We gave it a B+
Front Row Center: The Broadway Gold Box contains more riches than any compilation celebrating the American musical theater to have been released in the last decade. A must-have for anyone who loves show music, the four-CD box has been culled from the archives of MCA, whose holdings include the Decca, Kapp, ABC Paramount, and Brunswick labels, each of which played a significant role in preserving the genre’s legacy. More than 50 years are surveyed here, including selections from the original cast recordings of such landmark productions as Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, Guys and Dolls, Man of La Mancha, and Evita. In all, 70 shows are represented on 93 tracks from such incomparable composers as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins, and others. The star power alone could light up Broadway.
Mary Martin coyly details why ”My Heart Belongs to Daddy” (from Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me), Patti LuPone throbs ”Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita), and Ethel Merman demonstrates why she became Queen of Broadway (”Eadie Was a Lady,” the Gershwins’ ”I Got Rhythm”). Room has been found too for the beguiling, offhand charm of Eddie Foy Jr. and the vivid clowning of a young Carol Burnett (in 1964’s Fade Out — Fade In).
But if the set is chockablock with such pleasures, it’s also frustratingly flawed. Although Eddie Cantor is, happily, showcased on two selections, Al Jolson, one of the greatest musical comedy talents of the century, is nowhere to be found. To leave him out is like omitting Elvis from a history of rock & roll.
It’s also hard to understand why some marginal figures, several of whom never stopped a show in their lives, are given repeated exposure. Johnny Desmond croons two unknown songs from the similarly obscure The Amazing Adele, a show that never made it to Broadway. And the bland Paula Laurence is heard on three selections — two of which she only performed as an understudy.
Though Front Row Center: The Broadway Gold Box would have been more definitive had it been compiled by someone better able to distinguish pure gold from fool’s gold, it is nonetheless a grand testament to the cultural significance of theater music. B+