ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List of 2009

By Steven Suskin
November 30, 2009

Sondheim, R&H, Alice Ripley, Kate Baldwin, Ahrens & Flaherty, Feinstein & Jackson, The Gig, Maggie Flynn (and many more) are on our holiday list of recommended Broadway-related recordings.

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New Musicals

This was the fullest year in memory for new recordings of musicals; some Broadway, some off, some revival and some studio. Plenty, for a change, to chose from.

When is a new musical not a new musical? When it's been presented in three different guises with staging by three distinct, award-winning directors. ROAD SHOW [Nonesuch/PS Classics 518940], the final (?) version of this Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical (previously known as Wise Guys, Gold, and Bounce), came to the Public Theater last November under the direction of John Doyle. Any new Sondheim recording with original material and the composer's personal attention makes my list. Road Show might, after years and years of work, remain less than a crowd-pleaser as a musical; the score, though, is up to Mr. Sondheim's standards.

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's NEXT TO NORMAL [Ghostlight 8-4433] stands out as the most arresting Broadway musical of the year, an impressive new-style score in what you might say is the tradition of Spring Awakening. Alice Ripley gives what might be the most remarkable performance since Christine Ebersole's Edie Beale; and Ms. Ripley is well supported by newcomers Jennifer Damiano and Aaron Tveit.

From Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens comes THE GLORIOUS ONES [CDJAY 1407], their eighth full-scale theatre score and a highly enjoyable one. Marc Kudisch heads the cast of this show-biz based, commedia dell'arte musical. The big news of the year for Flaherty and Ahrens fans, though, is the Broadway revival of Ragtime, which will presumably make it to our CD players by Tony time.

Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's pint-size DEAR EDWINA [PS Classics PS-871] only appears to be a kid's musical. It is, in actuality, a canny and highly entertaining work in the vein of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Exuberant, toe-tappin' fun and full of musical comedy know-how. This is not a new musical, exactly; Edwina has been entertaining audiences since it was released for stock and amateur use back in 1998. The show finally made it to New York last winter, and is about to return for its second holiday season at the DR2 on Union Square. The delightful studio cast includes the likes of Kerry Butler, Andrea Burns, Rebecca Luker, Terrence Mann and more.

The surprise CD of the year, perhaps, was Douglas J. Cohen's THE GIG [Jay CDJAY 1402]. A lost musical that was developed in the mid-90s at the Manhattan Theatre Club and moved on to Goodspeed's Norma Terris, The Gig never seems to have had a major chance at the New York market. The York examined it in 2006, resulting in an arrestingly interesting studio cast album. Cohen, composer of the 1987 musical No Way to Treat a Lady, grabbed me from his opening number and kept me engaged. How discouraging to think that a score of this quality can get shuffled aside and all but forgotten.

New Recordings of Old Shows

Conductor Marin Alsop's new recording of Leonard Bernstein's MASS [Naxos 8.559622-23] just might be the indispensable item of the year. Falling between theatre and concert hall, Mass is the orphan among the works of the great LB. This new recording makes the perfect excuse for those unfamiliar with the score to finally discover it. Thanks to the artistry of the conductor and the central performance of Jubilant Sykes, I rank this above Bernstein's own excellent 1971 recording.

KITTY'S KISSES [PS Classics PS-987], a lost musical from 1926 and understandably so has been given the full restoration treatment by Tommy Krasker. The end product, supported by a prime cast of PS Classics regulars (headed by Rebecca Luker, Philip Chaffin, Victoria Clark, Andrea Burns, Kate Baldwin, Danny Burstein and more), is a delectable confection, pert, tuneful and surprising. If I can't have Kitty's kisses I'll have none, they sing, and that's a pretty good recommendation in itself.

The studio cast album event of the year, I think it is safe to say, was Rodgers and Hammerstein's ALLEGRO [Masterworks Broadway 88697-41738]. The authors' estates, which have learned the value of spending some of their vast income on restoration and preservation, saw fit to underwrite a first-class recording of this unusual 1947 musical (which briefly interrupted the remarkable hit parade of Oklahoma! and Carousel, on one side, and South Pacific and The King and I on the other). I don't expect that the new recording will turn Allegro into a sudden staple of the repertoire like the similarly slow-starting Candide; but it certainly will earn respect for Dick and Oscar's neglected score. And if you're going to do something, do it right: R&H's Ted Chapin and Bruce Pomahac enlisted the likes of Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn, Patrick Wilson, Liz Callaway, Norbert Leo Butz, Laura Benanti and Judy Kuhn. Larry Blank leads the orchestra in Russell Bennett's original orchestration, and everybody makes Allegro sound quite wonderful.

Reissues

Our list of original Broadway cast album reissues usually consists of reissues of reissues, remastered and supplemented with bonus tracks but basically a new CD to replace a CD you had already bought. This year, we have not one but six first-time-on-CD items on our list. What's more, these are six musicals long sought by collectors; there's not a one of them which is unnecessary. For people who find things of these sort necessary, that is. (The year also saw various reissues of LPs that had already been on CD, but none of them make the cut.)

Where to start? Let's go in chronological order, so as not to play favorites.

