We have not been enjoying all too many new musicals this past year. Hands down winner of the cast album sweepstakes, to my ears anyway, is The Scottsboro Boys [Jay CDJay1421]. This is the new (and possibly final?) Kander and Ebb musical that premiered at the Vineyard last spring, moved onto the Guthrie in Minneapolis for a summertime engagement, and came to the Lyceum this fall for a run that has been cut short (closing Dec. 12, in fact) by a failure among ticketbuyers. A hard sell, certainly, as serious musicals about race and hypocrisy often are. I will chalk Scottsboro up as a success, though; yeah, the producers lost their investment, but this is the sort of enterprise in which I'd guess most of the producers knew going in that they faced long odds. Scottsboro was a show that demanded to be seen; thanks to said producers, audiences had the chance to see it.
To those who carped that the show should not have been moved to Broadway, I offer that there was simply no other financially viable place to continue the run. Certainly, this show could not have been realistically mounted Off-Broadway; the size of the cast and the band made Off-Broadway an unviable option. So the choice was to let it fade away after the limited run at the Vineyard, which would have been detrimental to the course of the American musical theatre, or to buckle down and move to Times Square. I am thrilled that the producers gave the show this chance, and I suspect the investors themselves agree despite the financial loss.
The CD was recorded just after the Vineyard run, which means that it does not include several members of the Broadway cast; nor does it reflect the changes and improvements made during the run in Minneapolis. No matter; the CD is a fine reflection of the show, and a score that you really ought to hear.
Also high on this year's CD list, with extenuating circumstances, is Sondheim on Sondheim [PS Classics PS-1093]. James Lapine's Roundabout revue from last spring brought audiences Stephen Sondheim canned, on video screens, telling us about life upon the wicked stage. Or, rather, life off the wicked stage and on the living room couch. It was Sondheim's presence that made the show quite a bit more than just another songwriter revue. The CD does the same; we have Sondheim talking to us, and making things very interesting. As on the stage, Sondheim on Sondheim was more intriguing when Sondheim is talking. Some of the singers are exceptionally good, starting with Barbara Cook and Norm Lewis; some of them are okay. But it's Sondheim who made this work on stage, and he does so on this Grammy Award-nominated CD as well. There were a few other cast albums of new musicals this year, led by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, and Memphis. Since reviewing them in this column, I confess that I have not especially wanted to play any of them again.
New Recordings of Old Musicals
Most interesting of the lot, I suppose, is Nikolaus Harnoncourt's full-scale recording of Porgy and Bess [RCA Red Seal/Sony 88697591762]. Harnoncourt has made some interesting choices; given that the show underwent significant changes during the tryout and Gershwin died soon thereafter, the conductor's mission has been to try to determine what the composer would have wanted in subsequent productions. (His method: taking the opening night version that reached the Alvin in 1935, removing some things, and restoring others. For details, go back to my review of the CD.) The music sounds extremely good, actually, in comparison to the other full-length recordings of Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately, Harnoncourt's set is marred by a no-better-than-decent Porgy and a decidedly weaker Bess. Even so, Gershwin's music on this CD sounds pretty good.
A very different sort of experience comes from the new recording of the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens Seussical [Jay CDJay1420]. This reduced version, performed Off-Broadway and on tour by the children's theatre group Theatreworks, helped solve many of the problems which scuttled the original Broadway version of the show. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge sacrificed spectacle in place of imagination, which turns out to be what the good doctor might have ordered. And the songs come through especially nicely.
Two treats of the year came from PS Classics. Finian's Rainbow [PS-1008] transferred from Encores to the St. James, finding a warm embrace from a limited audience but not enough business to allow for a substantial run. The CD, happily, gives us a first-rate reading of the score — especially valuable as the original 1947 Finian recording is altogether low fidelity. Here we have Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson in the leads, with a full-sized orchestra playing the original charts. On the shows-that-were-never-previously-recorded front came a restoration of Life Begins at 8:40 [PS-1090], the 1934 hit revue from the Messrs. Arlen, Harburg & Gershwin (Ira). This is not the finest score that these gentlemen ever wrote either individually or collectively, but it is a treat nevertheless.
Reissues Things were especially happy on the reissue front this year. The Masterworks Broadway parade of releases — available for digital download, with hard copies pressed on demand by Arkivmusic — rewarded us with one of the cast album CDs I have been waiting for the longest. Marc Blitzstein's Regina, the masterful adaptation of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, is a superb example of musical drama. If you like Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, you will surely welcome this 1958 recording of the City Opera production starring Brenda Lewis. Masterworks also gave us two welcome items from the archives which were previously available but not in nearly so good condition. Hugh Martin's 1951 musical Make a Wish features Nanette Fabray, Stephen Douglass, Helen Gallagher, and Harold Lang. That's some foursome. The show, produced by Jule Styne and with a book by Abe Burrows (replacing Preston Sturges, whom they fired), was a mess; but the CD sure sounds like great fun, with some wonderful Martin tunes. What Makes Sammy Run? was another flop — albeit a longer-running one — doctored by Burrows. Pop songwriter Ervin Drake wrote the whole thing himself, and not with great distinction. One song stands out, "A Room Without Windows," and it all sounds pretty tuneful by today's standards. The whole show here was Steve Lawrence, who played the anti-hero and kept the show afloat as long as he was happy. Once unhappy, he started missing performances and Sammy ran aground.
It's one thing to remaster state-of-the-art cast albums from the professionals at Columbia or RCA Victor, and quite another to tackle recordings with famously problematic difficulties. Kritzerland Records did just that with the original 1968 Broadway cast album of Promises, Promises [KR 20015-9]. This recording had previously been issued on CD, but with the original problems haphazardly compounded in the mastering process. Kritzerland's Promises is simply superb, with Jerry Orbach, Jill O'Hara, and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations in all their original splendor. Kritzerland did the same thing with the original 1972 cast album of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's Sugar [KR 20016-7]. This recording sounds quite good, yes, although the show falls apart in the second act just like it did on the original cast LP and like it did in the theatre. Still, a Jule Styne score with Bobby Morse as chief clown has merits that transcend second act — and first act — trouble.
On the non-cast recording front, we have two CDs that I've not yet been able to review. Both deserve a slot on our holiday list, so take this as a vote of recommendation for Michael Feinstein's Fly Me to the Moon [Duck Hole Records DR-3083], featuring guitarist Joe Negri, and Love on a Summer Afternoon: Songs of Sam Davis [PS Classics PS-1095]. Look for my reviews in early 2011.
(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.) *
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