The holiday season approaches again, so here are my favorite Broadway related CDs of the past year's-worth of columns. Happily, there are far more recommendable titles than in recent years.
THE PRODUCERS [SONY BROADWAY SK 48220] was the hit of the year and appears to be well on its way to being the hit of the epoch. The original cast album — like the show — features joke after joke after joke. With Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick firmly in charge of the festivities, you can't go wrong. Are the songs by first-time composer/lyricist Mel Brooks as good as those in South Pacific or My Fair Lady or A Little Night Music? No, of course not; but The ProducersCD will have you laughing throughout.
URINETOWN THE MUSICAL [RCAVictor 09026—63821] is the unlikeliest Broadway hit of the year, and it has the most interesting score of the lot. First-time songwriters Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis start off with an homage to Weill and Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, but move on to other targets as the show proceeds. Yes, the score is heavily influenced by the likes of Blitzstein, Bernstein, and others; but Hollman and Kotis display enormous talent of their own, and the cast — headed by John Cullum and Jeff McCarthy — is exceptional.
BAT BOY: The Musical [RCA Victor 09026—63800], too, proved far more interesting than you'd expect. First-time composer/lyricist Laurence O'Keefe is in the same mood as the Urinetown boys; when things get silly, O'Keefe really lets go. Bat Boy is pretty much The Elephant Man, except that this Elephant Man shows up for the second act in a blue blazer with tassled loafers and gets the girl (before they all end up dead). Deven May, Kaitlin Hopkins, and Kerry Butler stand out. The first Broadway hit of 2000—2001 was a crowd—pleasing adaptation of THE FULL MONTY [RCA Victor 09026—63739]. Many of the song slots call for rhythm and noise over melody, which has caused the score to be overlooked by some. First-time composer/lyricist David Yazbek's work is better than it seems in the theatre; he has clearly been influenced by Frank Loesser, and that's a good thing. Patrick Wilson does most of the singing, and well; everyone else pitches in, with a very special contribution by the late Kathleen Freeman.
The only one of our new musicals by a Broadway veteran is the ill—fated SEUSSICAL [Decca Broadway 012 159 792]. Yes it had problems, in the score as well as in other departments; but the best of the songs were extremely good and hint at what might have been. Stephen Flaherty is one of our best current-day musical theatre composers, and the only composer under fifty with four Broadway musicals to his credit. So don't let Seussical's failings scare you away from the CD.
There are no fewer than six discs to recommend in this department; five of them, remarkably, are new to CD. And there are more promised for 2002.
SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING [Fynsworth Alley FA—001—LE] was a poor, pointless musical. Nobody seems to have told composer Jule Styne, though. He wrote a soaring score chockful of enjoyable melody, with suitably clever lyrics by Comden and Green. The songs, with one exception, are not especially good, mind you; but Subways — trapped out with especially good arrangements — is lots of fun.
Styne met Comden and Green in 1951, on TWO ON THE AISLE [Decca Broadway 440 014 583]. This was one of those old—fashioned, artlessly crafted revues that quickly succumbed to competition from TV variety shows. The songs are on the "pop" side, but there are enough good ones to make us think that Styne and Comden and Green might have a future. The great Bert Lahr is present (on two tracks), this being his only cast album of a Broadway musical. Co—star Dolores Gray does most of the singing, and she helps make the album a delight.
The 1968 musical GOLDEN RAINBOW [GL Music GL309] was one of the worst musicals of an especially poor season. The CD, nevertheless, is fascinating. The show more or less attempted to transport a Vegas floorshow to Broadway, with dire results, but the score is as bouncy as can be. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme starred, and they sing up a storm. Kitschy is the word, I believe; but who can resist Lawrence asserting "I Gotta Be Me"?
WORKING [Fynsworth Alley 302 062 1142] was something else altogether. Director Stephen Schwartz cobbled together a score from a half-dozen hands — including his own — which includes some highly impressive and powerful material. The long-out-of-print LP has been treasured by fans for years, many of whom wonder how this show — with this score — could have been such a dire failure. Take it from me; it was a mess. (Schwartz has been revising the show for years, so the version now performed by stock and amateur groups is better than what was on Broadway.) But the high spots — highlighted by Lynne Thigpen's rousing performance — make the CD far more interesting than the show's history would suggest.
