Oh how I wish that this year’s excellent revivals of Little Me (with Christian Borle and Rachel York) and The Most Happy Fella (with Laura Benanti and Shuler Hensley) at City Center Encores! had been recorded. Years ago, Encores! productions were regularly recorded including gems like Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, Pal Joey and St. Louis Woman. Two years ago, all three Encores! productions (Merrily We Roll Along, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Pipe Dream) somehow got recorded. This year, none of them was. Of course, that’s not to say that an unusually large number of cast albums haven’t been released over the past year, leaving plenty for musical theater fans such as myself to listen to and savor.
While songs from plenty of musicals were included on this year’s Tony Awards telecast (including one that has yet to even play New York), The Bridges of Madison County, which won the awards for Best Score and Best Orchestrations, got no airtime. (Adding insult to injury, neither of those awards was televised, leaving Jason Robert Brown without an audience.) But those who didn’t get a chance to catch the musical during its short Broadway run can check out its cast album, which is full of rich, country rock-meets-opera songs and emotional, vocally exquisite performances from Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Frankly, I found listening to the album to be a far better experience than attending the show, where I had to deal with Marsha Norman’s slow and static book and Bartlett Sher’s skeletal staging. It’s easy to imagine this album encouraging theater companies across the country to stage the musical.
Love’s Labour’s Lost, Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) youthful and freewheeling adaptation of the dense Shakespeare romance, received its premiere at Shakespeare in the Park a year ago. If it did not achieve the same success as the Public Theater’s musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona, plenty of its songs are irresistibly catchy. Who doesn’t love a lyric about how "young men are supposed to have sex … get drunk … watch porn?"
Yank!, David and Joe Zellnik’s saga of a young soldier coming to terms with his sexuality during World War II, was slated to come to Broadway after its run at the York Theatre four seasons ago. That did not pan out, but a cast recording with the original Off-Broadway cast (including Bobby Steggert, Jeffry Denman and Nancy Anderson) has finally been released. (An inferior demo recording had previously been making the rounds.) In addition to being an excellent example of 1940s pastiche (not unlike the first act of Grey Gardens), the songs have a haunting, longing feel that really makes one hope this musical surfaces again.
If the first-ever Broadway staging of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is overblown and played up for laughs, Neil Patrick Harris nails every song vocally and its sound design is as good as it gets for a rock musical. Its cast album stretches beyond the original Off-Broadway one by including the “America the Beautiful” segment from the top of the show and a selection from the fictitious Hurt Locker: The Musical. (The concept for the Broadway staging is that Hedwig is performing a one-night concert on the set of a recently shuttered Broadway musical.)
The success of the Hedwig revival has unfortunately overshadowed the Roundabout’s pitch-perfect revival of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet, which features an unforgettable performance from Sutton Foster. While the original Off-Broadway production with Lauren Ward was recorded, the Broadway revival, which was done over two discs, includes far more material including most of the dialogue. Tesori’s extraordinary new musical Fun Home, which will supposedly transfer to Broadway next season, has been recorded in all its glory. I would go so far as to say that the song “Keys,” in which a young girl explains the kinship she feels with a butch female, will live on as one of the greatest moments in contemporary musical theater.
Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill has been faithfully preserved. Literally the entire play was recorded. (Here’s hoping the play also gets filmed for a PBS broadcast.) Speaking of plays being recorded on audio, the album made 50 years ago of the original cast of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been rereleased.
I was wondering whether Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! would actually merit a recording, as it is one of the weakest installments of Gerard Alessandrini’s long-running parody of Broadway musicals. It got one, which at least includes Marcus Stevens’ brilliant impersonations of Mandy Patinkin and Harvey Fierstein.
One of the finest albums of the year is the San Francisco Symphony’s two-disc West Side Story, which was recorded live with the vocally pristine Cheyenne Jackson and Alexandra Silber. It is certainly superior to the 2009 Broadway revival cast album, which was marred by lyrics unnecessarily translated into Spanish and Matt Cavenaugh’s embarrassing performance as Tony.
I must confess to being no fan of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. I found the songs to be underwhelming and unilaterally unfunny. On disc, I can at least appreciate its old-fashioned operetta charm. It’s also easier to enjoy the Jazz Age standards of Bullets Over Broadway without watching them being awkwardly squeezed into Woody Allen’s book. I can’t say I found any redemptive value in the cast album of Big Fish, once again finding Andrew Lippa’s songs to be pretty poor in quality. The album of Beautiful is decent and all, but why would someone want to listen to that instead of the original Carole King recordings? The disco-foreign politics musical Here Lies Love, which uses a pre-recorded soundtrack instead of a live band at the Public Theater (supposedly part of the dance club concept), sounds far, far better on disc.
Other new albums include Aladdin, If/Then, First Date, Heathers, Rocky, A Night with Janis Joplin, Murder for Two and the Second Stage revival of The Last Five Years.