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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The first Encores! offering of 2012 was Jule Styne and Leo Robin's 1949 smash Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [Masterworks Broadway]. Eclipsed by time, taste, and memories of the Marilyn Monroe film adaptation, Blondes revealed itself to be a superior musical comedy of the old-fashioned type; tunes, gags, and well-contrived dance and vocal numbers reached across the footlights one after another. The stars here were the tunes of Mr. Styne; the unexpectedly adept lyrics by Mr. Robin, who is better known for his movie work; and the dazzling contributions from orchestrator Don Walker and vocal arranger Hugh Martin. These four elements lift the cast album into the "recordings you want to hear" category, despite a significant lapse. Lorelei, the little girl from Little Rock who favors diamonds, was memorably created by the then-unknown Carol Channing and thereafter recreated by star-on-the-rise Monroe. Faced with a decidedly tough casting challenge, Encores placed the role in the hands of Megan Hilty (of the musical 9 to 5 and television's "Smash"). Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sounds dazzling on this new CD, but Lorelei's two star-making songs don't quite come across.
In the remastered reissue department, we have two worthy entries. The long-unavailable original 1968 London cast album of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret [Masterworks Broadway] has its own hidden secret: Judi Dench as Sally Bowles, and what a difference she makes to those of us accustomed to the excellent Broadway cast album. This makes Cabaret a new experience, and one that is likely to please fans of the show. Elsewhere, Bruce Kimmel of Kritzerland Records took it upon himself to license the superb but haphazardly-recorded original 1971 cast album of Follies; to pull the thing apart in the studio; and to put it all back together again. This sort of exercise can, at times, leave the listener saying — to borrow a song title from Mr. Ebb — so what? In this case, though, we get Follies renewed. As someone who has always considered this recording the essential Follies — despite its admitted and well-chronicled flaws — I wholeheartedly endorse Mr. Kimmel's experiment, still available in a limited edition.
We also have a holiday box set, courtesy of Masterworks Broadway. Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Complete Broadway Musicals is not "the complete Broadway musicals" exactly; one of the eleven items ("Cinderella") was written and produced for television, while another ( State Fair) was written for film and is represented by the posthumously cobbled-together 1996 stage version. But in the bigger picture of things, I suppose you can call these the complete Broadway musicals. Although wouldn't R&H's complete Broadway musicals include Annie Get Your Gun, which they devised and commissioned and produced?
But I digress. This box is full of treasures; I suppose it's attractiveness will depend on how many of these albums you already own in their most recent remasterings. Original Broadway cast albums include South Pacific, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, and that posthumous (and not-very-good) State Fair. Record-company politics have resulted in the substitution of the original Decca recordings of three R&H classics, Oklahoma! (here heard in the 1979 Broadway revival), Carousel (represented by the 1965 Rodgers-produced Music Theater of Lincoln Center recording, starring John Raitt) and The King and I (with Yul Brynner heading the cast of the smashingly successful 1977 revival). These three replacement recordings happen to be my preferred versions of the scores, thanks to higher fidelity and Rodgers' personal attention to the orchestra, so I have no complaints on that account. The set is rounded out by the excellent 2009 studio cast recording of Allegro, featuring Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn and more. Added to the box — which is a 12-inch square, which is to say the same size as a multi-platter LP — is an especially well-compiled book featuring disc information and photographs. For example, the full-color photo of Mary Martin washing that man right out of her hair wearing a red-striped bikini top with stray soap suds on the painted wood shower stall. This, in itself, brings the 1949 South Pacific alive in a manner that might take you by surprise.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "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 pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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