ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List Holiday time is here once more, so we present this year's list of recommended Broadway-related CDs.
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New Musicals
The state of the original Broadway cast album picked up slightly in 2007, not all that difficult when you consider the lack of product in 2006. (If you exempt Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens — both of which were in some ways more reflective of their Off-Broadway productions, having been recorded prior to rehearsals of their Broadway transfers — you were left with The Drowsy Chaperone and little more.)

The current semester was highlighted by Legally Blonde. Alas, already I hear a complaint or two. A considerable segment of the audience, and the critical contingent, did not seem to like this musical. I thought it was just dandy, with a bright and funny musical comedy score from Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, and I don't quite understand the potshots that have been lopped at Elle Woods & friends. Laura Bell Bundy and Christian Borle lead the good-natured cast. This is not Sweeney Todd, nor Spring Awakening or Grey Gardens either. Simply daffy musical comedy in the pink. And let us add a sociological note: Harvard now seems to be the university of choice for pre-teen girls, which demonstrates the power of the Broadway musical.

On the other side of the spectrum — and I mean way over on the other side of the spectrum — comes LoveMusik [Ghostlight 8-4425]. Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy present uncanny portraits of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, which make this cast album sound like an evening in the parlor with the composer and his wife. Or parlor and bedroom, if you will. The musical had its problems on stage, which can happen when you supply your dramatic musical with songs from a first-rate but limited catalogue. On disc, though, the stars, their supporting players, and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick inhabit the music of Weill, coming up with something special in the process.

Tunick also has his music pencil sharpened for the revival cast album of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' 110 in the Shade [PS Classics PS-754]. This is a case of a show which is already well-represented by its 1963 original cast album (which is, however, currently once again out-of-print). But the Roundabout recording has something the original did not have, namely Audra MacDonald giving a searing performance in the role of Lizzie. Also on hand are Steve Kazee and Christopher Innvar as her suitors, and John Cullum offering a strong and flavorful assist in the relatively minor singing role of Lizzie's father, H.C. Falling outside the Broadway list is the Encores! reconstruction of Irving Berlin's Depression-era Face the Music [DRG 94781]. This marks the first-ever recording of the score, which more or less disappeared after its 1932 run. The CD makes an old-fashioned musical comedy funfest, with the songs sounding a couple of rungs better than they are in the hands of Rob Fisher and a group of charming quartet of featured players (namely Jeffrey Denman, Meredith Patterson, Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull).

Earning a place on the 2007 list is a holdover from 2006, Grey Gardens [PS Classics PS-642]. The show moved to Broadway with some significant new material and a key cast change, warranting the release this April of a second original cast album. This is the first album, mostly, but with enough new tracks to make it worth the purchase — especially for those who haven't bought the first CD.

Reissues
The stream of reissues has slowed down, in part because most of the likely suspects have already been brought back into print (and in many cases remastered more than once). This year saw the appearance of three important titles from the piano bench of Mr. Sondheim. Sweeney Todd [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68639] ranks high on the list of all-time great cast recordings, and has received the finest remastering of the group. Sunday in the Park with George [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68638] and Into the Woods [Masterworks Broadway 82876-68636], too, are considerably improved and offer far more clarity than the original LPs.

A number of British musicals have come along as well. Of these, Grab Me a Gondola [Sepia 1101] is perhaps most worthy of interest. The score is of the negligible '50s style; a couple of the songs are good, while some are so — well, not good — as to make entertaining listening. This CD makes the list, in part, due to the inclusion of selections from the UK transfers of Broadway's Wonderful Town and Pal Joey. The latter brings us the Vera Simpson of Carol Bruce, which is well-worth seeking out. (Ms. Bruce died just after this CD was issued, and was apparently flattered by the attention it brought her.)

Solos with Friends
This year's list ends with not two or four but five CDs from PS Classics. These are led by a recently-released trio from contemporary musical comedy leading ladies: Victoria Clark: Fifteen Seconds of Grace [PS-755], Lauren Kennedy: Here and Now [PS-752] and Andréa Burns: A Deeper Shade of Red [PS-756]. All are special in their own separate ways, and all feature show tunes by some of our younger, present-day songwriters. A little-known present-day songwriter also came out with her own album, this ordinary thursday: The Songs of Georgia Stitt [PS PS-748]. Ms. Stitt is a very special composer, and her CD is quite a find. Finally, Jessica Molaskey — in tandem with that banjo-pickin' husband of hers, John Pizzarelli — brought forth her fourth CD, Jessica Molaskey: Sitting in Limbo [PS Classics PS-751]. The first three Molaskey-Pizzarelli specials have been featured on past holiday gift lists, and this year's entry handily earns the same accolades.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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