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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
BROADWAY CAST ALBUMS

POSTERITY'S SAKE
By MATT WINDMAN

  The cast of Pippin/ Ph: Joan Marcus

A bit more than a decade ago, musical theater fans were lamenting what appeared to be the inevitable demise of cast albums due to rising costs and waning interest from the major music companies. But in spite of those predictions of doom and gloom, thanks mainly to the existence of smaller labels like P.S. Classics and Ghostlight Records, an impressive number of new cast albums have been released over the past year.

I’m not saying everything is rosy. Last year, all three shows done by the City Center Encores! series (Merrily We Roll Along, Pipe Dream, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) got recorded, while not a single one from this year’s 20th anniversary season (Fiorello!, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, On Your Toes) was recorded, which is absolutely a shame. But virtually every new Broadway and Off-Broadway show from the past year (including quite a few of the duds) received a cast album. Even revivals like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Pippin and Annie were represented.

The most fascinating cast album of the year belongs to a musical about Marilyn Monroe that did not actually play Broadway or Off-Broadway, but was instead the centerpiece of a problematic, now officially canceled television drama about making an original Broadway musical. Last year, a Smash album was released that featured a few of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s original songs for Bombshell but consisted mostly of the generic pop covers featured throughout the first season. On the other hand, the 22-track Bombshell cast album includes such standout selections as the opening number “Let Me Be Your Star,” the dynamic act-one closer “Cut, Print…Moving On,” the gorgeous ballad “Second Hand White Baby Grand” and the urgent finale “Don’t Forget Me.” In spite of the cancellation of Smash, this recording proves the potential of Bombshell to succeed on its own terms onstage.

Not surprisingly, the producers of Matilda have not bothered to produce a Broadway cast album, since one with the original London cast, which features Tony nominees Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward, was made just last year and is already pretty terrific. Just take a listen to the incredibly well-crafted opening number “Miracle” or the wistfully beautiful “When I Grow Up” and try explaining how Tim Minchin lost the Tony Award for Best Score to Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots. On the other hand, the score of Kinky Boots, robbed of the diversions of gaudy footwear, is revealed to be uninteresting, unmemorable pop.

The album for the Broadway revival of Annie corrects a fundamental error made by the production itself by restoring the overture in its entirety. As performed at the Palace Theatre, the overture is abruptly cut short to make room for an unnecessary newsreel designed to introduce young theatergoers to New York in the Great Depression. But after the overture, one must deal with Lilla Crawford’s irritating Brooklyn accent. Seeing as a 30th anniversary studio recording of Annie was so recently produced, this might be the most unnecessary new cast album of the year.

On the other hand, Pippin was greatly in need of a new recording, as the original one, produced on the Motown label, was designed in a pop idiom that makes the score sound far different than it does in the theater. Stephen Schwartz’s score, which was reviled by critics four decades ago, sounds fresher and better than ever, especially with the fabulous Patina Miller singing “Magic to Do” with unparalleled confidence. In the best touch of all, the audience sing-a-long portion of “Time to Start Living” (performed brilliantly by Andrea Martin) is preserved.

The Roundabout revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which deserved to be a commercial hit but failed to catch on in spite of numerous accolades from the critics, received a two-disc album that goes beyond what one would find at any individual performance (where only one murderer is elected by the audience) by offering the sung confessions of every major character. Giant also received two discs, thus handing down what is Michael John LaChuisa’s most accessible and character-driven score to date.

Although the album for the Off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion (also two discs) makes for a great listen, it is certainly awkward to have Rebecca Luker replacing Melissa Errico as Clara due to Errico’s vocal problems, which caused her to leave the production early and rendered her unable to do the album.

When it was announced that the recent Off-Broadway revisal of Carrie would be recorded, the show’s press agents playfully claimed that it would be the first legal recording, referencing how many musical theater lovers (including myself) have bootlegs of the notorious original staging. Truth be told, I’d rather listen to my bootleg than this souvenir of Stafford Arima’s lifeless production.

The ongoing work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are already being heralded as the next major musical theater writing team, is featured on the concept album of A Christmas Story, which proved to be unusually tuneful and well-made for a holiday show, and the Off-Broadway cast album of Dogfight, a far softer score that at least shows off the team’s versatility considering how different it is from the more traditional songs in A Christmas Story.

A number of Broadway flops also got preserved, a few of which didn’t really need to be. The mediocre and forgettable bio musical Chaplin was most noteworthy for the physicality of Rob McLure’s warm performance rather than its substandard songs. And as for recording Scandalous, the dreadful bio musical of Aimee Semple McPherson, consider it a testament to the unbelievable vanity of its writer Kathie Lee Gifford. But thankfully Hands on a Hardbody, which contained a strong country-rock score in spite of its dramaturgical issues, was recorded.

Plenty of established female vocalists released solo albums, including Judy Kuhn (All This Happiness), Laura Osnes (If I Tell You: Songs of Maury Yeston), Rebecca Luker (I Got Love: Songs of Jerome Kern) and Barbara Cook (Loverman), but Audra McDonald’s thrilling Go Back Home stands far above the rest with her inspired performances of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys, “The Glamorous Life” from A Little Night Music and “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.

 


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