The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings
Edited by Michael Portantiere
New York: Back Stage Books/Watson-Guptill, 2004. 416p. index. $19.95. ISBN 0-8230-8435-3.
This book is an A-to-Z guide to more than 1,000 recordings of more than 600 musicals that (mostly) had New York productions at some point in theatrical history. Sixteen distinguished theatre critics (many of whom regularly write for TheaterMania.com) supplied the evaluations: Gerard Alessandrini (of Forbidden Broadway fame), David Barbour, Richard Barrios, Ken Bloom, Seth Christenfeld, Jeffrey Dunn, Peter Filichia, David Finkle, Marc Miller, Matthew Murray, Brooke Pierce, Michael Portantiere, Robert Sandla, Morgan Sills, David Wolf, and Charles Wright.
The book kicks off with a friendly foreword by Jerry Herman about the value of cast albums. A brief introduction by Portantiere outlines the rationale behind the book and the five-star rating system, and the critics' credits appear immediately afterwards.
Each review lists the title, the cast, the year of release, the record company that released the album, a rating from zero to five stars, and a description that mostly focuses on the quality of the score rather than the musical's book/libretto/lyrics. A score that has never been released on CD is so noted. If there is more than one version of a show, each version gets its own review, with the reviews appearing in chronological order under the musical's title. Non-American versions are limited mostly to London productions, with some exceptions when scores from other countries were available. Some film scores are included when they are exceptionally important (e.g., Singin' in the Rain) and had a stage version. The same reviewer will cover each alternate version of a score. Nearly all of the reviews are original to the book; the rest have been reworked from reviews that appeared on TheaterMania.com. The tone of the reviews is generally casual, making them very easy to read.
A special plus is that each letter of the alphabet has a list of an important theatrical personality's ten favorite scores. Jerry Herman's list begins the letter A; other notables include Charles Busch, Kristin Chenoweth, Michael John LaChiusa, Ben Brantley, Terrence McNally, Betty Comden, and Barbara Cook, among many others. The book concludes with indexes of five-star recordings and composers/lyricists.
We've had books of hits; we've had books of flops. At last, we have a book on everything. Do I need to tell you how long overdue this book is? While it doesn't cover every possible musical, or even every musical that played New York and got recorded (Ipi-Tombi and Metro come to mind, and if you've never heard of them, don't worry; I'm probably one of maybe a hundred people who has), it provides what is undoubtedly the best overview of recorded musical scores ever put together. There are any number of delightful shows that were neither hits nor flops that were left out of previous books; here they are, finally. It's very handy to have reviews of different versions all together, and it's also educational to see which shows have more than one version available. (Fame has THREE versions? Holy crap!) Happily for me, a number of opinions that I've long held in isolation are echoed in this book, such as: Jerry Orbach's oddly off-key performance in Promises, Promises, the worthlessness of the Boubil-Schonberg scores, and the superiority of the London Snoopy over the American. Some of the reviews can be on the snarky side, but that just adds to the fun of reading them. Musical theatre inspires passion in its advocates, and these reviews consistently convey that passion.
That's not to say the book is entirely perfect. It lacks an index to the critics and their reviews, which I would have found useful, and it would have been nice to include a complete list of all the theatrical luminaries who provided top-ten lists so that one didn't have to page to the beginning of every chapter to see who's included. Full plot summaries and cast lists would have been nice, but that would also have been incredibly impractical.
My biggest quarrel with the book is the rating system. Of course one is going to disagree with some of the reviewers; that's an article of faith. I find it useful to read an evaluation that differs from mine, because it helps me shore up the reasons for my own opinions. (It's also fun to complain. What? He hates it? He's crazy, did he actually listen to it?) No, my beef is that by letting the reviewers assign ratings to scores, you end up with the illusion that all musicals with the same rating are of roughly the same quality, when this simply isn't the case. For example, I don't think anyone would ever consider that Top Banana is equivalent to Company, but both get four stars in this book. Also, sometimes the wording of a review doesn't seem to justify the number of stars awarded. Better if the editor had eschewed the rating system and just let the critics make their cases.
This book has immediately established itself as a must-have in the library of any musical theatre buff. With knowledgable, reasoned evaluations from seasoned pros, it provides a huge amount of information that had previously been extremely hard to find. I do hope that updated editions are put out from time to time to cover both new scores and discs that had been omitted from this first edition. Most highly recommended.
Review copyright 2005, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
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