LET IT RIDE [Arkiv RCA-05086] was a lousy 1961 musical, but we must always keep in mind that lousy 1961 musicals were frequently more tuneful than most of what we get nowadays. Let It Ride was subpar, in the first place; in the second place, it opened the same week as How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and Milk and Honey. The score by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, on furlough from Hollywood, is undistinguished but makes for fun listening. One song, "Hey Jimmy Joe John Jim Jack," is very good; another, "Just an Honest Mistake," is delicious corn. George Gobel and Sam Levene both sing their hearts out, giving it their all. Which ain't, I'm afraid, that much.

ANYA [Kritzerland KR 20012] was George Abbott's attempt at a traditional operetta. Robert Wright and George Forrest had found great success adapting tunes by Grieg into Song of Norway (1944) and tunes by Borodin into Kismet (1953). In 1964 they took Guy Bolton's play Anastasia, mixed it with strains from Rachmaninoff, and crossed their fingers. Nobody came, and Anya quickly went. The cast album, though, reveals a lush and flavorful affair with numerous songs that I find highly pleasing. Orchestrator Don Walker helps a lot; so does star Constance Towers and character comedians Irra Petina and George S. Irving.

Blacklisted screen director Jules Dassin, finding himself with two international box office hits ("Never on Sunday" and "Topkapi") returned to his Broadway roots in 1967 with a remake of the former. Muse (and wife) Melina Mercouri came along, but her considerable star power was not enough to float the ill-assembled ILLYA DARLING [Kritzerland KR 20012]. The score by Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis is atmospheric, though, and nicely buoyed by the orchestrations of Ralph Burns.

An attempt was made to transplant the crowd-pleasing elements of The Sound of Music to a colored orphanage in Manhattan during the Civil War for MAGGIE FLYNN [DRG 19123]. Shirley Jones tends to all these adorable children, see. The Race Riots of 1863 were supposed to have relevance during the Vietnam draft-dodging summer of 1968. Not so, it turned out, but Maggie Flynn had Jack Cassidy, some talented children, a perky if somewhat hackneyed score, and lots of spirit.

JIMMY [Arkiv RCA-05093] was a big budget musical from a band of amateurs, led and bankrolled by Hollywood's Jack Warner (who had been retired from the company he'd founded with his brothers). New York's dapper Mayor James J. Walker had been more flashy and exciting than his successor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, so Jimmy would naturally be more flashy and exciting than the Pulitzer/Tony-winning Fiorello!, right? Wrong. Leading ladies Julie Wilson and Anita Gillette make the cast recording of this 1969 musical fun listening, though.

Every element that worked splendidly in the ambitious and unheralded Man of La Mancha collapsed in that work's ambitious and heralded follow-up, CRY FOR US ALL [Kritzerland KR 20013-6]. Composer Mitch Leigh wrote his second-most interesting score, with quite a bit in its favor. The show, however, was top-heavy and turmoil laden. Robert Weede and Joan Diener sure sing that score, though.

And on the Non-Cast Recording Stack. . .

Michael Feinstein and Cheyenne Jackson joined together at Feinstein's at Loew's Regency last June for a smashingly good three-week gig, MICHAEL FEINSTEIN & CHEYENNE JACKSON: The Power of Two [Harbinger HCD 2504]. Not only was it musically swingin', Feinstein and Jackson used creative song selection to break down some doors and leave audiences cheering. "The Power of Two" captures the act on CD, making for exhilarating listening.

Rebecca Luker presents us with REBECCA LUKER: Greenwich Time [PS Classics PS-985], a collection of favorite songs she has accumulated over the years. With items like Maury Yeston's "Unusual Way," Jule Styne and Carolyn Leigh's "Killing Time," and John Kander's new "Summer with You," this is a very special collection indeed.

Kate Baldwin, who has had the good sense to come to Broadway in the vibrant new revival of Finian's Rainbow at the St. James, has taken the opportunity to delve into the songbags of that musical's two songwriters, Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, for KATE BALDWIN: Let's See What Happens [PS Classics PS-986]. While we await the forthcoming Finian cast album from PS Classics, Ms. Baldwin's CD entertains us with songs from Glocca Morra and environs.

Fans of composer Georgia Stitt, lyricist Marcy Heisler, and actress Kate Baldwin (again) will find them all reaffirming their talents with ALPHABET CITY CYCLE [PS Classics PS-978], a five-song, 20-minute "Song Cycle for Soprano, Violin and Piano." This one could easily fall through the cracks, but I find it interesting on several levels and thereby add it to our holiday list.

Among the numerous CDs I have yet to get around to are two that I feel I should mention before the calendar turns to 2010. Both come from a new record label, Yellow Sound Label: ALAN CUMMING: I Bought a Blue Car Today [YSL 566463] and CHITA RIVERA: And Now I Sing [YSL 566473]. Having seen (and favorably reviewed) Mr. Cumming perform these songs at last winter's American Songbook, and Ms. Rivera doing the same more recently at Birdland, I can vouch for both. Fans of either (or both) are sure to enjoy either (or both).

(Steven Suskin is author of "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" as well as "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)