Before embarking on a new theater season, we should take a moment to look at the cast albums left behind by the musicals produced during the past year. While you would expect the big Broadway hits to be recorded, independent companies like P.S. Classics and Ghostlight Records have managed to record a considerable number of smaller, short-lived shows that are also worthy of being preserved.
Let’s begin with Newsies, which won the Tony for Best Score practically by default in what turned out to be an especially weak category. While composer Alan Menken has penned the music for earlier Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, this actually marked his first Tony Award. The cast album preserves the memorable and melodious anthems carried over from the film version, including “Seize the Day” and “The World Will Know” as well as the yearning ballad “Santa Fe” and the upbeat “Carrying the Banner” and “King of New York.” While “Watch What Happens” makes for an excellent soliloquy, all the other new numbers penned specifically for the stage version are far less catchy and pale in comparison to the songs from the film. Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan sounds terrific, bringing a yearning adolescent spirit to “Seize the Day” and his duets with Kara Lindsay.
Speaking of Jordan, he is also in fine form vocally in Bonnie & Clyde, which quickly flopped on Broadway earlier in the season. Even critics, who have characteristically detested the musicals of composer Frank Wildhorn, admitted by and large that the bluegrass-rock score of Bonnie & Clyde was his best to date. “When I Drive,” a testosterone-infused duet between Jordan (playing Clyde Barrow) and Claybourne Elder (as Barrow’s brother), is truly intoxicating. Laura Osnes, as Bonnie, maintains a sultry but sincere presence in “How ‘Bout a Dance?” and “What Was Good Enough for You.”
Once, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical over Newsies, is also based on an earlier film and preserves all its hit songs, most notably the Oscar-winning ballad “Falling Slowly.” The album displays the work of the musical’s thoroughly talented 13 actors, who double as musicians and play instruments throughout the show. The songs, written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who co-starred in the film, represent the kind of confessional, indie pop that is rarely heard on Broadway. It is possible that typical musical theater fans will not be too thrilled with the soft and folksy score, especially when deprived of the show’s impressive staging and sentimental storytelling.
Follies, which had an infamously disappointing original cast recording, is well-served by the two-disc, 110-minute album preserving its excellent 2011 revival, which originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., was led by a generously sized 41-member cast and 28-piece orchestra, and starred Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Elaine Page, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines. Sondheim’s score, full of show-stopping production numbers and ballads, is an embarrassment of riches. The album overflows with highlights, ranging from Page’s fiery “I’m Still Here” to Burstein’s tragicomic “Buddy’s Blues” and Jayne Houdyshell’s earnest “Broadway Baby.”
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess – director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks’ rewrite of the four-hour 1935 opera into a two-and-a-half-hour Broadway musical – was a controversial production, lambasted early on by none other than Sondheim. Personally, I thought this revival preserved the integrity of the original piece and made for thrilling musical theater, bringing brisk vitality to George Gershwin’s symphonic and jazzy score, which contains standards such as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” The excellent performances include Audra McDonald’s absolutely ferocious Bess, Norm Lewis’ heartfelt Porgy and David Alan Grier’s sly and strutting Sportin’ Life. Further, compared with more operatic recordings of Porgy and Bess, the lyrics have probably never been recorded with such clarity.
There is no cast recording more unnecessary or truly painful than the new Evita album. While Elena Roger evokes Eva Peron’s fiery personality, she does not have the belting vocal power to handle the challenging role – and her harsh singing sounds strained and stressed. It’s also strange how she is the only one in the cast to display a thick accent. Ricky Martin, who brought absolutely no personality to Ché onstage, has the same bland quality on the recording. But at least now you can’t see him awkwardly wave his arms in the air while singing. Take my advice and stick with the original Patti LuPone-Mandy Patinkin recording instead.
Lysistrata Jones, which transferred to Broadway after a short downtown run and almost immediately flopped, was nowhere near as smart as its creators (including playwright Douglas Carter Beane) would like you to believe. Frankly, I thought Bring It On, another musical about cheerleaders, was far better executed. On disc, the score proves to be a mixed bag of catchy group numbers that recall the adolescent spirit of High School Musical as well as some less engaging solo songs.
Just like Lysistrata Jones, Queen of the Mist was also produced Off-Broadway by the Transport Group at the Judson Memorial Church. But since no one in his or her right mind would believe that a musical about Anna Edson Taylor, the first woman to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive, would have commercial potential, it did not transfer anywhere. But how wonderful that Michael John LaChiusa’s unexpectedly melodic and often thrilling score has been preserved, along with Mary Testa's superb performance stressing Taylor’s obstinate and strange personality.
And now the best for last: the two-disc recording of the short-lived City Center Encores! production of Merrily We Roll Along. Like Follies, Merrily has received quite a few recordings over the years. But this marks the first recording of Merrily to incorporate all the extensive changes made to the musical since its Broadway premiere and also incorporate a large orchestra. The excellent cast includes Colin O’Donnell as Franklin Shepard, Lin Manuel-Miranda as Charley and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary. Still, one can’t help but wonder why Jonathan Tunick gave the melody line in the “Good Thing Going” section of the overture to a tuba instead of a trumpet.