ON THE RECORD: Original Broadway Cast Albums of Matilda, Hands on a Hardbody and Scandalous
By Steven Suskin
This week's column examines the original cast albums of three of last season's Broadway musicals: Matilda, Hands on a Hardbody and Scandalous.
Matilda: The Original Broadway Cast Recording [Broadway/Yellow Sound]
Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's Matilda The Musical took London by storm when it opened Nov. 24, 2011 and generated a great deal of excitement when it crossed the seas to the Shubert, opening April 11, 2013. Original Broadway cast recordings were long seen as automatic and indispensable, but British blockbusters like The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia! have discovered they can dominate the world market without bothering with the New York cast. This seemed to be the case with Matilda, but now, six months after the local opening, we finally do have a New York cast album.
The British recording has long been available, of course, and I expect that it has sold fairly well in the States. (This is actually the cast from the Nov. 2010 production, at the Royal Shakespeare Company's home base in Stratford.) Two of the four leading actors — the two with the most important songs, Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull and Lauren Ward as Miss Honey — made the transfer to New York, and could thus already be heard on the earlier recording. (Matilda, the title character, is played by four girls alternating in the role. The Broadway cast album splits the role between the quartet.)
I was impelled to quickly explore the British Matilda album when it was released just over two years ago. Having listened to that recording — and Carvel's performance — several times, I was not all that eager to try the new one. I can now report that the Broadway album is fine; I think, in fact, I prefer it to the original. The major difference performance-wise, for me, is Gabriel Ebert as Mr. Wormwood. (I don't much appreciate the writing of this character, and I didn't enjoy the performance of the fellow who originated the role in Stratford and London. Ebert, I found, was a vast improvement on stage and got my vote for the Tony Award he won.)
As bonus tracks, the Broadway album includes Matilda — three of the Matildas, actually — narrating the story of the escapologist and the acrobat. You might not want to hear this extended sequence every time you listen to the recording, but it's a valuable addition, especially for people who listen to cast recordings but are unable to actually see the show onstage.
Hands on a Hardbody [Ghostlight]
I did not quickly rush to hear Hands on a Hardbody either, but for a different reason. This was one of those shows in which the creators were very much in earnest, but in the theatre — at least in a Broadway theatre — it just didn't engage my interest at all. It was a reality-based story about a group of down-and-out Texans competing to win a new truck: Whoever keeps his or her hand on the Nissan longest, wins. Thus, kind of like A Chorus Line without Michael Bennett and with too few characters to care about. "I really need this job" is one thing; "I really need this truck" is something else.
This last-one-in-wins plot — not unlike a dance marathon — boxed in the authors. It got to the point that you could tell precisely who was going to be axed next; as soon as the songwriters gave a character a big solo, they were toast. Once the pattern was set, there was little to do but wait for them all to drop. Fortunately, we got to meet some engaging performers in the process.
My night at the Atkinson did not leave me looking forward to the cast album. What I find, though, is that some of Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green's songs are considerably more effective than they seemed when saddled by that unforgiving framework. Effective character studies, with the ring of truth. Hands on a Hardbody had its ardent fans, which propelled it eastward from La Jolla, but it was quickly dismissed in New York by critics and audiences at large. Still, it just may be that Broadway was simply the wrong place for this show at the wrong time.
That said, there are exceptions — like Scandalous, the Kathie Lee Gifford musical about "the life and trials of Aimee Semple McPherson." Talk about trials! The show was altogether raked over the coals when it opened at the Neil Simon Nov. 2012, so I needn't do any further roasting. Let's just say that Carolee Carmello gave her all in a hopeless cause — earning a Tony nomination but deserving hazard pay — and leave it at that. But since we are discussing original Broadway cast albums from last season, Scandalous certainly qualifies. Completists who dutifully collect every original Broadway cast album that comes along be advised.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "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 writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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