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 recordings of recent revivals and reissues of classics.
The 2012 revival cast album field is led by City Center Encores! Each spring, this dedicated group gives us three restored and renovated musicals from Broadway's past. Each of this year's crop found its way onto CD, and happily so. Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along [PS Classics] has had a checkered life with a handful of cast albums, starting with the musically brilliant but dramatically troubled Broadway recording from 1981. Over the decades, the show has been revised by the composer in league with librettist George Furth and director James Lapine, Sondheim's occasional collaborator since Sunday in the Park With George. Lapine took up the show again at City Center — Furth died in 2008 — and came up with the most pleasing Merrily yet.
Musically, it is a special treat; the several small-scale revisals all used small orchestras, meaning that the new material was never scored to match the full-sized band heard in 1981. For Encores!, Jonathan Tunick — the show's orchestrator from the beginning — was able to work from scratch, building a new orchestration without losing the richness of the original. Adding to the allure of the new CD are the performances by Colin Donnell (as Franklin), Lin-Manuel Miranda (as Charley), Celia Keenan-Bolger (as Mary) and Betsy Wolfe (as Beth).
Close on the heels of Merrily came Rodgers & Hammerstein's Pipe Dream [Ghostlight]. One of the fabled team's least-loved works, this 1956 adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday" — which garnered a massive advance sale, fitting the reputation of the producer/authors of South Pacific and The King and I — was for a variety of reasons doomed from the start. Obscured was one of Mr. Rodgers' more adventurous scores, overloaded with intriguing melody. Set, I'm afraid, to sometimes uncomfortable lyrics by Mr. Hammerstein, whose many talents did not include an affinity for putting rhymes into the mouths of bums and whores.
Encores! put its faith, and its efforts, into restoring the score — which, in the concert version, was more than enough to put Pipe Dream over. As can be heard on the CD; while this score didn't fly in the year of My Fair Lady, The Most Happy Fella, Bells Are Ringing and Candide, it sounds mighty fine today.
Helping Pipe Dream no end are the three leads, Will Chase (as Doc, the scientist), Laura Osnes (as Suzy, the wanderer) and Leslie Uggams (as Fauna, the madam). Uggams, especially, took a somewhat misbegotten role — originated by opera star Helen Traubel — and turned it into a highlight. Who knows? With someone like Uggams back in 1956, Pipe Dream might have enjoyed a radically different fate. All three of these CDs, by the way, come from Encores! musical director Rob Berman. We needn't praise him thrice, but he certainly puts the music in musical.
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