The rating for this somewhat awkwardly titled six-CD set may seem positive, but given the music contained herein, not to mention the performing talent, it should have been much higher, much as the package itself should be better -- indeed, this is more a matter of damning with faint praise. The contents (which are also available as individual CD releases) are musically impeccable as far as they go, limited to ten or 11 tracks for each disc. Given the fact that the composers represented on each of these platters -- with the exception of George Gershwin because of his early death, and Leonard Bernstein, whose popularity beyond West Side Story was more cultish than ubiquitous -- had huge and wide-ranging successes across numerous shows and several decades, one gets only a smattering of the highlights from the composers involved, and scarcely more than a glimpse of what they were about.
Irving Berlin lived the longest of them and had the lengthiest career as well, but it is Richard Rodgers, because of his extended partnerships with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, who gets to double dip in the package, and ends up the best represented figure here as a result. Cole Porter, by contrast, is represented almost entirely by his pre-World War II work, with but one song from Kiss Me, Kate (which was his biggest stage success of all) and not a note from Out of This World (not a hit, but it did yield "From This Moment On," one of Porter's most popular later numbers) or Silk Stockings. Meanwhile, Gershwin is represented by a mere ten tracks. One might also inquire as to the whereabouts of the volumes on Jerome Kern, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Jay Lerner, and Frederick Loewe, or Kurt Weill, for that matter, all of whom are at least as important as those represented here in terms of their influence on musical theater and the Broadway stage.
One can argue that these CDs, and even this set, were not intended for the serious musical aficionado, but if that's the case, wouldn't some better annotation be in order, so that the material in question could be put into perspective? There's very little of the latter, and there's even less information as to the dates and sources of the recordings included, which seems doubly stupid -- one would think that this would have been included so that any neophyte who liked what he or she heard might be encouraged to follow up and buy the complete recording, recital disc, or whatever the source was in question. Unless one knew that the late Jerry Orbach had recorded an album of Broadway and off-Broadway show tunes in the early '60s, one might go in search of his recording of On Your Toes after hearing his version of "There's a Small Hotel" from the Rodgers & Hart volume (and in that regard, the producers here did select one of the highlights from Orbach's Off Broadway album).
The rather cavalier approach to the packaging, programming, and annotation stands in sharp contrast to the care taken with the mastering of the music itself -- the recordings run the gamut from the 1930s and the likes of Gertrude Lawrence ("Someone to Watch Over Me") and Al Jolson ("Swanee") to modern recitals and cast recordings, with the late '50s and early '60s as the effective midpoint, and the early sides have been remastered by no less a figure than Doug Pomeroy, whose ability to make vintage music sources sound superb to modern ears is renowned throughout the industry. What's more, there's certainly no lack of variety in a package that stacks Jolson, Ethel Merman, Carol Burnett, and Dick Haymes up alongside Tatiana Troyanos, Bryn Terfel, Renée Fleming, et al., with Arthur Fiedler and John Mauceri among those handling the instrumental chores. One just wishes that the makers had been thorough and inspired all the way around the course, and not just where the sound was concerned. This is still a good introduction for neophyte musical buffs and an entertaining package for veteran fans, but the former will want to jump around the Web as they listen to pick up the whys and wherefores of each cut, and the sources of the music.