ON THE RECORD: From Beautiful to If/Then, How Do This Season's Broadway Cast Albums Hold Up?

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
22 Jun 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column visits the cast recordings of various productions from the 2013-14 Broadway season.

*

The 2014 Tony Awards having now passed us by, this is an opportune moment to look at recent original Broadway cast albums that we have not yet discussed.

Leading the pack is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical [Ghostlight]. This show came to Broadway relatively unheralded but garnered good reviews, great word-of-mouth and worked its way into the sell-out class. (Sell-out, as in a steady $million-a-week hot ticket.) By any definition, it is a pop music jukebox musical. This might put a damper on one's expectations; see Baby, It's You!, or rather don't see Baby, It's You! But it's a joyous and Beautiful entertainment, featuring a clutch of grade-A songs from Carole King and a lovingly exuberant performance by Jessie Mueller.

New York theatregoers have met Mueller before. In the misguided On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, she stole the show and the spotlight from the nominal star, a washed-out Harry Connick, Jr. The reconfigured 2012 revival bordered on unwatchable — the adapters altogether ruined the logic of the show by splitting the leading lady role in two, for starters — but Mueller transcended it all and earned high marks from critics and audiences. She further demonstrated her comedy prowess as Helena Landless in the 2012 revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, followed by a stint as Kelli O'Hara's replacement in Nice Work If You Can Get It. (I expect Mueller was good in this role, although I personally found one viewing of that show more than enough.) She was an altogether delectable Carrie Pipperidge, though, in the one-night-only 2013 Carnegie Hall concert of Carousel with that same O'Hara as her pal Julie Jordan.

Over two seasons, Mueller earned so much good will that her presence in the Carole King musical reflected well on the upcoming enterprise. Everything came up roses for Mueller, as it turns out; she took what would otherwise be a likably winning musical and — by her presence — turned it into the most enjoyable new musical of the season.

Mueller's Tony Award-winning magic transfers well to the original cast recording from Ghostlight. It is logical to suppose that some Carole King fans would do just as well listening to their old Carole King albums, sure; but Mueller sings the songs in the character of Carole King, adding an emotionally winning element to "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "It's Too Late," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "Beautiful." Mueller, one can imagine, is going to be singing these songs in nightclub and concert hall appearances for the next 40 years.

The Beautiful cast album features Anika Larsen (as Cynthia Weil), Jarrod Spector (as Barry Mann) and Jake Epstein (as Gerry Goffin), as well as a clutch of singers and musicians giving the songs the Jersey Boys treatment. That Four Seasons musical was — and, I assume, remains — dazzling, but I'd call this Carole King musical "Jersey Boys with Heart." The heart is in the King songs, many with lyrics by Goffin, who died June 19 at the age of 75, which constitute more than half the score. This will allow Beautiful to thrive in multiple companies and overseas. Mueller is the perfect Carole King, though, which makes Beautiful extra-special and has launched it into the hit class.

*

Cover art

Aladdin [Disney Records], the latest entry from Disney Theatrical, offers first-class family entertainment buoyed by a star-making performance by James Monroe Iglehart. (Imagine, a 21st-century actor named after a 19th century American president. And no, Iglehart doesn't much look like President Monroe.) Among the more difficult tasks facing producer Thomas Schumacher and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw was how to make audiences forget Robin Williams, who so inhabited the role of the Genie in the 1992 animated feature that they could have made a franchise of him. Somehow or other they came up with Iglehart, who from his very entrance in the opening number seizes the show and places it on his durable shoulders. The audience would more or less follow him anywhere, which is a good thing as it obscures some bumpy passages along the way. "Friend Like Me," the Genie's big showstopper, is not only the best number in Aladdin; it's the zaniest, most over-the-top production number we've seen on Broadway since Nicholaw's "Turn It Off" in The Book of Mormon.

The original cast album gives us Iglehart along with Adam Jacobs (as Aladdin), Courtney Reed (as Jasmine), Jonathan Freeman (recreating his film portrayal of Jafar) and the comedy trio of Brian Gonzales, Brandon O'Neill and Jonathan Schwartz. Plus Clifton Davis, who starred in the 1971 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Two Gentlemen of Verona back before all the Aladdinites (except Freeman, I'll wager) was born. Alan Menken and bookwriter/lyricist Chad Beguelin have augmented the Menken-Howard Ashman-Tim Rice film score, as is the fashion, and Danny Troob has done a sparkling job of orchestrations.

*

Cover art

It is more difficult to address the other items on this week's list, for a not unfamiliar problem. How do you impartially judge a recording of a score that didn't work, for you, in the theatre? Once in a great while, I've been surprisingly enchanted by posthumously-released cast albums of musicals that I'd found excessively dire; The Grass Harp and Mack & Mabel spring to mind. These are rare exceptions, though.

Bullets Over Broadway [Masterworks Broadway] is the new Woody Allen/Susan Stroman musical, based on the 1994 film written by Allen and Douglas McGrath (who as it happens contributed the amusingly breezy libretto for Beautiful). The screen "Bullets" featured a jukebox score, from a decidedly obscure jukebox; Mr. Allen has often laced his films with soundtracks of vintage songs, and that seems to have been the inspiration for the musical. Zach Braff, Marin Mazzie, Nick Cordero, Brooks Ashmanskas, Betsy Wolfe, Heléne Yorke and Karen Ziemba lead the cast, with the music — mostly from long-forgotten composers — selected and adapted by Glen Kelly and orchestrated by Doug Besterman.

Cover art

If/Then [Masterworks Broadway] is the new Idina Menzel musical from the Next to Normal team, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/librettist Brian Yorkey. The show has been ensconced at the Richard Rodgers since opening March 30, with Menzel proving a box office draw. The star is joined by an impressive group of musical theatre performers — LaChanze (Once on This Island), Anthony Rapp (Rent), James Snyder (Cry-Baby), Jerry Dixon (Once On This Island) and more. The CD seems to be selling well, thanks presumably to the reach of Menzel and loyal fans of Next to Normal. Carmel Dean conducts the orchestrations by Michael Starobin.

And then there's A Night with Janis Joplin [Broadway]. Mary Bridget Davies attracted attention — and a Tony nomination — as the rock singer who grew up doing her housecleaning listening to Jerry Herman cast albums, at least per the libretto. I, for one, rushed out of the Lyceum into a bustling Times Square seeking a moment's quiet.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)