There has been quite a crop of 'em: ten thus far if you include the three scores that were recorded and released prior to the Broadway production: Billy Elliot, Irving Berlin's White Christmas and [title of show], which were previously reviewed in this column; two of them with casts, and orchestras, that did not participate in the Broadway edition.
The giant of the year, and the winner of ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, is BILLY ELLIOT [Decca Broadway B0006130]. This album was recorded in 2005 when the show first opened in London; as has become the norm with West End superhits, the powers that be are content to have us simply buy the original and disregard the fact that these are not the people we saw and loved on 45th Street. Tony Awards went to the three Billys (sharing one award) and featured actor Greg Jbara. These gentlemen now go down in the record books, but if you didn't happen to see them during their main Stem stints — which, if the show runs twenty years or so, will account for a bare fraction of the total performances — you will not have the chance to hear any of them.
Producer Kevin McCollum joined with various partners to transfer the unconventional musical Rent from an Off-Broadway non-profit venue to on; followed the same path for the similarly unconventional Avenue Q; and transformed the similarly unconventional In the Heights from an unsuccessful Off-Broadway production into yet another award-winning Broadway hit. He seems to like to take the unconventional path, as evidenced by another venture. IRVING BERLIN'S WHITE CHRISTMAS [Ghostlight 7915581225] was contrived to exploit the holiday season by mounting multiple seasonal productions in major cities across the land. They started at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in November 2004, and the succeeding years have seen production in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston, Detroit and elsewhere. It wasn't until the fourth season that White Christmas braved New York, home of the Rockettes and other winter amusements. It's not yet clear if the show will become an annual tradition. The cast album features Brian d'Arcy James, an important element in three musicals of 2008-09 although he ultimately appeared on Broadway in only one.
The track record of the above-mentioned Mr. McCollum is pretty exceptional, but it is impossible to expect everything to work every time. [title of show] [Ghostlight 7915584414] was another off-Broadway show from the Vineyard Theatre, birthplace of Avenue Q. This vest-pocket musical was transferred intact to the Lyceum, looking not like a vest-pocket but a watch fob pocket — or maybe a mere button-hole — on a Broadway stage. [title of show] had a vast army of fans from the Vineyard venue who ardently followed it uptown, most prominently including the critic from the most important newspaper in town (who threw his proverbial hat in the air not once, but twice). Not enough, alas; such traits as inordinately clever and highly likable were not enough to attract audiences large enough to fill more than a small corner of the not-very-big Lyceum. *
The first big musicals of the season — "big" in comparison to [title of show], anyway — were A Tale of Two Cities (which unsurprisingly went unrecorded) and Jason Robert Brown's 13 [Ghostlight 8-4413]. The creators of the latter seemed to be thinking of all those teenage girls who flocked to Wicked and, to a lesser extent, Legally Blonde. There's an audience for you; if you fill the cast of your Broadway musical with bonafide teenagers and build the plot around a Bar Mitzvah — an exotic occurrence across most of the country but a familiar event among Broadway-going New Yorkers — you've got it made, right? And that should bring in the teenage boy audience too, no? Along with all those grandparents. (Let it be added that a fair share of New York area 13-year-olds have five or six grandparents.) Well, it didn't and it wasn't and 13 was soon gone despite the efforts of Mr. Brown, who is a composer not to be overlooked.
The biggest show of the year, in a physical sense, was SHREK THE MUSICAL [Decca Broadway B0012627]. Not from the Disney house of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but the same idea aimed at the same market. (Notice how I say the same market, and not the same audience?) Jeanine Tesori, the talented composer of Caroline, or Change, had the afore-mentioned Brian d'Arcy James in the title role, along with such accomplished entertainers as Sutton Foster, Christopher Sieber, John Tartaglia and Daniel Breaker. Most of them, alas, were all too covered in foam, latex and greenstuff.
The season's special events were headlined by LIZA'S AT THE PALACE [Hybrid HY20053], which came to the CD shelf on two discs. Liza fans loved it, naturally enough; those who weren't most probably didn't. Let it be said that Ms. Minnelli's salute to godmother Kay Thompson was an entertainment infinitely superior to her prior attempt, the haphazard 1999 affair entitled Minnelli on Minnelli.
