* Thank God for the modern age of digital music. With my new 128 GB iPhone, I can walk around with my entire music library instantly available at the tip of my fingers — literally! When I go on a trip, there are no more strenuous "Sophie's choices" to make over whether to bring along my Patti LuPone Gypsy Broadway cast recording or my bootleg tracks, capturing the live audience excitement. I can take it all!
I am, however, old enough to remember a time when things where quite different, when I was a teenager and had to narrow it down to under 20 CDs for the 18 sleeves in my Discman case's music storage compartment. 18 may be a lucky number for the Jews, but it was the cause of a lot of angst for this theatre lover! And don't even get me started on my early childhood, when I had to copy LPs on to cassette tapes for my Walkman… Of course, it's all sweet nostalgia now that things have changed. But what if I were stuck on a desert island and had to choose just 18? With a nod toward years gone by, here is Part Two of my selections for 18 desert island cast albums.
9. Funny Girl
Funny Girl is a legendary show starring a legend (as a legend) and the cast recording captures the birth of this star. The raw power and nerve of young Barbra Streisand's volcanic performance is stunning to experience, and unmatched even several decades later. The hit songs pile up one after the other, but this fabulous whole is greater even than the sum of such impressive parts.
Leonard Bernstein only wrote a handful of Broadway scores as he spent much of his life in the realm of classical music. His early Broadway work in currently well represented in the acclaimed production of On The Town slaying them in the aisles at the Lyric Theatre and his most lasting impact was probably made by West Side Story. The Bernstein score I cannot live without, though, is Candide. The classical heft of this operetta parody scales heights of grandeur unheard in musical theatre. The rush of the overture alone guarantees inclusion on my list. And young Barbara Cook as Cunegonde is untouchable in the shimmering sheen of her joyful performance, both elated and earthy.
With Company, you feel like you're listening to "the real Sondheim." Surely, this score was the beginning of the master's peak period and ostensibly the closest expression of the world we think of as his — neurotic New York intellectuals in the 1970s. From beginning to end, Company sounds like, well, Company and immediately transports you to its time and place. Every song is worthy of superlatives; it's kind of unbelievable "Being Alive" and "The Ladies Who Lunch" and "Another Hundred People" and "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and "Getting Married Today" are all from just one musical! Hands down, the go-to recording is the original with Dean Jones, Pamela Myers and God's gift to the theatre, Elaine Stritch as Joanne.
Each and every song in Cabaret is so integral to the fabric of musical theatre as a whole, it's almost hard to imagine needing the cast album at all. How would I ever miss something already always so close to my heart and mind? Still, it would be insane to make this list without Cabaret! I have to cobble together a recording piecemeal from my favorite performances on different albums. I have to have Alan Cumming's sinisterly sexy Emcee from the revival and Liza Minnelli's definite Sally Bowles from the movie, and then Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford's Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz from the original cast album.
Often considered "the perfect musical," Gypsy fittingly has a perfect score. Jule Styne at his peak provided music that swings and flies and the Stephen Sondheim lyrics are, of course, spot-on. So many of the songs are standards and there is really no bad recording of Gypsy. True to form, my desert island choice is the 2008 revival with Patti LuPone. She gives you all the drama, all the heart and all the voice you could ask for.
A Sondheim score that melts me to tears is Sunday In The Park With George. This exploration of the journey of an artist and his muse ultimately sheds a light on universal human feelings and problems and offers an anthem — a spiritual actually — in the final ravishing moments, the song, "Move On." The road there is paved with insight and humor and the incomparable brilliance of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters in the performances of their careers.
One more from Sondheim for my list, Follies may be his ultimate work. Sweeney Todd is probably Sondheim's masterpiece, but for listening pleasure, I gotta go with Follies. The songs take the shape of songs from the Golden Age of Broadway, offering a knowing commentary without sacrificing a drop of authenticity or impact. Indeed, these songs hold their own among the best the Great American Songbook. And there are the characters' non-performance piece songs, which offer the most serious expression of drama through music I've ever heard. I can't choose one Follies recording. Give me any one of them, and I'll be thrilled.
A totally unique musical whose value to musical theatre has yet to be equaled or even properly celebrated, Falsettos was not recorded on Broadway, but is essentially available on disc via the Off-Broadway cast albums of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland — all that's missing is some minor text changes and the addition of "I'm Breaking Down" which you can mix in from Alison Fraser's recording for her indispensable solo outing, "New York Romance." This is my favorite kind of show (especially for listening) because the libretto exists only in the sung lyrics, so listening to the album is like watching the show in your head.
If I could only take one single Broadway cast album to the desert island, it would be, without question, the "Premiere American Recording" (i.e. Original Broadway Cast Album) of Evita with Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Bob Gunton. As another sung-through piece, the songs take you on the full journey of the story. And that journey is a rollercoaster which reels and careens and hits the heights and gets down and dirty in Patti LuPone's defining performance.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Dec. 18 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)