The reader no doubt already has some of these titles, but perhaps there's something that has thus far been overlooked. Let it be added that the 2011 Broadway cast album of Stephen Sondheim's Follies is not included on this list, as my copy only just arrived. It clearly belongs on your list, though. I'll get to it in my next column.
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The Broadway hit of the year, lest you haven't heard, is The Book of Mormon [Ghostlight]. The show can be described, I guess, as The Producers only with a good score. Or maybe what Frank Loesser would be writing if he were writing today. The cast album is quite as funny as the show; there are many jokes here that you might well have missed in the theatre, due to all that pesky laughter. The score by Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez artfully serves the piece. Yes, there are some tender spots (like "Sal Tlay Ka Siti"), but it's things like the rambunctious hilarity of the opening number "Hello!" and the improbable nobility of "I Believe" that make score and show irresistible.
Maury Yeston's Death Takes a Holiday [PS Classics PS-1104] was problematic on stage, the problem seeming to stem from the source material. (This was one of those continental post-World War I plays about dying, not dying, and love continuing past death.) Matters were not helped by the bumpy gestation of the piece. The project was abandoned a decade ago; librettist Peter Stone died; and then librettist Thomas Meehan came in to complete the book. Peter Stone was a librettist of note, with 1776 to his credit, while Tom Meehan is perhaps Broadway's most financially successful librettist, with Annie and The Producers. I wouldn't think to mix Stone and Meehan, though, and the results did not play well.
That said, this is Maury Yeston at the keyboard, he of Nine, Grand Hotel and Titanic. Yeston is one of the most original and most interesting of our contemporary Broadway composers; his scores tend to work even when the shows themselves don't. Much of the Death Takes a Holiday score is ravishing, and well worth your attention. Even though the show, in the state that it was in at the Laura Pels last summer, was less than enthralling.
Our third CD from a new musical is in some ways the most interesting. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [Ghostlight 8-4447] was roundly condemned when it opened last November, and not without reason. It was a musical on the verge of a nervous breakdown, given a frenetic production which — as it turned out — hindered rather than helped. I gave it an unfavorable review, though nowhere near as scathing as those of some of my colleagues; while I addressed the numerous faults, I took care to salute the creators for what they bravely attempted. I also suggested that this thing might make a whole lot more sense when and if they gave us a cast album.
And so it does. I discussed this CD at length when it was first released. Listening to it now once again, months later, I find myself enjoying it even more. "Lovesick," "My Crazy Heart," "Model Behavior," "Island," "On the Verge," "Mother's Day," "Invisible," "Shoes from Heaven" — that's a lot of tracks that I keep going back to. Songs that did not necessarily work in performance at the Belasco. Upon consideration, Women on the Verge seems to be a distaff Company transported to Madrid; only there was so much going on, in the innovative but ineffective production, that we kept losing sight of Bobby Baby. Or rather Sherie Rene Scott as Pepa, the central woman on the verge.
And let's give honorary mention to Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days [Ghostlight 8-4444]. If you are still unfamiliar with this young composer, do yourself a favor and listen to "I'll Be Here." Audra MacDonald stopped the show at her recent Carnegie Hall concert with this song; the original cast performance, sung by Lisa Brescia, is also highly effective. Gwon is someone to listen for.
NEW RECORDINGS OF OLD SHOWS
Anything Goes [Ghostlight 8-4450] has Sutton Foster, and Sutton Foster's Reno Sweeney is enough to make this one of the top Anything Goes recordings. Everything Foster does here works, and how. There are fine contributions, too, from Adam Godley and Jessica Stone. However, I lose my enthusiasm when the juvenile and the ingenue start singing those interpolated numbers. Fortunately, Foster sings on most of the tracks. The band sounds great, too, with the orchestrations from the 1987 Lincoln Center Theater revival enhanced by Bill Elliott.
