* Thank God for the modern age of digital music. With my new 128 GB iPhone, I can walk around with my entire music library instantly available at the tip of my fingers — literally! When I go on a trip, there are no more strenuous "Sophie's choices" to make over whether to bring along my Patti LuPone Gypsy Broadway cast recording or my bootleg tracks, capturing the live audience excitement. I can take it all!
I am, however, old enough to remember a time when things where quite different, when I was a teenager and had to narrow it down to under 20 CDs for the 18 sleeves in my Discman case's music storage compartment. 18 may be a lucky number for the Jews, but it was the cause of a lot of angst for this theatre lover! And don't even get me started on my early childhood, when I had to copy LPs on to cassette tapes for my Walkman… Of course, it's all sweet nostalgia now that things have changed. But what if I were stuck on a desert island and had to choose just 18? With a nod toward years gone by, here is Part One of my selections for 18 desert island cast albums.
18. [title of show]
I still look back wistfully on the summer of 2008, when Broadway's Lyceum became the "Julyceum" for quartet of dreamers to tell their story on stage. My comfort is a wonderful cast recording to play over and over again that preserves Heidi Blickenstaff's gorgeous voice, Susan Blackwell's quirky shamanic powers and the charming and moving interplay of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen. Of course, in the digital age, I can also enjoy "the [title of show] show" featuring a host of fabulous Broadway guest-stars ("Get out of here, Cheyenne Jackson!"), but desert island, desert island. An honorable mention/shout-out to my runners-up that I painfully leave behind: Ragtime, Rags, Ain't Misbehavin and Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. I could go on, but this is just an article — I don't really have to give up the dozens of other Broadway cast recordings I would miss!
17. Avenue Q
It's hard to believe it's been over 10 years since the delightful Avenue Q first opened at the Golden Theatre on Broadway (after an acclaimed run at the Vineyard Theatre and before settling in for a second long run at New World Stages). I can't think of another show that so summed up the experience of my generation making our way in the world in the early 2000s. Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx's score songs are the kind of showtunes that transcend genre and make fans out of non-theatre people. (All my friends in L.A. love Avenue Q!) And the indelible performances on the album are to treasure, especially John Tartaglia and the great Ann Harada, who lights up the proceedings with clarion belt and subversive warmth.
The Broadway hit Hairspray made musical theatre magic out of underground auteur John Waters' crossover feature film. Much credit is due Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's tight book and Jack O'Brien's sparkling staging, but the ultimate glory of Hairspray in its score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. With echoes of Motown and doo-wop and girl groups and soul, these pop tunes bubble over with character and comedy and heart, making for an instant musical theatre classic.
15. The Wiz
Did somebody say Motown? One of the biggest hits of the 1970s was the Motown-style adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, set in a sort of fantasy version of contemporary Harlem. The score to The Wiz is captivating, with its soaring melodies and groovy beats. Stephanie Mills' inimitable vocal performance as Dorothy holds its own next to the specter of Judy Garland's seminal screen role. And the show should be a lesson to anyone creating a musical out of material that has already been associated with popular songs. Start fresh! Give the musical the integrity of its own musical vocabulary. Don't try to shoehorn the hits of the past into a hodgepodge of new compositions.
With its reverse chronology charting how a bunch of bright-eyed young hopefuls grew full of resentments and regret, Merrily We Roll Along may be one of Stephen Sondheim's darkest musicals. On disc, however, the score is a joy to the heart — maybe Sondheim's bounciest "Broadwayest" creation, brought to zesty life by the irreplaceable original cast led by Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Lonny Price.
Long before ABBA's catalog of hit songs became Broadway favorites in the long-running Mamma Mia!, troupe-members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote music to Tim Rice's lyrics for the internationally beloved pop opera, Chess. If the piece has yet to find a successful life on Broadway, its original London concept recording (with Elaine Paige, Tommy Korberg and Murray Head) is a thrilling capture of the songs, sumptuously accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. That said, I might prefer the Broadway cast recording for the less pop, more theatrical vocals of Judy Kuhn, David Carroll and Philip Casnoff.
12. The Rink
Another Broadway musical flop of the 1980s to rank on my desert island list is Kander and Ebb's 1984 entry, The Rink, starring Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera (in her first Tony-winning role). It's an immense pleasure to listen to these two legends together on one killer duet after another and, of course, they both excel in their solo material. Even odder pieces, like Liza's second-act solo, "All The Children In A Row," make for exciting listening.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice accomplished at least three feats with Jesus Christ Superstar. 1.) They wrote a world-class rock musical that helped define the genre for decades. 2.) They developed a sung-through style of modern near-opera that sustains a consistently enthralling level of theatrical energy throughout. 3.) They offered a fascinating perspective on the story of Jesus, including an original take on Judas — not as corrupt betrayer, but conflicted conscientious objector. Hands down, I choose the original concept album with Ian Gillian, Murray Head, Barry Dennen and the iconic Yvonne Elliman. Another worthy choice is the film soundtrack featuring equally apt performances, additional material and, again, the unbeatable Elliman.
If it hadn't been for Jesus Christ Superstar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch could never have been written. In fact, there's actually a reference to the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar in the Hedwig and the Angry Inch script. So, then, I hope it is taken as a tribute to Jesus Christ Superstar, that Hedwig and the Angry Inch ranks higher on my list. This rock score is not only exciting and beautiful, but genuinely moving and insightful. Much has been made of John Cameron Mitchell's enormous achievement in creating (and creating the role of) Hedwig, but Stephen Trask (responsible for both music and lyrics) is the great, under-sung hero of 21st-century musical theatre. He must be put to work before another decade goes by.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, performs through Dec. 18 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)