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Broadway Musicals on CD: A Conversational Guide
by Ethan Mordden
Book Review by Rob Lester

Open the latest book by prolific theatre historian Ethan Mordden and he'll open your ears and mind to a potpourri of pleasures and perils to be found in cast recordings (including studio cast recreations). Some reviews are served up in rewarding detail we can savor, but many get short shrift and many expected "usual suspects" are suspiciously, maddeningly absent. Broadway Musicals on CD: A Conversational Guide is kind of like going through a huge museum and finding out there won't be time to see everything you anticipated, and you're rushed to the next attraction. That reality check would be irksome, but you would be glad for all you did take in.

A more accurate but awfully awkward title would be Quite a Lot of the Broadway Musicals on CD (Plus Some Original Cast Albums of Off-Broadway Musicals That Never Transferred to Broadway). But that's a big mouthful–although it is as many words as are the combined total of the two shortest reviews: the succinctly dismissed Here's Love and Onward, Victoria. To be fair, Mordden states in the Introduction, "I have omitted titles–most songwriter revues, jukebox Frankenmusicals, foreign shows, stagings of movie musicals, and rather a lot of other shows here and there, on a purely personal basis." Exploring only American stage musicals' recordings is the mission, so those shows that traveled from England and other countries are not mentioned. However, exceptions are made to these rules–usually for comparison–to look at numerous London cast albums of American hits, and several movie and TV soundtracks. And, while it was decided not to put cast albums of born-in-the U.S.A. musicals sung in foreign languages under the microscope, Mr. Mordden broke his own rule to trumpet the value of a few.

Calling the collected reviews A Conversational Guide is spot on. Quite chatty, and sometimes cheeky, it's a mixed bag of love letters, impatient impishness, and imposing treatises, the latter revealing depths of familiarity and thoughtfulness. From reading his other books and seeing his high-energy interviews (TV's "Theater Talk" series, etc.), I was prepared for his special style of peppering a researcher's expertise and flurry of facts with sly comments and dish about show-biz personalities. I enjoy that, but I can imagine readers with no (or minimal) familiarity with a score would feel vexed when there's more lore from Mordden than information and insight specifically relevant to performances as heard on a CD. I take my hat off to his command of knowledge, but he doesn't seem inclined to take off his Theatre History Professor hat to resist giving background at the expense of staying on point about the recording.

The theory that "Context is everything" revised as "Context adds much appreciation" could be the mantra. That impression is reinforced when we note the lauding of CDs that come with liner notes for the value of their plot synopses and photos. Not all the data in the book is mega-relevant to increasing appreciation of the music that would fill one's ears. Do comments about the scenery or quotes from newspaper reviews deserve priority? I don't deny that some may be glad for the occasional gossip such as–no spoilers here–which project Mary Martin did under threat of a lawsuit, what show's actor moved on to gay porn, and who got into a slapping match with Dolores Gray and her mother.

Some memorable words are employed: "nugatory" and "fribble" caught my eye, with many references to quodlibets (the wonderful world of counterpoint). Small bits of music are cheerily called "doodads." Exaggeration is playfully used, as in saying that I Had a Ball's title song was "expanded into a production number so long that half the audience died of old age" and a recap of Kelly's score proclaims, "Every single number is the strangest thing you ever heard in your life." The man has his quirky trademarks. Another indulgence is a parenthetical poke to confirm name recognition via this styling: "with Chita Rivera (yes, that Chita Rivera)." Some pet peeves pop up frequently, like end-of-show reprises ("the usual idiotic medley finale"), especially if they're added just for the recording. Each time a certain veteran performer is noted for being in a cast, it's all about how ubiquitous he was ("George S. Irving, in what may have been his 8000th role in a musical").

