ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List Holiday time is here once more, and so we present this year's list of recommended Broadway-related CDs.
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New Musicals
The New Musicals category of last year's holiday gift list included one — and only one — CD, the worthy Caroline, or Change. The musical theatre may be dying, as they've been saying every season since 1953 or so, but let me happily note that this year's list has six — count 'em — six original cast albums you can happily put on your CD player. 2004 saw the release of two original Broadway cast albums; 2005 saw ten (although not all earn a recommendation), which indicates robust health.

Heading the pack is Adam Guettel's rapturous and thoroughly ravishing The Light in the Piazza [Nonesuch 79829]. The score is impressive on first hearing, both on stage and CD. After six months I find that the CD holds up just about as well as Candide or A Little Night Music — which is to say, pretty exceptionally. Exceptional, too, is the work of the cast. Victoria Clark is the only one of the central trio who remains in the show at the Vivian Beaumont. If you haven't seen her in the piazza by the Lincoln Center plaza, try to.

No less than three comic musical comedies make the list. Monty Python's Spamalot [Decca Broadway B0004265] is the biggest hit of the trio, and apparently the biggest-seller of the year's cast albums. Even so, the score pales before the others. David Yazbek's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [Ghostlight 84406] is the funniest cast album since Avenue Q. The music is breezily tuneful, the lyrics are bright and raucous, and the whole thing is a delight. William Finn's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee [Ghostlight 7915584407], too, provides a musical comedy bright spot. Finn's comic touch is expected by now, and he doesn't disappoint. The high points in the score, though, are the especially moving character songs. Finn makes us laugh, and he tugs the heartstrings as well.

Stephen Sondheim's The Frogs [PS Classics PS-525] is not all new, musically speaking; Nathan Lane, who starred and wrote the adaptation for the 2004 Lincoln Center Theater production, headed a perfectly lovely studio cast version mounted for the composer's 70th birthday in 2000. The 2004 recording is more theatrical, in that it has an orchestra configured for the theatre, and it contains new material written for the occasion. That is to say, the newest Sondheim songs we've heard, and most welcome.

If these are not enough for you, we also have Jersey Boys [Rhino R2 73271], Broadway's new hit musical featuring songs of The Four Seasons. The show, in the theatre, has the propulsion of a cannonball; the CD, featuring John Lloyd Young's strong performance as Frankie Valli, makes a worthy souvenir. New Releases of Old Musicals
The abundance of this year's new musicals on CD was balanced by a reduction of new recordings of old musicals, a category that went from four entries (on last year's list) to zero. So be it, we'd just as soon have new Broadway musicals.

What we did have were the usual slate of reissues of old cast albums, some of which were making their first appearance on CD. Heading the pack was the 1958 studio cast album of Brigadoon [DRG 19071]. Musically, the album is impeccable. The original version, 11 years earlier, had been understandably truncated (it was the first cast album issued by RCA). By 1958, composer Fritz Loewe was royalty at Columbia, due to the label's backing of the super-hit My Fair Lady. Loewe apparently oversaw the recording, dictating tempos and more.

The results are extra special. Shirley Jones gives a first-rate performance as Fiona, the lass who is waitin' for her dearie. Even more astounding is Susan Johnson as Meg, the leading lady's best friend (and cousin to Ado Annie). Johnson started her career as a 19-year-old Brigadoon chorus girl, moving up to understudy and playing Meg in the road company. She has two solos on the cast album; every joke is nailed, every syllable is veritably launched from her lips to our ears, 50 years later. DRG's Hugh Fordin, in a recent interview, announced that this Brigadoon was one of the label's best-selling reissues. Surprising, perhaps, but deservedly so.

DRG gives us two additional treats. Some of the music for A Family Affair [DRG 19068] is so exciting that you can't help but ask, who is this first-time composer? John Kander was his name; I suspect you've heard of him in the interim. Fordin's label also reissued The Gay Life [DRG 19069], which was previously available on CD circa 1993. If you didn't get it then, you might well want it now. Barbara Cook is at what might be her most glorious; the up-and-down score has some truly magnificent numbers, from Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz; and Don Walker cloaks it all in a novel and delicious orchestration, featuring cimbalom and accordion.

For the lover of forgotten old musicals, four shows (on three CDs) are worth tracking down. The best, by far is, Hugh Martin's Look Ma, I'm Dancin'! [Decca Broadway B0003571]. This was a Nancy Walker vehicle, conceived (as they say) by Jerome Robbins. The cast album is ridiculously short — ten songs, supplemented by two alternate takes — but Look, Ma is mostly rollickingly good fun. Two other discs come our way from the London-based label Sepia. Seventeen/High Button Shoes [Sepia 1048] is mild but worthy, especially the latter score (from Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn). Two's Company [Sepia 1047] is one of the stranger Broadway cast albums in the canon, a Vernon Duke/Jerome Robbins revue starring the one and only Bette Davis.

From the Songwriters
This was an extra-special year for Sondheim fans, courtesy of two CDs containing songs from the composer's own personal tape recorder. Sondheim Sings Volume I, 1962-72 [PS Classics PS-9529] and Sondheim Sings Volume II, 1946-60 [PS Classics PS-9533] are endlessly fascinating for people interested in such things. A third volume is in the works and something to look forward to.

Harvey Schmidt, on the other hand, sat down at his piano last year and recorded an hour's-worth of his songs — music only, no lyrics — for Christmas distribution to his (many) friends. Harvey Schmidt Plays Jones & Schmidt [Kritzerland KR 20010] is such a delight that a commercial release followed. This home recording is not for everyone, but it is a treat nonetheless.

And Let's Not Forget
Opposite You [PS Classics PS-536], an album of duets from husband-and-wife Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. . . Jessica Molaskey: Make Believe [PS Classics PS-422], which was released in 2004 but didn't appear in this column until after last year's gift list. . . and, last but not least, the six-CD set My Son, The Box [Rhino Handmade MCSR 3027], being the collected work of the supreme parody-lyricist Allan Sherman. Somewhat spotty, but very funny.

—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.