Hidden away in the midst of February was perhaps the season's most hapless musical affair, THE STORY OF MY LIFE [PS Classics PS-981]. Like the aforementioned [title of show], this two-man affair seemed awfully slight in the Broadway spotlight despite the concerted efforts of Malcolm Gets and Will Chase. The CD indicates that the material is somewhat better than it appeared to be on the stage of the Booth; possibly good enough for stock and amateur groups looking for a contemporary two-man musical, although far too insubstantial and clunky to be plunked down across the street from Billy Elliot. Revivals of Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls took severe liberties with the shows in question; if neither makes it to CD, that's okay by me. Two significantly more accomplished revivals brightened the spring. The new WEST SIDE STORY [Masterworks Broadway 88697-52391] preceded itself with claims of being an improved and enhanced West Side Story, although this proved not to be precisely the case. The big changes seemed to consist of having the Puerto Rican characters sing some of their songs in English and some in Spanish; having the pivotal "A Boy Like That" sung in a language not spoken by the majority of the audience was an interesting choice. (And no, in this day and age it can no longer be said that most potential theatregoers knew what was going on thanks to familiarity with the movie; the ones seated next to me certainly didn't.) Musically there were a couple of alterations in the second act that I wager would have been summarily swatted aside by the composer as if they were the buzzings of a pesky mosquito. But the composer wasn't around. The revival has proved to be a sizable box office success, West Side Story being West Side Story; the CD is a fair representation of the revival, and seems likely to do well.
Let it be added that the producers of the cast album of West Side Story have seen fit to release different versions through different distributors. If you buy the CD in the traditional and presumably preferred manner, you will get what is presumably the "official" 16 tracks. Buy it from Barnes & Noble and you will get several additional tracks. Download it from iTunes and you will have the option to purchase several other additional tracks. If you download from iTunes, you can't get the Barnes & Noble tracks; if you buy it at Barnes & Noble, you can't get the iTunes tracks. If you just buy the CD in the old-fashioned manner, slapping down full list price on the barrel, you don't get any of these additional tracks (which include English-language versions of the Spanish songs which were written as English songs in the first place). Which is the "real," preferred release? Which is the version that the producers of this revival, and the producers of this cast album, proudly consider the finest rendition of their production? Which is the version that the proud investors, and the proud cast members, would cite as representative? Your call; in any event, I shall keep the original 1957 cast recording on my record shelf, on my iPod, and on my mind.
The other revival, HAIR [Ghostlight], fared equally well and took the much contested Tony Award as well. (At this writing, the cast recording is available for downloading, with the CD expected by month's end.) Gavin Creel and Will Swenson lead the cast of Diane Paulus' crowd-pleasing production, featuring — get this — a larger band than the 1968 and 1977 Broadway editions. Let the sun shine in, why don't you?
Hidden among a season filled with conventional musicals, family-fare musicals and revivals, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's NEXT TO NORMAL [Ghostlight 8-4433] stands out as the most arresting of the crop. This piece also underwent an unconventional gestation; starting at an Off-Broadway nonprofit (the Second Stage), the show was substantially revamped at an out-of-town nonprofit (Washington, DC's Arena Stage), and finally headed to Broadway's Booth following the hasty demise of The Story of My Life. The one significant loss along the way was that of Mr. d'Arcy James, who brought a sense of compassion to his role that was not evident in the final version. (By the time the show was remounted in Arlington, he was already trolling the swamps in his green fat suit.) Mr. Kitt seemed to be a talented but lost-in-the-forest newcomer when he arrived in 2006 with his maiden effort, High Fidelity. The two-disc cast album of Next to Normal demonstrates that he is a theatre writer, all right, with a Best Score Tony Award to show for it. The headline attraction of the venture, though, was the riveting performance which handily earned Alice Ripley a Tony Award of her own. Ten musical cast albums signifies a good year for cast album collectors. And this parade doesn't include what might well be the most eagerly awaited show and CD of the year, the Off-Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's Road Show, which should be in our hands by month's end.
(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)