It has usually been difficult, in compiling our annual gift list, to find five or so theatre-related recordings — original cast albums, studio albums, reissues, solo albums — that are worthy of unqualified recommendation. This year I am surprised to find myself with no less than seven original cast albums from the past year to get excited about. (As always, this is a Thanksgiving-to-Thanksgiving year; albums reviewed last December qualify, while items from next month will have to wait for the 2015 list.)
The best musical of the year, for me, was Fun Home [PS Classics]. Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron took cartoonist Alison Bechdel's graphic novel — a "Family Tragicomic," she termed it — and translated it to the stage in a manner that did credit to all three of them. Fun Home will finally reach Broadway in April 2015 at Circle in the Square, once Hugh Jackman finishes filleting fish in The River. By that point, theatregoers will have had a year to listen to the superb CD, featuring Beth Malone, Alexandra Socha and the altogether amazing young Sydney Lucas — jointly — as the leading character; plus Michael Cerveris (at his best) and Judy Kuhn (in a wrenchingly good performance).
Tesori — of Violet; Caroline, or Change, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek the Musical — moved to the top rank of musical theatre composers with this score, which includes remarkable song after remarkable song (such as "Ring of Keys," "Al for Short," "Changing My Major," "Come to the Fun Home," "Telephone Wire" and "Days and Days"). All are collaborations with bookwriter and first-time lyricist Kron. When I asked the latter, last June, how she managed to write such gripping lyrics on her first try, she said the secret was simple: "Just work with Jeanine Tesori." *
The best Broadway score of the year — even if the class was otherwise less than inspiring — was Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County [Ghostlight]. Brown has had a checkered time on Broadway, starting with the 1998 Parade (which earned Tonys for score and book but had a disappointingly curtailed life) followed by the quickly dismissed Urban Cowboy and 13. Bridges was an earnest but flawed musical and struggled through an under-attended three-month run at the Schoenfeld. The score and the leading performances from Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, though, were altogether remarkable and remain a highlight of recent theatregoing.
The show suffered from a troublesome adaptation, dragged down by sections featuring subsidiary characters and the material assigned to them. Never mind; songs like "To Build a Home," "Temporarily Lost," "Another Life," "Wondering," "Look at Me," "Falling into You," "Almost Real," "One Second and a Million Miles," "It All Fades Away" and "Always Better" remain gloriously alive on the cast album. Brown is back on Broadway again now, with Honeymoon in Vegas in previews, and perhaps this one will be the commercial hit that has thus far evaded him. As for Bridges, the failure of the show doesn't begin to reflect on the quality of the work. Now that Broadway is out of the way, perhaps the authors will go back and find a more workable form for their emotionally-surging chamber musical.
Writing about Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale singing gloriously in a failed musical brings us directly to Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's Far From Heaven [PS Classics], which like Bridges played a developmental tryout at the Williamstown Theatre Festival — starring O'Hara and Pasquale — and which opened in June 2013 at Playwrights Horizons for a disappointingly short run.
Frankel and Korie — the team from Grey Gardens — provided an often ravishing score to this noirish tale of a picture-book couple whose marriage disintegrates in 1957 Connecticut. (When the wife learns that her husband has been cheating on her — and not with women — she innocently befriends her African-American gardener, which sets suburban tongues wagging.) The show is altogether awash with music of a 50s jazz bent; so much so that I think the authors sabotaged themselves. A clutch of altogether stunning songs is accompanied by numerous brief songs and short exchanges of dialogue set to music. (The one-disc cast album includes 32 tracks, half of them under two minutes long.)
These song fragments worked for me in the theatre, giving the sense of an impressionist wash throughout the evening; art and art appreciation plays a part in the plot, which includes an illuminating song about Miró. But I was fully cognizant, sitting there at Playwrights, that well more than half of the audience around me had tuned out; too many musical bites, not enough meat. Perhaps some enterprising regional will give the authors the chance to work on a new version, enhancing the "full" songs while cutting down the appetizers.
For me, there is a lot of fine work in those appetizers, which I'd hate to see deleted. But if you lose your audience, your show has no life. Far from Heaven earns a spot on our list, though, for the "full" songs Frankel and Korie give us: "Autumn in Connecticut," "Sun and Shade," "Miró," "The Only One," "Tuesdays, Thursdays," "A Picture in Your Mind" and "Heaven Knows." Sharing the musical spotlight with O'Hara and Pasquale are Isaiah Johnson and Nancy Anderson. Let it be added that both Bridges and Far from Heaven have masterful orchestrations, from composer Brown on the former and Bruce Coughlin on the latter. *
Bridges and Far From Heaven — with major star-headed tryouts at Williamstown, award-winning authors and mainstream producers lined up in advance — both had their next step nearly guaranteed. What happens to a worthy musical with none of the above? Yank! [PS Classics] — from a little-known pair of brothers, Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book and lyrics) — was developed in less-visible venues, starting at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2005 and continuing with small productions in Brooklyn and San Diego. These led to a favorably-received 2010 mounting by the non-profit York Theatre Company which veritably demanded to be transferred. Commercial producers stepped in, added A-list director David Cromer to the project, and oversaw what were apparently significant improvements. But the proposed Broadway production fell through, so the authors took the post-York version into the recording studio.
