The Broadway cast album was a concept that didn't catch on with record labels until the 1940s, but musicals served as a source for popular recordings long before that, and one precursor of cast recordings was a series of medleys of show scores performed by all-star (but anonymous) studio groups. Victor Records was the leader in this genre, which flourished from 1909, when the company introduced it, to the early '30s. The Victor Light Opera Company featured major stars of the day, such as Billy Murray and Ada Jones, singing the choruses of several of the major songs from a show, with the results released on a single as "Gems From the Merry Widow," or whatever the show was. And the records were popular: Chart researcher Joel Whitburn's book of chart reconstructions, Pop Memories, lists 24 "Gems from" chart singles for the Victor Light Opera Company between 1909 and 1925. Naturally, other labels followed suit. This CD reissue, the first of four volumes, presents 35 of the medleys, putting them in chronological order by show. The labels quickly ran out of current musicals to summarize and began looking back in history. The opening track here presents excerpts from six songs from the 1844 show The Bohemian Girl, recorded in 1923 by the Brunswick Light Opera Company, and the set doesn't get to 1909 musicals until its last six selections. The result is a previously unheard history of musicals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, clearly tracing a development from European operetta to more contemporary American styles. The advent of Victor Herbert with The Wizard of the Nile in 1895 is crucial. Sound quality on these transfers from records originally released between 1909 and 1924 is not great, of course, but the chance to hear this rare music is.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2