The holiday season has arrived, which means it's time for our annual list of recommended CDs. In years past, there haven't been all that many cast albums to recommend. 2012, happily, has considerably more — some new musicals, some old — than usual. Can you imagine that? Here we address new musicals and a couple of new studio-cast recordings.
The best musical of the year goes to — rip open that envelope — Once [Masterworks Broadway]. This unconventional item is perhaps the opposite of a traditional Broadway musical, but the thing works exceptionally well. The show was a joy when it first opened last December at New York Theatre Workshop. Transferred uptown to the much-larger Jacobs, the thing actually plays better! This is the most musical musical we've seen in some time, a joy from start to finish. Magical, too. The songs work wonderfully well, and the original cast —which seems to still be intact, by the way — is filled with superb performers. Led by Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, both of whom are terrific. Back in the late 1960s, a long-running Broadway musical ran an ad campaign built around the tagline "What, you've only seen Man of La Mancha once?" I have, for one reason or another, seen Once five times now, and let me attest: once is not enough.
Arriving on Broadway in a roundabout manner is Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's A Christmas Story, The Musical [Masterworks Broadway]. This attempt at a full-scale family musical suitable for annual visits to Broadway — in the manner of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and White Christmas — started life regionally, in Kansas City circa Christmas 2009. Get new songwriters! They reassembled in 2010 at Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre. Get a new director and choreographer! They then hit the show once more, in 2011, for a five-city tour. Doesn't sound like a recipe for success, does it? But this time you had producers who seem to have watched their show grow, paid attention to what needed to be done, and figured out a way to implement their plans. Into the Lunt it came just in time for this year's holiday season. A Christmas Story is easily the best Broadway musical since Once, although in this case there hasn't been much competition. Pasek & Paul, whose Dogfight played Second Stage last summer, sound pretty good thus far.
The CD was recorded somewhere between Seattle and Chicago, so the only still-remaining principal is John Bolton (which is a good thing, mind you). Also heard on the recording — but not at the Lunt — are Tom Wopat and an exceptionally strong Liz Callaway. The astounding tap number in the second act — "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" — is not included, as it wasn't written until the Broadway incarnation.
The 2010 Broadway holiday season brought forth Elf [Ghostlight], another festive family musical. Based on the 2003 Will Ferrell film of the same title, Elf was a suitably sparklejollytwinklejingley affair. (If sparklejollywtinklejingley sounds twee, it ain't; it launches a perfectly delectable production number.) The original cast album of Elf demonstrates a good, old-fashioned musical comedy score from Matthew Sklar & Chad Beguelin. Sebastian Arcelus leads the festivities as the misidentified elf, and the CD is pretty much a charmer. Elf didn't earn much respect from some of my critical colleagues back in 2010, but it was a crowdpleaser that did impressive business. It is currently back at the Hirschfield for this year's holiday stretch, with noticeable improvements starting with a snappy (and funny) new opening number. What's more, they — meaning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his producers, I suppose — have seen fit to replace the more or less traditional (if naive) hero with a clownish buffoon, in the person of Jordan Gelber (who originated Brian — the non-puppet neighbor — in Avenue Q). In effect, it's like watching Josh Gad play the leading man instead of Andrew Rannells. This takes Elf, which was pretty much a whimsical fantasy in the first place, and turns it into a grand Christmas cartoon.
Moving Off-Broadway, we have Michael John LaChiusa's Queen of the Mist [Ghostlight]. A musical about some old dame (Mary Testa) plunging over Niagara Falls in a barrel might sound unusual. It is, indeed, but LaChiusa — writing for Testa, his occasional muse — has come up with one of his best scores. Intelligent and intellectually stimulating, as is his norm, but audience-friendly as well (which is not, necessarily, his norm). This is a mood piece, in which you may gladly submerge. Testa and her companions (including Andrew Samonsky, Julia Murney and Theresa McCarthy) help make it compelling.
What we don't have on CD, thus far, is LaChiusa's newest: Giant. While not a flawless gem at this point, this is a monumental musical along the lines of The Most Happy Fella. Those interested in such stuff will want to find their way to the Public before the already-extended engagement closes on Dec. 16. I expect it highly likely that we will eventually get a cast album, and it's bound to be a special one.
Let us digress to point out that both Giant and Queen of the Mist were supported by the non-profit Ted and Mary Jo Shen Charitable Fund. Ted Shen clearly believes in the future of the musical theatre; the Fund has been supporting work by LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel and others for years now. Sondheim, too. Shows like these simply wouldn't exist without dedicated patrons happy to support progressive musical theatre out of their own pockets. I suppose that when we ultimately get a cast recording of Giant — and we do need a cast recording of Giant— it will be in part thanks to the efforts of the Shens.
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The final original cast album of our select group comes not from New York but New Brunswick, NJ. Barry Wyner's Calvin Berger [Ghostlight] — about a suburban "Cyrano de Bergerac" in high school — was developed regionally, and never made it into town despite a high-profile production at the George Street Playhouse under the direction of Kathleen Marshall. The score, though, is bright, disarming, and continually surprising. Enough so that you might find it worth tracking down.
Once, of course, was derived from — and featured the score from — a motion picture. (Unlike most such adaptations, it turned out splendidly. Perhaps because they did everything in an unconventional manner.) Queen of the Mist comes from the perennial outsider Mr. LaChiusa, while the other three above-mentioned CDs came from a young and new generation of songwriters. So it looks — this month, at least — like maybe something's coming, something good, other than just a parade of jukebox musicals.
FROM THE STUDIO
Rooting through the miscellaneous drawer of the George Gershwin filing cabinet, record producer Tommy Krasker — who has already restored and recorded numerous Gershwin musicals — came upon Sweet Little Devil [PS Classics]. This was an item written just before George attained celebrity status in 1924 with "Rhapsody in Blue" and a passel of tunes in the Astaire musical Lady, Be Good. Written not with brother Ira but lyricist B.G. DeSylva, the show opened and closed and moved into instant obscurity.
Obscure, yes; but it was Gershwin at the time of the "Rhapsody" (which premiered just three weeks after Sweet Little Devil opened on Broadway). Krasker's hunch turned out to be canny. While this is certainly not the equal of the finest scores of the '20s, it is pretty enjoyable and makes a nifty confection for our listening pleasure. Especially with the likes of Rebecca Luker, Danny Burstein, Jason Graae and more. We close with a just-arrived two-disc set from PS Classics, too late for review (we'll address it in the coming weeks) but presumably worthy of mention. "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" features no less than 28 songs by Jerome Kern, the granddaddy of the Broadway musical, compiled into revue form by arranger-music director David Loud. With a six-person cast headed by Rebecca Luker and Kate Baldwin, this should be of interest to Kern enthusiasts.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
Visit PlaybillStore.com to view theatre-related recordings for sale.