This fat book of 528 pages is not quite as copious as you might guess when picking it up, due to the choice of an unusually large font (with liberal space between the lines and unindented paragraphs), although that may be a welcome sight for sore eyes. Regrettably, there's no index, which will disappoint folks before, during or after their first reading or skimming who want to locate all the mentions of a performer, writer, genre, etc. As it is, atypically, the pages aren't even numbered. Since the recordings are arranged alphabetically by title, any write-up should be easy to find, but some entries beginning with "I" and "O" are incorrectly ordered.

Among missing big-name shows are Man of La Mancha, Sweet Charity, Godspell and Hairspray. Other "no-shows" include Road Show, The Mad Show, The Magic Show, and [title of show], as well as The Act, The Frogs, The Life, The Rink, The Full Monty, The Book of Mormon, The Goodbye Girl, and so many more. Also, note that copies of an early printing are missing five reviews well worth reading: The Producers, A Time for Singing, Wicked, Wildcat, Wish You Were Here.

Thankfully, several classics get the luxury of detailed deep dives comparing their various cast renditions. Show Boat gets the most pages (nine and a half!). Others allowed five or more pages are Porgy and Bess Candide, The Most Happy Fella, My Fair Lady, On the Town, and Pal Joey. Indeed, a big plus for the non-completist selective collector is the weighing of pluses and minuses of the same score's different recordings. Quality in sonics and star quality are contrasted. Pointed out are numbers that are abbreviated or extended, as well as tracks appearing on one version but not another. With studio casts, we're advised about treatments far afield from original stage presentations. But a clear "winner" is not always anointed. However, these are the excellent exceptions. The majority of reviews get a page or a bit more, but some get less. Our host reasonably assumes the target audience's familiarity with the most famous fare. But he overdoes that by disposing of A Chorus Line in a few lines, with the quip "Why waste time?" and simply saying the show, cast, and must-own first cast album are all "great" and not acknowledging the revival cast. He begs off discussing Sunday in the Park with George by saying it's very visual so you should just go watch the DVD.

Some samples of direct praise:

For The Music Man, 1957 original Broadway cast album: "superb" and "a ne plus ultra"
For Floyd Collins: "The entire cast is wonderful and Ted Sperling excellently conducts Bruce Coughlin's very atmospheric scoring...".
For The New Moon (Encores!, 2003): "arguably the best operetta recording ever made."

No word like "arguably" tempers some pans. Not one to mince words, a disgruntled Mordden can be mordant and unequivocal. Here then are samples of swipes and gripes:

On Say, Darling's "The Carnival Song": "the worst song in the history of OC [Original Cast albums]"
On the Gershwins' Let 'Em Eat Cake: a show "which no one has ever liked."
On Happy Hunting:"The book was idiotic and so were some of the songs."
On the musicians' work for the British version of Kitty's Kisses: a "learner's permit orchestra playing and mousy theatricality."

To err is human, to correct is another human's proofreading task to hopefully correct the record so that people using this kind of book for research might not repeat an unintended mistake. Ethan Mordden obviously knows his stuff. The only eyebrow-raising surprise is the statement that the stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame "has had no recording in English," but Ghostlight Records released one in 2016, featuring stars of the Paper Mill Playhouse production. Of course, the famous Carousel song is "If I Loved You," not "If I Love You," and we can bet that was just from hasty typing. A few names do get a bit mangled as Tonya Pinkins is called Tonya Perkins, Mark Hartman is mistakenly called Michael, David Merrick is spelled as Marrick, Kristin Chenoweth each time as Kristen, Paul Gemignani becomes Paulo, John Rubinstein is spelled Rubenstein, Mabel King is seen as Mable, and one of America's states is spelled as Giorgia. Otherwise, it's just small typos causing imperfect capitalization or punctuation.

Turn to almost any page in Ethan Mordden's book and you'll find a tip to take, quip to quote, or a musical mention worth your attention.

Broadway Musicals on CD: A Conversational Guide
By Ethan Mordden
528 pages
Independently published
Publication Date: August 6, 2022
ISBN: 979-8844251603
Available in Paperback.