The holiday season has arrived once more, so here are recommended Broadway-related CDs of the past year. In last year's column I was able to state that "happily, there are far more recommendable titles than in recent years." Not this year, I'm afraid. But if there are less items on our list, the top picks of the year are better suited for repeated listening than anything on last year's list.
In a word, HAIRSPRAY [Sony Classical SK 87708]. Broadway's fluffiest new musical has lustrous shine and bounce to the ounce, with extra-long hold. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have given us the most satisfying new musical comedy score in years; tuneful, clever, and with a delicious sense of humor that bursts through again and again. Delightful performances abound, too, making Hairspray the Broadway album of the year.
ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY [DRG 12994] is a fair representation of Stritch's powerhouse of a special event. Not as overwhelming as watching her storm her way through the material live; there was an electric energy in the theatre that is beyond the capabilities of modern-day recording equipment. But the CD gives you an idea of how exhilarating and enchanting this evening of grit, determination, talent and flair was. And don't overlook the contribution of orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and Rob Bowman's band.
I can't express any enthusiasm for Thoroughly Modern Millie, last spring's big musical (by default). Two flawed musicals, both of them quick failures, left behind cast albums that are far more interesting than you might expect. THOU SHALT NOT [Papa's-June Music, no catalogue number] and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS [Sony Classical SK89922] were high concept musicals; both were fatally dark, exposing the seamy side of nature, Broadway-style. The three leading characters of Thou Shalt Not were dead by curtain's fall; Sweet Smell was relatively mirthful, with only one of the two leads beaten to death onstage. Both scores were buried in the theatre. The CDs indicate that the songwriters — Harry J. Connick on the former, Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia on the latter — were onto something. Their collaborators, unfortunately, were going in other directions. And don't overlook THE LAST 5 YEARS [Sh-K Boom 4001], Jason Robert Brown's two-character Off Broadway musical. This is a collection of solos, mostly, but with a wide variety of emotion. Time and again, Brown's melodies soar; his lyrics, laced with sardonically clever asides, keep things human and touching (and funny). Well-performed by Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, effectively orchestrated for five pieces by the composer, and highly impressive all around.
2002 was strong in reissues, as the major labels finally began loosening their grip on obscure titles in the archives. The most indispensable of these is LI'L ABNER [Sony Classical SK 87700]. This 1956 musical has one of Broadway's bounciest comedy scores, with Gene de Paul's melodies sparked by Johnny Mercer's mirthfully juicy lyrics. Abner was released on CD in 1990, in an indifferently-transferred limited edition; this sold out quickly, leaving collectors rubbing their heads when they couldn't find a copy. Sony Classical has thankfully re-released it, this time impeccably remastered; they also added as a bonus track an orchestral runthrough of the "Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet," which was not included on the original LP. Abner sounds better than ever now. While far from a perfect musical comedy, the score — as delivered by Peter Palmer, Edie Adams, and especially the imperishable Stubby Kaye — is a perfect delight.
Sony also saw fit to license a bunch of Columbia cast albums to DRG. These shows were, admittedly, not very good. Some of the albums, though, manage to be highly entertaining despite the material, thanks to performers and arrangers. OH CAPTAIN! [DRG 19030] and BRAVO GIOVANNI [DRG 19031], for example. The first features Tony Randall, Jacquelyn McKeever, and the imperishable Susan Johnson. (Susan Johnson and Stubby Kaye; now there's a combination!) Oh Captain! has some especially perky songs from Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, along with other songs that don't quite work. Bravo Giovanni is somewhat better constructed, although flimsier. It features opera singer Cesare Siepi, a teenaged Michele Lee singing even louder than the opera singer, and Robert Ginzler's final complete set of orchestrations.
WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? [GL 115], yet another Columbia title, made its appearance as well. Star Steve Lawrence owned the master, and released the CD on his own label. This was one of those highly proficient musicals that just missed the hit column. Lawrence is especially impressive, as is co-star Sally Ann Howes. GL — Gorme-Lawrence, that is — seems to have transferred the mono LP; I suppose the stereo tapes were missing or damaged. The CD is not as vibrant as the stereo LP, but collectors should nevertheless be glad to have Sammy on CD.
Lionel Bart's 1964 West End hit MAGGIE MAY [Bayview RNBW020] also made its CD debut. This is an ambitious and bounteous score that fans of Bart will want to snap up. I suppose that some listeners might find the score and the accents a bit too tough for enjoyment, so take that as a warning. But I'm always glad for more Bart.
NEW RECORDINGS OF OLD MUSICALS
None. This category had six entries last year, and not a single one for this season. Studio cast albums are frightfully expensive, with relatively little sales potential. There are several long-announced albums in the works — One Touch of Venus and Sherry, to name two — and we will get them when their labels are ready to release them. I've been waiting for a full recording of Venus since forever, so what's an extra year or two? In the meanwhile, you can still pick up Sondheim's THE FROGS/EVENING PRIMROSE [Nonesuch 79638] from last year's list, if you don't already have it on your shelf.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET
Two highly enjoyable personality albums: One is a big budget affair with all the stops pulled out; the other features a mere handful of musicians simply making music. Both feature songs from the first half of the twentieth century, both come from producer Tommy Krasker. AUDRA MCDONALD: Happy Songs [Nonesuch 79645] and Jessica Molaskey's PENTIMENTO [PS Classics ps-205] are very different but equally delicious. It was not such a bad year for CDs after all, not with "Happy Songs" and "Pentimento" and L'il Abner and The Last 5 Years and Hairspray!
Steven Suskin, author of "Broadway Yearbook 2000-2001," "Broadway Yearbook 1999-2000," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books.