This year saw two recordings of never-before-fully-recorded shows of importance. Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's Knickerbocker Holiday [Ghostlight 8-4450] is one of those scores I've always wanted to hear. I find that the songs which seemed intriguing when I plodded through the vocal score — "Nowhere to Go But Up!," "It Never Was You," "How Can You Tell an American," "Ballad of the Robbers," "September Song" — are indeed fascinating, and sound especially so as orchestrated by the composer. The ones that never seemed to amount to much, don't. But this CD, recorded live at two concerts by conductor James Bagwell and his Collegiate Chorale last January, is essential for fans of Weill. The cast is headed by Kelli O'Hara — very good in a relatively small role — and Victor Garber. Ben Davis and Bryce Pinkham also do quite well.
Strike Up the Band: The 1930 Broadway Score [PS Classics PS-1100] is precisely what the title indicates. This collaboration between the Gershwins and George S. Kaufman closed in Atlantic City in 1927. Kaufman handed over his libretto to Morrie Ryskind — his collaborator on the 1928 Marx Bros. musical, Animal Crackers. Ryskind prepared a heavily revamped version with a half-new score by George and Ira, which hit 42nd Street in 1930 and was an instant hit. (This resulted in Kaufman, Ryskind and the Gershwins combining for their 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winner, Of Thee I Sing.) Tommy Krasker of PS Classics some time ago released the 1927 version of Strike Up the Band on CD; the rest of the material was simultaneously recorded, but has only now been mastered and otherwise finished. The 1930 Strike Up the Band is considerably more accomplished than the tryout version, making this disc of major interest to Gershwin fans.
REISSUES FROM THE VAULT
Masterworks Broadway has continued to reissue cast albums from the various labels in their archives. This year's titles include Oh! Captain!!, with a score that's only half good but lots of fun, with enjoyable performances from Tony Randall, Jacquelyn McKeever and Susan Johnson; Marc Blitzstein's Juno, a serious music drama (after Juno and the Paycock) which has its highs and lows along with Shirley Booth and Melvyn Douglas; First Impressions, a sub-par musicalization of "Pride and Prejudice" from 1959 which is nevertheless sprightly, with Polly Bergen and Farley Granger; and Harold Rome's The Zulu and the Zayda, a decidedly unusual play with music with Yiddish-Zulu songs — yes, that's the best way to describe them — which nevertheless soar. . . From England comes the 1961 West End cast album of The Music Man [Sepia 1173], starring Van Johnson. Musically, this sounds somewhat more vibrant than the original Broadway cast album; vocally it's a little strange, as Johnson is not as vibrant as Bob Preston and some of these stubborn Iowans sing with decidedly British accents. What makes this CD of greater than expected interest are the bonus tracks, with composer-lyricist Meredith Willson demonstrating eight cut songs. Anyone interested in the making of a classic musical will find these fascinating.
ALSO ON TAP
The musical valentine of the year was She Loves Him: Kate Baldwin, Live at Feinstein's [PS Classics PS-1101]. The "him" being Sheldon Harnick, naturally. The 86-year old lyricist was there on stage, joining Baldwin and singing along. Songs from She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and more. A lovely evening captured live on CD. . . On the unlikely pleasures list is Quiet Please [Bridge 9334]. Pianist Steven Blier (of the New York Festival of Song) and singer Darius de Haas improvise their way around 17 songs. Their tastes run the gamut, from Gershwin to Ellington to Wonder. (Stevie, that is.) What's more, they give us "Hero and Leander" and "Migratory V," two intriguing (and difficult) songs from Adam Guettel's Myths and Hymns. . . To say that the 86-year-old Barbara Carroll is younger than springtime is cliched and inaccurate. Her piano playing, though — on Barbara Carroll: How Long Has This Been Going On? [Harbinger HCD-2701] — is whatever cliche for wonderful you wish to employ. Carroll, with bass, drums, and Ken Peplowski on clarinet, makes beautiful music from the American Songbook.
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" 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.)