When I was a kid, I first discovered musical theater through the wonder of the original cast album. It was 33-1/3 LPs in those days, and the collection we had in the Denton household was relatively compact and extremely eclectic. From the time I was, let’s say, 4 years old, until my senior year of high school, this was pretty much my musical comedy universe:
[Note: the album cover with no title on it is Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow.]
It’s probably worth mentioning that while I saw several of these shows in summer stock at Shady Grove, I only saw one of these productions in the theater myself – Merman in the Annie Get Your Gun revival at the National Theater in DC in 1967. (Read something about this in the archive.)
We also had a few original soundtrack albums: The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Doctor Dolittle, The Wizard of Oz, plus 8-inch albums of Hans Christian Andersen and Call Me Madam; a weird little TV soundtrack of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan; a Mary Martin recording of songs from Anything Goes; an operetta album with The Red Mill on one side and Up in Central Park on the other (which I very rarely listened to).
And then were two great historical compilation albums, both of which I wish I still owned (and which I can remember almost word for word). We had Joe Laurie’s Show Biz, a history of vaudeville narrated by George Jessel that featured rare recordings of the likes of George M. Cohan, Blossom Seeley, Fanny Brice, and Harry Lauder. And we had Merman: A Musical Autobiography, which was a four-record compilation of Merman’s hits, interspersed with deliciously hokey narration.
From all of this, what did I learn that helped me become a theater reviewer?
First, because I really devoured these albums for the most part, playing them over and over, I learned a couple of dozen standard scores pretty much by heart. And I became curious to discover more work by these same actors and composers and lyricists.
Second, and much more important, I learned to appreciate the work, good and bad, for better and worse. I think even as a kid I recognized that Wildcat was not in the same league as Fiddler on the Roof, but I loved it just the same. Even the biggest and/or most forgotten flops have nuggets of wonderful in them: I still love the hokey finale of Ankles Aweigh, “An Eleven O’Clock Song,” and though a lot of Loesser’s Greenwillow is ponderous, the song “What a Blessing” is a gift that will never stop giving. [Here’s a sample: “What a blessing to know there’s a devil / Ever leading me into some vice / And though easily led, I can hold up my head / Knowing I’m fundamentally nice.”]
All of this work was lovingly preserved, despite what critics and audiences may have said about it. In the ’50s and ’60s, when digital recording wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye, this was a major operation that cost a lot of money. And so kind of on the courageous side — an important lesson about theater to always remember.