Unlike the four shows discussed above in this reissue section, LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS [Bayview RNBW010] was actually a hit. An enormous one, in London (although the Broadway edition closed during the tryout). Laurie Johnson — of The Avengers— wrote the bouncy music, Lionel Bart — soon to burst upon the international stage with Oliver! — wrote the lusty lyrics. The album has four delicious songs in a row, which makes me mighty glad that Bayview — a small, new label in Miami Beach — somehow managed to get the rights to transfer this score to CD.
The one recommended reissue that has previously been released on CD is the original Broadway cast album Mitch Leigh's MAN OF LA MANCHA [Decca Broadway 012 159 387]. Richard Kiley and Joan Diener gave electric performances that for various reasons I don't suppose will ever be bettered. The new, 24—bit mastering makes a marked improvement over the earlier CD release, making La Mancha worth another listen.
NEW RECORDINGS OF OLD MUSICALS
Stephen Sondheim's THE FROGS [Nonesuch 79638] has long been overlooked, even by his strongest champions. Burt Shevelove's 1974 adaptation of an obscure play by Aristophanes was staged in the swimming pool at Yale; one week, and that was it. While a couple of the songs have resurfaced elsewhere, the specificity of the material — and the large scale of the choral numbers — ruled against further performance. A 2000 concert version demonstrated just how good this score is, and the recording is indispensable for Sondheim enthusiasts. The Frogs has been supplemented by four songs the composer wrote for the 1967 TV musical EVENING PRIMROSE, filling in another gap in the public Sondheim.
TIP—TOES [New World 80598], the sixth in a series of restored Gershwin musicals, is highly welcome. George and Ira wrote a handful of wonderful songs, which sound effortlessly simple and are delightfully performed. Tip—Toes is quintessential Twenties Gershwin, and who — I ask you — could ask for anything more? The 2CD set also includes TELL ME MORE, a lesser Gershwin opus which nevertheless contains a few happy surprises.
BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S [Original Cast OC—2100] is infamous among Broadway fans as one of the biggest flops ever, shuttering after four previews at the Majestic. Despite an enormous advance sale and the presence of TV stars Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, producer David Merrick pulled the plug. ("Rather than subject the drama critics and the theatre-going public to an excruciatingly boring evening, I have decided to close the show.") Tiffany's was torn asunder during the tryout, when Edward Albee came in to rewrite Abe Burrows; the two versions were pieced together for this new 2—CD set. The show was a mess, but Bob Merrill's score has its moments and — thanks to orchestrator Ralph Burns — sounds wonderful, with Faith Prince as Holly Golightly.
BILLION DOLLAR BABY [Original Cast OC—4304] was the 1945 followup to On the Town, with Comden and Green and Abbott and Robbins repeating their assignments. (Bernstein was unavailable, so composer Morton Gould wrote the music.) This was one of those innovative musicals that just missed the hit column; the score, unfortunately, disappeared. This was rectified by BT McNicholl's 1999 restoration as produced by the York Theatre Company. This is one interesting show, that's for sure — even with only a four—man band. Kristen Chenoweth, Debbie Gravitte, and Marc Kudisch lead an energetic company.
ps classics, a new independent label, gave us a restored version of Vincent Youmans's THROUGH THE YEARS [ps classics ps103]. This musical drama was a quick failure in 1932; it turns out to have a highly intriguing score, led by the brilliant title song (well sung by Heidi Grant Murphy). The label also brought us WINDFLOWERS: The Songs of Jerome Moross [ps classics 102], not a full recording of an old musical but a compilation of songs mostly from Ballet Ballads and the unproduced Underworld. These two CDs are not for everyone, but they are highly recommended to those with an interest in the more esoteric side of musical theatre. I have not yet reviewed the just—released ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936 [Decca Broadway 440 016—056], which I'll discuss in my next column. But don't let that stop you from getting this Encores! recording of the Vernon Duke — Ira Gershwin score. Ruthie Henshall's rendition of "Words without Music" alone is reason enough to choose this disc.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET:
The immensely talented William Finn took a group of top—notch musical theatre types to Joe's Pub last winter. Highlights were recorded under the title INFINITE JOY: The Songs of William Finn [RCAVictor 09026 63766] and they make a fascinating collection. Nobody writes like Finn, and the CD shows the many facets of his work. The songs are at once hilarious, raucous, poignant, and heartbreaking. Finn is joined by Liz Callaway, Carolee Carmello, Lewis Cleale, Stephen DeRosa, Norm Lewis, and Mary Testa; but it is the composer's own gruff—but—lovable song delivery that makes this disc a favorite.
— Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 1999—2000" and "Show Tunes" (both from Oxford University Press), and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section along the left—hand side of the screen.