Here's an all-star lineup of current cast albums:
A COLLECTOR'S SONDHEIM -- (RCA Red Seal CRL4-5359). We must have been very, very good to deserve this. The superbly recorded four-record set is a banquet for Sondheim fanatics (and nearly all Sondheim fans are fanatics by definition). The glossy boxed package includes a selective sampling of the cream of the original cast recordings of all his shows, from 1962's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" to 1984's "Sunday in the Park With George." It may leave you hungry to hear the whole scores, but no grumbling, please -- there are also several previously unavailable rarities such as the "Marry Me a Little," which was cut from "Company." And the disco version of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" (?!); and "Old Friends" from a Whitney Museumncert, with the opening lines sung by Sondheim himself. Jeffrey Lonoff's lengthy, anecdotal liner notes and the complete lyrics are an added plus.
CHESS -- (RCA CPL2-5340). "Chess" is an intriguing pop melodrama (the phrase "rock opera" no longer seems to apply) about the international chess circuit. It's the still-unstaged brainchild of lyricist Tim Rice (Andrew Lloyd Webber's former collaborator) and Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, better known as the music men of ABBA, the world's biggest-selling pop group. If it follows the precedent set by its ancestors "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita," which also began as records before becoming stage events, the show can't miss. Hit shows have been built around stranger themes. Lots of bouncy synth and vibrant singing get it past the initial ABBA feel, and the London Symphony Orchestra supplies the pomp in this circumstance. "Chess" has already spawned one U.S. hit with the inscrutable, danceable "One Night in Bangkok" (sung by Murray Head, the original Judas of "Superstar"). And there are several more winners waiting in the wings, including the lovely "I Know Him So Well," sung by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson. So, though "Chess" isn't due to hit the boards till sometime next year, its creators have made a wise first move.
THE REAL THING -- (Nonesuch 9-78027-1-P). A piece of plastic can't capture all the magic of a play, particularly not a zinger like Tom Stoppard's most recent smash. But who really expects it to? As souvenirs go, this brings the memories back more vividly than a re-reading ever could, with the crisply recorded sound of Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close recreating Stoppard's verbal vigor. It's coming to the National May 21, with Brian Bedford and Sara Botsford. Study up.
MY ONE AND ONLY -- (Atlantic 80110-1-E). 'S wonderful, of course -- how could it be otherwise with 16 sparkling Gershwin greats (including "Little Jazz Bird," which was snipped from the show during the Broadway run). You'll miss the jewel-like Deco sets (you can see them at the Kennedy Center Opera House through April 14). But you can hear the puddles in the famous splashdance; Tommy Tune's tangy twang is endearingly apt for Gershwin's urbane songs; and since Twiggy's freed from worrying about coordinating her tapping feet in the relative privacy of the recording studio, she can concentrate on emoting with her enchantingly frail, very '20s voice.