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The Highs and Lows of Highlights Albums

The Highs and Lows of Highlights Albums

By Peter Filichia

The choice is yours: You can get a single disc that will give you a good deal of music from Ain’t Misbehavin’, Allegro, Children of Eden, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Most Happy Fella, Ragtime, Sweeney Todd and The Who’s Tommy.

Or you can get a much more complete two-disc set of those eight scores.

There’s a good case to be made for each option. A two-disc set is ideal for travel. Terribly long car, plane and boat rides seem shorter when your ears and brain become immersed in a two-plus hour recording. Paying attention to a musical’s characters, plot and theme makes the time fly by.

On the other hand, there are times when a two-disc set involves too much of a listening commitment. In the morning when you’re shaving (be it your face or legs) and getting ready for work, a single disc hits the spot. Here’s one song after the other in a curt, clear and concise album.

Single discs are usually dialogue-free or close to it. Thus they eliminate the spoken words on which you’d have to intensely concentrate — which isn’t easy to do only a few minutes after you’ve struggled out of bed.

Needless to say, on the two-disc sets you get nearly twice as much of the show – but not precisely twice as much. Second discs in two-disc sets are usually reserved for second acts, which are almost inevitably shorter than first acts.

But no doubt about it; you’ll lose some choice items on a Highlights disc. Pity the poor thing who expects “Poor Thing” on the Highlights from Sweeney Todd; it’s not there.

Actually, in one way – and only in one way – “Highlights from Sweeney Todd” accurately reflects the original Broadway production. That’s because it eliminates the second “Johanna” in which Judge Turpin flagellates himself as he thinks about his would-be bride-to-be. The song was dropped from the Broadway production after the first preview, but because its composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim believed in it, he insisted it be recorded. And while it’s of course on the two-disc set, it’s not on the Highlights.

Sometimes a Highlights disc is the way to go because it eliminates song(s) that don’t rank with raindrops on roses as some of your favorite things. For example, many musical theater enthusiasts don’t take to soprano voices. “Too high,” they complain. “I can’t understand a word they’re saying!” These people would appreciate that “Highlights from Sweeney Todd” spares them from hearing “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Far more often, however, you may find yourself arguing with the single-disc you have in your hand: “Who in his infinite wisdom determined that ‘The Wasteland’ in Children of Eden WASN’T a Highlight? I think it is!” Or, “I can’t believe ‘I Believe My Own Eyes’ was included in the Highlights from The Who’s Tommy but ‘Twenty-One’ isn’t!’” Such reactions are bound to happen.

The single-disc editions of Children of Eden, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sweeney Todd and The Who’s Tommy are all distillations of the two-disc sets. But the single and two-disc recordings of Ain’t Misbehavin’, Allegro, The Most Happy Fella and Ragtime offer distinctly different listening experiences.

Ain’t Misbehavin’s two-disc set is a fine souvenir of the Fats Waller show that won the 1978 Tony as Best Musical. The single disc is culled from a 1995 touring production. True musical theater enthusiasts will want the full-disc treatment to hear “When the Nylons Bloom Again” from the 1943 musical Early to Bed, about a brothel that’s mistaken for a hotel. The single disc also omits “Lounging at the Waldorf,” which is worth the price of a two-disc set just to hear the distinctive way that Nell Carter pronounces the word “Waldorf.”

On the other hand, those who are fans of Ruth, Anita and June — as in The Pointer Sisters — will enjoy their freewheeling style on the single. This disc, too, is more benign, for it doesn’t offer “The Reefer Song.”

The difference between the 1947 original cast disc of Allegro and last year’s studio cast album is the most distinctive. The former lasts slightly longer than a sitcom – 33:35 – while the latter’s first disc alone is almost twice as long at 58:21. And when you’re finished with that one, there are still more than 37 heavenly minutes on the second disc.

For years, people had been speculating that a full Allegro could reveal the show as a neglected Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece; this new set makes a strong case for it. The single disc, however, does show us what shows sounded like in the post-war era.

The Most Happy Fella’s two-disc set captures virtually every bit of the show’s dialogue and songs from the original 1956 Broadway production. The single disc, however, represents the songs sung by the 1992 Broadway revival cast.

They’re as different as night and day. Indeed, night is an ideal time to play the 1992 revival, for it has only a two-piano accompaniment – making for a kinder and gentler listening experience at 11:30 p.m. when you’re winding down. But daytime is ideal right from the start of the 1956 original cast recording. Dozens of orchestra members play the loud and brassy overture made up of Frank Loesser’s stirring music.

Ragtime’s single disc represents one of the comparatively few times that a Broadway score was recorded prior to the actual production. In 1996, RCA Victor executives knew that Ragtime was something special, so they couldn’t wait two years for the show to reach Broadway. True, much of the cast that would open the show on Jan. 18, 1998 had been in place for this 1996 concept album, but Camille Saviola’s Emma Goldman eventually gave way to Judy Kaye’s. And because “musicals aren’t written, they’re re-written,” as the famous cliché goes, “The Show-Biz,” heard on the first album, was dropped by the time the show opened on Broadway, and doesn’t appear on the second. That’s the show biz.

So there’s plenty from which to choose. You’ll decide if you want to give these recordings the ol’ one-two.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at