broadway musical's current comatose state, Sony has named this product Broadway in a Box. To learn what the Broadway musical was in its lifetime, look inside this tidy cardboard coffin. It contains a sizable helping, though by no means all, of what was significant in the Broadway musical between Oklahoma! (1943) and Sweeney Todd (1979).

Those are only approximate perimeters. The contents spill over them to include works created both earlier (1927's Show Boat, 1935's Anything Goes) and later (1987's Into the Woods). But most of the works come from the 20-year period between the late '50s and the late '70s, when the Broadway musical had evolved into its last autumnal glory, just as stereophonic sound was enhancing the marketability of its original-cast albums.

Broadway in a Box contains no mono recordings, which would rule out most productions staged before the late '50s. Its CDs of Oklahoma!, Anything Goes, and Guys and Dolls come from later revivals; those of Show Boat, Carousel, and The King and I date from the late '60s, when Richard Rodgers produced musicals at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater. The latter group offers samples of the high-quality singing, once common on Broadway, by American opera stars who could cross over into show music without trouble—like Patricia Neway, Lee Venora, and William Warfield—while Broadway stars like Barbara Cook, Jerry Orbach, and John Raitt could match them admirably. And Broadway's vocal quality hasn't declined (though its overall musicality has, at the behest of today's tin-eared producers). The set's most recent recording comes from the 2002 revival of Man of La Mancha (1965), a rather glum affair onstage that, with artists like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, sounds silky-smooth on disc.

Many such surprises will crop up for those listening through the whole box. It has puzzling preoccupations—including five Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals seems excessive when there's no Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Cy Coleman, Burton Lane, or Bob Merrill. Even more startling is the comparative absence of African American performers and songwriters, a major force on Broadway since the 1920s. Among the collection's few shows that offer a noticeable black presence are, interestingly, the only two that transferred from Off-Broadway, Hair and A Chorus Line. (These and one London import, 1963's Oliver!, are the only items that did not originate on Broadway, which tells you how greatly things have changed.)

For a deluxe item, retailing at around $100, Broadway in a Box supplies little luxury. Its booklet contains only the barest amount of data. Some discs have intriguing bonus tracks; others, including some that sported extras in earlier CD reissues, have none. Still, the box is a bargain. Its range of works, ideas, sounds, and vocal personalities constitutes an object lesson in the reality of the Broadway musical, which thrived as long as it did because of its inclusiveness, which is why theories about it tend to shrivel when faced with the variegated evidence it left behind. Here is the form that made space for Ethel Merman and Ezio Pinza, Richard Burton and Charles Nelson Reilly, Victorian melodramas and East Village acid trips, Siamese court dance and acrobatic tap routines. Its essence articulated an urbane, polyglot idea of America that we have mislaid in the increasing divisiveness of recent decades. Play the discs collected in Broadway in a Box and you can feel the idea rising from its sleep.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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