The highlights of the new Broadway cast albums of 2008, at least for traditionalists, came in sparkling new recordings of sparkling new revivals of sparkling old musicals. "Sparkling" might be overused, perhaps, but it does seem to fit the items in question. We refer, of course, to South Pacific [Masterworks Broadway 88697-30457] and Gypsy [Time Life M19659].
The new Gypsy can't outclass the original 1959 cast album, with Ethel Merman, which is an historical document that still packs a wallop. Even so, Patti LuPone gives us a valid new take on the role, and Laura Benanti (as the title character) seems to surpass those who have come before her. Add in several bonus tracks of cut material — including the extended "Small World"/"Mama's Talking Soft" duet and "Smile, Girls," an unnecessary but artful song with which Merman briefly opened the second act—and we have a "Gypsy" not to be overlooked.
As for South Pacific, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza make that original album indispensable. But the Lincoln Center production, starring Kelli O'Hara and Paulo Szot, has carefully reproduced the show; and music director Ted Sperling and his orchestra have even more carefully reproduced the score. No, we don't get Mary, Ezio, Juanita Hall and Bill Tabbert in the first flush of 1949; but we really do hear the music in all its glory. And O'Hara and Szot, for their part, seem to generate considerably more heat than their predecessors. This is some enchanted evening, captured on CD.
As for original musicals, three of last spring's offerings brought very different sounds to Broadway and garnered their own distinct fan bases along the way. In the Heights [Ghostlight 8-4428] took the Best Musical Tony Award and continues to flourish, headed by songwriter/star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Passing Strange [Ghostlight] featured its own songwriter/star, who goes under the name Stew and who brought something decidedly different to West 44th. And then there's A Catered Affair [PS Classics PS-864], which also had an author/star in the person of Harvey Fierstein. The show received a harsh reception, though, and a shortened run. If John Bucchino's score and some fine performances were not enough to counteract the bad luck of the enterprise, the cast album is not to be overlooked.
The most exciting new musical of the year — or let us say the most arresting, intriguing, and unusual — came from the pen of a 31-year-old fellow from Milwaukee, Joshua Schmidt. Adding Machine [PS Classics PS-865] is the name. It might take some getting used to, but this piece — which received a first-rate Off-Broadway production — is altogether remarkable. Listeners who hate things like Floyd Collins might wish to steer clear, and they don't sing all that many pretty melodies; but Mr. Schmidt's score, well interpreted by featured performers Joel Hatch, Amy Warren, and Cyrilla Baer, make Adding Machine stand out. Fans of adventurous musicals also might want to take note of the Donmar Warehouse production of Rob Ashford's staging of Parade [First Night CASTCD 99], a reduced and altered —and enhanced — version of Jason Robert Brown's Tony Award-winning 1998 musical.
Reissues abound this year, with a number of intriguing never-before-on-CD titles added to the mix. The big item among the group, for obvious reasons, is the four-CD box set, Stephen Sondheim: The Story So Far [Masterworks Broadway 82796-94255]. This is a combination of the familiar and the rare, actually; a fair chunk of the material consists of tracks from original cast albums you presumably own, counterprogrammed with fascinating tracks pulled from the composer's archives. The whole thing is handsomely packaged and expertly produced, so it makes an impressive coffee-table CD. Sondheim fans are also sure to be interested in Evening Primrose [Kritzerland 20011-6]. This is the 1966 television musical the composer wrote while waiting around for "The Girls Upstairs" to go into production. (That is to say, Follies.) The four major songs are included on "The Story So Far," but the entire "Evening Primrose" makes for a delicious if brief 35 minutes with Tony Perkins and Charmian Carr.
Harbinger Records recently brought us two old-but-evergreen songbook albums that offer many joys. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin [Harbinger HCD-2502] features Nancy Walker — circa 1952 — serenading the great Ira, accompanied by singer/arranger/husband David Craig and pianist David Baker. Here are 18 songs, with music by not only George but Kern, Duke, Schwartz, Weill and others; some of these tracks, like "I Can't Get Started" and "Long Ago and Far Away," are pure perfection. Serving as pendant is Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne. The 76-year-old jazz singer went into the studio in 1987, shortly before her death, with the 81-year-old composer overseeing the set. Beautiful music, all right, mixing imperishable show tunes with those World War II songs of longing.
Usually appearing on our annual list are a few long-out-of-print cast albums brought back to life. None of said items are present this year. However, let's hear a word for Free As Air [Sepia 1102]. This 1957 West End musical — Julian Slade's follow-up to the extraordinarily successful (but bland) Salad Days — doesn't exactly qualify, as it was discussed in this column some 13 months ago. My initial reaction to the album was that it was mildly pleasant; as described in the column, when I listened to it a couple of weeks later I found myself liking it a lot. I then shelved it, after which it made its way into my give-away pile. As I was packing up cartons, something made me put Free As Air on once more. I must have listened to it six times straight, and have now transferred the thing to my iPod. So let's officially add Free As Air to the list; half of it, admittedly, is so-so, but the good stuff is far too enjoyable to overlook.
SOLOS WITH FRIENDS
The Molaskey-Pizzarelli combination once more leads our list of new solo CDs. Mr. Pizzarelli's With a Song in My Heart [Telarc CD-83676] takes the work of Mr. Rodgers and swings it, all right. Song after song is given superlative treatment; this disc calls to mind Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of the Rodgers & Hart songbook, but Pizzarelli — while he naturally enough interprets the songs in his own style — seems somehow truer to the material. Anyway you look at it, or rather listen to it, "With a Song in My Heart" is a treat. Mrs. Pizzarelli, meanwhile, countered with her own new CD, A Kiss to Build a Dream On [Arbors ARCD 19384]. What do they put in the water at the Pizzarelli house, anyway? While John restricted himself to show tunes from the pencil of Richard Rodgers, Jessica's CD is stocked with songs old and new, mixing familiar standards with recent-vintage Sondheim and other morsels. Everything she sings, I want to hear. And of course, she is backed up by John, his brother Martin and his father Bucky; what music this family makes! "John Pizzarelli: With a Song in My Heart" and "Jessica Molaskey: A Kiss to Build a Dream On" under the holiday tree, what a double-your-pleasure present for song lovers.
Barbara Cook isn't a member of the family circle, but by this point she might as well be. This year's offering, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder [DRG 94782], is one of her happiest of recent years. The songbag is varied, with old pop tunes — like the Jolson song which gives the disc its title — mixed with vintage show tunes, including especially fine renditions of "Where or When?" and "Lucky to be Me." Plus Gershwin, Sondheim and Bucchino, making a veritable rainbow 'round her shoulder all right. Add to the mix Sunday in New York [Ghostlight 8-3310], Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch's playful spree. That Broadway/cabaret pair take us back to 1950s New York, with selections that almost jump off the disc (led by "Haven't Got a Worry" and "Sunday in New York") before moving to a more contemplative mood, featuring two complementary slices of Sondheim (in "So Many People" and "Not While I'm Around"). Also of merit this season is Philip Chaffin's third CD, When the Wind Blows South [PS Classics PS-870]. Southern-tinged songs, with Mercer and Arlen leading the pack. (Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (Oxford) as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)