The New Musicals category of the 2005 holiday gift list was overloaded with something for everyone, led by The Light in the Piazza and including items ranging from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to Jersey Boys. Last year saw the release of 10 original Broadway cast albums, up from only two in 2004; 2006 collapsed back to – well, it's hard to define the number.
Technically speaking, there is only one original cast album of a new Broadway musical on our list: The entertaining, endearing and extremely funny Drowsy Chaperone [Ghostlight 7915584411]. The score is a tad more functional than flavorful, but no matter. Not when you have Sutton Foster, Bob Martin, Beth Leavel, Ed Hibbert, Danny Burstein and the rest on hand.
If we are not too technical about it, we may include other cast albums that are not exactly Broadway, starting with the delightful White Christmas [Ghostlight 7915581225]. (This is from the producers and orchestrator of The Drowsy Chaperone, as it happens.) White Christmas is a traditional Broadway musical with that good, old-fashioned Broadway sound, and no apologies – even if it has not yet reached the so-called Great White Way. The score is stocked with tuneful song after tuneful song, courtesy of I. Berlin. Brian D'Arcy James leads the cast, Karen Morrow offers an assist, and the music department make this Christmas a happy holiday. Billy Elliott [Decca Broadway B000613072] is a London, rather than Broadway, cast album. Still, based on current practice it may well be the only English-language cast album we get, even after Billy Elliott becomes — presumably — a big Broadway hit. Parts of Elton John's score are impressive, especially in comparison with his other musicals.
The same question – will there be a new cast album? — might be asked of Grey Gardens [PS Classics PS-642]. Will they issue a new-and-expanded disc reflecting the significant changes that were made between Playwrights Horizons and the Walter Kerr? In any event, the Off-Broadway cast album of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's Grey Gardens heads our 2006 list, being the most impressive new theatre CD since Light in the Piazza. Headed by Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson, this one makes for fascinating listening.
The year has seen an impressive selection of Off-Broadway cast albums, with the Messrs. LaChiusa, Gordon and Flaherty all bringing musicals of note. All three, let it be said, underwent problematic productions (if you define problematic as meeting qualified reviews and disappointing business). Yes, all three were difficult; but two or three spins on the old victrola — or, rather, plays on the new iPod — make a pretty convincing argument for the talent on display.
See What I Wanna See [Ghostlight 7915584408] is yet another arresting score from Michael John LaChiusa. Yes, the man seems to have a tendency to alienate some listeners, but he can certainly write musical theatre. Idina Menzel, Marc Kudisch, Mary Testa and Henry Stram lead the cast. Dream True [PS Classics PS 9641] is a studio cast amalgamation of several versions of this problematic show which — alas — never found its form. Even so, the score (by Ian Gordon and Tina Landau) is impressively rich. The cast includes Brian D'Arcy James (again), Jason Danieley, Jessica Molaskey, Victoria Clark, Kelli O'Hara, and Jeff McCarthy — how's that for a lineup! Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' Dessa Rose [Jay CDJAY2 1392] is engrossing and adventurous on CD, which was perhaps not the case in its New York premiere. This is serious musical theatre with moments of great beauty and some superb writing. On hand is another incredibly strong cast: LaChanze, Rachel York, Norm Lewis and Michael Hayden. Also of note is It's Only Life [PS Classics PS-639], an anthology revue featuring the songs of John Bucchino. Bucchino is an intelligent and original songwriter; he has had far less exposure than his peers, but is well worth the acquaintance. The cast, again, is superb: Jessica Molaskey (again), Gavin Creel, Billy Porter, Brooks Ashmanskas and Andrea Burns.
One real, full Broadway musical, yes, but 2006 gave us quite a few cast albums to add to our collection.
The pace of reissues continued, although the once overflowing archives show evidence of thinning out. This is due in great part to the ambitious Broadway Collector Series from DRG, which not only brings us new-to-CD items but recirculates out-of-print titles. Old-time collectors already have many of these shows, but the Broadway musical cannot hope to develop serious new fans if they can't hear scores like Loesser's Greenwillow, Rodgers' No Strings, Kander's A Family Affair and numerous forgotten titles (Flahooley, Oh Captain!, Plain and Fancy and more).
This year's most notable first-time-on-CD titles have long been on the most-requested list. The 1967 Music Theater of Lincoln Center production of South Pacific [Masterworks Broadway 82876-88393] was quickly withdrawn from the turntable, understandably so, as the original Mary Martin-Ezio Pinza has been a steady seller for the folks at Columbia/Sony. This revival — produced by Rodgers himself — is well-performed, and infinitely more audible than the 1949 LP. Florence Henderson and Giorgio Tozzi sing the leads; not Martin and Pinza, of course, but no apologies necessary. Of lesser importance, but with a high enjoyment quota, is Baker Street [Decca Broadway B0005971]. This was Alex Cohen's 1965 Sherlock Holmes musical, directed by Hal Prince, featuring more extravaganza than material. Even so, there are some enjoyable songs — especially when Inga Swenson is singing them — by Marian Grudeff and Raymond Jessel (with uncredited additions by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick).
Worthy out-of-print CDs that have reappeared this year include Golden Boy [DRG 19079], the 1964 Sammy Davis vehicle with a group of stunning songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; and the bubbly 1963 revival of Rodgers & Hart's The Boys from Syracuse [DRG 19085], with a fine singing cast featuring Karen Morrow and Ellen Hanley. Speaking of fine performers, Jay has remastered and reissued their two-disc, complete version of Cabaret [Jay CDJAY2 1311], an album which I did not sufficiently appreciate on its first release. This one has a lot to offer, including Judi Dench, Maria Freidman, Jonathan Pryce, Gregg Edelman and even Fred Ebb.
From the Songwriters
Harold Arlen is just about the best of the best, as far as I'm concerned. DRG dug into the old Capitol catalogue and brought us Harold Arlen and His Songs [DRG 19078], some of the very finest American songs of the 1930s and 1940s performed by one of the most distinctive singers of the day. Let's give it a five-star recommendation. DRG is generous enough to combine it with the relatively brief original cast album of Arlen's 1946 musical St. Louis Woman, which only enhances the value of this release. Reader response to a different Arlen reissue alerted me to a new jazz album of songs by the master, Barbara Fasano: Written in the Stars [Human Child Records HCR-825]. This CD will be reviewed in our next column, but Arlen fans can safely go ahead and order it in time for the holidays. And Let's Not Forget
Two top theatre singers gave us notable albums this year. Audra McDonald continued her veritable parade of top-notch CDs with Build a Bridge [Nonesuch 79862], drawn from Guettel, Gordon and a handful of non-theatre composers. Relative newcomer (to our shores, anyway) Maria Friedman also obliged with Now and Then [Sony Classical 82876-81427]. The British Friedman made her local debut last season with the ill-fated Woman in White. She belongs up near the head of the class of Sondheim interpreters, as this CD attests. And she belongs back on Broadway soon, please.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway." Prior ON THE RECORD columns can be accessed in the Features section on Playbill.com's front page. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.)