Yank! is the story of two soldiers who meet in boot camp in 1943 and go to war, developing what they used to call a forbidden relationship. The show would seem to call for a pastiche score, filled with Andrews Sisters-type songs. That's where the Zellniks surprised us; the writing is at once raucous — in a WWII soldier sort of way — and incredibly tender. "A Couple of Regular Guys," in fact, is one of the most moving show tunes we've heard in the last five years. "Rememb'ring You/Letters," "You, You," "Click" and "Your Squad Is Your Squad" all impress, with special orchestrations for the album by Jonathan Tunick. The cast was led by Bobby Steggert — who has become a frequent Broadway presence since the York production — and Ivan Hernandez, with a major assist from tap-dancin' Jeffry Denman (who also choreographed).
While the Yank! cast album was not released until February 2014, keep in mind that the new Broadway musicals at the time (2009-10) were Memphis, The Addams Family and 9 to 5. This placed Yank! at the top of that season's list along with The Scottsboro Boys, which opened a few weeks after Yank! at the Vineyard and which did — thanks to the starpower of Kander, Ebb and Stroman — make the jump to Broadway.
Our list of excellent cast albums continues with two exciting non-traditional musical hits: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's discobeat poperetta Here Lies Love [Nonesuch] and Dave Malloy's modernist Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 [Ghostlight]. Here Lies Love — which is finishing its run at the Public Jan. 4, 2015, and enthusiastically recommended — is kind of a modern-day story similar to that of Evita, only with Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos in the hot seat and a better score. For all the surging rhythms that make it the dancingest musical in town (other than, perhaps, On the Town), the authors have also provided high-caliber songs like the title number, "The Rose of Tacloban," "Star and Slave" and "Just Ask the Flowers." Ruthie Ann Miles, Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora lead the talented cast.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Malloy's Great Comet, a retelling of the Natasha and Pierre substory of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Malloy starts the proceedings with a canny Prologue, instantly hooking us into the milieu. The musical styles range from slashingly ultra-contemporary to engrossing art song. "No One Else," "Natasha and Anatole," "Natasha Lost," "Charming," "Letters," "Sonya Alone," "Natasha and Pierre," and the soaring finale "The Great Comet of 1812"; in diverse manner, Malloy continually reaches out and grabs you. The altogether perfect cast is headed by Phillipa Soo as Natasha and Malloy himself as Pierre, with strong assists by Brittain Ashford, Amber Gray and Lucas Steele. *
Along with these six new musicals, one revival cast album makes our list. Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet [PS Classics] is not a pure revival; the show was significantly revised and rethought for the 2013 Encores! one-night-only concert and the resulting transfer to the Roundabout. The two-disc recording — and the revival itself — demonstrated that this all-but-obscure musical, which ran 32 performances in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons and had been all but overlooked in the interim, is an important piece of musical theatre writing. The star power of Sutton Foster seems to have instigated the revival, and she gave what might be the finest performance we have yet seen from her. Major contributions also came from Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, Alexander Gemignani and teenage actress Emerson Steele. The opening sequence ("On My Way") is impressive, but the show takes off with a five-voiced poker game entitled "Luck of the Draw." The charms of the score continue with "Lay Down Your Head," "Let It Sing," "Promise Me, Violet" and "Look at Me." Tesori has gone on to important things culminating in Fun Home, as at the top of this column; but "Luck of the Draw" in itself marked her as a theatre composer with a major future.
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Our cabaret recording is "Ahrens & Flaherty: Nice Fighting You" [Broadway Records]. The songwriters of musicals ranging from Ragtime to Rocky celebrated their 30th anniversary as a songwriting team with six performances over three nights in September 2013 at 54 Below. When they went to invite a few friends to come and sing songs from their shows, they wound up with 17 eager acceptances. What else could they do but spread everyone out, with about three dozen songs heard over the weekend? The personable songwriters, naturally, served as amiable hosts (and performed a bit); music director Ted Sperling did what must have been a herculean job of rehearsing and arranging all the songs with all the singers, although everything came across sounding smooth and effortless.
Broadway Records recorded everything and compiled it onto two packed CDs featuring Liz Callaway, LaChanze, Quentin Earl Darrington, Kecia Lewis, Jessica Molaskey, Mary Testa, Marin Mazzie, Stephanie J. Block, Jeremy Jordan, Kevin Chamberlin, Lewis Grosso, Annaleigh Ashford, Bobby Steggert, Rebecca Luker, Brian Stokes Mitchell; they keep on coming, with just about every number — from such shows as Lucky Stiff, Seussical, Once on this Island and Little Dancer (currently in tryout at the Kennedy Center) — scoring. "Ahrens & Flaherty: Nice Fighting You" it's called, and it's a winner.
Also earning our approbation is "Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013" [Harbinger]. Harnick is our longest-reigning Broadway songwriter, having arrived on 45th Street in 1952, and one of the finest lyricists of our time; as witty and clever as the best of them, but with heart and warmth inbred. The folks at Harbinger combed through Harnick's archives to find 53 items, which are crammed onto two CDs. They purposely eschew the familiar; what we get are songwriter demos, live recordings, pop recordings and even a recent, previously unrecorded item sung by Audra McDonald. These are indeed hidden treasures, many of which might set your eyes twinkling.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the “Opening Night on Broadway” books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)