Masterworks Broadway has filled a long-empty slot on the groaning shelves of show recording completists. They have dug into the vault of the old RCA Victor Green Label Series and given us what was called in 1950 “The Original Show Album” of Irving Berlin’s delightful romp, Call Me Madam. What is more, they have remastered the original tapes so the mono sound is about as clean and clear as we are ever likely to have from this sixty-two year old delight.

If you are at all familiar with Irving Berlin’s book shows, you know that Call Me Madam was written specifically for one huge Broadway star – the lady who four years earlier made Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun a box office champ. That was, of course, Ethel Merman. But this new re-release of “The Original Show Album” doesn’t feature her. Instead, it is Dinah Shore in the role of Mrs. Sally Adams, the socialite party giver appointed to be the Ambassador of the United States to the tiny European nation of Lichtenburg, which Berlin’s lyric informs the audience is “Too small to be a city, too big to be a town.” Therein lies a tale as fantastic as the plot of the show.

It seems that RCA, the corporation that owned among other things, RCA Victor Records, was the sole investor in the new Irving Berlin/Ethel Merman show, plowing about a quarter of a million into the project with the obvious intention of not only making a profit, but of doing the original Broadway cast album which was sure to be a hit. The problem was that Merman was under contract to rival label Decca, and Decca wasn’t about to release Merman to let their competition have the hit.

What to do? RCA decided to go ahead and record the Broadway cast minus Merman with most of the original orchestrations by Don Walker (assisted by Joe Glover). To fill in as “The Hostess with the Mostess” they used one of their own contracted stars, Dinah Shore.

Decca might have had Merman under contract, but they couldn’t break RCA Victor’s hold on the show’s cast and original charts, so they had well known arranger and orchestra leader Gordon Jenkins support Merman and popular vocalist Dick Haymes for what it called “12 Songs from ‘Call Me Madam’” which has long been available on CD. It certainly serves to let us hear Merman in the role, but we can do that by watching the movie version of the show which followed the original script fairly closely and retained most of Berlin’s songs – something that cannot be said for many of Hollywood’s versions of Broadway musicals.

Call Me Madam, like Annie Get Your Gun, was a musical that was conceived around the simple central idea of “Merman as … (fill in the blank)!” Dorothy Fields filled the blank in with “Annie Oakley” and, voila!, a huge hit. Howard Lindsay of the team of Lindsay and Crouse filled it in with “Perle Mesta!” Mesta was the real-life hostess with the mostess who threw legendary big-wig parties in Washington to which anyone who was anyone wanted to be invited. She was also an early and vocal supporter of Harry Truman who, when he rose to the Presidency, appointed her Ambassador to Luxembourg – a European country just a bit larger than a city. She served nearly four years in that post.

Now, with the release this summer of the RCA Victor version by Masterworks Broadway, we can again hear Russell Nype in the role that earned him a Tony Award and made him a star. He sings his solo “Once Upon A Time Today,” his duet with Galina Talva “Its a Lovely Day Today” and his duet, one of Berlin’s counterpoint masterpieces “I Wonder Why? / You’re Just In Love,” with Merman’s part sung by Shore. We can also now hear co-star Paul Lukas on “Marrying for Love” and the comic “Welcome to Lichtenburg.”

The corporate battle over the “Original Show Album” or the 12 Songs from Call Me Madam which is now out on a CD that has the misleading banner “A Decca Broadway Original Cast Album,” left room for one more important recording, the one that is my favorite way to enjoy this sparkling score. That is the DRG Records CD of the 1995 Encores! concert presentation of the show with Tyne Daly in the starring role. She’s absolutely fabulous as Ambassadress Adams and is supported by a tremendous cast (including Lewis Cleale, Walter Charles, Melissa Errico and Ken Page) and the Coffee Club Orchestra under Rob Fisher who is always at his best when the score calls for a feel for swing, which this one definitely does.

Whether you chose Ethel Merman without her original cast, that cast with Dinah Shore, or the more modern concert version with the full score in stereo, the songs of Berlin guarantee a smile. And all three albums include the not-to-be-missed piece of 1950 current events commentary “They Like Ike.”

Masterworks Broadway Re-Release (Mono)
Featuring Dinah Shore and the Original Broadway Cast

Available through ArkivMusic.Com
Catalog #42773
Running time 46 minutes over 13 tracks
List price $17.99
On sale for $12.99

Decca’s 12 Songs From Call Me Madam (Mono)
Featuring Ethel Merman

Running time 54 minutes over 12 tracks
(plus four tracks from “Panama Hattie”)
ASIN: B000002OJO
List price $14.99

Encores! Concert Performance
starring Tyne Daly

DRG Records
Running time 55 minutes over 19 tracks
ASIN: B000000PKX
Price $11.69

Call Me Madam – with Dinah Shore

September 11, 2012